Realistic solutions

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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.

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