Repeating history

With the off-season upgrades up front and the question marks around the defence core and goaltending, the Edmonton Oilers are showing some similarities to the  2014/15 Dallas Stars.

That was the high-event team that scored 257 goals in the regular season, second most in the league only behind the Tampa Bay Lightning, but also allowed 257 goals, which was fourth highest in the league. That resulted in a sixth place finish in the Central division, with the team missing the playoffs by seven points.

It was a very disappointing finish for the Stars as in the season prior they had made the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, clinching the last wild card spot in the west but losing in six games to the top-ranked Anaheim Ducks. The star players led the way in the regular season with Tyler Seguin finishing fourth in scoring with 84 points as a 21-year old and Jamie Benn finishing 11th with 79 points at age 24.

The Stars made a concerted effort in the 2014 off-season to shore up their forward group acquiring Jason Spezza from the Senators, and signing Ales Hemsky and Patrick Eaves on the first day of free agency. Similar to Edmonton’s current issues, the Stars were often out-shot and out-scored without Seguin or Benn on the ice in the 2013/14 regular season – an issue that carried over into the playoffs that spring. With Seguin and/or Benn on the ice, the Stars outscored the Ducks 9-6 in all situations. Without them, the Stars were outscored 9-14. Individual production from their star players became an issue in the playoffs as well, as none other than Shawn Horcoff led the Stars in playoff points that year with six.

Improving the forward group in the off-season paid off for the Stars offensively in the 2014/15 regular season. Benn finished first in league scoring with 87, scoring 35 goals. Seguin finished seventh in scoring with 77 points, including 37 goals. Spezza finished with 62 points, including 45 assists. The club generated the highest rate of shot attempts, and scoring chances in the league at even-strength, and finished fourth in terms of expected goals per hour. The Stars would score 174 even-strength (5v5) goals that season, the third highest in the league, and 55 powerplay goals, fifth highest in the league.

But while management added talent up front and got solid results offensively, they went with the same defence core and goaltending which turned out to be disastrous. The team had good reason to be content with their defence core – which featured veterans like Alex Goligoski and Trevor Daley, and youngsters like John Klingberg – as in the season prior the team was right around league average when it came to shots and scoring chances against. And goaltender Kari Lehtonen had consistently been solid for the Stars, ranking 13th in terms of save percentage and 6th in terms of goals-saved-above-average among regular goalies (+2000 minutes) in the three seasons prior.

That all went sideways in 2014/15 with the Stars allowing the fourth highest number of goals against (247) and ranking in the upper third of the league when it came to shots and scoring chances against, including the 9th highest rate of expected goals against. What made things significantly worse was the Stars goaltending, which ranked 28th in the league that season with a 90.95% team save percentage. Lehtonen posted his lowest save percentage in his career that season (90.30%), never quite recovered to his career levels, and was out of the league in 2018. This shouldn’t have been too surprising considering he was 30 at the time, which is right around when goaltender performance starts to decline (Source: Hockey Graphs).

While we can hope that the Oilers won’t have a similar fate this upcoming season, there’s reasons to think otherwise.

For one, the Oilers put a lot of focus on the forward group this off-season, spending assets and making some reasonable bets on players that should help improve the goal-scoring. But their defence core is now lacking, with veteran players expected to play above their more recent established levels, putting more pressure on youngsters like Evan Bouchard to progress in their development and take on more minutes. The Oilers are also taking a significant risk with their goaltending, which while was good last season, can’t be expected to be at the same levels given Smith’s and Koskinen’s ages.

What I also found interesting was the Oilers even-strength (5v5) numbers under Tippett compared to the Stars even-strength numbers in 2014/15.

The Stars were far better offensively than the Oilers have been, but I’m expecting the difference to be smaller considering the changes up front by Oilers management. What’s interesting here is that the Stars defensive numbers, which weren’t good that year, are awfully close to what the Oilers have posted under Tippett, with both teams allowing around the same rate of shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts and expected goals against. The Oilers have even allowed the same rate of goals against as the Stars did in 2014/15 (2.64), with the team save percentages being awfully close.

If the Oilers post similar defensive numbers this upcoming season as they have under Tippett thus far and get the same level of goaltending at even-strength as they have in the past, I’d expect them to have similar results as the Stars did in 2014/15. It’ll make for some very entertaining hockey, likely some high-scoring games, but it’s going to put a playoff spot in jeopardy, especially if the special teams struggle at all.

How the Oilers coaching staff and management group mitigate the risks will definitely be something to monitor, especially with so much pressure on the team to make a deeper playoff run.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

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