One of my favorite articles this summer was Dom Luszczyszyn’s look at how much confidence the public has in the front offices of every NHL club, and how poorly the Oilers ranked compared to the other 31 teams.
The results were based on a survey The Athletic conducted asking subscribers to evaluate teams based on six main categories: roster building, cap management, drafting and developing, trading, free agency and vision. Highly recommend checking Dom’s article out; major kudos to him for continuing to do this annually.
I can’t say I was too surprised with how poorly the Oilers ranked, considering how many blunders they’ve made over the last few years – and this off-season was a continuation of Holland’s approach. When completing the survey myself, I ranked the Oilers front office quite poorly for all six categories, and have noted my thoughts on each below.
Roster building: How the front office has managed its roster, looking in general terms about the players in the system and whether they formulate the right building blocks for the team’s goal of contending, whether that’s in the present or future.
This was pretty straight-forward for me. With a superstar like McDavid under contract, management should be evaluated entirely on how the team does without him on the ice. And so far in the two seasons with Holland in charge, the Oilers have failed to assemble a roster that can break-even in terms of goals and shot-share metrics when McDavid is on the bench at even-strength. In fact, this past season the Oilers posted some of their worst underlying numbers since McDavid’s arrival, thanks in large part to the depth players Holland signed to contracts.
With McDavid on the roster, the goal has been and always will be a championship. And it’s hard to feel confident in Holland’s ability to get roster-building right when the players him and his staff have signed are a big reason why the Oilers can’t post a positive goal-share at even-strength.
Cap management: How the front office has managed the team’s finances, with regards to the efficiency of money spent (are there a lot of bad contracts on the books), cap space, future flexibility and general dollar worth. Bottom line: If a team is or isn’t spending money, are they doing so wisely?
If there’s one thing we’ve confirmed about Ken Holland it’s that he does not integrate analytics into his overall decision-making process. One of the key benefits of analytics is being able to cut through the noise that personal and group bias brings to your organization. It makes you question what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing and forces you to think and re-think a problem. It’s challenging and uncomfortable and requires a lot of effort individually and collectively. But having a process in place that draws in and leverages analytics can improve your chances of success and give a team an edge over the competition.
And you know the Oilers lack this level of intelligence and effort just based on the traps they keep falling into. Signing players who had a high on-ice shooting and save percentages (PDO) well above their career norms the season before – check. Signing players who produced well with McDavid but showed little without him – check. Signing players based on who management is familiar with or who they can think of or reference easily (i.e., availability heuristic) – check.
When a team has consistently fooled themselves into these kind of signings and bringing on inefficient contracts, and don’t appear to addressing their decision-making process, why would anyone feel confident in their ability to manage the cap going forward? It’s 2021 and the Oilers still can’t be bothered to learn how other successful teams have managed their cap and avoided these kinds of mistakes.
Drafting and developing: How the front office has managed its farm, from draft day to the big leagues, relative to their draft pick capital. Is the team making smart selections and are those players meeting their potential after the draft?
When it comes to drafting, I tend to defer to people who watch and evaluate prospects, entry drafts and developmental paths. From my perspective, the Oilers appear to have selected decent players in the first round like Holloway and Bourgault and Broberg. But everything else they’ve done since Holland’s arrival to build a strong development program appear to be raising some red flags.
For example, Corey Pronman from The Athletic recently ranked the Oilers prospect pool 25th in the league, evaluating every team’s players who are 22 and younger; in 2020 he ranked the Oilers 26th (Source). When he recently compiled his ranking of 194 players under 23, the highest ranking Oilers was Yamamoto at 79th. Holloway was 90th, Bouchard was 124th and Broberg was 127th (Source).
In his own list of top 50 prospects, Scott Wheeler from The Athletic applied different criteria but also had similar findings. Only two players made the list, Bouchard at 31 and Holloway at 33.(Source).
There’s definitely some runway for these prospects to emerge and hopefully the Oilers have the right development plans in place for each one. I’m just not convinced the Oilers are integrating as much information as possible when (1) making their draft selections and (2) evaluating what they have in their system. And that’s unfortunate considering how badly they’ll need low-cost, team-developed players to push for roster spots and reduce the need to bring in more veteran players on inefficient contracts.
And as for player development, I’m not fully convinced that Tippett will be able to manage and balance the expectations for this team with the development of young prospects. In his first season as head coach, we saw players like Bear, Jones and Yamamoto emerge as NHL-caliber players. But last season, there was definitely a tendency to go with proven veterans at the expense of youngsters, especially when games were on the line. That really can’t happen this year with Bouchard, McLeod and potentially others pushing for roster spots and needing patience from the coaching staff to be impactful players.
Trading: How the front office has managed the trade block, mainly has management made the right calls in trading assets and whether they’re generally on the right or wrong side of a deal.
After seeing how badly he overpaid to acquire Duncan Keith, I don’t know how anyone could trust Holland and his staff when it comes to trades. As I wrote at the time of the deal, the Oilers somehow took on more risk, more money and gave up way more value than they needed to considering it was Chicago that was in a bind. An absolute disaster of a trade regardless of how Keith performs the next two seasons.
Trading away so much draft capital to address current roster holes has been a major concern as well considering again how badly the Oilers need low-cost, team-developed players to fill important roster spots in the future. And it wouldn’t be so bad if the Oilers were just willing to move a veteran or two (especially when their perceived value becomes inflated) to re-coup draft picks. Unfortunately those veteran players, often underperforming and/or overpaid, are grossly overvalued by management. Just a weird cycle the Oilers have put themselves in.
Free agency: How the front office has managed a period generally synonymous with mistakes and how it has navigated the minefield of free agency. Does the team generally give out reasonable deals, or is it prone to over-paying and over-committing to players it shouldn’t?
Because management doesn’t integrate analytics and information into their decision-making process, they have a tendency to bring in players on inefficient contracts. Had they looked at Barrie’s on-ice numbers away from McDavid, or Ceci’s numbers when he’s deployed as a top four defencemen, the Oilers could have saved a lot of money and allocated those dollars to more impactful players. But because they don’t look at numbers and overvalue veteran players who can be easily referenced in the NHL Guide and Record Book, they’re now locked into a pretty mediocre defence-core for a good chunk of McDavid’s remaining contract term.
Even the smaller, low-risk contracts Holland has handed out don’t appear to be driven by careful thought and analysis, and more on gut-feel. And that’s a major problem considering how much the Oilers are paying Holland to carry out his approach.
Vision: How the front office communicates its plan, both implicitly and explicitly. Vision is mostly an abstract concept, one that boils down to whether a team’s plan to build a Stanley Cup contender is evident in its decision-making process and whether its plans for the future appear sound.
Based on the decision-making process and how poorly the roster has been built around McDavid for the next few seasons, I would say there’s very little vision in the front office. There doesn’t appear to be a long-term plan, as indicated by the disastrous trades and signings, especially the ones made this summer when the team had cap space. The way the Oilers evaluate professional-level players and prospects, and what the on-ice results have been like, it’s hard to be confident in management’s abilities. Especially when watching other teams take on a more progressive approach, applying best-practices from within and outside of professional sports, and having long-term success.
Unless this management group evolves and adjusts their approach, it’s hard to have any confidence in them turning things around and building a true contender. A lot definitely has to change and I’m not sure the Oilers are even aware of their underlying issues on the ice and the major inefficiencies in their own front office.