Digging into the depth II – Improved defensive play

338 Gaetan Haas Photos and Premium High Res Pictures - Getty Images

Over the course of the season, the Oilers have done a much better job at limiting the numbers of shots and scoring chances against at even-strength (5v5).

Over the first 15 games, the team was allowing 57.2 shot attempts per hour, which was fifth highest in the league and only slightly better than Vancouver and Ottawa in the North division. They were also allowing 42.13 unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances, which was eighth highest in the league. This poor defensive play was a key factor in the team allowing the fifth highest rate of goals against (3.07) and why they were fifth in the North division in terms of points percentage.

Thankfully things have turned around since then. Since game 16 in early February, the team has seen their rates of shots and scoring chances drop down to league average levels, with the team allowing a rate of 51.84 shot attempts per hour (a drop of 10.3%) and 39.11 unblocked shot attempts per hour (a drop of 7.7%). And it’s been part of the reason why the team has seen their rate of goals against drop down to 2.09, again closer to league average levels. And it’s been a factor in the team’s resurgence in the standings.

Oilers (5v5)Corsi Against/60Fenwick Against/60Expected Goals Against/60Goals against/60
Games 1-1557.2042.132.353.07
Games 16-3451.8439.112.182.09
% Change10.3%7.7%7.8% 46.9%

One reason for the Oilers improved defensive numbers has been the play of the depth players. Early on in the season, the team depth was the reason why the Oilers rate of shots and scoring chances were so high and why they were getting badly outscored. Without McDavid or Draisaitl, the Oilers were getting crushed allowing over 61 shot attempts per hour and over 48 unblocked shot attempts per hour. That’s what the worst teams in the leagues typically allow in a season – unacceptable in any situation, especially when you’re not able to generate even close to that much offensively.

Since early February, the Oilers depth players have done significantly better, cutting their rate of shot attempts against per hour by 25% and their rate of unblocked shot attempts by over 30%. And most importantly, and with the help of some improved goaltending, the team is allowing more than half the rate of goals against.

Oilers Depth (5v5)Corsi Against/60Fenwick Against/60Expected Goals Against/60Goals against/60
Games 1-1561.7946.802.403.97
Games 16-3449.3935.011.911.85
% Change25.1%33.7%25.7% 114.6%

One player who likely played a role in the team’s improved defensive play this season is forward Gaetan Haas. Last season, the team saw a significant drop in shots and scoring chances against when Haas would be on the ice at even-strength. Among the 18 forwards who played at least 100 minutes in 2019/20, Haas ranked in the top three for any on-ice defensive metrics. Offence was completely sacrificed with Haas on the ice as the team didn’t generate much, but his defensive play was valued by the coaching staff as shown by his increased usage this season, especially on the penalty kill.

Haas has played in the past 17 games for the Oilers this season, following a stint on the injured reserve after playing two games in late January. His defensive numbers are pretty much identical to what they were last season. Among 15 forwards who have played at least 100 minutes this season, Haas is first in all defensive categories – including goals against per hour.

With Haas on the ice this season, the Oilers are allowing less than 20 shots against per hour at even-strength, while the team as a whole allows close to 30. He’s clearly the best defensive option among the depth forwards too. If the Oilers don’t have him, McDavid or Draisaitl on the ice, they’ve allowed 27 shots against per hour.

This strong defensive play has also translated well to the penalty kill, where Haas is for the first time in his NHL career getting regular minutes shorthanded. He currently ranks second on the team in average ice-time per game (2:09) among eight forwards (minimum 10 minutes played), and has posted the second lowest on-ice rate of unblocked shot attempts against and shots against – only behind Yamamoto.

What has to be especially pleasing for the coaching staff is Haas’ on-ice rate of goals against per hour – 2.97. He’s only been on the ice for two goals against in his 40 minutes of penalty kill time, a rate which has him seventh in the NHL among 112 forwards who have played at least 40 minutes this season. Keep in mind, the Oilers penalty kill as a whole is currently 20th in the league, allowing over eight goals against per hour and allowing some of the highest rates of shots and scoring chances. So don’t be surprised if Haas plays in every remaining game and sees his overall ice-time increase.

Haas’ defensive success has to make you wonder what the first 15 games could have looked like had he been healthy. He might not generate much offence, but they were clearly in need of defensive help as they were getting outshot at a 2:1 clip early on and crushed on the scoreboard. Also makes you wonder if the Oilers really knew what they had in Haas going into the season, considering they did hand Turris a two year deal to be their depth centerman and a regular option on the penalty kill. We might not know how Haas would have been deployed had he been healthy, but I would assume Turris with his draft pedigree and his familiarity with the head coach would have still received a long look. Classic example of the availability heuristic concept.

Thankfully things have worked out much better recently and the Oilers are back on track. Just remains to be seen how the team evaluates players at the trade deadline and off-season, and if someone like Haas will a contract extension or if another ‘known’ player is brought in.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Viz

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2 thoughts on “Digging into the depth II – Improved defensive play

  1. IMO basically its Turris out Haas in.
    Also one thing to note is that GA vs xGA. Earlier we were saving less than expected and right now we are seeing a slight correction the other way.

  2. Pingback: Shallow depth | The SuperFan

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