Something that I’ve been curious about since the Edmonton Oilers were eliminated in the qualifying round of the playoffs was how their 2019/20 regular season compared with top-end teams.
No doubt the Oilers were a good team this past season, finishing second in the Pacific division collecting 83 points in 71 games – a respectable 0.585 points percentage. But while they were close, it didn’t put them in that 100-point zone where teams that finish with at least a 0.600 points percentage in a normal 82-game season would land. That’s the level they need to be at consistently, especially with two superstars signed to long-term deals.
The question then is how close were the Oilers to posting numbers similar to teams that have been in the 0.600 point club? When it comes to even-strength, goal-scoring, goaltending – did the team, at any point, post numbers closer to that upper category or were they closer to league average levels?
To figure this out, I first looked at how every team did in their last five regular seasons prior to the 2019/20 season – 2014/15 to 2018/19. That gives us a total of 152 teams, 57 of which finished their regular seasons with a points percentage of 0.600 or more. These are the teams that typically finish at or near the top of their division with 100+ points, and get considered as cup contenders heading into the playoffs. Washington, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay – they show up at least three times in that five year period. Edmonton shows up once – 2016/17 when they finished with 103 points – and we know how much hype and attention was given to them for those results.
Based on those 57 teams, I wanted to know on average what their goal-share and various shot shares were like like at even-strength and special teams, and if the Oilers ever put together a stretch in their 2019/20 regular season that was around those levels. For comparison, I also wanted to know what the league average numbers were for each metric, and also what the numbers were like for the bottom 50 teams. As you may have guessed, the Oilers show up four times in that group.
Here are the results at even-strength (5v5).
On average, the top teams, the ones that finished their regular season with a points percentage of 0.600 or more, posted a goal-share above 53% at even-strength, often controlling the flow of play, as measured by Corsi For% and generating a higher share of scoring chances, as measured by the Expected Goals For% metric. That really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Teams that get good results and compete for championships are the ones that consistently out-shoot and out-chance opponents.
Quick side note. What I found interesting was how close the more player-driven outcomes, like shooting percentage and save percentage were between the three categories. The margin of error is razor thin in the NHL, with top teams getting on average a team save percentage of 92.52%, while the bottom teams had an average save percentage only 0.60 points below that. Similar case when it comes to shooting percentage. Good teams convert on average 8.18% of their shots into goals, while bottom teams are only 0.82 points below that. It should be obvious to general managers that they have to load their roster with as much talent as possible, and deploy players that drive results in some positive way. Easier said than done of course, but there really can’t be any wastage – optimize that roster and continuously look to improve at every position, no matter how incremental the improvement.
So how did the 2019/20 Oilers compare?
What I’ve done for each metric is graph the Oilers 2019/20 numbers over rolling 25-game segments, and included lines to show the level that a good team, an average team and a poor team is at.
Lets start with the most important one: goal-share at even-strength. We know the Oilers struggled here, finishing the season with a -16 goal differential at even-strength, a goals-for percentage of 47.32% (25th in the league) only ahead of the California teams, Ottawa, New Jersey and Detroit.
Ghastly results with the team at one point posting a goal-share of less than 40%. But the good news is that the Oilers finished the season well, posting a goal-share of around 51.0% over their final 25 games. Not bad, but as we see in the graph, that’s only slightly above the league average level of 49.99% (orange line) and still below what 100-point teams have posted (blue line). Note that we’ll see what really drove the poor goal-share in a bit.
How about the even-strength shot-share metrics? Below are the 2019/20 Oilers rolling Corsi For% and Expected Goals For% – again with the average levels that a good team (blue line), an average team (orange line) and a poor team (grey line) have posted.
The Oilers finished the 2019/20 regular season 24th in the league when it came to Corsi For% with 48.19% and 22nd in Expected Goals For% with 48.85%. And while they did get back to league average levels near the end of the season, for the most part they hovered closer to what poor teams have posted in the five seasons prior. I know a lot was made about the Oilers performance after the Christmas break and how things turned around, but it still wasn’t good enough. That has to be addressed by both the manager building the roster and the coach that’s charged with tactics and deployment.
Finally, here’s how the Oilers did when it came to the player-driven outcomes: shooting percentage and save percentage.
Lets start with the good news. In 2019/20, the Oilers posted a team shooting percentage of 8.43%, which is slightly above the league average. What’s especially encouraging is that at various points of the season, the team’s shooting percentage was close to the scoring rates posted by top teams. The key for the Oilers is to find more scoring talent to surround the superstars with, and really maximize the offence (i.e., shots, scoring chances) that they consistently generate.
On the flip side, the Oilers goaltending was one of the worst in the league in 2019/20 and was well below what even the poorest teams have posted in past regular seasons. Look at the yellow line one more time. That has to be a spot of bother for management, knowing that their decision-making last summer to address the goaltending cost them wins and points in the standings. They need to get it right this summer.
Based on the performances we’ve seen from the top contending teams, there are very clear, tangible targets for the Oilers to work towards. An even-strength goal-share of 52.0%, supported by shot-share metrics above 51.0% is a reasonable goal. And getting league average team shooting and save percentage will take them a long way.
Hopefully the Oilers management is aware of their team’s deficiencies and making decisions this off-season that are geared towards winning games and becoming legitimate contenders. A 100-point regular season, or a points percentage of 0.600 or more, remains the goal and will give us an indication if a championship is in the cards.
Points-percentage (Point%) – The total points accumulated divided by the points that were available, including extra time.
Goals For percentage (GF%) – The proportion of all the goals that the team scored and allowed that the team generated (i.e., Goals For/(Goals For + Goals Against).
Corsi For percentage (CF%) – The proportion of all the shot attempts the team generated and allowed that the team generated (i.e., Corsi For/(Corsi For + Corsi Against). This is used as a proxy for possession and can predict a team’s future share of goals (GF%).
Expected goals: Measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. (Natural Stat Trick)
Shooting percentage (SH%) – The percentage of the team’s shots on goal that became goals (i.e., total goals divided by the total shots on goal).
Save percentage (SV%) – The percentage of the team’s shots on goal against that were saved (i.e., 1-(totals goals allowed divided by the total shots on goal against))
The Oilers exited the play-in round a little more than a month ago, and it’s given us time to think a bit about the year. How do you feel about how the season went? Are you satisfied?
Even though they missed the playoffs, it’s hard to complain too much considering they posted a 0.585 points percentage in the regular season, finishing second in the Pacific and 12th in the league. The team was competitive most nights, special teams were outstanding, their top players did well and we saw a cluster of players transition from the minors and take on important roles. But the Oilers definitely over achieved, and Coach Tippett recognized that at his end-of-season availability. They were badly outscored at even-strength (5v5) relying heavily on their powerplay, posted mediocre shot-share numbers and their goaltending was sub-standard. Aside from their superstar players and the hope that more players will graduate from the AHL, there aren’t many indications that this team is going to be competing for a championship anytime soon. Over the course of the regular season, the team did very little to better position their roster construction going forward. They added a few bad contracts to their books, including signing Kassian to a long-term deal, and sent away much needed draft picks.
So while the results were good, management’s off-ice decision-making has been very concerning.
Who is this team’s top line right winger at the beginning of next season, and why?
Based on how much ice-time he received from the coaching staff at even-strength in the regular season and the contract that management gave him, it’s probably Kassian. He was fourth on the team among forward in total ice time and average ice time per game, even ahead of Nugent-Hopkins, and was McDavid’s most common linemate. Two things the Oilers need to do here: (1) find a better option for McDavid by either adding depth – this should not cost a lot, and (2) come to the realization that you do not pay a premium for players who do well with McDavid. The Oilers can’t be content with their current situation at right-wing.
Mikko Koskinen is signed for another two years in Edmonton, while Mike Smith is an unrestricted free agent. What should Ken Holland do between the pipes for the Oilers heading into next season?
First, review the process and methodology or whatever that led the Oilers to sign Smith to a contract last summer and fire it into the sun. Retain Koskinen since he’s provided league-average goaltending and expect him to start half of the games next season. His contract is a little high for the amount of workload expected, which makes it even more critical that they not overspend on the second goalie. Who they find as a second goalie doesn’t matter as long as they’ve posted league average numbers over the last few seasons and the acquisition cost is low. The only way the Oilers can acquire a higher-profile goalie like Holtby, or Lehner or Murray is if they’re planning on moving Koskinen – which I don’t suspect there’s much of a market for considering it’s a buyer’s market this off-season. I do like the idea of acquiring a younger goalie who has shown well recently like Alexander Georgiev, but that would require taking on some risk which I don’t think management is comfortable with. Also – look at goaltender coaching/consulting options and pray that one of the goalie prospects in the system continues to develop.
What do the Oilers do with Ethan Bear’s next contract?
The same thing that the Oilers did with Klefbom when they recognized his abilities early and wanted to see his best years happen in Edmonton. A long-term deal for Bear is ideal to potentially reduce the annual average value, knowing full well that he could be overpaid in the early years, but holding a value contract over the majority of its term. Financial risk is spread between the team and a player that it drafted and developed and deployed, and it’s how things have to be done in a salary cap world.
Is there any scenario where the Oilers can win a deal by moving Oscar Klefbom?
Definitely, as long as the manager isn’t basing his decisions on the NHL Guide and Record Book. The player coming back would just have to be young, on a long-term team-friendly deal and can contribute on the powerplay and penalty kill. Honestly, if the Oilers are so frisky to move a top-four defenceman, show some courage and start creating a market for Nurse whose perceived value is going to be much higher than his actual value.
We are a year away from the next expansion draft, but it’s never too soon to begin thinking about who could be selected. Who do you hope Seattle takes from the Oilers? Is there a player you believe the Oilers ought to keep, but is at risk being selected?
Ideally Seattle takes an older Oiler who’s on a bad contract and under producing, or whose actual contributions might be overhyped. Kassian and Neal come to mind, but it could be someone younger and further down the depth chart like Khaira. Knowing who Seattle has working in their hockey operations department, I suspect they’ll target young players who have shown well at the professional level and whose contracts are under team control.
Before they look for goaltending again, Oilers management needs to review their previous evaluation and decision-making methods.
One of the most important parts about decision-making, especially when you’re spending significant money or assets to achieve a specific goal, is the evaluation that follows it. It’s standard business practice in the corporate world when CEO’s work to maximize the value of an entity and try to find any sort edge over their competition. Scrutinizing internal processes, finding strengths and deficiencies and re-calibrating things is a critical component when building a sustainable product.
The same approach to evaluating decision-making has to apply in professional hockey. When every corner of the roster needs to be optimized for maximum value under a salary cap system, it’s critical that teams know if their roster decisions led to positive outcomes and, just as importantly, know if their methods behind the decision process was adequate and how it can be improved going forward. With a large pool of players and a limited number of roster spots, teams are faced with recurring decisions regarding their roster construction – so refining their decision-making methods has to be top of mind.
The Edmonton Oilers are facing one of those recurring decisions, that many teams are facing this off-season, as they’ll be searching for a goaltender to potentially start a significant number of games in the upcoming year. The Oilers goalie depth chart features Mikko Koskinen, a 32 year old with 101 NHL games on his resume, and under contract for two more seasons at $4.5 million per year, along with a group of goalie prospects that have a range of potential. This list currently includes Ilya Konovalov (age 22), Olivier Rodrigue (20), Stuart Skinner (21) and Dylan Wells (22).
Koskinen has shown reasonably well as a starter at the NHL level, having now played 93 regular season games and four playoff games for the Oilers since transitioning from the KHL and SM-liiga in 2018. Among 53 goaltenders who have played at least 70 games over the last three seasons (approximately 3,000 minutes between 2017/18 and 2019/20), Koskinen’s even-strength (5v5) save percentage of 91.9% ranks 36th overall, while his goals-saved above average of -2.52 ranks 35th. The average team save percentage at even-strength over the same time period has been 92.04%, so it’s safe to say Koskinen has been a league-average goalie for the Oilers.
Considering how teams, especially in the west where travel is onerous, are moving away from a starter-backup approach to deploying goalies to more of a tandem where they can split ice-time more evenly, it’s important for the Oilers to continue doing the same. While Koskinen has provided decent netminding for the team, we know from a 2014 research article at Hockey Graphs that goaltender performance declines with age, especially after age 30 – and it’s beneficial for both Koskinen and the team if he has more time to rest between starts.
When the Oilers looked for a goalie last summer to split time with Koskinen, they signed Mike Smith, a 37 year old netminder at the time with 571 games of experience. How much time and effort was put into the analysis that led to this decision is unknown. But what we do know is that their approach to finding an NHL-caliber goaltender this off-season has to be considerably better.
Smith’s results as an Oiler were poor, which wasn’t surprising as the probability of goalies posting save percentages below league average levels increases after age 30 and accelerates after age 35. For more details about goalie aging curves, I’d recommend checking out this 2014 research article from Hockey Graphs.
This past season, Smith posted one of the worst save percentages in the league at even-strength (90.0%), ranking 52nd out of 54 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes, or about 24 games, and allowed the fourth highest rate of goals against per hour (2.92). His individual performance was a big reason why the Oilers overall team save perentage was 25th in the league with 91.23%, allowing the sixth highest rate of goals-against, 2.72 per hour. That rate is slightly worse than what the Oilers allowed in 2017/18 when they allowed the eighth highest rate of goals (2.60 per hour) and and 2018/19 when they allowed the ninth highest rate (2.65 per hour). For context, the league average rate of goals against per hour over the last three seasons has been 2.45.
What management should hopefully be aware of is the fact that the Oilers allowed close to the league average rate of expected goals against. Expected goals measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. So while the actual rate of goals against the Oilers was 2.72 this past season, based on the variables from the shot data, the expected rate of goals against was 2.36 – slightly above the league average rate of 2.30.
Put another way, had the Oilers allowed the same rate and quality of shots against and received league average goaltending, they would have allowed approximately 136 goals at even-strength this past season. That’s a significant improvement of about 21 goals, (they actually allowed 157), which would translate to approximately three additional wins in the standings. And a key reason why this occurred and cost the Oilers a better spot in the league rankings is squarely on the player that management brought in last summer to shore up the goaltending.
Expected Goals Against/60
High Danger Save%
Above is a summary of how the two netminders did for the Oilers in 2019/20 at even-strength. Included for some of the metrics is each goaltenders ranking among the 54 goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes this past regular season. What I found interesting was that the team’s rate of expected goals against, which again measures the quality of unblocked shot attempts, was higher when Koskinen was in net than when Smith was. Thankfully Koskinen did reasonably well, ranking 23rd overall among his peers with a 92.40% save percentage, just slightly above league average levels.
Whatever methods that the Oilers management used to determine that Smith was going to improve the team’s chances of winning games has to be under immediate scrutiny by someone in the organization. The publicly available data and research into goaltending made it clear that the probability of Smith posting league average numbers was low, which begs the question: what data and information and process was the team basing such an important decision on? What metrics were used and how well do these metrics correlate with targeted outcomes? Did they set out benchmarks and key performance indicators to measure their decision? How did the Oilers evaluate the probability of the player’s performance? Whose opinions were involved?
There has to be some level of accountability and proper evaluation of these key decisions – and it should come from someone outside of the hockey operations department. Preferably, above the general manager’s office, if Bob Nicholson has the motivation and courage to do so, or even an external consultant to ensure whatever the findings are can be actioned upon. The reality is that the second place finish in the division could be masking Smith’s poor goaltending performance, as Holland stated in his end of season media availability that goaltending was a strength. And there doesn’t appear to be any motivation for the general manager to dissect the goaltending decision from the 2019 off-season, leaving the team at risk of repeating the same mistake.
To improve their chances of landing a reliable goaltender this off-season and contend for the playoffs, it’s imperative that the Oilers evaluate how the decision was made to sign Smith last summer. The methods that were used were clearly flawed and it’s critical that management explore new ways – using data analysis, scouting and possibly an outside perspective – to evaluate goaltenders.
Expected goals: Measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. (Natural Stat Trick)
Goals saved above average – the goals this goalie prevented give his save percentage and shots faces vs. the league average save percentage on the same number of shots. Minimum four shots faced per team gamed needed to qualify (Hockey Reference)
Disappointing end to the Oilers season but it wasn’t completely unexpected. As great as their regular season was, the Oilers were a flawed team and their late season results weren’t that significantly better than Chicago’s. Combine that with the randomness that comes with playoff hockey and the fact that there was a four month layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of qualifying round it’s hard to be too upset.
While we can’t and shouldn’t make long term projections based on the series loss to Chicago, or ridiculous characterizations of the team and individual players, we can still highlight the actual results to see what the Oilers did well and where they struggled. Long-term projections that inform the decision-making process around roster construction always needs to rely on larger sample sizes. In this case, focus on the 2019/20 regular season results rather than four games in August.
For now, I want to focus on the results from the qualifying round.
The Oilers were outscored 16-15 by the Blackhawks, scoring five goals on the powerplay and allowing four shorthanded. At even-strength, they scored 10 goals, a rate of 3.28 goals per 60, which would rank them 6th among all teams, and 4th among teams that were playing in a qualifying round. Unfortunately, they also allowed 12 goals at even-strength, a rate of which was second highest among all teams.
The Oilers powerplay was solid, scoring five times in just under 30 minutes of ice time, a rate of 10.38 goals per hour. That’s just a hair below where they were in the regular season when they finished with a rate of 10.64 goals per hour – an outstanding rate which had them first in the league. They generated 58.13 shots per hour against Chicago, well above the regular season league average rate of 53.62 (over the last three seasons), which is around where they were in the regular season. And they converted about the same percentage of shots into goals, posting a 17.86% shooting percentage, which is slightly below their ridiculous 20.27% shooting percentage from the regular season.
The Oilers penalty kill on the other hand, was not as good as it was in the regular season. Allowing four goals in just under 30 minutes translates to a rate of 8.56 goals against per hour, well above their regular season rate of 5.15, second best in the league. A big reason for this was the amount of shots the Oilers allowed, one of the highest among all playoff teams with 64.21. The Oilers goaltenders were fine shorthanded posting a save percentage of 86.67%, which is right around the regular season league average rate of 86.59%. This was however below the Oilers league-leading save percentage of 90.61% in the regular season – not entirely surprising considering both goalies posted league average save percentages in their careers prior to this season.
Where the goalies really let the team down was at even-strength, as the Oilers posted a team save percentage of 85.88% – worst among all teams competing in the playoffs. What’s especially frustrating is that the Oilers did a pretty good job at controlling the flow of play, posting a Corsi For% of 53.52% over the four games and out-chancing the Blackhawks posting a Fenwick For% of 52.91%. And the Oilers did a decent job limiting the shots against (28.87 per hour, 7th best among all teams) and unblocked shot attempts against (a proxy for scoring chances) with 38.45 per hour, 6th best among all teams. Yes there were defensive breakdowns and missed assignments in their own zone, but the goaltending was by far the biggest issue allowing goals from low-danger areas of the ice.
Worth noting too that the Oilers goaltending at even-strength was one of the worst in the league during the regular season, ranking 25th overall with a 91.23% team save percentage. Among 54 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes at even-strength during the regular season, Mike Smith ranked 52nd with a 90.00% save percentage and 53rd when it came to goals-saved above average (GSAA) with -16.26. Koskinen was much better and closer to league average levels ranking 21st among the group with a 92.40% save percentage and 20th in terms of GSAA with +4.53. We knew this going into the playoffs, making the decision to start Smith in game one of the series even more perplexing.
What’s also interesting is how the Oilers forward group did in the qualifying round, with coach Tippett electing to run McDavid and Nugent Hopkins as a pair on one line with rotating wingers, and Draisaitl and Yamamoto as pair on another line. Observers are fair to question why Tippett didn’t unite the trio of Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto who posted a ridiculous 77.78% goal-share at even-strength, out-scoring opponents 28-8 in 317 minutes of ice-time in the regular season, but only played a few together against Chicago. But digging into the numbers a little more, it’s difficult to criticize Tippett when his lines actually did well against the Blackhawks, posting strong shot-share metrics, including the bottom six forwards which I was initially very skeptical about.
Draisaitl + Yamamoto
McDavid + RNH
Expected Goals For%
With McDavid and RNH on the ice, (no Draisaitl or Yamamoto), the Oilers posted a Fenwick For percentage of 52.95% in about 42 minutes of ice time. And they scored 4.31 goals per hour, which is well above McDavid’s on-ice rate from the regular season (3.52 goals per hour). But due to the goaltending, and a 78.37% on-ice save percentage, they were outscored by Chicago posting a goal-share of 37.50%.
Similar thing happened when Draisaitl and Yamamoto were on the ice without McDavid or RNH. The Oilers posted a Fenwick For percentage of 52.65% in about 42 minutes of ice time with them on the ice, but only came away with a 33.33% goal-share. They struggled to score, posting a slightly below average on-ice shooting percentage of 8.95%, but it was really the goaltending that sunk them as their on-ice save percentage was 81.04%.
And in about 59 minutes of ice time at even-strength without McDavid, RNH, Draisailt or Yamamoto the Oilers bottom-six forwards posted a Fenwick For percentage of 56.16%, which is just outstanding. Unfortunately, the best they could do was score one goal. The key takeaway from all of this is that the Oilers were spending more time with the puck and keeping play in the offensive zone – all the things teams need to do to give themselves a chance to out-score opponents and win games. Reviewing the underlying shot-share metrics, it’s hard to criticize how Tippett constructed his line combinations.
While we can’t project much from the four game-series, it’s still important to look at the actual results and the underlying on-ice metrics to gauge what went well and what didn’t. It’s easy to point to the lack of “intensity”, and “leadership” and develop narratives about the Oilers needing to “learn how to win”. The challenge is to look past the noise, identify what the key issues were in the playoffs and the regular season, and act on actual facts based on coaching tactics, player performance and numbers when making roster decisions this off-season. This requires effort and courage and sound decision-making processes – and hopefully Oilers management is up for the challenge.
Scott has extensive experience covering the sports scene in Chicago and joins me to preview the upcoming qualifier series between the Blackhawks and Oilers.
We discussed a number of topics including the strengths and weaknesses of Chicago, how they finished the regular season, key drivers on the roster that could make an impact and how their line-up could match up with the Oilers.
Full segment below:
The SuperFan Podcast – Sunil Agnihotri · The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 15 – Scott Powers
Could Chicago’s powerplay become a factor in their qualifier series against Edmonton? A look into their regular season struggles and some of the key underlying issues.
One of the storylines coming out of Chicago’s training camp ahead of their playoff series against the Oilers is around getting their powerplay going, which was one of the league’s worst in the 2019/20 regular season. The Blackhawks ranked 28th in the NHL scoring only 5.31 goals per hour, ahead of only the Senators, Red Wings and Ducks. And they were well behind the Oilers who finished first in the league scoring over ten goals per hour, which was a major factor in their second place finish in the Pacific.
Below are the top five and bottom five teams when it came to goals scored per hour (GF/60) on the powerplay this past regular season. I’ve included for each team their rate of unblocked shot attempts or Fenwick per hour (FF/60), a proxy for scoring chances, the actual shots on goal per hour (SF/60) as well as the team shooting percentage. At the bottom of the table I’ve also included the league average rates for each metric over the previous three seasons for additional context.
St Louis Blues
Columbus Blue Jackets
Detroit Red Wings
League average, 2016-19
The fact that the Blackhawks could only muster 33 goals with the man-advantage – and on top of that allowed eight shorthanded goals (tied for 7th highest in the league) – is definitely troubling for a club that actually broke even when it came to scoring at even-strength (5v5) and had the ninth best penalty kill in the league, allowing 6.34 goals per hour. Put another way, had their powerplay converted their shots into goals at even a league average rate (13.20%) instead of 10.58%, they would have scored 41 powerplay goals instead of 33. An additional eight goals would have boosted their overall goal differential from -6 to +2, and likely much closer to a wild card spot. Thanks to the playoff format they still made it, and key players like Kirby Dach recognize the importance of having an efficient powerplay heading into a competitive tournament.
“I think power plays in the playoffs are a huge thing to gain momentum,” he said. “As a group of power-play players, we know that the regular season was kind of unacceptable and that we have a lot of growth to do there to help our team win. I think the way we’re moving the puck now and making plays, hopefully it can all come together and be a factor for us against Edmonton.” (Source: NBC Sports – Chicago)
Aside from their terrible team shooting percentage on the powerplay, the Blackhawks also had issues generating scoring chances and shots on goal this past season, ranking in the bottom ten league-wide and well below league average rates. And it was an issue all season long as the club didn’t appear to make any significant changes to their overall tactics or player deployment that would have perhaps increased their odds of scoring. Another potential reason for their lack of scoring chances could be that over 25% of their shot attempts on the powerplay came from defenceman, typically from areas of the ice with a low probability of goal-scoring. In contrast, less than 18% of the Oilers shot attempts on the powerplay came from defencemen, as we know the club often moved the puck into higher danger areas where the forwards could do their magic.
What’s interesting is that closer to the end of the season the Blackhawks did start generating closer to league-average rates of unblocked shot attempts, which really isn’t too far off from where the Oilers finished their season when it came to the same metric. The difference of course is that the Oilers’ top players were prolific converting their chances into goals, with players like McDavid, Draisaitl leading the way scoring over 40 points and getting support from the likes of Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Neal and Chiasson.
Chicago wasn’t as fortunate, as some of their key contributors from the 2018/19 season didn’t perform nearly as well. In the previous season the Blackhawks powerplay finished 13th in the league scoring 7.26 goals per hour and generating just over 71.0 unblocked shot attempts per hour – both numbers being right around league average. That season, Kane led the way with 30 points, Debrincat had 24 points and Toews had 23 .
This past season, Kane continued to lead the way scoring at about the same rate of points per hour (5.33) as he did in 2018/19 (5.99) but seeing a slight dip in his own rate of shots for per hour, finishing the season with 23 points. Debrincat saw his total rate of points per hour drop from 5.38 to 3.97 per hour, due in large part to his personal shooting percentage dropping from 25.0% to 21.74%. Worth noting too that Debrincat’s even-strength shooting percentage took a much more significant dive down to 4.76%, which may be an outlier considering that in 2017/18 he shot 12.68% in 82 games and in 2018/19 he shot 15.29 in 82 games. Can probably expect that to turnaround eventually, at even-strength and on the powerplay, maybe even after a three month layoff.
The player of most interest, to me at least, is Toews who scored only one powerplay goal and assisted on seven in 2019/20. He was getting around the same amount of ice time and generating the same rate of shots on goals, but just couldn’t convert on his chances posting a personal shooting percentage of only 2.63%. That’s a major drop considering that his personal shooting percentage over the previous five seasons on the powerplay had been 13.7%. He’s remained effective at even-strength this year, but for the Blackhawks to be competitive they’ll need their captain to be more productive on the powerplay.
Here’s how the powerplay units are shaping up in training camp (Source), with Kubalik moving up to the first unit and looking to make an impact with increased opportunity. He had an outstanding regular season scoring 30 goals, with 23 at even-strength, but ranked fifth on the team in total powerplay ice time behind Kane, Toews, Debrincat and Strome, and sixth in terms of minutes per game.
First PP unit: Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Keith
Second PP unit: Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, Brandon Saad, Alex Nylander, Adam Boqvist
One other thing to consider is on the Oilers side, where their goaltending on the penalty kill had been outstanding finishing the season with a league-best 90.61% team save percentage. Among 55 goaltenders who played at least 100 minutes shorthanded in 2019/20, Mike Smith ranked first with a 91.80% save percentage, while Koskinen ranked sixth with 90.10%. Both also finished in the top five when it came to goals saved above average. Keep in mind though that Mike Smith’s shorthanded save percentage was 86.5% in his previous three seasons, much closer to league average rates, and Koskinen posted an 85.4% save percentage in his previous 55 games. Both goalies could potentially regress to league average rates and it remains to be seen if the Oilers can control the shots and chances against as they were allowing the ninth highest rates in the league shorthanded over the final twenty five games of the season.
With both teams having plenty of time to watch video and game-planning for one another, it’ll be very interesting to see how each side does on special teams and if the success and failures from their regular seasons carry over to the tournament.
One of the key drivers for success in the upcoming playoffs, aside from goaltending, is going to be consistent production from the Oilers depth players at even-strength (5v5). We can expect to see McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins get a regular proportion of ice-time, likely more, and the extra attention from the opposition. And that leaves about 40% of even-strength time that the Oilers depth forwards will have to survive and thrive without them.
This past season, the Oilers as a team were poor at even-strength, posting a goal-share of 47.32%, a -16 goal differential, that ranked them 25th in the league. And it’s well documented how special teams was the key driver for their overall success. Without one of their top three forwards on the ice at even-strength, about 40.1% of the teams total ice time, the Oilers were dreadful posting a goal-share of 38.20%, a -21 goal differential. While the Oilers without their top three forwards did an okay job when it came to the proportion of scoring chances (48.54% Fenwick For% and an expected goal-share of 49.32%), they could not capitalize on their opportunities posting a shooting percentage of 5.67%. The lack of finishing ability outside of their top players, an ongoing problem for a number of years, has to be of concern to the coaching staff and management.
How do the Oilers depth players compare with the Blackhawks depth players? Chicago had a similar issue as the Oilers in that their top three players – Toews, Kane and Kubalik – were the primary drivers of offence with a largely weak roster surrounding them. With one or more of their top three forwards on the ice at even-strength, the Blackhawks posted a goal-share of 52.22%. Without one of the three, they posted a goal-share of 45.05%, a -9 goal differential. We can always expect a team’s results to take a dip without their star players on the ice, but at least the Blackhawks depth wasn’t as poor as the Oilers.
What I also found interesting is that over the final twenty five games of the 2019/20 season, the Blackhawks without their top three forwards posted a goal-share of 54.29% at even-strength, a +3 goal differential in about 40% of the team’s total ice time. And those results appear to have been sustainable as the depth players controlled the flow of play, owning 51.52% of the total shot attempts, and doing a respectable job controlling scoring chances as measured by unblocked shot attempts (50.25% Fenwick For%) and an expected goal-share of 49.80%.
Final 25 (5v5)
The Oilers without their star players at even-strength over the last twenty give games weren’t nearly as good. They posted a goal-share of 34.48%, a -9 goal differential in about 43% of the team’s total ice time. Finishing chances was obviously a regular problem for the Oilers but it also didn’t help that they could only muster a 48.29% Corsi For percentage, a 47.33% Fenwick For percentage and an expected goal-share of 45.78%. If the Oilers have a weakness heading into this playoff series, it’s their even-strength play, especially with their depth forwards on the ice.
Worth monitoring how the Oilers shape up their bottom two lines ahead of the playoffs, and so far it doesn’t look promising. Early on in training camp, Khaira is getting another look at center with Neal and Chiasson on his wings. While the trio did spend about 34 minutes together at even-strenngth, all of which was in the final twenty give games, and outscored opponents 3-0, their possession numbers were dreadful, posting a Corsi For% of 41.49%. They also lost the scoring chance battle quite badly, posting a Fenwick For% of 38.05% and an expected goal-share of 32.94%. Worth repeating again: Khaira cannot play center on an NHL line unless he has a right-handed linemate who can share the centerman duties with him. The Oilers have tried him as the sole center on a line a number of times and the results have never been good. My analysis from last summer when the Oilers coaching staff was prepping for training camp can be found here: Realistic Solutions – The Copper and Blue (2019, August 2).
Also worth noting that the Blackhawks appear to be distributing their talent across their line combinations with their top three players on their own lines. Kubalik, who I think is the most interesting player on the Blackhawks finishing the season with 30 goals, has started training camp on a third line with Dach and Caggiula. Considering that he finished with more even-strength goals (23) than both Draisaitl (22) and McDavid (21) and posted an expected goal-share of 56.18% in over 300 minutes playing away from Toews and Kane, you can start to see what Chicago’s coaching staff might be trying to exploit. Anything can change at the Blackhawks training camp between now and when the qualifying round starts, but it’s worth monitoring how the coaching staff might deploy their top players against an Oilers team with even-strength issues.