Problem solving

images (1)The Edmonton Oilers finished the 2018/19 regular season as one of the worst teams in the league, posting a -42 goal-differential in all situations, finishing with 79 points and a 0.482 points percentage. Those results were driven by a number of factors, including the following:

  • Poor even-strength (5v5) results, finishing the year with a goal-differential of -32 and a goal-share of 45.06% – both of which ranked third worst in the league and only ahead of New Jersey and Ottawa.
  • Poor shot-share numbers at even-strength as reflected by their Corsi-for percentage (a proxy for possession) of 47.53% (23rd in the league), and a Fenwick-for percentage (i.e., unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances) of 47.34% (25th in the league). The Oilers were regularly out-shot and out-chanced, and their numbers declined as the season wore on.
  • An inability to generate and sustain offence at even-strength, finishing near the bottom of the league when it came to shot attempts and scoring chances per hour.
  • A lack of scoring talent as the team finished the year with the eighth-lowest total of goals at even-strength (146). The team shooting percentage of 7.68% ranked 21st in the league.
  • A team save percentage of 91.51% at even-strength (25th in the league), despite allowing a league average rate of shot attempts and scoring chances against per hour.
  • Poor production when McDavid was not on the ice, as the Oilers posted a -34 goal differential without their captain (a Goals-for percentage of 40.12%) at even-strength. The shot-share numbers also took a dive, as the team posted a Corsi-for percentage of 46.52% and a Fenwick-for percentage of 46.47%.
  • A dreadful penalty kill that finished 30th in the league allowing 9.21 goals against per hour.

My sense at the end of last season was because of the number of roster issues and the fact that the Oilers lacked cap space and assets, the next general manager would be forced to take a conservative approach to re-building the team and would need to put a stronger emphasis on the draft and prospect development. Roster depth, namely the third and fourth lines, could easily be addressed through free agency both in the national league and overseas. But the challenge in order to legitimately compete for a playoff spot in 2020 would be to find value contracts and maximize each players productivity, ensuring that they can contribute both at even-strength and on special teams. And this could only be done if the team approached roster construction differently, and applied more innovative practices to their decision-making.

Fast forward to September, and despite all of the changes made by the Oilers management, it’s hard to imagine the team performing significantly better than last season and likely well outside of a playoff spot. And that’s mainly because the majority of the issues from the 2018/19 season listed above have not yet been adequately addressed. The team followed a lot of conventional wisdom, continuing on with their standard decision-making processes, leaving plenty of questions marks heading into the regular season.

First off, generating offence and goal-scoring remains a significant issue. The Oilers may have acquired some options to fill out their bottom six, but none of them have experience and historical production playing in offensive situations against top competition. And it’s unlikely the Oilers uncovered a hidden gem that is a lock for 20+ goals, which the Oilers desperately need – especially within the time that McDavid is on the bench. James Neal might be that guy based on his consistency scoring goals, but as I wrote in July, he’s also shown a gradual decline in shot-based metrics over the last few seasons, especially against top competition. Slotting Neal in the top six is a risky proposition based on his recent performance numbers; his best days are likely behind him.

Not only do the new depth players have a significant chance to secure a spot in the top six, but so do young prospects like Tyler Benson and even Kailer Yamamoto who are working towards transitioning to the national league. The downside to them making the jump to the 2019/20 Oilers roster is that they would very often be playing against the other teams best players, potentially stunting their development. Additionally, the Oilers are moving ahead without Jesse Puljujärvi who should have been part of the long-term offensive solution in the top six had the Oilers handled his development better.

The Oilers are also taking a significant risk at such a crucial spot signing 37-year old netminder Mike Smith to a one-year deal. Smith is coming off of a rough 2018/19 season,  one in which he ranked 53rd among sixty goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes (approximately 20 games) with a 0.898 save percentage, and 53rd in goals saved above average (GSAA) with -12.65. While he did end his 2018/19 season on a high-note, we know based on goalie-aging curves that goaltenders don’t tend to improve with age, and that their drop-off grows as they get older. The other issue is Koskinen’s numbers from last season, as he ranked 41st among the same group of sixty goaltenders with a 0.906 save percentage and 49th when it came to GSAA with -6.21. Maybe Koskinen’s numbers improve if he gets more time to rest and if Smith gives the team league-average save percentage when that happens – but that’s a big gamble with not a lot of evidence supporting it. The long-term solution in goal also remains unsolved, with an internally drafted and developed option unavailable for NHL minutes until a season or more down the road.

The other outstanding issue for me is the penalty kill, which cost the Oilers wins last season. The Oilers addition of depth players like Granlund and Archibald – both of whom have penalty experience in the NHL – along with the coaching changes could help the team next season. But I remain skeptical, mainly because Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair didn’t exactly have much success shorthanded in Arizona.

Below is a summary of the Coyotes penalty kill, including goals, Fenwick and shots against per hour. Included is the team’s ranking in the league.

Season Goals against/60 Fenwick Against/60 Shots against/60
2009/10 5.66 – 6th 77.51 – 24th 54.51 – 19th
2010/11 8.12 – 26th 89.35 – 30th 63.84 – 30th
2011/12 5.2 – 8th 79.6 – 29th 55.62 – 27th
2012/13 7.53 – 22nd 70.24 – 20th 49.63 – 19th
2013/14 7.73 – 27th 77.97 – 22nd 57.36 – 21st
2014/15 8.42 – 29th 86.39 – 30th 62.69 – 30th
2015/16 8.09 – 28th 71.9 – 10th 50.79 – 12th
2016/17 8.29 – 26th 80.98 – 27th 53.84 – 16th

What stands out is not only their rate of goals against per hour, but also the rate of shots and scoring chances against – two areas that a coaching staff can impact depending on the structure they have in place to prevent events that lead to goals happening. As I wrote back in May, the most alarming thing about the Coyotes penalty kill numbers was that the coaching staff didn’t seem to recognize their underlying issues and couldn’t figure out how to fix things over the course of eight seasons. Hopefully they find the right tactics with the right players; they already have enough to worry about at even-strength and in goal.

*****

The fact that the Oilers are heading into the 2019/20 season with this many unresolved problems, at such critical areas, has me wondering if the team has already accepted their fate, resigned to taking another high draft pick and building a real contender next summer (or potentially the summer after that). If the Oilers management team actually thinks they can contend for a playoff spot, they sure are putting a lot of hope in their key performers from last season like Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Chiasson and Nurse having back-to-back career seasons, their goaltenders playing above their expected levels, new depth players contributing, and for their young prospects to make the jump to the NHL and playing significant minutes. I can’t imagine a sane management group having this much confidence in everything going right.

The other issue for me is that the Edmonton Oilers have shown very little interest in thinking outside the box and keeping up with other NHL teams. A key objective for the management team should be to find any sort of edge over the competition in an effort to build a long-term, sustainable winner. But the fact that other NHL teams are establishing sports science/research & development departments and preparing their analytics area for the influx of player tracking data, while the Oilers do little is very concerning. The fact that a lot of the Oilers off-season roster decisions – regardless if this is a re-building/transition year or not – were based largely on standard, conventional thinking really needs to be addressed if this franchise has any hope of becoming a championship contender.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

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