Tempering Expectations

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A lot of optimism around the Oilers heading into 2017/18 season, and for good reason. They’re coming off of a 103-point regular season, and were one win away from making it to the Western Conference finals. Anchored by Connor McDavid, Cam Talbot and Oscar Klefbom, the Oilers have on paper a good mix of skill and experience throughout the roster. The fact that they have one of the best players on the planet is really what pushes them into the contender discussion.

The success that they’re building on from last year was fully earned. They finished the year with a +36 goal differential, posted an even-strength (5v5) Corsi For percentage of 49.99%, and a Fenwick For% of 50.96% (9th in the league). They benefitted from a largely healthy roster, as their top six forwards, their three best defencemen and their starting goalie dressed for almost every single game.

Player GP   Player GP
McDavid 82 Klefbom 82
Draisaitl 82 Sekera 80
Eberle 82 Larsson 79
Lucic 82
Maroon 81 Talbot 73
Nugent-Hopkins 82

By and large, this was a good team.

But in my opinion, they’re still not legitimate contenders. And I’m perplexed that they’re being considered by some as the team to come out of the west, let alone potential Stanley Cup contenders.

A number of reasons I’ve tempered my expectations.

First off, not enough assurances were made to improve the team’s offence without McDavid on the ice. Two of the very few players who actually did well when it came to shot-share away from McDavid – Eberle and Pouliot – are out. I like the chances of Jokinen posting good shot-share numbers as he’s done well in the past, but we have to keep in mind his year-to-year points/60 are very similar to Pouliot’s.

Pouliot vs Jokinen

As for Strome, he’s a player that never posted good shot or goal numbers away from the top end players in New York, so my expectations remain low. Now if Draisaitl takes a step, and if Lucic bounces back from a dreadful year at 5v5, there’s a chance the Oilers have a good second line. I just don’t think McLellan will be able to refrain from having Draisaitl on McDavid’s wing often enough; it’s just far too tempting as a coach to have that explosive of an option. So I’m skeptical that Strome will get a lot of time on the top line, and he likely won’t be producing as well as Eberle has. That’s a problem.

The Oilers also retained the services of Russell, who can do a good job suppressing shots when the puck is in the Oilers zone. But he has very little offensive ability and the goals tend to dry up McDavid isn’t on the ice with him. Ideally, the Oilers would’ve added another piece to the blueline, someone that has better offensive instincts and an ability to generate scoring chances. Auvitu could potentially be that player, but we’ll have to wait and see how often he even gets into the lineup.

The other issue facing the Oilers is Sekera’s injury. I went into this deeper over at The Athletic Edmonton a few days ago, but long story shot: the Oilers are hoping that Nurse and Benning step into a larger role and I’m not sure that’s a wise bet.

The fact that the Oilers are relying heavily on internal growth is a little troubling. It’s the last year before McDavid’s contract kicks in, and they had the space to make moves and bring in more impactful players. I get that every team needs their younger players to eventually step into key roles, but I’m not sold on what the Oilers have up front. Caggiula, Slepyshev, Puljujaarvi, Strome all have potential and there’s things to like in each of their games. But none of them have really solidified their roles on this team for the upcoming season. If at least one of these players can generate offence, especially away from McDavid, I’ll have a little more confidence in the Oilers decision to go through another “growth year”.

So in summary, my reasons for lower expectations:

  1. Not enough assurance that the team will produce when McDavid isn’t on the ice.
  2. They’re missing Sekera for an indefinite amount of time, and will be relying on Benning and Nurse to fill in.
  3. Not enough offensive talent, and a heavy reliance on younger forwards like Slepyshev, Caggiula and Strome to take another step in their development.
  4.  Also, I think the Pacific division is going to be more competitive than people think. Arizona and Calgary just improved their defence. LA has a new coach and a healthy starting goalie. And San Jose still has enough talent to push for a playoff spot.

I genuinely hope I’m wrong, and that the issues I’ve raised are non-existent. I’d love to see the Oilers crush the league and win a championship. But because of the decisions that the Oilers management have made, I’m just not optimistic as others that it’s this year.

Below are a few high-level baselines that I think the Oilers will need to achieve in the first month to be in the contender discussion.

  • 5v5 Goals For% > 50% when McDavid is on the bench
  • 5v5 Corsi For% > 50% when McDavid is on the bench
  • 5v5 Team Corsi For% > 51%
  • Powerplay FF/60 > 75.00
  • Penaltykill FA/60 <70.00

Achieving these will not guarantee anything, but I think it would demonstrate that they are on the right track.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

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