The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 4 – Dennis King

3000by3000 (1)This week on The SuperFan Podcast, Dennis King joined me to talk Oilers and their off-season management and roster changes. We also discussed the blue line and the young players pushing for roster spots in Edmonton this upcoming year. Dennis has a great eye for the game and shared a lot of insight, it’s well worth a listen. Been a long time follower of Dennis’, happy to have had the chance to chat with him.

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

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Problem solving

images (1)The Edmonton Oilers finished the 2018/19 regular season as one of the worst teams in the league, posting a -42 goal-differential in all situations, finishing with 79 points and a 0.482 points percentage. Those results were driven by a number of factors, including the following:

  • Poor even-strength (5v5) results, finishing the year with a goal-differential of -32 and a goal-share of 45.06% – both of which ranked third worst in the league and only ahead of New Jersey and Ottawa.
  • Poor shot-share numbers at even-strength as reflected by their Corsi-for percentage (a proxy for possession) of 47.53% (23rd in the league), and a Fenwick-for percentage (i.e., unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances) of 47.34% (25th in the league). The Oilers were regularly out-shot and out-chanced, and their numbers declined as the season wore on.
  • An inability to generate and sustain offence at even-strength, finishing near the bottom of the league when it came to shot attempts and scoring chances per hour.
  • A lack of scoring talent as the team finished the year with the eighth-lowest total of goals at even-strength (146). The team shooting percentage of 7.68% ranked 21st in the league.
  • A team save percentage of 91.51% at even-strength (25th in the league), despite allowing a league average rate of shot attempts and scoring chances against per hour.
  • Poor production when McDavid was not on the ice, as the Oilers posted a -34 goal differential without their captain (a Goals-for percentage of 40.12%) at even-strength. The shot-share numbers also took a dive, as the team posted a Corsi-for percentage of 46.52% and a Fenwick-for percentage of 46.47%.
  • A dreadful penalty kill that finished 30th in the league allowing 9.21 goals against per hour.

My sense at the end of last season was because of the number of roster issues and the fact that the Oilers lacked cap space and assets, the next general manager would be forced to take a conservative approach to re-building the team and would need to put a stronger emphasis on the draft and prospect development. Roster depth, namely the third and fourth lines, could easily be addressed through free agency both in the national league and overseas. But the challenge in order to legitimately compete for a playoff spot in 2020 would be to find value contracts and maximize each players productivity, ensuring that they can contribute both at even-strength and on special teams. And this could only be done if the team approached roster construction differently, and applied more innovative practices to their decision-making.

Fast forward to September, and despite all of the changes made by the Oilers management, it’s hard to imagine the team performing significantly better than last season and likely well outside of a playoff spot. And that’s mainly because the majority of the issues from the 2018/19 season listed above have not yet been adequately addressed. The team followed a lot of conventional wisdom, continuing on with their standard decision-making processes, leaving plenty of questions marks heading into the regular season.

First off, generating offence and goal-scoring remains a significant issue. The Oilers may have acquired some options to fill out their bottom six, but none of them have experience and historical production playing in offensive situations against top competition. And it’s unlikely the Oilers uncovered a hidden gem that is a lock for 20+ goals, which the Oilers desperately need – especially within the time that McDavid is on the bench. James Neal might be that guy based on his consistency scoring goals, but as I wrote in July, he’s also shown a gradual decline in shot-based metrics over the last few seasons, especially against top competition. Slotting Neal in the top six is a risky proposition based on his recent performance numbers; his best days are likely behind him.

Not only do the new depth players have a significant chance to secure a spot in the top six, but so do young prospects like Tyler Benson and even Kailer Yamamoto who are working towards transitioning to the national league. The downside to them making the jump to the 2019/20 Oilers roster is that they would very often be playing against the other teams best players, potentially stunting their development. Additionally, the Oilers are moving ahead without Jesse Puljujärvi who should have been part of the long-term offensive solution in the top six had the Oilers handled his development better.

The Oilers are also taking a significant risk at such a crucial spot signing 37-year old netminder Mike Smith to a one-year deal. Smith is coming off of a rough 2018/19 season,  one in which he ranked 53rd among sixty goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes (approximately 20 games) with a 0.898 save percentage, and 53rd in goals saved above average (GSAA) with -12.65. While he did end his 2018/19 season on a high-note, we know based on goalie-aging curves that goaltenders don’t tend to improve with age, and that their drop-off grows as they get older. The other issue is Koskinen’s numbers from last season, as he ranked 41st among the same group of sixty goaltenders with a 0.906 save percentage and 49th when it came to GSAA with -6.21. Maybe Koskinen’s numbers improve if he gets more time to rest and if Smith gives the team league-average save percentage when that happens – but that’s a big gamble with not a lot of evidence supporting it. The long-term solution in goal also remains unsolved, with an internally drafted and developed option unavailable for NHL minutes until a season or more down the road.

The other outstanding issue for me is the penalty kill, which cost the Oilers wins last season. The Oilers addition of depth players like Granlund and Archibald – both of whom have penalty experience in the NHL – along with the coaching changes could help the team next season. But I remain skeptical, mainly because Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair didn’t exactly have much success shorthanded in Arizona.

Below is a summary of the Coyotes penalty kill, including goals, Fenwick and shots against per hour. Included is the team’s ranking in the league.

Season Goals against/60 Fenwick Against/60 Shots against/60
2009/10 5.66 – 6th 77.51 – 24th 54.51 – 19th
2010/11 8.12 – 26th 89.35 – 30th 63.84 – 30th
2011/12 5.2 – 8th 79.6 – 29th 55.62 – 27th
2012/13 7.53 – 22nd 70.24 – 20th 49.63 – 19th
2013/14 7.73 – 27th 77.97 – 22nd 57.36 – 21st
2014/15 8.42 – 29th 86.39 – 30th 62.69 – 30th
2015/16 8.09 – 28th 71.9 – 10th 50.79 – 12th
2016/17 8.29 – 26th 80.98 – 27th 53.84 – 16th

What stands out is not only their rate of goals against per hour, but also the rate of shots and scoring chances against – two areas that a coaching staff can impact depending on the structure they have in place to prevent events that lead to goals happening. As I wrote back in May, the most alarming thing about the Coyotes penalty kill numbers was that the coaching staff didn’t seem to recognize their underlying issues and couldn’t figure out how to fix things over the course of eight seasons. Hopefully they find the right tactics with the right players; they already have enough to worry about at even-strength and in goal.

*****

The fact that the Oilers are heading into the 2019/20 season with this many unresolved problems, at such critical areas, has me wondering if the team has already accepted their fate, resigned to taking another high draft pick and building a real contender next summer (or potentially the summer after that). If the Oilers management team actually thinks they can contend for a playoff spot, they sure are putting a lot of hope in their key performers from last season like Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Chiasson and Nurse having back-to-back career seasons, their goaltenders playing above their expected levels, new depth players contributing, and for their young prospects to make the jump to the NHL and playing significant minutes. I can’t imagine a sane management group having this much confidence in everything going right.

The other issue for me is that the Edmonton Oilers have shown very little interest in thinking outside the box and keeping up with other NHL teams. A key objective for the management team should be to find any sort of edge over the competition in an effort to build a long-term, sustainable winner. But the fact that other NHL teams are establishing sports science/research & development departments and preparing their analytics area for the influx of player tracking data, while the Oilers do little is very concerning. The fact that a lot of the Oilers off-season roster decisions – regardless if this is a re-building/transition year or not – were based largely on standard, conventional thinking really needs to be addressed if this franchise has any hope of becoming a championship contender.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 3 – Bruce McCurdy

3000by3000 (1)For episode 3 of The SuperFan Podcast, I was joined by Bruce McCurdy (@BruceMcCurdy), writer for The Cult of Hockey at the Edmonton Journal. We talked all things Oilers including the off-season transactions and reasonable expectations for the players. Bruce also shared his experiences as a writer, how he started out and what his different motivations have been as he continues to produce high-quality work. We also discussed how hockey analysis has evolved and where things could potentially go moving forward. Really enjoyed this conversation, hope you do as well.

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 2 – Jeff Chapman

3000by3000 (1)For episode 2 of The SuperFan Podcast, I chatted with Jeff Chapman (@NewWaveOil), the managing editor of the Copper & Blue, an SB Nation website. Jeff shared his experiences as a blogger, how he’s seen the online fan community evolve and where he sees things going in the future. We talked about the Oilers off-season moves, which of the new acquisitions should have the biggest impact and what we’re expecting of the team next season. We also talked about the Top 25 Under 25 project, currently underway at the Copper & Blue.

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 1 – Lowetide

3000by3000 (1)Excited to launch The SuperFan Podcast!

The main objective of this podcast series will be to discuss the Edmonton Oilers, including the team’s on-ice performance, roster construction and player evaluation. Each episode, I’ll be bringing in guests with different experiences and backgrounds to get their thoughts on the team as well as the rest of the league. Really looking forward to it!

The first episode is up and features my discussion with Allan Mitchell (aka. @lowetide). This week, we talked about the growth and development of the online fan community as well as the Oilers off-season and realistic expectations for 2019/2020.

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

Realistic solutions

jujhar-khaira-oilers-edmonton.jpg

The Oilers have spent a lot of time and resources this off-season addressing their forward depth, signing NHL-experienced players like Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, Josh Archibald and Alex Chiasson, and also dipping into the European market to find options like Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard.

The Oilers obviously recognized one of their biggest shortcomings in the 2018/19 season as their forwards were inept offensively, getting out-scored badly when McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins weren’t on the ice. In 1,395 minutes at even-strength without their top three forwards on the ice (34.6% of the total ice time), the Oilers were outscored 45-26, a goal-share (GF%) of 36.62%. While the Corsi For percentage (CF% – a proxy for possession) and the Fenwick For percentage (FF% – a proxy for scoring chances) were fine, the team’s on-ice shooting percentage was 3.97%, well below league average rates and a good indication that the roster was lacking actual scoring talent.

TOI CF% FF% GF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV%
1395.88 49.76 50.31 36.62 3.97 93.04

With the increasing likelihood that McDavid will play significant time with Draisaitl again, and Nugent-Hopkins will be centering the second-line, there should be some concern regarding the players Holland has brought in to bolster the bottom six and if they have the talent to improve the team’s goal-share. One particular area of concern is the vacancy at center on the third line, something that Dave Tippett addressed in an interview on Oilers Now with host Bob Stauffer.

Stauffer: You mentioned the pairs thing, you mentioned McDavid with Leon, and you mentioned Neal with RNH. Third line center, is it wide open right now, in your mind?

Tippett: I think there’s going to be some different..we’re going to look at some different people. I think the young Haas kid from Switzerland is going to get a look there. I think JJ [Khaira] will get a bit of a look there. I’ve talked to [Khaira] quite a few times this summer and he’s got some center in his background and would like the opportunity to play there a little more. So there’ll be some options there that we’ll have a look at.

Bob: Sam Gagner has kinda reinvented himself, certainly in Columbus as a specialist, bottom six right wing. Is he an option at all down the middle, Dave?

Tippett: I like him better on the wing, and I know him a little better than the other guys just because I’ve had him in Arizona before. I agree with you. He’s a real good complement player, he’s a smart player, got good skill and will jump around your line up and complement some people. Where he ends up, I’m not sure. But that’ll be determined in training camp. He’s another guy that will jump around a little but until we find the right fit for him.

Source: Oilers Now (2019, July 30)

What stands out here is the fact that Khaira is very likely going to receive yet another tryout as a depth center, which is odd considering there’s enough evidence from his 154 NHL games that suggests he’s not well-suited for that role. Dave Tippett will be the third NHL coach that will grant Khaira a tryout at center.

Quick summary of Khaira’s career and how he’s been utilized by the Edmonton Oilers.

Season GP TOI (5v5) G-A-P P/60 CF% (Rel) GF%
2015/16 15 153.87 0-2-2 0.78 46.39 (+2.19) 41.67
2016/17 10 90.95 1-0-1 0.66 51.72 (+0.33) 66.67
2017/18 69 740.28 9-8-17 1.38 50.07 (-0.49) 43.40
2018/19 60 650.00 2-13-15 1.38 46.51 (-2.00) 38.89

As a 21-year old in his rookie season Khaira played on the wing, pairing up with center Anton Lander for 43.8% (67.35 minutes) of his total ice time in a more depth, shut-down role, and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for 38.7% (59.60 minutes) of his total ice time on a second line along with Jordan Eberle. The remaining ice time was spent sporadically with Leon Draisaitl or Mark Letestu, both of which were regular centermen that season. While Khaira didn’t produce well overall, it’s worth noting that he was an effective winger with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle at even-strength (5v5), as the trio posted a goal-share of 57.14% (4 GF, 3 GA), and a Corsi For% of 50.0% in 53 minutes together.

Khaira’s second season in 2016/17 was similar to his first – limited minutes and predominantly on the wing. He spent the bulk of his ice time with one or both of Mark Letestu and Matt Hendricks, both of which I considered centers as they took faceoffs more regularly than Khaira. Of his 90.85 minutes of total ice time at even-strength, 93.1% (or 84.68 minutes) were spent with Letestu, Hendricks, Desharnais or McDavid (in very limited minutes).

In 2017/18 is when Khaira started getting some time as an actual center, with head coach Todd McLellan giving him an extended look in the bottom six to close out the lost season. For  a good portion of the season early on he was being deployed with Ryan Strome, giving the team a depth line with two players with opposite handedness who could share centerman responsibilities. The duo turned out to be quite effective playing together at even-strength, posting a Corsi For% of 52.64%, a Fenwick For% of 55.30% and a goal-share of 50.0% in 278 minutes.

Unfortunately the coaching staff went a different route, splitting the duo. And when they tested out Khaira as the sole center on a depth line to close out the 2017/18 season, the results were dreadful. With a variety of wingers including Lucic, Puljujärvi, Pakarinen, Caggiula, Kassian and Slepyshev, Khaira’s on ice goal-share as the sole center on his line was 33.3% (5 goals for, 10 goals against) over the course of 318 minutes. This was due in large part because the team allowed a higher proportion of shots against when Khaira played center, as his on-ice Corsi For percentage fell to 46.08%.

McLellan and the Oilers coaching staff appeared to have recognized that Khaira was better suited as a winger, or someone that could split centermen duties on a line, as he opened up his 2018/19 pre-season playing predominantly with Strome, who he had positive results with in 2017/18, and Puljujarvi. Unfortunately, the line was not given much of a chance when the actual season started, playing only 10 minutes together at even-strength before McLellan was fired and Strome was inexplicably traded away for winger Ryan Spooner.

Within a month of Ken Hitchcock’s arrival, Khaira was again being tested out as a centerman, and again his results were poor. In 2018/19, in his 204 minutes without any of the regular centers (i.e., McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins or Brodziak), Khaira’s on-ice Corsi For% at even-strength dropped to 43.08%, and his goal-share was 25.0% (3 GF, 9 GA). Khaira spent a third of his total ice time in this situation, giving the Oilers very little value and something that could have been avoided had Hitchcock and the coaching staff simply looked at Khaira’s on-ice results from the previous season under McLellan.

You can understand why Khaira would express interest in playing as a center – there’s clearly a need there and it’d be in his best interest to demonstrate his versatility, increasing his value to the team. However, based on his on-ice results as the sole center on a line under two different head coaches and the fact that the Oilers desperately need production from their bottom six, it would be in the club’s best interest to have Khaira on a line with another centerman (preferably a right shot) that he could potentially split faceoff duties with.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

Buying low and managing expectations

NHL: Washington Capitals at Nashville Predators

The Oilers made a sensible deal last week acquiring forward James Neal from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Milan Lucic. For a minor fee, the Oilers were able to bring on a forward that has a better chance of bouncing back, considering the drop in his shooting percentage last season compared to his career average, and they also gained some much needed cap flexibility in the future if they need to buy-out the remaining years of the contract. The Flames slightly reduced their cap-hit and also shed some real dollars, but I still can’t understand why they were so desperate to move Neal that they would take on a heavy, burdensome contract like Lucic’s.

Below are Neal’s even-strength (5v5) stats since 2008/09, including his total goals, assists, points, shots, shots per hour and individual shooting percentage.

Season Team GP TOI G-A-P Shots Shots/60 Sh%
2008/09 DAL 77 949.37 15-11-26 126 7.96 11.90
2009/10 DAL 78 1064.82 22-19-41 148 8.34 14.86
2010/11 DAL/PIT 79 1119.63 16-18-34 157 8.41 10.19
2011/12 PIT 80 1134.65 22-26-48 208 11.00 10.58
2012/13 PIT 40 514.70 11-7-18 93 10.84 11.83
2013/14 PIT 59 802.70 14-17-31 153 11.44 9.15
2014/15 NSH 67 950.97 16-13-29 170 10.73 9.41
2015/16 NSH 82 1248.35 24-13-37 197 9.47 12.18
2016/17 NSH 70 978.22 15-9-24 148 9.08 10.14
2017/18 VGK 71 992.12 17-12-29 156 9.43 10.90
2018/19 CGY 63 784.55 5-8-13 108 8.26 4.63

What we know about Neal is that his point production has gradually declined, with his most recent season being his absolute worst. What especially stands out is his individual shooting percentage of 4.63% last season, an anomaly over the course of his career and well below his career average prior to the 2018/19 season (11.11%). Knowing that individual shooting percentages typically regress towards the mean over time, there’s a decent chance Neal’s bounces back next season. How much of a bounce-back depends of course on the player’s aging, as well as the situations (i.e., teammates, competition, zone starts, etc) that the player will be in.

Neal - Shooting percentage.jpg

While the Oilers hope that Neal’s 2018/19 season was an anomaly, it’s worth noting that his overall play has gradually declined even prior to his arrival in Calgary. Looking at his relative-to-team stats over the last five years, we see that his more recent teams have done better without him at even-strength than with him. The graph below includes relative to team Corsi For% (CF% – proportion of shot attempts, a proxy for possession), Fenwick For% (FF% – proportion of unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances), Scoring Chances For% (SCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick), and High Danger Scoring Chances For% (HDCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick).

For instance, in his single season in Vegas in 2017/18, the Golden Knights posted a 50.51% Corsi For percentage at even-strength with Neal on the ice, but a slightly better proportion of shot attempts without him. Relative to the team, Neal was a -0.51 Corsi-rel, which must have been a little disappointing for the Vegas coaching staff considering he received top-six minutes (finished fourth on the team among forwards in ice time per game with 13:58) and he always posted solid numbers with and without star players in Pittsburgh and Nashville. Vegas also did better without Neal when it came to scoring chances, a trend that continued and got worse in Calgary.

Neal - Rel Stats

What’s interesting about Neal’s stint in Calgary is that he finished seventh on the team among forwards in ice time per game (12:27), most often playing in the bottom six with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. His reduced playing time might have to do with the fact that against elite players, his on-ice numbers had been in decline. (Data: Puck IQ)

Season Team TOI TOI% CF% (Rel) DFF% GF%
20142015 NSH 335.98 35.42 53.6 (+5.40) 51.9 (+0.90) 57.10
20152016 NSH 470.25 37.74 55.8 (+8.00) 60.2 (+9.50) 71.40
20162017 NSH 315.08 32.34 48.4 (-1.60) 48.1 (-2.50) 39.10
20172018 VGK 378.37 38.05 44.9 (-6.40) 43.4 (-12.70) 41.70
20182019 CGY 223.90 28.54 52.4 (-0.60) 47.9 (-5.10) 50.00

The table above includes Neal’s numbers against elite talent, as defined by Puck IQ. Included is Neal’s on-ice Corsi For percentage and relative to team mates number, as well as Dangerous Fenwick (DFF%), which is a “weighted shot metric using shot distance location and type of shot to give each shot a danger value”, and goals-for percentage (GF%).

In Nashville, and prior to that, Neal was playing often against the other team’s top end players, spending over 35% of his ice time at even-strength in these situations and faring quite well relative to his teammates. In 2016/17 however, while playing 32.3% of his time against top end talent and finishing second on the team among forwards in ice time per game, he posted a 48.40% Corsi For percentage in these situations, which was a drop relative to his teammates (-3.73). When he was left unprotected by the Predators in the expansion draft and went to Vegas, things got even worse as he again played often against elite talent but posted a very poor 44.90% Corsi For percentage, or a -6.40 relative to his teammates. The Flames coaching staff may have been aware of his declining performance against high end talent and his poor goal-share as they deployed him far less frequently against elites (28.5% of his even-strength ice time spent against them) and did see him post a very solid 52.40% Corsi For percentage (-0.60 relative to teammates) and a 50.0% goal-share. Unfortunately, this reduced playing time meant less time with skilled forwards, which may have played a role in his 4.63% individual shooting percentage.

It will interesting to see how the Oilers manage Neal, who because of the lack of scoring talent will likely get plenty of opportunities playing with McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins. Hopefully the Oilers are aware of Neal’s declining on-ice numbers and how poorly he’s fared against elite talent when he was getting top six minutes. It would be in the Oilers coaching staff’s best interests to have a deployment plan in place to mitigate any risks Neal’s acquisition brings to the team and get as much offence as they can from the player.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ

Related:

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.