Getting closer to the end of the season and it’s becoming painfully obvious to observers (who may not have been paying attention the whole time) that a big reason why the team is where they are is because of the actions of Peter Chiarelli.
A lot of the moves the general manager made or was going to make were discussed publically often pointing out at the time of the trade or transaction what the probabilities were like for it to backfire or succeed. Never any guarantees, and I don’t claim to have all of the answers. But there’s enough publically available research and analysis and data that gave us probable outcomes, which were easy to lift and apply to what the Oilers were trying to do.
Take for example the Lucic signing. The rumors of him signing in Edmonton started mid-season when Lucic was doing well in LA and the Oilers were heading to another year out of the playoffs. At first glance you would look where the team was in the standings and determine that yes, absolutely the Oilers need help and bringing in someone of Lucic’s caliber and experience would be beneficial to a young team.
Two things, however. One the Oilers weren’t as bad as their record that season, as they were dealing with significant injuries to Klefbom and McDavid. And Talbot struggled big time in his first season as a starter – something that happens to goalies even when they have a pretty good track record. Secondly, if you look at player aging curves, and how production has been shown to decline as players age – it should’ve raised some red flags around Lucic whose success has been based on playing a physical style. The chances of him remaining productive were low. Wrote about Lucic here and here.
Now as a fan, I’d love to see Lucic bounce back from the terrible season he’s having and play a role in chasing a championship. But he probably won’t live up to the price tag – aging free agents who get paid a grit-tax typically don’t meet expectations – and will be a cap-headache for the team when acquiring and signing players. Again, all of this was foreseeable.
Why the Oilers aren’t using existing research and even the most basic metrics derived from analytics is just perplexing. Considering they have the money, why not invest in collecting information that could supplement the day-to-day work done by scouts and the cap experts? Now this would have to be properly integrated into the business operations of the team – there’s really no use of bringing in one person to be your “analytics consultant”. A proper division, clearly defined roles, with a chain of command that feeds two areas – the coaching staff and the management’s office – would be ideal and aligns with what modern industries have in place. Include a research and development group within the division that could take ideas from the coaching staff and find/suggest innovative on-ice solutions – something that includes input from a former coach or two and scouts – I think you could have something that drives change and better informs your decision making processes.
The Oilers might be a ways away from taking a step like this, which is unfortunate considering more and more professional sports teams are trying to find every single edge they can in a pursuit of a championship. Not sure what it’ll take for this franchise to push their own boundaries.
This also leads into the national coverage of the Oilers which has been endless, and rightfully so. There’s plenty of questions around why the team did what they did with guys like Hall and Eberle and trading away draft picks. The bottom line is that the team currently has the best player in the world, which is going to get a lot of attention from fans from other markets who may not care for the Oilers, but want to see a superstar like McDavid do well. So while people from inside and outside the Oilers market are piling on right now and we get an endless dose of Barzal/Eberle/Hall highlights – it’s largely driven by the fact that McDavid has a lot of fans from other markets and, well, the team has made a lot of bad moves that are killing his chances of winning a championship.
Speaking of moves. How the team deals with Strome is going to be a good test for the Oilers management group, whoever it’s made up of this offseason. Strome is 24 and in my opinion shown what he is – a depth winger who can play center part time or with another center with him, and can fill in on special teams as needed. His point totals are right around his career average and his shooting percentage is right around where we expect it to be. What the Oilers might fool themselves into thinking is that Strome could produce more, that he can play center full-time and that he can play a role on special teams. But if they just take a peek at existing research and analysis of the player and trends across the league, they could save themselves a lot of money. He’s still a player worth keeping around – it’s just that a heavy, long term investment in the player can easily backfire and set expectations that the player won’t be able to reach.
The Strome discussion, along with every potential transaction and signing this off-season needs to be taken through an improved, thorough analysis – leveraging every source of relevant information from across their hockey operations. There’s also plenty of underlying issues from this season worth exploring including the lack of secondary offence and the poor special teams. The key for the Oilers now is changing how they do things and making every move geared towards winning a championship. Leveraging the same research methods and information sources, and following the same decision making processes, and we probably won’t be seeing success anytime soon.