Background check

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Following the Oilers signing of Markus Granlund to a one-year, $1.3 million contract, we were immediately informed of his experience and success on the penalty kill in Vancouver. And that it was a reason why the Oilers signed him.

The Oilers were 30th on the PK at 74.8 per cent with Chicago 31st at 72.7 per cent last year. Granlund did his best work on a shutdown line with fourth-line centre Jay Beagle and helped the Canucks 11th overall penalty kill with centre Brandon Sutter. (Source: Edmonton Journal)

When you get information like this – that’s obviously being distributed by the management group that just invested in a player, and probably the player’s agent as well – it’s always a good exercise to suss out just how much of an impact an individual player had on the overall success of the team.

In this case, we know that the Canucks had a decent penalty kill last season, finishing 13th in the league allowing 6.86 goals against per hour. This was due in large part to their ability limiting shots-on-goals against, ranking 9th in the league allowing 48.3 per hour. Had their goaltending been league average (their team save percentage ranked 21st in the league with 85.80%), their penalty kill very likely would have finished in the top ten. And we also know that Granlund led all Canucks skaters in total ice time on the penalty kill, and was fourth among forwards when it came to average ice time per game. So naturally, one could connect the information and assume that since Granlund played significant minutes on the penalty kill, he must have had a positive impact.

But when you dig into Granlund’s on-ice numbers, you realize that that’s not the case at all.

In the team-leading 183 penalty kill minutes that Granlund was on the ice, the Canucks allowed a rate of 9.16 goals against per hour. To put things into perspective, the Oilers penalty kill allowed a rate of 9.21 goals against per hour, good for 30th in the league. In the 236 penalty-killing minutes that Granlund wasn’t on the ice, the Canucks allowed a rate of 5.07 goals against per hour, which is right around the rate the Lightning and Coyotes posted as top penalty kill units last season.

Now the rate of goals against are heavily influenced by the goaltenders performance, which as mentioned above was below league average, so you can’t put everything on Granlund. Having said that, the rate of shots against – which players do influence as it’s part of their job – also saw a jump when Granlund was on the ice compared to when he was on the bench. Last season with Granlund on the ice, the Canucks allowed 54.31 shots-on-goals against per hour; without him that number dropped significantly to 43.63. What’s alarming is that even the season prior (2017/18), Granlund’s penalty kill numbers were just as poor. The team allowed the second lowest rate of shots against (49.8) in the league; with Granlund on the ice they allowed 60.71 shots per hour and without him they allowed 45.29. For someone being touted as a penalty kill option, it’s strange that his former team had so much better success limiting shots without him on the ice.

It’s also worth looking into the impact Granlund had on his teammates, specifically the defencemen, to see if someone else was potentially driving up his on-ice rate of shots against. Below is a graph showing what the rate of shots-on-goal against were when Granlund was deployed with the various Canucks defencemen last season, and how those defencemen did away from Granlund. Included is the team’s overall rate of shots-on-goal against (grey line across). Again, I focused on shots as it’s something that the players can influence, while the rate of goals against are more reliant on the goaltender’s performance.

Granlund PK WOWY.jpg

Across the board, the most commonly deployed Canucks defencemen saw their own on-ice rate of shots-on-goals against drop on the penalty kill when they didn’t have Granlund on the ice with them. For whatever reason, each defencemen’s numbers would jump when Granlund was deployed with them, making you wonder why that would happen and how the Oilers think they’ll mitigate the issue. This of course is assuming they know about Granlund’s past penalty kill numbers – they did just sign him to a  contract and penciled him in as a penalty kill option.

Considering how poorly the Oilers performed on the penalty kill last season, and the massive impact it’s had on their overall goal-differential, you would hope that the Oilers have identified their needs and have a plan in place to bring in the right personnel and tactics. So far, it doesn’t appear to be the case.

Related: Penalty Kill Expectations – The SuperFan (2019, May 30)

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

UPDATE: 2019, July 5 (11:50 PM)

Couple important points I want to add based on some of the feedback I received.

First, we can assume Granlund was on Vancouver’s first penalty kill unit based on his total ice time. However, as I mentioned in the article, his average ice time per game was third among forwards last season, meaning when the roster was healthy and Brandon Sutter was available, Granlund was moved down to the second powerplay unit where he’s probably better suited.

Another question I received was how Granlund’s on-ice numbers compared to the top penalty killing forwards on other rosters. Below is a list of 31 forwards (one from each team) and their on-ice rate of shots and goals against relative to their teams.

granlund vs peers

One thing that stands out is that because this group of players likely played against the other team’s top powerplay unit, their on-ice rate of shots against were higher relative to their team – the average among the group is +5.45 shots against per hour. So it should be no surprise that Granlund’s numbers were poor. Having said that, compared to his peers, Granlund’s on-ice rate of shots against (+9.36), as well as goals against (+4.04) relative to his team were one of the worst.

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Thoughts on the Oilers off-season activity + CBC Radio Active segment

cbc edmonton logoIn case you missed it, I joined Adrienne Pan on CBC Radio Active in Edmonton on Tuesday afternoon to talk Oilers. Segment is here: CBC Radio Active (2019, July 2)

Couple thoughts on the Oilers off-season and their activity around free agency.

Mike Smith

  • The Oilers were already in a precarious situation with Koskinen as one of the netminders under contract for the 2019/20 season. Last season, he posted a 0.906 save percentage (all situations). good for 41st out of 60 netminders who played at least 1,000 minutes (approximately 20 games). And he ranked 49th among the same group when it came to goals saved above average (GSAA) with -6.21. More on GSAA can be found at In Goal Magazine.
  • That’s what makes the Mike Smith signing even more puzzling. By adding a 37 year old goalie who has been on the decline for a few years now, the Oilers have taken on even more, unnecessary risk at such a critical position. Last season, among the same group of 60 goalies, Mike Smith ranked 53rd with a 0.898 save percentage, and 53rd in GSAA with -12.65. The good news is that it’s only a one-year term.
  • Smith might be the team’s solution for the short-term, but the long-term issue remains: the Oilers don’t have a young starter-in-waiting, and are a few years away from one of their prospects to emerge as a legitimate option.

Markus Granlund

  • Thought this was a good signing as it creates competition for guys like Tyler Benson and Kailer Yamamoto, and at a reasonable price point.
  • One thing to note. It’s easy to pencil Granlund in as penalty kill option since he led the Canucks in total ice time last season among forwards, and had the third highest rate of minutes per game. But it’s worth noting that while the Canucks penalty kill was right around league average (in terms of goals against), they allowed the second highest rate of shots on goal against and the third highest rate of goals against with Granlund on the ice. Some ugly numbers over his three full seasons in Vancouver shorthanded, so it’d be wise to temper expectations. Noting this as an example of management potentially making a poor assumption based solely on a players ice-time and the team’s overall results.

Tomas Jurco

  • Good, low-risk signing for a productive forward who has shown progress from his injuries.
  • Worth noting that between 2013/14 and 2015/16, his full three seasons in Detroit, Jurco posted a 54.58% Corsi For pecentage – good for fourth among forwards who played at least 250 minutes (approximately 20 games). He ranked third when it came to on-ice unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick) against. If he can get back into form, the Oilers may increase their odds of out-scoring the other teams’ bottom six.
  • Good article from 2016 on Jurco, his productivity and lack of opportunity in Detroit from Iyer Prashanth. Appears at the time the Red Wings favored their over-priced veterans over their young emerging talent – but still applied their over-ripening policy even when the youngsters were showing well. Duly noted.

Gaetan Haas

  • Using an NHL equivalency calculator, the 192 points in 392 games in the Swiss league translates into about 17 points at the NHL level – more or less a replacement level player that can compete with the likes of Joseph Gambardella and Cooper Marody for more of the bottom six minutes.
  • Bruce McCurdy had a great write-up at The Cult of Hockey.

Alex Chiasson

  • This was clearly plan-C (heh) for the Oilers once they lost out on the Brett Connolly and Gustav Nyquist group. And it only makes sense if the Oilers add a legitimate winger to their top six before training camp. In his limited time in the top six, Chiasson wasn’t very good, dragging down the team’s possession numbers at even-strength even when paired with McDavid and Draisaitl (48.7 CF%, 48.8 FF% when all three were on the ice). Keeping my expectations low, but will be thrilled if he can score 20 goals again.
  • Chiasson was effective on the powerplay last season, posting 4.71 points per hour (fourth among regular forwards) and an on-ice goals-for rate of 9.72 (first among forwards). Depth players who can chip in on special teams is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.

Jujhar Khaira

Miscellaneous

  • We’re starting to see what Holland’s approach will be like going forward, as he’s made some nice low-risk signings but also made a couple moves (Smith signing, Sekera buyout, Playfair hiring) that appear to be based on limited information.
  • The Oilers have to be moving towards more progressive management practices, and need to implement evidence-based decision making processes. It’s obviously still early, but the Oilers need to enhance their front-office to become real championship contenders.
  • The Oilers obviously have to add skill up front, but there should be some concern about the blue-line as they’ve downgraded their puck moving ability. It’d be great if one of the young defencemen in the system can emerge and fill Sekera’s spot, but there has to be a contingency plan in place. Re-signing someone like Gravel would have been a start, as he was fine as a depth option and was productive on special teams. But they’ll need to bring in someone with more NHL experience and offensive ability.
  • As it stands, the Oilers are taking on a lot of risk, hoping for a number of players to have bounce-back seasons – which makes me wonder if they’re more focused on 2020/21 being the season they compete. It might not be the worst idea considering how much more flexibility they’ll have next summer and how many players should/will be turning pro.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Powerplay expectations

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Quick follow-up to my recent post about the Coyotes penalty kill with Dave Tippett as head coach. Key takeaway from that: the Coyotes penalty kill had poor results for the most part, and the coaching staff did a poor job implementing tactics to limit the rate of scoring chances and shots against. They saw little progress over those eight seasons, leaving me to wonder what metrics they were using (or ignoring) to evaluate their penalty kill success and why the coaching staff couldn’t figure out a solution. Also learned today that it was Jim Playfair who was running the penalty kill in Coyotes, and he’s rumored to be joining the Oilers.

The Oilers made some changes to their coaching staff today, parting ways with Manny Viveiros, who was the eye-in-the-sky and had a history of powerplay success prior to joining the Oilers, as well as Trent Yawney who was responsible for the defenecmen and the penalty kill.

Couple thoughts on this. My expectations of the penalty kill under Yawney were low considering his teams in Anaheim were awful at limiting shots and relied heavily on John Gibson. And his results in Edmonton were poor, so it’s not surprising to see him leave. As for Viveiros, it’s disappointing to see someone who could have given the team a different perspective on the powerplay and possibly share new ideas depart. We don’t know for sure what influence he had on the Oilers powerplay last season, which was solid.

Speaking of powerplays, I went back and looked at how well the Coyotes did with the man-advantage under Tippett. Below are the rates of goals-for per hour (actual results), along with the underlying shot metrics which gives us a sense of (a) if the team’s success or failure was real or not and (b) what impact the coaching staff had. I’m of the belief that you don’t need star talent to generate shots and chances on the powerplay, but rather solid tactics that can drive offensive opportunities. And you can get a good sense of what influence the coaches have by looking at the rate of Fenwick (i.e., unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances) per hour and shots per hour.

Season Goals for/60 Fenwick for/60 Shots for/60 Shooting%
2009/10 5.26 – 28th 64.65 – 28 45.77 – 29th 11.50 – 24th
2010/11 5.82 – 21st 68.06 – 21st 48.07 – 24th 12.11 – 19th
2011/12 4.67 – 30th 60.07 – 30th 40.55 – 29th 11.53 – 25th
2012/13 5.41 – 24th 63.45 – 23rd 44.61 – 23rd 12.14 – 21st
2013/14 7.44 – 4th 79.49 – 5th 54.5 – 10th 13.66 – 9th
2014/15 7.16 – 7th 81.06 – 4th 56.79 – 7th 12.60 – 14th
2015/16 6.38 – 19th 71.58 – 19th 51.37 – 16th 12.41 – 14th
2016/17 5.81 – 25th 64.87 – 25th 44.98 – 26th 12.93 – 15th

Looking at the actual results (i.e., the rate goals-for per hour), there were only two seasons of the eight when the Coyotes powerplay ranked top ten league wide – 2013/14 and 2014/15. And in those two seasons, their success was real as they ranked in the top five when it came to the rate of scoring chances, and top ten when it came to shots on goal.

Every other season, they ranked poorly when it came to shots and scoring chances, which played a big role in their actual results (goals-for) You could point to the lack of finishing talent and injuries along the way, but if your tactics aren’t enabling offensive chances, you’re not going to find success.

Worth noting that the Coyotes found success on the powerplay after they hired Newell Brown as an assistant coach. In his first two season with the Coyotes (2013/14-2014/15), the team did well generating shots and scoring chances, but then in his last two seasons with the team (2015/16-2016/17) things dropped off. I’d be curious to know what happened there, which coaches were involved and what influence Tippett had on the decision-making.

The results on special teams weren’t great in Arizona, and it’s especially concerning that the underlying shot metrics that the coaching staff have a bigger influence on were poor for the most part. It begs the question what metrics the new Oilers coach looks at and how he tests his methods over time – a critical component of analytics.

More importantly, Tippett’s past results emphasize the importance of establishing an analytics department that could support the coaching staff’s decision-making process – not only by collecting the data the coaching staff values but also testing the validity and reliability of it. It’ll be imperative that the Oilers invest in a group of people that can support the full hockey operations – including roster construction, drafting, player development and salary cap management. But especially the coaching staff responsible for optimizing the roster and their decision making around tactics and player deployment.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Behind the Benches

Penalty kill expectations

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Digging through Arizona’s on-ice results with Dave Tippett behind the bench, I was expecting, and really hoping, that his special teams numbers would have been average-to-good – especially the penalty kill. The Oilers have had dreadful results shorthanded, and it’s an area that will have to improve if the team wants to compete for a playoff spot.

Unfortunately, the penalty kill results over the course of eight seasons under Tippett were poor. Only twice did the Coyotes post a goals-against rate that ranked in the top ten league wide – 2009/10 and 2011/12. And those were largely due to outstanding goaltending performances from Ilya Bryzgalov as the club ranked near the bottom of the league when it came to the rate of unblocked shot attempts against (i.e., Fenwick, a proxy for scoring chances) and shots-on-goal against. Six of the eight seasons, the Coyotes would rank near the bottom of the league when it came to the rate of goals against.

Below is a summary of the Coyotes penalty kill, including goals, Fenwick and shots. Included is the team’s ranking in the league.

Season Goals against/60 Fenwick Against/60 Shots against/60
2009/10 5.66 – 6th 77.51 – 24th 54.51 – 19th
2010/11 8.12 – 26th 89.35 – 30th 63.84 – 30th
2011/12 5.2 – 8th 79.6 – 29th 55.62 – 27th
2012/13 7.53 – 22nd 70.24 – 20th 49.63 – 19th
2013/14 7.73 – 27th 77.97 – 22nd 57.36 – 21st
2014/15 8.42 – 29th 86.39 – 30th 62.69 – 30th
2015/16 8.09 – 28th 71.9 – 10th 50.79 – 12th
2016/17 8.29 – 26th 80.98 – 27th 53.84 – 16th

While the coach can’t control the goalies performance on the penalty kill, they do have a big impact on the structure to prevent the rate of shots and scoring chances against. Coaches are significant drivers on special teams, and their influence can be detected using the shot-based metrics.

And that’s what I found surprising looking at the Coyotes’ numbers. I had thought the penalty kill results (i.e., goals against) were driven by poor goaltending. But looking at the shot metrics, it appears the team did a poor job preventing scoring chances and shots against. The Coyotes were regularly allowing a higher than normal rate of shots, making me wonder what exactly the Coyotes coaching staff was thinking when assessing their results and making adjustments. They had eight seasons to correct things, so it’s a little concerning that they weren’t only bad league-wide, but consistently bad.

I’m doubtful that it was a lack of talent that drove these results – the Coyotes had the “grit” and role players that often find success shorthanded. So I’d really be curious to know what information Tippett and his staff were looking at over those years and how they came to decisions regarding tactics and deployment. It’ll be interesting to see how Tippett fills out his coaching staff this off-season, and what he has in store for the penalty kill.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

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.

Recommended:

Thoughts on the Oilers’ GM search

edmonton-oilers

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.