Thoughts on the hiring of Ken Holland + CBC Edmonton News segment

 

Bob-Nicholson-and-Ken-Holland-press-conference

Professional hockey  remains in the dark ages when it comes to managing teams and looking for competitive advantages in the front office. Whenever there is a job opening for a general manager or when club re-structures itself to have an executive overseeing hockey operations, you realize that the list of potential candidates is small and the overall talent pool is extremely shallow.

The Edmonton Oilers at a critical juncture in their history, with the best player in the world and pressure mounting to deliver a championship went down a very predictable path to find a new general manager. They interviewed a number of assistant general managers, sought out the ones with potential and those that had connections to Hockey Canada. And while Ken Holland has the experience, the credibility, the knowledge and the professional network to handle the assigned tasks, his hiring isn’t all that exciting or inspiring. Going with Holland perfectly exemplified the Oilers risk-averse nature, their conservative approach to building a championship contender, and their lack of innovation and creativity when it comes to finding any competitive advantages in the modern era.

Now Holland does have a history at finding inefficiencies in the market when constructing a roster, being one of the first to tap into Europe for players and discarding one-dimensional enforcers from his teams. The problem is that the rest of the league caught up to him fairly quickly, and in the salary cap era he hasn’t done anything that sets him apart from his peers. He’s also shown a lack of understanding when it comes to player’s prime ages, giving out a lot of bad contracts with no-trade and no-movement clauses to players who are well past their primes, but he feels a deep connection with. Holland doesn’t appear to have that ruthless nature that’s needed to get the Oilers out of their current cap and roster issues. And we know that in the modern era one of a general manager’s key tasks is to find roster inefficiencies and squeeze out as much production and value from all corners of the club.

The one other issue I have with Holland is his “over-ripening” philosophy when it comes to developing prospects. While I do agree that prospects need time to develop and that a strong AHL program is critical to support the regular influx of talent to the NHL roster – management needs to be able to leverage a player’s entry-level deal and get production from players especially on the third and fourth lines. This would require identifying those players earlier and if appropriate, take on some risk by signing them to team-friendly deals. Again, it’s fine to allow players to develop in the minors, but managers need to be very strategic so that they know what they’re paying for when a player completes their entry-level deal and needs a new contract. Highly recommend checking out Iyer Prashanth’s piece from 2016 on entry-level contracts and asset management related to Holland’s time in Detroit.

Coming to Edmonton, Holland will have a lot of work to do including assembling a coaching staff, improving the roster and addressing the team’s scoring issues when McDavid isn’t on the ice. He’ll need to add a goalie and possibly add more skill to the blueline. And he won’t be able to do any of this without shedding some salary and also getting a better sense of the prospect pool and which players may be ready to contribute at the NHL level.

For me though, the biggest area Holland needs to address is the overall decision-making strategy and processes within hockey operations. This of course will depend on the management group he surrounds himself with, the professional and amateur scouts and (hopefully) a well supported and integrated analytics department. But Holland needs to focus on implementing the right processes that leverages all of that information that’s going to inform the roster construction. Hopefully he can do that and have the support from ownership to get all the resources required including people, technology and infrastructure – but we’ll have to wait and see.

While I do hope that the hiring of Holland is what turns this team around and start competing for championships, I remain fairly skeptical that the Oilers gained any sort of competitive advantage through this hiring.

For one, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the Oilers owner and his ability to allocate the right infrastructure and resources to support the general manager. We’re hearing that Holland will have a lot of control overseeing the entire hockey operations, but it remains to be seen what changes he’ll make to the people and processes in areas such as scouting and player development. Secondly, I don’t have a lot of faith in Bob Nicholson who facilitated the hiring process, had the opportunity to talk to anyone in hockey, but yet picked someone from his own history through Hockey Canada. In his time with the Oilers, the team took a reactive approach to several issues, and he’s a big reason why the Oilers are in the mess they’re in.

Lastly, I have little faith in the current hockey management talent pool. There’s clearly a need in hockey for common sense business acumen and a better understanding of risk management. The fact that the same names from the same demographic with the same type of backgrounds come up again and again makes it obvious that hockey management isn’t progressing. And that an opportunity exists for a team if they want to exploit an inefficiency in their management structure and find a significant competitive advantage.

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Thoughts on the Oilers’ GM search

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One thing that following the Oilers has done to me is change my overall perception of general managers and the value I place on them.

It’s obvious that they have a significant role in the game, overseeing roster construction, contracts and the draft. But unless the organization itself is set-up properly and has instilled a shared set of goals and values, with strong support from ownership, the general manager’s true abilities and their input are completely useless. And on the flip-side, if an organization is well structured, then you don’t need your typical hockey executive to fill the general manager’s chair – you could even get by with a non-hockey person with perhaps a background in finance or risk-management to give your front office a different element.

That’s a big reason why the Oilers current general manager search has very little appeal to me. The names that have been reported on and speculated about all seem fine, but it’s all but guaranteed the Oilers will go with a safe, conservative option – mainly because we know how this franchise operates under the current owner. In an era where professional teams need to be proactive, and progressive, and develop innovative methods to take calculated risks, going with a safe option just isn’t good enough.

Unless the team goes with a proper re-organization and constructs a front office that relies on solid, well thought-out business practices, a new general manager isn’t going to make any difference for the Oilers. Knowing which individuals are in the running for the Oilers general manager position, it’s likely going to be another four to five-year term where there’ll be some highs and lows for the franchise and maybe a playoff run if they’re lucky. But in terms of building a long-term, sustainable championship contender, the Oilers won’t be any closer.

The one thing I hope the Oilers do following the hiring of a general manager is to get a completely outside perspective of their organization as a whole, and receive some advice on how best to restructure the organization. Multi-million dollar organizations do this all the time to stay competitive in their industries, so it’s nothing ground-breaking. Ideally, this sort of consultation process would have started long ago and would have helped inform the role of the general manager and who best to hire. Because the Oilers demonstrated their usual complacency, and the fact that the franchise is heading into a critical time of their off-season, they’ll be taking yet another reactive approach.

 

 

CBC Edmonton News (TV): Re-capping round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs

cbc edmonton logoI joined host Nancy Carlson on the CBC Edmonton News to talk about the first round of the playoffs. Segment is here and starts at the 7:50 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2019, April 25)

Topics we covered:

  • Observations from the first round, and how unpredictable the tournament has been.
  • The early departure of the Flames, Leafs and Jets from the Stanley Cup playoffs and the reasons for their failures.
  • What lessons the Edmonton Oilers can take away from the first round.
  • Edmonton Oil Kings in action against the Prince Alberta Raiders in the WHL conference finals, and what to expect.

 

Next steps

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After such a disastrous season, there’s going to be plenty to dig into in an attempt to chart out the necessary course(s) of action for the Edmonton Oilers.

What’s important before looking for solutions and making roster and salary cap related decisions is to look at the overall results and find where exactly the deficiencies were that prevented positive outcomes. With the end goal of winning championships in mind, it’s become even more imperative for the Oilers to make evidence-based decisions, and it needs to begin immediately.

The number to start any analysis with is the Oilers 2018/19 season goal-differential of -42, which was the eighth worst in the league.

Stripping out special teams and empty-net goals and focusing on even-strength (5v5), the Oilers had a goal-differential of -32 and a goal-share of 45.06% – both of which ranked third worst in the league and only ahead of New Jersey and Ottawa. The Oilers results shouldn’t be too surprising considering they were a poor possession team all season, finishing with a 23rd ranked Corsi-for percentage of 47.53%, and a 25th ranked Fenwick-for percentage (a proxy for scoring chances) of 47.34%.

Especially troubling is the fact that even with McDavid on the ice, the team struggled to out-shoot and out-chance opponents.

Metric (5v5) With McDavid Without McDavid
Corsi For% 49.32% 46.52%
Fenwick For% 48.81% 46.47%
Shots For% 48.04% 46.64%
Scoring Chances For% 49.70% 45.81%
High Danger Scoring Chances For% 46.46% 45.69%

What’s worth noting is that it was really the Oilers’s offence that struggled, with the team only generating 27.99 shots per hour, one of the worst rates in the league. Defensively, they weren’t great, but they were just below league average allowing 31.36 shots per hour – 19th in the league. This isn’t to absolve the Oilers defence for the team’s struggles; they were a big reason why the team couldn’t generate offence. But when it came to limiting shots, they were better than what they got credit for.

The other factor in the team’s even-strength results is their shooting percentage, which was 7.68% (21st in the league, league average being 8.05%) and save percentage, which was 91.51% (25th in the league. league average being 91.94%). Had the Oilers finished with a league average shooting percentage, they would have scored approximately 153 goals, a seven goal improvement from the 146 they actually finished with. And if they had league average goaltending, they would have allowed approximately 169 goals instead of 178. So instead of a -32 goal differential at even-strength, they would have finished with a -15 goal differential – about three and a half more wins in the standings. Had the coaching staff figured out a way to generate a league average rate of shots on goal, that goal differential could have been a lot better and the team much closer to playoff contention.

And while the Oilers powerplay was good this season, and probably could have been one of the best had they received better production from the second unit, the penalty kill was atrocious. The team allowed a rate of 9.21 goals against per hour shorthanded, second worst in the league, due in large part to their poor goaltending and their inconsistency in preventing shots and high danger scoring chances. Had the Oilers received league average goaltending of 86.26% instead of the 31st ranked 82.68% they did receive, the Oilers would have allowed approximately 49 goals instead of 62 – a difference of 13 goals.

Now going back to the overall goal differential of -42.

Had the Oilers been average at even-strength (better by 17 goals), had received better production from the second powerplay unit (additional four goals), and had an average penalty kill (13 fewer goals). their overall goal differential would have been -8 instead of -42. Still not good enough to be a contender, but at least closer to being a wild card playoff team.

And that right there should be enough to trigger the Oilers management to make changes – obviously to the roster but also to the coaching staff. The team, even playing to its abilities, isn’t good enough. A -8 goal differential would not have been good enough. There’s an obvious need to improve the scoring talent up front to play in the top six, but it’s also worth looking into depth players who can contribute at even-strength and also have an impact both on the penalty kill and second powerplay. The defence could absolutely use more skill and offensive talent- but again I think the team could focus on depth players who could contribute as complementary players at even-strength, but also play a feature role on special teams. That’s going to be up to the front office to uncover these undervalued assets and ensure they get a fair chance from the coaching staff.

Speaking of which, I think what’s getting overlooked because of the general manager vacancy is the importance of the next head coach, who will have to figure out how to maximize what could again be a below-average roster behind McDavid. The Oilers may have to take a conservative approach this summer and build through the draft, putting greater importance on improving the underlying numbers at even-strength and special teams – areas that coaches can have a direct impact on. The Oilers do not have the assets to give up in a trade, which will force the team to rely on tactics and the exploitation of other inefficiencies rather than actual talent and skill to win hockey games.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

CBC Edmonton News (TV): Oilers season post-mortem, GM search and off-season approach

cbc edmonton logoI joined Nancy Carlson, the new host of the CBC Edmonton News, for my weekly television segment to discuss all things Oilers. Clip is here and starts at the 19:30 mark: CBC Edmonton News (2019, April 8)

Topics we covered:

  • The key reasons why the 2018/19 season was such a disaster. Included on the list: poor roster construction, lack of offensive production, poor possession numbers, horrible penalty kill, inconsistent goaltending – just to name a few.
  • Key takeaways from the Oilers press conference this morning: lack of urgency among executives when it comes to long-term strategic planning, the same messaging we’ve been hearing for a while (and little action), and the overall, passive approach the Oilers are taking with their general manager search.
  • Course of action this off-season, which should include being ruthless with their cap situation, and creating a market for the players whose value might be perceived as higher than it actually is.

Thanks again to the team at CBC for making it all happen. It was cool to be the first guest on the new set with Nancy!

Getting more out of the Oilers powerplay

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The Edmonton Oilers powerplay has been one of the few bright spots in a dreadful 2018/19 season.

After 78 games, the Oilers have scored 46 goals with the man-advantage, scoring at a rate of 7.95 goals per hour – good for eighth in the league. They’ve also done a pretty good job at generating offensive opportunities, thanks in large part to their high-end talent, ranking 12th in the league with 52.17 shots on goal per hour and ranking 6th in the league with 23.15 high-danger scoring chances per hour. The Oilers have been fairly consistent throughout the season on the powerplay, posting scoring and shot rates typically above league average rates.

Team GP SF/60 HDCF/60 GF/60
Tampa Bay Lightning 78 50.83 16.44 11.01
Boston Bruins 79 52.86 21.58 10.17
Florida Panthers 79 56.11 18.32 10.09
Winnipeg Jets 78 56.58 21.26 9.33
Pittsburgh Penguins 79 51.05 22.12 8.98
San Jose Sharks 79 59.62 25.33 8.81
Colorado Avalanche 78 51.35 21.55 8.00
Edmonton Oilers 78 52.17 23.15 7.95
Toronto Maple Leafs 78 61.89 34.44 7.87
Washington Capitals 79 51.23 17.99 7.47

The Oilers have relied quite heavily on their top end talent, as we’ve rarely seen the powerplay without McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins on the ice together. In fact, Draisaitl, who currently leads the team in total powerplay ice time, has been on the ice for 76.73% of the team’s powerplay ice time and 43 of the team’s 46 powerplay goals. If that ice time sounds high, and that goal-share disproportionate, it is.

Across the entire league, the Oilers rank second overall when it comes to deploying their first powerplay unit. To figure this out, I had looked at the total powerplay time for each team and used their forward with the most powerplay minutes as a proxy for the first powerplay unit. Based on this method, on average team’s have had their top powerplay unit on the ice for 63.72% of their total powerplay time this season. The Capitals currently rely on their first powerplay unit the most, having Alex Ovechkin on the ice for 88.65% of their total time.

Team GF/60 – 1st PP Unit GF/60 – 2nd PP Unit TOI% – 1st PP Unit
Washington Capitals 8.08 2.69 88.6%
Edmonton Oilers 9.68 2.23 76.7%
Chicago Blackhawks 8.59 3.88 75.5%
Tampa Bay Lightning 12.20 7.60 74.2%
Winnipeg Jets 9.87 7.99 71.3%
Pittsburgh Penguins 9.95 6.70 70.2%
Dallas Stars 8.21 5.34 69.8%
Philadelphia Flyers 6.71 3.45 69.5%
Colorado Avalanche 9.39 4.95 68.7%
Buffalo Sabres 7.75 3.65 66.7%
Vancouver Canucks 6.94 2.96 66.1%
Florida Panthers 11.64 7.08 65.9%
Arizona Coyotes 5.77 5.68 65.5%
Boston Bruins 12.52 5.81 65.0%
New York Rangers 8.39 4.87 62.8%
Los Angeles Kings 7.18 3.56 61.7%
Calgary Flames 9.44 3.91 61.3%
New York Islanders 5.83 3.60 61.2%
Carolina Hurricanes 7.71 4.26 60.9%
Toronto Maple Leafs 9.69 5.18 59.5%
San Jose Sharks 9.27 8.14 59.4%
Montreal Canadiens 5.24 3.39 59.0%
St Louis Blues 7.72 6.43 58.7%
Columbus Blue Jackets 5.86 4.34 58.5%
New Jersey Devils 6.64 5.54 58.5%
Vegas Golden Knights 6.96 4.98 56.1%
Nashville Predators 5.09 3.80 55.4%
Minnesota Wild 8.39 6.00 55.2%
Anaheim Ducks 7.40 4.64 52.6%
Detroit Red Wings 7.39 4.95 51.3%
Ottawa Senators 7.14 7.32 49.5%

I also wasn’t sure if getting three goals from the Oilers second powerplay unit (i.e., ice time that did not have the team leader in ice time on the ice) was bad or average. Over the course of 80.80 minutes without Draisaitl on the ice, the Oilers have scored at a rate of 2.23 goals per hour, which is actually the lowest rate compared to every other team’s second powerplay units. Again – the second powerplay unit is when the team’s ice-team leader in powerplay minutes is not on the ice. On average, second powerplay units score at a rate of 5.00 goals per hour, with team’s like San Jose, Winnipeg, Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh – all of which have top ten powerplays this season – getting over 7.00 goals per hour from their second powerplay units.

Doing some quick math, if the Oilers were getting a rate of 5.00 goals per hour from their second powerplay unit, they would have approximately four more goals. And if they were getting 7.00 goals per hour – they would have approximately seven more goals. Small increases that don’t impact the overall -37 goal-differential much , but they could have had an additional win in the standings. Combine that with a competent penalty kill, and the Oilers could have been a little more competitive.

There’s plenty of issues for the Oilers to work through this off-season, making it imperative that they collect as much information and insight as they can to better inform their decision-making process. While the powerplay may seem like a positive, management needs to apply a critical lens to their current situation and figure where else they can squeeze out more goals from. It’s great that the Oilers have the high end talent to make the first powerplay work, but it’s obvious that they need to either spread their offensive talent more efficiently or find some depth scoring (even a third or fourth line player) this off-season that could potentially give that second powerplay unit a much needed  boost.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Data compilation: Oilers – PP Analysis – 20190331 – Public

 

 

Taking notes

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Unfortunate for the NHL that the Stanley Cup playoffs will begin without a couple of premier, 100-point players.

Finding high-end talent is the hardest thing to do when building a championship roster, putting Edmonton in a very enviable position. But due to a lack of foresight and a series of poor decisions, the Oilers are a long, long way from being a contender. Getting out of this hole is going to require some aggressive, ruthless decision-making, and it really should have started at the trade deadline. The Oilers need to continuously look at their situation critically, and not try to convince themselves that they’re only a move or two away from being competitive.

The team’s performance in the month of March is a good test for management. While they are having success, having gone 7-4-2 (a 0.615 points percentage, 8th in the league), it’s not exactly sustainable considering they have one of the worst even-strength (5v5) Corsi For percentages in the league with 47.53% and a Fenwick-for percentage (a proxy for scoring chances) of 47.82%. Hopefully the Oilers management recognizes the team’s deficiencies and doesn’t overlook the fact that even with Connor McDavid on the ice, their on-ice shot shares at even-strength are below 50.0%. And make no mistake, the Oilers have been poor all season, even when they’ve had a healthy roster.

It should go without saying that team’s need to generate shots and scoring chances on a regular basis to have success in this league. And if the Oilers need a little more convincing, they can go back to January 23rd this season when they had a 0.490 points percentage and were tied in points with the St. Louis Blues.

Metric Edmonton St. Louis
Record 23-24-3 22-22-5
Points 49 49
Goals For% 45.92 49.24
Corsi For% 47.77 50.69
Fenwick For% 47.67 51.44
Scoring Chances For% 47.48 50.91
High Danger Scoring Chances For% 45.87 54.28
Shooting% 7.85 8.14
Save% 91.52 90.80

Both clubs were struggling around the all-star break, but for different reasons. The Oilers struggled offensively at even-strength, generating one of the lowest rates of unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick) and couldn’t convert on their chances, posting a 7.85% shooting percentage. The Oilers were also one of the worst possession teams, posting a Corsi For percentage of 47.77%, regularly getting out-shot and out-chanced. The Blues on the other hand were doing a lot of things right, often winning the shot-share at even-strength, including high danger chances with a 54.28% share. They were sound defensively, allowing one of the lowest rates of unblocked shot attempts against, but just couldn’t buy a save. The Blues penalty kill results weren’t as bad as the Oilers, who were allowing 8.18 goals against per hour (23rd in the league), but they were still in the bottom third league-wide.

Since January 23rd, the Blues completely turned things around going 21-6-3 (a 0.750 points percentage, third best in the league), shooting up to third in the Central division. Their shot-share numbers have remained strong, posting a 54% share or greater when it comes to Corsi, Fenwick, Scoring Chances and High Danger Scoring Chances. The biggest driver was goaltending, which shot up to 93.87% since the all-star break. The Blues had the right players, the right tactics all season and it showed up in the numbers. It’s a testament to the Blues management and coaching staff that they kept things together and didn’t panic in the face of adversity, knowing full well that they were doing everything they could to succeed.

Hopefully the Oilers have been paying attention and took a few notes about the importance of winning the shot-share battles (and not being below 48%), and how variance works in hockey. It’s an important off-season as the club searches for a new general manager, builds up a front office and alters how they make decisions and do business. And it’ll be important to not only properly assess the franchise’s current state, but also look at how their competitors operate and how they handle things during the highs and lows of a season.

Data: Natural Stat Trick