With the Oilers sitting second last in the western conference, it’s safe to assume the team will be rumored to be in plenty of trade discussions. Expectations being what they were following a good playoff run in April, anything less than a playoff appearance this season will be considered a major disappointment. While the Oilers have turned things around in the month of December going 7-4-0, they’re still five points back of a wild-card spot, desperately in need of wins to keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
As long as the Oilers are chasing a playoff spot, there’s going to be plenty of gossip around who management might be pursuing and what the potential acquisition cost could be. But before speculating on what the Oilers could do, it’s worth digging into each area of the roster to see if rumors are valid or not before they even pop up.
Heading into their game against Chicago, the Oilers ranked 21st in the league when it came to overall goal-differential with -6. Worth keeping in mind that this is largely due to their dreadful penalty kill, which ranks dead last in the league allowing 31 goals already this season. At even-strength the Oilers aren’t too bad – they rank 17th in goals-for percentage with 51%, holding a +3 goal differential.
They’ve also improved their overall goal differential over the month of December, largely due to a healthier roster and having McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl centering their own lines. The team has posted a +10 goal differential, a stark improvement from the -16 goal differential compiled in October and November.
The other thing to keep in mind is the Oilers shot-share metrics, which we use as a proxy for possession and to predict future goal-share. The team currently ranks 7th in the league with a 52.27% score-adjusted Corsi For percentage and 3rd in the league when it comes to Fenwick For% with 53.03%. The Oilers main issue earlier in the season was their team shooting percentage and team save percentage, which have now climbed back into the average range.
It’s also worth noting that even without McDavid on the ice, the team is posting a Corsi For% above 50% – a significant improvement from last season when the club would frequently get outshot, outchanced and outscored without their top player. Below is the team’s rolling 10-game Corsi For% this season, with and without McDavid.
There’s obviously no guarantees that the team will start scoring more goals because of their strong possession numbers, but it’s something to keep in mind if the Oilers are in trade rumors involving a forward. If a proven goal-scorer is available in the trade market, the Oilers have to consider it. But it might be wiser to hold for for now and focus on improving the wretched penalty kill instead. More on that later.
The Oilers are allowing 3.13 goals against per 60 (all situations), which places them 24th in the league and ahead of Vancouver, Colorado, Florida, Ottawa, Buffalo, Long Island and Arizona. At even-strength, things aren’t that much better – they rank 22nd in the league. When a team ranks this poorly, it’s natural to look at the defence core first and speculate if a shake-up is needed.
While the rate of goals against might be poor, the Oilers have done an admirable job when it comes to limiting shots and chances against this season. They currently rank 10th in the league in unblocked shots against (i.e., Fenwick) at even-strength (5v5) with 41.62 per hour. And they rank 11th in the league when it comes to shots on goals against with 30.66 per hour. To me, defence hasn’t been the issue this season. The problem I see is the goaltending, which has only recently regressed back towards normal ranges.
The Oilers blue line on paper looks pretty good. They have Klefbom and Larsson in their primes and signed to reasonable contracts. They have Nurse and Benning on entry-level deals and showing some progress in their development. Sekera is healthy again and should soon be back to the level he was at last season. And Davidson is back on the roster and playing well to give the team some options if injuries arise. On the blueline there’s a balance of youth and experience, offence and defence, so I’m not sure where the pressing need is.
The Oilers powerplay hasn’t been nearly as productive as last season. They currently rank 22nd the league with 6.00 goals per hour, a drop from last season when they were regularly in the top 10. While they’ve struggled to score, they have done a good job generating shots this season, ranking fifth in unblocked shot attempts per hour (83.68) and sixth in shots on goal per hour (61.34).
So should the Oilers really be looking to add a more offensive player, either up front or on the blueline to give the powerplay a boost? In my mind, a solution for the powerplay could be found internally. The coaching staff could alter their tactics or adjust their overall deployment strategy. It don’t think it makes sense to zero-in on the powerplay and spend assets to improve something that really hasn’t been maximized to its full potential by the coaching staff.
And I think the same goes for the penalty kill. The Oilers have played a lot more aggressively when shorthanded and it’s worked in a way – they lead the league in goals per hour shorthanded (2.16 per hour). Unfortunately, they’ve also allowed the most goals, ranking 31st with 10.18 goals against per hour.
The funny thing is, they’ve actually done a decent job limiting shots against, second best in the league with 50.9 shots per hour and second with 68.17 unblocked shots against. What’s really sank them are the high-danger shot attempts allowed (they rank 29th in the league) and their league-worst 80.0% team save percentage. So is it worth spending assets to address this and bring in new players, or should the coaching staff change their tactics and player deployment strategy?
Keep in mind too that the Oilers don’t need the best special teams to guarantee a championship. Just an average to good powerplay and penalty kill that doesn’t cost them games. I don’t think the Oilers are far off – a good stretch can get them back to league average – so it’s really not worth spending assets to address.
By no means is this team perfect – there’s plenty that Oilers management needs to address and they could leverage the trade market to find solutions. But I think a lot of their current issues come down to the decisions made by the coaching staff. Management should absolutely continue exploring trade options in an effort to improve the team for today and for the future. It just doesn’t make sense to spend valuable assets when the current roster hasn’t been maximized to it’s full potential.
And even though the results have been poor, the Oilers should also be approaching any trade options from a position of strength. Their possession numbers have been strong, their goal scoring has improved and their defence core has been steady and getting healthier. The fact remains that the Oilers’ prospect pool remains shallow, making it imperative that they keep as many of their draft picks and find long-term solutions through the draft.
Addressing some low-key areas of the roster will require management to take a more proactive approach, keeping an eye on the long-term goal of winning a championship. The areas of the roster that I think the Oilers should try to address are the following:
- Goaltending: Cam Talbot’s play has improved, but it’s worth exploring a better back-up option in case things go south for him. His contract will be up after next season, so it’s important to find not only a suitable backup, but someone that could create some healthy competition for ice time and potentially take over the starter position.
- Replacements: Both Maroon and Letestu will be eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, leaving things open for guys like Khaira and Slepyshev, or even Yamamoto if he’s ready, for next season. It’s worth looking at the trade market for younger players who have NHL experience to create some competition.
- Prospect pool: Related to the previous point, but if the Oilers fall further out of the playoff race, they really need to start stocking up on draft picks and young prospects. Outside of Yamamoto and Benson, there’s not much coming down the pipe for the Oilers.
The market being what it is, rumors about the Oilers adding higher-end forwards and defencemen are likely going to ramp up and for good reason. Bogus narratives tend to follow poor teams, so it’s always a useful exercise to review the on-ice data to get a better read on what the Oilers should actually be addressing. Definitely worth monitoring over the rest of the season.
Data: Natural Stat Trick