It’s going to be hard to forget May 2021.
The Edmonton Oilers clinched a playoff spot in the first week, beating the Canucks. By the end of the second week, the season ended with McDavid hitting and surpassing 100 points. Playoffs kick off in the third week. Five days later their season is over.
The first round exit is a good reminder that the playoffs are a bit of a crapshoot. You never know when a goalie is going to get hot or which forward is going to start scoring goals in bunches. The best you can do is build a balanced roster with talent, pray that your key players stay healthy and hope you get some bounces. It’s a cruel tournament, the results of which often push managers down the wrong path with negative long-term implications. It’s critical that teams have a long-term strategy in place, have strong decision-making processes and are constantly evaluating their business operations. Because it’s going to be tested over and over again by playoff results. Just ask the Washington Capitals.
The biggest reason the Oilers were out after four games was the Jets goaltending. Connor Hellebuyck was lights out, posting a save percentage of 95.0% in all situations. The Oilers controlled the flow-of-play at five-on-five, doing a great job generating chances, and posting better numbers than they did in the regular season. They were the better team, but it didn’t matter. They were outscored 6-9 at five-on-five play, and 8-14 in all situations.
|Edmonton Oilers||5v5||Winnipeg Jets|
|59.70||Expected Goals For%||40.30|
Keep in mind too, the Oilers controlled the shot-shares in their regular season head-to-head matches against the Jets, posting a Corsi For% of 51.69% over their nine games and an Expected Goal Share% of 54.97%. And thanks to their own 104 PDO over those nine games, the Oilers had a Goal Share% of 62.25% against the Jets. That’s the randomness involved in hockey, making it difficult to predict which skaters and goalies are going to succeed and when.
The Oilers 4.52% team shooting percentage at even-strength (5v5) was well outside of the expected range. As we see below, there was only one point in the regular season in late February that they had a shooting percentage that low. Observers may recall a four-game stretch that included the infamous three-game series against the Leafs and a game against the Canucks preceding that where the Oilers scored only once at five-on-five. For context, I added the Oilers regular season shooting percentage (8.87%, in orange) to the graph below along with their playoff shooting percentage (4.52%, in grey).
On the flip side, the Jets 95.48% save percentage in the playoffs was high, but they did hit that mark a few times including late in the regular season. Their goaltending was sixth best in the league for a reason, while the Oilers ranked 20th.
Below is a snapshot of how the forwards did in the playoffs at five-on-five, including their shot-differentials (shot attempts and expected goals), PDO, and sorted by their on-ice goal differential.
It’s pretty clear that the entire team struggled offensively, with only Kahun and Kassian posting on-ice shooting percentages above the team’s regular season levels (8.87%). The top line featuring McDavid and Draisaitl for the most part did the heavy lifting in terms of generating shots and chances, while the depth players, especially the more experienced professional-level players, posted negative shot differentials.
It’s unfortunate the team went away from having McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines, as they probably would have done a better job controlling the pace of the games by spreading out their offence more. This regular season, the Oilers took on the necessary risk playing the duo together less than they have in the past, which I thought allowed for other skilled wingers to develop chemistry and have productive seasons playing with the star players. In 2018/19, McDavid and Draisaitl played 20.0% of the team’s total five-on-five time together. That dropped down to 16.0% last season (2019/20) and then down to 12.5% in the 2021 season. Some good progress was made into developing line combinations in the regular season and getting a better understanding of the options they have up front – and they still went back to the McDavid/Draissaitl tandem. On top of that, they relied more on the older and lesser-skilled players in the playoffs, indicating to me that the coach panicked a bit with line combinations and deployment strategies. If I’m the GM, I’d need to know if the coach is going to make this a regular thing next year because that would impact how the roster is going to be constructed this upcoming off-season.
Here’s how the Oilers defencemen performed at five-on-five.
Nurse and Barrie led the team in ice time and were often deployed with McDavid, as well as Draisaitl as the duo played regularly together. Kulikov had some poor results, but for the most part was alright with Larsson posting decent shot-share numbers. And I thought it was made clear once again that Tippett does rely on goal-data to make lineup decisions, as he went with Russell and Koekkoek above Kulikov, Jones and Bouchard for a must-win game. As much as we want to analyze some of the gaffes the defencemen made, I think I learned more about the coaching staff than I did about the players. And it’s pretty obvious that when in a pressure situation, Tippett goes with veterans and those that he knows. He’d much rather play conservatively, which I don’t think works for a rush-style team like the Oilers that has some nice talent on the blueline with more developing in the system.
The Oilers powerplay didn’t get a lot of opportunities because of the NHL’s poor officiating standards. And when they did, they again could not solve Hellebuyck. During the 20 minutes of total powerplay time, the Oilers generated about the same rate of shots as they did in the regular season, which finished near the top of the league. But instead of converting on 17.45% of their shots like they did in the regular season, they converted on only 9.52% of their shots – for a grand total of two powerplay goals.
The Jets on the other hand scored three powerplay goals over 17 minutes of powerplay time, a goals-per-hour rate above 10.0 and closer to what the Oilers finished their regular season with. The Jets weren’t great at generating chances – the Oilers actually did a better job at preventing shots than they did in the regular season – but it was enough to solve Smith who wasn’t nearly as sharp shorthanded compared to his regular season play,
- Obviously a lot of decisions to make this off-season, and I get the sense that management is going to try to bring back most of their regular players like Nugent-Hopkins, Larsson and Smith.
- If Tippett is back to complete his contract, we should probably expect some of the skill players like Ennis, Jones and Kahun to be gone and potentially replaced by more experienced players. The problem is that the Oilers professional scouts have done a poor job at identifying/evaluating talent for a few seasons now, and I don’t see how it gets better without changes to their internal strategy and personnel.
- I think before the Oilers do anything, they really need to take a step back and figure out a better way to run their operations and make better decisions. The needs are clear – they need scoring wingers, they need players who produce without McDavid on the ice. Depending on Klefbom’s future and if Barrie is retained, they may need to find another offensive defenceman. Make a decision on Nugent-Hopkins and Larsson. And doing this with the Seattle expansion draft coming up. That’s a lot to navigate for someone like Holland who hasn’t exactly shown a lot of creativity when it comes to building a roster. In preparation of McDavid’s seventh season with the Oilers, I’m just hoping they add more to their front office. Better scouting. Better analysts. A willingness to use data as part of their decision making. Once they have that, and a better understanding of how to build a roster in 2021, I think they can have a lot more long-term, sustainable success. And really use this upcoming off-season to build a better team around McDavid.
Data: Natural Stat Trick