Early days

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Great start for the Edmonton Oilers, opening the season on a five-game winning streak, sitting third in the league with a 0.833% points percentage with ten points and a +6 overall goal-differential (22 goals-for, 16 goals-against)

By far the biggest driver for their success has been the special teams, as the Oilers powerplay has been dynamite scoring eight goals and producing at a rate of 15.32 goals per hour, second only to the Sabres. And the penalty kill has been very effective, allowing only one  goal in the first six games, a rate of 1.75 goals against per hour, second only to the Golden Knights.

Even-strength (5v5) remains a work in progress, with the team ranking 19th overall in terms of goal-share with 48.0% (12 goals-for, 13 goals-against). McDavid, Draisaitl, Neal and Kassian – all playing regular minutes in the top six – have combined for 19 of the 22 total goals. The bottom six is struggling badly right now, producing only one goal – which came off the stick of Nygard in four-on-four action.

What’s especially troubling is just how bad the Oilers have been in just under 100 minutes without McDavid, Draisaitl, Neal, Kassian and Nugent-Hopkins on the ice at even-strength. In that time, which makes up approximately 33% of the total even-strength time played over six games, the Oilers have posted a 20.0% goals-for percentage (1 goal-for, 4 goals-against), a Corsi For percentage (proxy for possession) of 43.89% and a Fenwick For percentage (proxy for scoring chances) of 47.84%. Keep in mind too that the competition is gradually going to get better, making it critical that the coaching staff identify issues early-on and find reasonable solutions to rectify it.

What I’ll be most interested this season is how well the special teams, especially the powerplay, can boost the overall goal-differential, especially if the scoring depth remains an issue. To track this and set a few baselines for the Oilers, I looked at the last three seasons (all 92 teams) and focused on the top twenty teams in terms of goals for per hour.

Team Season Points Point % CF/60 FF/60 SF/60 GF/60 SH%
Tampa Bay 1819 128 0.780 90.79 70.63 50.33 10.89 21.64
Boston 1819 107 0.652 99.06 77.78 52.82 9.95 18.84
Florida Panthers 1819 86 0.524 101.10 78.89 56.55 9.93 17.56
Pittsburgh 1718 100 0.610 99.27 75.57 56.75 9.77 17.22
Toronto 1718 105 0.640 117.53 90.13 64.09 9.47 14.78
Winnipeg 1819 99 0.604 100.36 79.71 55.71 9.02 16.19
Buffalo Sabres 1617 78 0.476 106.60 80.85 60.29 8.95 14.84
Pittsburgh 1819 100 0.610 87.00 65.60 51.34 8.87 17.28
Winnipeg 1718 114 0.695 100.79 77.46 57.16 8.84 15.46
Tampa Bay 1718 113 0.689 108.87 82.15 56.11 8.73 15.55
Boston 1718 112 0.683 101.85 78.57 58.85 8.71 14.81
Toronto 1617 95 0.579 107.19 83.39 58.69 8.68 14.80
San Jose 1819 101 0.616 106.95 83.05 59.45 8.62 14.50
Washington 1617 118 0.720 107.41 81.12 53.93 8.47 15.70
Pittsburgh 1617 111 0.677 100.55 76.15 57.54 8.46 14.71
Tampa Bay 1617 94 0.573 98.40 74.04 53.63 8.44 15.74
NY Islanders 1718 80 0.488 95.62 72.83 56.39 8.37 14.83
Washington 1718 105 0.640 99.58 76.58 57.05 8.32 14.59
Edmonton 1617 103 0.628 107.18 77.86 55.72 8.21 14.74
Vancouver 1718 73 0.445 98.65 71.95 52.19 7.99 15.32

What’s interesting is that of the top twenty powerplay teams over the past three seasons, only four finished their years with less than 90 points. Powerplays won’t get a team to that total alone, but it’s a massive boost especially if depth players can produce at even-strength and the penalty kill isn’t an anchor.

Looking at the average rates among the this top twenty list, I would set the goals for the 2019/20 Oilers as this:

  • Goals-for per hour: 8.93
  • Corsi-for per hour: 101.74
  • Fenwick-for per hour: 77.72
  • Shots-for per hour: 56.23

I don’t think it’s too much to ask considering the talent level on this team. Having McDavid alone should drive results, but now the Oilers also have a former 50-goal scorer in Draisaitl. The team will need to stay healthy, and hopefully Neal and others like Chiasson, who have had success in the past, can contribute and potentially give the second powerplay unit a different look.

Worth noting that after six games, the Oilers have posted the following:

  • Goals-for per hour: 15.32
  • Corsi-for per hour: 111.06
  • Fenwick-for per hour: 82.34
  • Shots-for per hour: 59.36

Couple other thoughts after six games:

  • The idea of McDavid and Draisaitl leading the league in ice time per game only makes sense if their performance is being monitored by someone familiar with sports science and load management. If not, then the team is seriously at risk of injuring their star players and jeopardizing the season even further.
  • Despite the early success, it’s critical to keep the long-term goals in mind. The 2019/2020 season remains a transition year, with the team in desperate need of skill and young players on entry-level deals to fill key positions. The overall approach makes sense,  filling the roster with 26-28 year-olds on one-year deals to allow for the prospects to develop. But eventually those prospects need to get an opportunity to secure NHL jobs.
  • Hopefully by the end of the season, we get a good sense of what the criteria is for players to make the transition to the NHL. There should be spots available for players on entry-level deals, perhaps on the second or third line wing at even-strength with powerplay opportunities, and the third defence pairing. The idea of over-ripening is concerning considering how important it is to identify players early and get as much production as possible from entry-level contracts.
  • While the talent developing in Bakersfield is encouraging, hopefully the Oilers continue to add to the pipeline, creating a sustainable flow of talent and competition that the Oilers desperately need. The harsh reality is that not all of these players are going to pan out and there’s still plenty of uncertainty around roster spots going forward.
  • One last note tied to the powerplay stuff above: if the Oilers can produce well with the man-advantage, it becomes even more important to find and develop players that can draw penalties. It should be McDavid leading theteam, but I suspect players with speed and quickness like Yamamoto and perhaps McLeod can be penalty drawing wizards.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 6 – Reid Wilkins

3000by3000 (1)This week, I was joined by Reid Wilkins, host of Inside Sports and Oilers hockey on 630 CHED radio. Reid shared his experiences covering the Oilers, and his approach to social media and fan engagement. We talked about the early start to the 2019/20 season and some of the key storylines worth following, including the Oilers prospect development, goaltending, coaching impact and more.

Big thank you to Reid for his time and insight. He was also the first person to give me a chance to do a radio spot a few years ago – got to talk stats and analytics back in 2015. 😉

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

Thoughts on the Oilers off-season

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At the end of the 2018/19 season, it was fairly obvious the Edmonton Oilers were in a dire situation. The problems badly outweighed their potential solutions. Resources in terms of cap space and prospects were bleak, and it was clear that the franchise needed more than a summer to become a legitimate championship contender.

And for me, that’s what made the pre-season so much more compelling. Setting aside the fact that the Oilers were heading into a transition period (the length of which is to be determined), training camp and the exhibition games were all about prospects developing and following the progress of a group of unknown, replacement-level players. While vacant positions and line combinations are still largely undecided, this is a group of forwards and defencemen with some good traits and flaws that should make for a fun transition season. They might be good enough to find chemistry, contribute in different game-states and break-even in terms of goal-differential. Or they just might be a worse group of depth players than last season and be out of the league by December. Your guess is as good as anyone else’s.

As Bruce McCurdy pointed out on the podcast, Holland did do a nice job bringing in players on single-year contracts who are also in an age range when NHL players are still productive. Little risk as there’s no long term commitment. If these players emerge as NHL regulars and take on roles and positions that the coaching staff values, great. Negotiate from a position of strength as bottom six options are readily available and sign them to team-friendly deals. And if they don’t sign and have shown value,  flip them for a potential long term asset.

The hope of course is that at least some of these guys grab hold of a spot and give the Oilers some reliable productivity. We don’t have much information or enough to even garner a guess as to who might do what after this pre-season, leaving the Oilers with a lot of uncertainty and the coaching staff with a lot of line juggling to do.

What’s worth considering as we see more and more of guys like Nygard, Haas, Sheahan, Granlund, Jurco and Archibald is just how much better this group is compared to the prospects developing in Bakersfield. I don’t think the difference if far off, as we’ve seen some good things from players like Benson and Marody over the last twelve months. And while I agree that players should spend time in the American league to develop their skills and prepare for NHL competition, teams need to promote players to the National league as soon as they’re ready – and that can be determined by your scouts, underlying data/comparative analysis, and general risk assessments. It’s just imperative that teams leverage as much productivity as they can while a player is on their entry-level deal, and both Marody and Benson have two seasons left before they’re due for new contracts.

In order to get ahead in identifying the talent they have, and finding potential solutions for when the team is actually good, the Oilers should leverage the transition-season they are currently in and get both Benson and Marody in as many NHL games as possible. Ideally, they both get regular minutes this coming season, perhaps in a sheltered, offensive role, and also get some reps on special teams. The end goal is to get as much information on the player as possible to inform your evaluation and risk analysis, extending the assessment over two seasons (targeting 100 NHL games), instead of one. By the summer of 2021, the team would have a good read on both players, and if the players can fill roles, the team has a chance to sign them to long-term, team-friendly deals.

The same issue is happening on the blue line. The coaching staff made their intentions very clear in pre-season, with the coach being quite open about the fact that he wanted Larsson paired with Nurse, and then pairing Klefbom with Persson as often as possible. Russell, Benning and Manning were going to round out spots 5-7. Even if Bouchard, Bear, Lagesson or Jones dominated, management seemed pretty bent on sending them all to the minors for over-ripening – again something that doesn’t make sense if the  management group can determine that the player is ready for NHL competition.

If the team can accept the fact that they’re in a transition period and unlikely to compete for a playoff spot, it’s imperative that they use this time to gather as much information on their prospects as possible. The competition on the Oilers NHL roster isn’t that great, so management might as well use these games to help determine their future plans and start building for a future playoff run.

Data: Cap Friendly

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 5 – WheatNOil

3000by3000 (1)This week on The SuperFan Podcast, WheatNOil joined me to talk Oilers, the pre-season activity and the roster as it stands today. We discussed the young prospects that are competing for roster spots, and what our overall expectations are for the upcoming 2019/20 season. Wheat also shared how he got into hockey and the Edmonton Oilers, and what the connection to the team meant for him and his family. We also talked about what drew us into the online fan community, and what our experiences have been like in the analytics world. Really fun chat, hope to do it again soon.

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

CBC Radio Active: Road to the NHL season begins

cbc edmonton logoI joined host Rod Kurtz on CBC Radio Active to talk all things Oilers. Full segment is here: CBC Radio Active (2019, September 16)

Topics we covered:

  • Upcoming pre-season games and what to expect from the Oilers.
  • Reasonable expectations for James Neal and the bottom six forwards.
  • Tyler Benson, and the importance of his development to the team.
  • The young talent pushing for roster spots on the blue line.

 

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 4 – Dennis King

3000by3000 (1)This week on The SuperFan Podcast, Dennis King joined me to talk Oilers and their off-season management and roster changes. We also discussed the blue line and the young players pushing for roster spots in Edmonton this upcoming year. Dennis has a great eye for the game and shared a lot of insight, it’s well worth a listen. Been a long time follower of Dennis’, happy to have had the chance to chat with him.

Full segment below:

Podcast channels:

Music: Anitek. “Show me.” Anitek Instrumentals Vol. 4, 2010. Jamendo.com

Problem solving

images (1)The Edmonton Oilers finished the 2018/19 regular season as one of the worst teams in the league, posting a -42 goal-differential in all situations, finishing with 79 points and a 0.482 points percentage. Those results were driven by a number of factors, including the following:

  • Poor even-strength (5v5) results, finishing the year with 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.
  • Poor shot-share numbers at even-strength as reflected by their Corsi-for percentage (a proxy for possession) of 47.53% (23rd in the league), and a Fenwick-for percentage (i.e., unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances) of 47.34% (25th in the league). The Oilers were regularly out-shot and out-chanced, and their numbers declined as the season wore on.
  • An inability to generate and sustain offence at even-strength, finishing near the bottom of the league when it came to shot attempts and scoring chances per hour.
  • A lack of scoring talent as the team finished the year with the eighth-lowest total of goals at even-strength (146). The team shooting percentage of 7.68% ranked 21st in the league.
  • A team save percentage of 91.51% at even-strength (25th in the league), despite allowing a league average rate of shot attempts and scoring chances against per hour.
  • Poor production when McDavid was not on the ice, as the Oilers posted a -34 goal differential without their captain (a Goals-for percentage of 40.12%) at even-strength. The shot-share numbers also took a dive, as the team posted a Corsi-for percentage of 46.52% and a Fenwick-for percentage of 46.47%.
  • A dreadful penalty kill that finished 30th in the league allowing 9.21 goals against per hour.

My sense at the end of last season was because of the number of roster issues and the fact that the Oilers lacked cap space and assets, the next general manager would be forced to take a conservative approach to re-building the team and would need to put a stronger emphasis on the draft and prospect development. Roster depth, namely the third and fourth lines, could easily be addressed through free agency both in the national league and overseas. But the challenge in order to legitimately compete for a playoff spot in 2020 would be to find value contracts and maximize each players productivity, ensuring that they can contribute both at even-strength and on special teams. And this could only be done if the team approached roster construction differently, and applied more innovative practices to their decision-making.

Fast forward to September, and despite all of the changes made by the Oilers management, it’s hard to imagine the team performing significantly better than last season and likely well outside of a playoff spot. And that’s mainly because the majority of the issues from the 2018/19 season listed above have not yet been adequately addressed. The team followed a lot of conventional wisdom, continuing on with their standard decision-making processes, leaving plenty of questions marks heading into the regular season.

First off, generating offence and goal-scoring remains a significant issue. The Oilers may have acquired some options to fill out their bottom six, but none of them have experience and historical production playing in offensive situations against top competition. And it’s unlikely the Oilers uncovered a hidden gem that is a lock for 20+ goals, which the Oilers desperately need – especially within the time that McDavid is on the bench. James Neal might be that guy based on his consistency scoring goals, but as I wrote in July, he’s also shown a gradual decline in shot-based metrics over the last few seasons, especially against top competition. Slotting Neal in the top six is a risky proposition based on his recent performance numbers; his best days are likely behind him.

Not only do the new depth players have a significant chance to secure a spot in the top six, but so do young prospects like Tyler Benson and even Kailer Yamamoto who are working towards transitioning to the national league. The downside to them making the jump to the 2019/20 Oilers roster is that they would very often be playing against the other teams best players, potentially stunting their development. Additionally, the Oilers are moving ahead without Jesse Puljujärvi who should have been part of the long-term offensive solution in the top six had the Oilers handled his development better.

The Oilers are also taking a significant risk at such a crucial spot signing 37-year old netminder Mike Smith to a one-year deal. Smith is coming off of a rough 2018/19 season,  one in which he ranked 53rd among sixty goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes (approximately 20 games) with a 0.898 save percentage, and 53rd in goals saved above average (GSAA) with -12.65. While he did end his 2018/19 season on a high-note, we know based on goalie-aging curves that goaltenders don’t tend to improve with age, and that their drop-off grows as they get older. The other issue is Koskinen’s numbers from last season, as he ranked 41st among the same group of sixty goaltenders with a 0.906 save percentage and 49th when it came to GSAA with -6.21. Maybe Koskinen’s numbers improve if he gets more time to rest and if Smith gives the team league-average save percentage when that happens – but that’s a big gamble with not a lot of evidence supporting it. The long-term solution in goal also remains unsolved, with an internally drafted and developed option unavailable for NHL minutes until a season or more down the road.

The other outstanding issue for me is the penalty kill, which cost the Oilers wins last season. The Oilers addition of depth players like Granlund and Archibald – both of whom have penalty experience in the NHL – along with the coaching changes could help the team next season. But I remain skeptical, mainly because Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair didn’t exactly have much success shorthanded in Arizona.

Below is a summary of the Coyotes penalty kill, including goals, Fenwick and shots against per hour. 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

What stands out is not only their rate of goals against per hour, but also the rate of shots and scoring chances against – two areas that a coaching staff can impact depending on the structure they have in place to prevent events that lead to goals happening. As I wrote back in May, the most alarming thing about the Coyotes penalty kill numbers was that the coaching staff didn’t seem to recognize their underlying issues and couldn’t figure out how to fix things over the course of eight seasons. Hopefully they find the right tactics with the right players; they already have enough to worry about at even-strength and in goal.

*****

The fact that the Oilers are heading into the 2019/20 season with this many unresolved problems, at such critical areas, has me wondering if the team has already accepted their fate, resigned to taking another high draft pick and building a real contender next summer (or potentially the summer after that). If the Oilers management team actually thinks they can contend for a playoff spot, they sure are putting a lot of hope in their key performers from last season like Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Chiasson and Nurse having back-to-back career seasons, their goaltenders playing above their expected levels, new depth players contributing, and for their young prospects to make the jump to the NHL and playing significant minutes. I can’t imagine a sane management group having this much confidence in everything going right.

The other issue for me is that the Edmonton Oilers have shown very little interest in thinking outside the box and keeping up with other NHL teams. A key objective for the management team should be to find any sort of edge over the competition in an effort to build a long-term, sustainable winner. But the fact that other NHL teams are establishing sports science/research & development departments and preparing their analytics area for the influx of player tracking data, while the Oilers do little is very concerning. The fact that a lot of the Oilers off-season roster decisions – regardless if this is a re-building/transition year or not – were based largely on standard, conventional thinking really needs to be addressed if this franchise has any hope of becoming a championship contender.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.