Finding an edge

While scoring hasn’t been issue for the Edmonton Oilers this season, it’s their inability to prevent goals that’s starting to really stand out.

Through 17 games, the Oilers have scored 60 goals in all situations – a rate of 3.53 goals per hour, fourth best in the league only behind Tampa, Toronto and Carolina. Anything over 3.50 would be considered outstanding, as really only Tampa Bay has posted numbers around that mark over the last few seasons. And similar to Tampa Bay, the Oilers are getting it done at even-strength (5v5), ranking 8th in the league scoring 2.82 goals per hour, and on the powerplay, posting the 11th best rate of goals scored in the league (and it should, based on their talent level, be getting better). What’s encouraging is that the Oilers are doing a good job generating chances, partly due to most of the North division teams playing pretty loose defensively (Source: TSN). Choose any offensive metric – shots, scoring chances, expected goals, unblocked shot attempts – the Oilers rank within the top five league-wide and have at least one or two of their division rivals right next to them.

What’s likely a spot of bother for the Oilers is that they’ve allowed 58 goals this season – the eighth highest rate of goals against (3.41), and only better than Ottawa and Vancouver in their division. For context, only three teams have posted worse rates of goals against in the last three seasons – Detroit last season (3.71), Ottawa (3.65) and Chicago (3.51) the year before, and the New York Islanders (3.53) and Ottawa (3.42) the year before that. I don’t expect the Oilers to finish that poorly, but if they continue to allow the rate of shots and chances against, and in front of the goaltending they have, they might come close.

The Oilers are allowing the fourth highest rate of shots against in all situations, only better than Vancouver in their division, and sit near the bottom of the league when it comes to any of the defensive metrics such as scoring chances against, expected goals or unblocked shot attempts. Whether even-strength or penalty kill, the Oilers are not good defensively, which is a major problem considering their goaltending has been well below league average (posting the sixth worst save percentage in the league at even-strength) and can’t be relied on for the Oilers to play an up-tempo style.

What’s perplexing is that the Oilers aren’t really addressing this issue, and trying to figure out ways to reduce the rate of shots and scoring chances against, specifically at even-strength. Instead, they seem like they’re all in on playing with pace and exchanging chances with opponents, to the extent where they’re more frequently deploying offensive-minded players like Tyson Barrie, who while can contribute offensively, typically struggles on the defensive side of things.

Partly due to Bear dealing with injuries and not getting the regular minutes he had last season, Barrie has seen his ice-time sharply increase (Source: Hockey Viz). Playing on the top pair and spending the majority of his time with either McDavid’s line or Draisaitl’s line – Barrie is bound to rack up points. But it’s defensively, especially against top competition, where Barrie has historically struggled and will likely struggle with increased responsibility (Source: Puck IQ). He’s typically been sheltered by his previous coaches – often playing against lesser competition and getting more offensive zone starts. And because he’s spending more time on the top pair against top lines, we really can’t expect the Oilers to get better defensively with him on the ice.

So far this season, the Oilers actually allow a rate of shots and scoring chances against closer to league average levels when Barrie isn’t on the ice. With him, the Oilers see a spike in their rates – over seven more unblocked shot attempts against per hour and seven more shots-on-goal against per hour. While the team does generate offence slightly better with him on the ice, it really might not be worth it considering how badly they get out shot. (Source: Natural Stat Trick)

It’s especially evident when Barrie isn’t on the ice with McDavid. When they’re together, the defensive numbers are decent relative to the team average rates of shots and scoring chances against. But when Barrie is on the ice without McDavid – look out. The Oilers allow 14 more unblocked shot attempts per hour and close to ten more shots on goal against. That’s partly due to the lack of talent in the bottom six forwards, but also Barrie’s inability to have a positive impact on the defensive side of things.

With the North division being as tight as it is, it’s critical for the coaching staff to find any edge, even the slightest, to stay competitive and secure a playoff spot. The good news is that the Oilers have the talent on their roster to help defensively – with the likes of Bear who played significant minutes last season against top lines and Jones who has the skill to potentially take that next step. The way things are going for Edmonton, it’ll be important for them to identify the issues and explore every option to rectify the problem. There really isn’t much time to make ground if they start to fall behind, making it even more critical to get their player deployment right as soon as possible.

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