The Jeff Petry Fallacy

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Jeff_Petry_2012.jpg

While watching NHL.com’s brief spot on the Edmonton Oilers today, Dave Reid and Jamie McLennan caught my ear with the way they classified Edmonton’s defenders.

After describing Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne as large puckmovers who can play in front of their own net, and Andrew Ference as the veteran defensive conscience, Reid finished with this:

“…and you have Justin Schultz and you have Jeff Petry who are allowed to play that offensive game and do their thing.”

And thus continues The Jeff Petry Fallacy.

Clean_Image_for_Blogs (1)Jeff Petry is one of the most divisive skaters of the last three seasons for Oiler fans. Despite taking on tough competition for almost all of his NHL career so far (see right) and coming out smelling like roses compared to his teammates in terms of puck possession (again, see right), leading the team in hits in 2013/14, being the team’s best blueliner at getting the puck out of the defensive zone under control, and generally being the team’s best overall defenseman, he cops a hell of a lot flak for being a soft, defensively poor blueliner who would be a fringe NHLer on a successful team.

There have been many who have, in my opinion, successfully defended Jeff Petry’s defensive game. He isn’t perfect – he can be guilty of egregious giveaways, but then which Oiler isn’t? He is on the ice more often than most, likely allowing for a greater chance of confirmation bias. He also clearly isn’t an elite defender – no matter how much I like the player, he is nowhere near the realm of Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Ryan McDonagh et al.  But he is a well-rounded, Clean_Image_for_Blogs (2)smooth-skating d-man who impacts the game in a positive manner far more often than not.

So beyond the largely unwarranted criticisms of his defensive game, what about the offense?

Beyond the soundbite offered above, I have read countless comments on numerous different blogs and websites to the effect of, “for an offensive defenseman, Jeff Petry is awful on offense.” I want to briefly examine the two halves of that infuriating (paraphrased) sentence.

1. “Jeff Petry is an offensive defenseman.”  No, he is not. Jeff Petry is an effective puck-moving defenseman.  That doesn’t necessarily mean he is an effective offensive defenseman, or at least he is not put in situations that maximise his offensive potential.

Even going back to his college career for Michigan State, he wasn’t a hugely offensive player. He was Clean_Image_for_Blogs (3)solid, perhaps even good, but his best season was his third and final one when he managed 29 points in 38 games. Nice, but not numbers that scream “Next Paul Coffey”.  In the AHL he was a strong two-way option, scoring 25 points in 43 total games, but again, nothing mind-blowing that should have given Oiler fans any expectation of an impact scoring defenseman.

The idea that he was an offensive defenseman clearly stemmed from scouting reports that raved about a mobile, skilled skater with a powerful slapshot and deceptive wrist-shot.  As is so often the case though, and as many seem to forget, scouting reports and the projections they lead us to make are wrong far more often than they’re right. Petry has all the skills mentioned in the report, but for whatever reason they haven’t come into being at the NHL level in much more than a cameo appearance.

If Jeff Petry was considered an offensive defender, would NHL coaches Clean_Image_for_Blogs (4)– no matter how poor we believe some of them to be – not utilise him in such a role?  The Player Usage Charts shown on the right of this article would seem to indicate that three different head coaches deemed Petry’s talents to lie more in the defensive side of the game.  Time On Ice is also an incredibly useful means of determining usage:

Season 5v5 4v5 5v4
2010/11 16:54 1:16 2:11
2011/12 17:59 2:29 1:16
2012/13 17:57 3:21 0:35
2013/14 17:41 3:03 0:50

Interesting to see that his TOI at even strength is routinely the most (or close to) played by any Oiler defender, while his penalty killing time has also increased to the point where he is one of the team’s most used man-disadvantage extraordinaires.  I repeat, three different head coaches with vastly different backgrounds – one with length NHL experience on a good team, another with extraordinary success with a mediocre national team, and another with extensive AHL success – saw Petry as ultimately the team’s best defensive option.

As for the offense? Well, Petry is versatile, but he is not a Pronger-level workhorse, capable of 30 minutes per night in all situations.  His powerplay usage is tertiary, and on a team loaded with young offensive forwards all vying for 5v4 spot – resulting in 4 forwards and 1 defender becoming almost the norm – he was not likely to get a look in, particularly with Justin Schultz, Ryan Whitney, Tom Gilbert and Kurtis Foster all on the PP depth chart ahead of him at different times.

2. “Jeff Petry is awful on offense.” No, he is not.  Let both your eyes and the numbers do the talking. The above charts show that when Petry is on the ice, the puck moves in the right direction to a greater extent than when he isn’t.

If scoring goals is the point of hockey, then moving the puck in the right direction is the all-important prefix to that point.

The linked-to article regarding Jeff Petry’s excellent ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone under control speaks to his ability to move that little black rubber disc, and when you watch him it is abundantly clear that Petry is no slouch when it comes to stickhandling and passing, and his shot can be impressive on the rare occasion he uses it.

I thought it might be interesting to compare his scoring totals at both even strength and on the powerplay to his peers since entering the league in 2010/11.  The following table utilises points per 60 minutes, essentially normalizing scoring numbers by removing the bias of TOI to an extent. The skaters named have all played upwards of 100 games with the Oilers since 2010/11, and their numbers for each season only qualify if they played at least 30 games with the team (e.g. Ladislav Smid did play in 2013/14 for the Oilers, but his numbers for that year weren’t included in his total figure), in a basic attempt to remove small-sample size bias.

Player 5v5 P/60 5v4 P/60
Ryan Whitney 0.97 4.19
Justin Schultz 0.91 3.65
Tom Gilbert 0.61 2.63
Jeff Petry 0.59 1.69
Corey Potter 0.49 2.85
Nick Schultz 0.48 1.01
Theo Peckham 0.47 0.00
Ladislav Smid 0.46 0.35

Jeff Petry comes out of this looking, well, solid. Again, as we confirmed earlier, not earth-shattering, but not Ladislav Smid.  His 5v5 number is awfully comparable to Tom Gilbert, a player he is often likened to for reasons both good and bad (and indeed, part of the suspicion that Gilbert was traded was down to Petry being ready to replace him… Because Oilers), and is firmly entrenched in the top 4. Not bad considering he routinely finds himself playing the toughest minutes on the team.

His powerplay number is a lot more pedestrian, but still far from incompetent.  The last time Petry averaged over a minute on the powerplay (2011/12) he managed 3.25 P/60, a much better number and perhaps indicative of someone who, when given the time and opportunity, can perform in that area.  Call it the Jay Bouwmeester Effect (see the effect the drop in powerplay time had on his numbers between Florida and Calgary, not that Petry is at Bouwmeester’s level).

It is entirely conceivable that once Petry started to find himself performing as a defensive specialist, he started to become on the outside looking in with the powerplay units. Sure, he gets a look here and there, but how often does he get to practice those systems and set-ups over and over and over again? I’d hazard to say “not a lot.” It would be nice to see him take advantage of the time that is given to him, but it’s likely easier said than done, particularly with the well-noted ineptness of the Oilers with the man-advantage this last season. Think about it – not only do you not get to practice with the powerplay units (again, hypothesizing there), but when you do, they so hilariously incapable of putting the puck in the net that it doesn’t even matter anyway.

______________________________________________________

The worst part about all this is that the Edmonton Oilers themselves don’t appear to appreciate what they have in Petry.  Is he a $5m defender? Not likely, though as average salaries increase a case could be made for it.  Has he been the Oilers’ best defender for the past three seasons? Overall, without a shadow of a doubt. The team undervalued him this past offseason, signing him for one year for less than what they signed Nikita Nikitin for, and given that he could become a UFA next offseason, this should be VERY concerning to Oiler fans.

Now, it’s not speaking particularly highly of the team’s blueline over the last 4 years that Petry has been their top performer. I will not deny that if Jeff Petry is your best defender, then you likely do not have a winning hockey club, but there is also no doubt in my mind that he would look to be an excellent top-4 skater on a contending team.

I’m not looking for additional offense out of Jeff Petry, however nice that would be. I’m looking for additional offense out of the other damned defenders who’s job as prescribed by the coach is to do exactly that.

Keep doing what you’re doing Jeff, and perhaps Detroit or Boston will come a-knockin’.

Statistics gratefully gleaned from Hockey Abstract, Hockey-Reference, Behind The Net and NHL.com.

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