Big Decisions: Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene for Lubomir Visnovsky

Jonathan Willis
June 14 2012 08:16AM

More than a few fans of the Edmonton Oilers have been watching the Stanley Cup Finals with some envy. In Los Angeles, both Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene did an excellent job in specific roles, helping the Kings to their first ever Stanley Cup win. The Kings acquired the pair from Edmonton back in the summer of 2008 in exchange for Lubomir Visnovsky.

We’ve previously discussed the way that playing for a good team versus a bad team can shift perceptions of a useful role player – Colin Fraser seemed like a much better fourth-liner in Los Angeles than he did in Edmonton, and to some extent the same effect is happening here.

Prior to this season, Stoll and Greene had never made it out of the first round with the Kings. In the three years before this one, Los Angeles had won a total of four playoff games. Stoll had never come close to recapturing the 68-point form he’d had in Edmonton back in 2005-06 (in fact, this season he picked up six goals and 21 points, worse totals than his rookie year). Greene was improved from his time in Edmonton – where both his discipline and positioning had been questionable – and had rounded into a solid #5 defenseman who could also kill penalties, but even so he wasn’t entrusted with the toughest assignments; the Kings brought in Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell to take those.

It’s important not to overstate the contribution of the duo to this year’s championship.

Jarret Stoll remains a physical center who excels on the penalty kill, has good size, and can play a third line role. That’s what he did in L.A., behind Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards. He’s a good NHL player in that role, but he’s also extremely limited – especially offensively. Despite playing 17:06 per game, he finished ninth of the Kings’ top-nine forwards in scoring. At times this season, when the Kings were starving for offense, Stoll was part of the problem. Colin Fraser was more likely to pick up a point on any given even-strength shift. Adjusting for ice-time, Shawn Horcoff contributed 35% more offense than Stoll – and unlike Stoll, Horcoff played top opponents all season long.

I don’t mean to beat up on Stoll here – he’s a very good defensive forward – but it’s important not to misstate what he is. He’s a checking line forward who needs power play time to get points; at even-strength, his attention to defense means that goals are few and far between.

It’s a similar story with Matt Greene. He’s a useful number five defenseman – and I was very impressed with his work on the penalty kill – but the way his coach used him betrays his limitations. Take Game Six against New Jersey. Ilya Kovalchuk played almost 15 minutes of even-strength ice-time; Greene lined up against him for less than two. Alexei Ponikarovsky played just over 11; Greene saw him for six full minutes. It’s a pattern that held true all through the post-season for L.A. – Greene and his regular partner, Alec Martinez, consistently got the bottom-six players from the other team as regular opponents, and consistently spent less time in their own end than the other two defense pairings.

That’s not a slight on Greene; he’s a good third-pairing defenseman. But it’s important to remember that he wasn’t a top-four, Jason Smith-style shutdown option for the Kings. Those jobs went to superior players – Rob Scuderi and Willie Mitchell.

That’s why I think the Oilers made the right decision when they traded for Lubomir Visnovsky. They moved a pair of good support players for a highly-talented blue-liner. It was a trade that made sense at the time, and if they could trade a third-line centre and a third-pairing defender for a talent like Visnovsky today they’d be crazy not to do so.

Visnovsky is not only a top-four defenseman, he’s the exact sort of offensive threat the Oilers have been lacking since they dealt him to Anaheim. In his first year, he picked up 31 points in 50 games. He scored 45 the next year; in 2010-11 he led all NHL defensemen with 68 points. This year he was slowed by injury but still managed to record 27 points, six more than Stoll did. Despite playing for two lousy teams in Edmonton and Anaheim, he’s a plus-21 since leaving L.A.; Stoll and Greene combined are plus-14 despite making the playoffs in three of four seasons with the Kings.

That’s not to say the Kings made a mistake when they dealt Visnovsky. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine he would still be with the Kings today even had they kept him; his salary would have made him an extravagance on such a deep blue line.

But the Oilers made a move that benefitted their team when they pulled the trigger on that deal, sending away depth players – good depth players, but depth players all the same – to address a position of need, a position that still needs to be addressed in the worst way. It was the right call.

Post-script: This piece was written prior to my reading Craig MacTavish's thoughts on the Visnovsky trade. I'm still not convinced; for all the virtues of both Stoll and Greene, Visnovsky was easily the best player in the deal and the kind of piece the Oilers have consistently needed since Pronger's departure.

Previously in this series

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.