Digging into the depth

Vancouver defeats Edmonton 5-3 in season opener

A big interest for me this season has been the performance and results of the depth forwards. Their numbers were so incredibly poor last season, as the team was outscored 44-73 at even-strength (5v5) without McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice. And that was over the course of about 1,800 minutes, which was 52% of the team’s total ice time. The depth forwards were a big reason why the Oilers had a 47.32% goal-share, one of the worst in the league, and it was clearly a focus for management in the off-season as they tried to add more skill to the roster.

Over the first 30 games, the overall results haven’t been great for the depth forwards. The Oilers have been outscored 19-29 at even-strength without McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice, posting a score-adjusted Corsi For% of 46.16% and a Fenwick For% of 46.88% – pretty similar shot-share numbers to last season. Because Draisaitl and McDavid have been able to play on their own lines for most of the season, the depth forwards have been deployed a lot less, dropping from 51.9% of the team’s total ice time last season to 41.3% this season.

Depth forwards (5v5)2019/202020/21

However, if you split this 2020/21 season into two parts, we actually see that all of the damage was really done over the first 15 games with things turning around nicely in the 15 games after. And this could be why Ken Holland is feeling better about his depth players (Global News).

2020/21 (5v5)Games 1-15Games 16-30

Not only are the results significantly better in the second half of the season, with the goal-differential going from -9 in the first 15 games to even in the next 15, but the underlying shot share are much improved as well. Their Corsi For% jumped 10 percentage points up to the break-even mark, with their share of scoring chances increasing along with it. The team’s goaltending is playing a big role as well, which is critical considering the lack of finishing talent on the roster. We can probably expect the goal share to fluctuate depending on if and when a skater or goalie runs hot or cold, but at least we know the process behind everything has improved.

What I also found interesting was which defencemen have been deployed with the depth forwards, and some of the adjustments the coaching staff has made from the first 15 games to the second set of 15 games.

Below are the defencemen’s even-strength numbers with the depth forwards in the first 15 games of the season when things went sideways. Included for each defenceman is the proportion of the depth forwards ice time they were on the ice for, along with the shot-share numbers, goal-share, and PDO. What stands out here is that Larsson was the most deployed defenceman with the depth forwards, Russell and Lagesson posted the best shot-share numbers and Bouchard was the only player with a positive goal-share.


And here’s the same set of metrics for the defencemen for games 16-30 when the results were much better.


As mentioned above, the depth forwards received a higher proportion of the team’s total ice time at even-strength between games 16-30, going from 36.4% to 46.2%. I think that’s a byproduct of getting better results: score more goals, gain the coaches trust and expect to see more ice time. Plus, the Oilers have been running McDavid with Draisaitl a little more often to get the top lines going.

What I found interesting was the increase or decrease of each defencemen’s proportion of ice time with depth forwards between games 1-15 vs games 16-30.

PlayersTOI% Change

Koekkoek’s injury definitely had an impact on how players were deployed. But it’s interesting to see how the coaching staff deployed Nurse and Barrie even less frequently with the depth forwards, and maintained Larsson as the main defencemen for them. Bear saw his proportion with depth forwards go from 13.8% to 24.4%, a 10.58% increase, the largest in the group. And the coaching staff seems to be showing some trust and confidence in Bouchard and Jones to help the depth forwards generate more offence. And I can’t say I would blame the coaching staff for giving Russell more time with the depth forwards. He did have the best shot-share numbers with them in the first 15 games (53.8%) when the group as a whole was posting a Corsi For% of 40%. There’s also the need to keep him away from McDavid and Draisaitl who both see their Corsi For% take a hit when Russell is deployed with them. Lagesson also had great possession numbers with the depth forwards in the first half of the season, which might be why he’s seen an increase in playing time.

Aside from the deployment changes on defence, and changes to the group of depth forwards (i.e, Turris), there had to have been tactical adjustments as well. I’d be curious to know what those were as the results have been much better recently. I’m also curious to see what lessons the Oilers take from all of this and if they really explore why it took over a month to fix their issues and how exactly it was fixed – was it all luck or did they have an actual strategy in place? The Oilers are in a decent spot in the standings now, but imagine if the depth forwards hadn’t been outscored 8-17 in the first 15 games. It cost them wins and playoff positioning, and it really can’t be ignored especially if they want to be considered a championship contender.

Data: Natural Stat Trick


One thought on “Digging into the depth

  1. Pingback: Digging into the depth II – Improved defensive play | The SuperFan

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