Evaluating the evaluation

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Before they look for goaltending again, Oilers management needs to review their previous evaluation and decision-making methods.

One of the most important parts about decision-making, especially when you’re spending significant money or assets to achieve a specific goal, is the evaluation that follows it. It’s standard business practice in the corporate world when CEO’s work to maximize the value of an entity and try to find any sort edge over their competition. Scrutinizing internal processes, finding strengths and deficiencies and re-calibrating things is a critical component when building a sustainable product.

The same approach to evaluating decision-making has to apply in professional hockey. When every corner of the roster needs to be optimized for maximum value under a salary cap system, it’s critical that teams know if their roster decisions led to positive outcomes and, just as importantly, know if their methods behind the decision process was adequate and how it can be improved going forward. With a large pool of players and a limited number of roster spots, teams are faced with recurring decisions regarding their roster construction – so refining their decision-making methods has to be top of mind.

The Edmonton Oilers are facing one of those recurring decisions, that many teams are facing this off-season, as they’ll be searching for a goaltender to potentially start a significant number of games in the upcoming year. The Oilers goalie depth chart features Mikko Koskinen, a 32 year old with 101 NHL games on his resume, and under contract for two more seasons at $4.5 million per year, along with a group of goalie prospects that have a range of potential. This list currently includes Ilya Konovalov (age 22), Olivier Rodrigue (20), Stuart Skinner (21) and Dylan Wells (22).

Koskinen has shown reasonably well as a starter at the NHL level, having now played 93 regular season games and four playoff games for the Oilers since transitioning from the KHL and SM-liiga in 2018. Among 53 goaltenders who have played at least 70 games over the last three seasons (approximately 3,000 minutes between 2017/18 and 2019/20), Koskinen’s even-strength (5v5) save percentage of 91.9% ranks 36th overall, while his goals-saved above average of -2.52 ranks 35th. The average team save percentage at even-strength over the same time period has been 92.04%, so it’s safe to say Koskinen has been a league-average goalie for the Oilers.

Considering how teams, especially in the west where travel is onerous, are moving away from a starter-backup approach to deploying goalies to more of a tandem where they can split ice-time more evenly, it’s important for the Oilers to continue doing the same. While Koskinen has provided decent netminding for the team, we know from a 2014 research article at Hockey Graphs that goaltender performance declines with age, especially after age 30 – and it’s beneficial for both Koskinen and the team if he has more time to rest between starts.

When the Oilers looked for a goalie last summer to split time with Koskinen, they signed Mike Smith, a 37 year old netminder at the time with 571 games of experience. How much time and effort was put into the analysis that led to this decision is unknown. But what we do know is that their approach to finding an NHL-caliber goaltender this off-season has to be considerably better.

Smith’s results as an Oiler were poor, which wasn’t surprising as the probability of goalies posting save percentages below league average levels increases after age 30 and accelerates after age 35. For more details about goalie aging curves, I’d recommend checking out this 2014 research article from Hockey Graphs.

This past season, Smith posted one of the worst save percentages in the league at even-strength (90.0%), ranking 52nd out of 54 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes, or about 24 games, and allowed the fourth highest rate of goals against per hour (2.92). His individual performance was a big reason why the Oilers overall team save perentage was 25th in the league with 91.23%, allowing the sixth highest rate of goals-against, 2.72 per hour. That rate is slightly worse than what the Oilers allowed in 2017/18 when they allowed the eighth highest rate of goals (2.60 per hour) and and 2018/19 when they allowed the ninth highest rate (2.65 per hour). For context, the league average rate of goals against per hour over the last three seasons has been 2.45.

What management should hopefully be aware of is the fact that the Oilers allowed close to the league average rate of expected goals against. Expected goals measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. So while the actual rate of goals against the Oilers was 2.72 this past season, based on the variables from the shot data, the expected rate of goals against was 2.36 – slightly above the league average rate of 2.30.

2020-08-14_16-23-09

Put another way, had the Oilers allowed the same rate and quality of shots against and received league average goaltending, they would have allowed approximately 136 goals at even-strength this past season. That’s a significant improvement of about 21 goals, (they actually allowed 157), which would translate to approximately three additional wins in the standings. And a key reason why this occurred and cost the Oilers a better spot in the league rankings is squarely on the player that management brought in last summer to shore up the goaltending.

2019/20 (5v5) Smith Koskinen
GP 39 38
TOI 1747.13 1702.87
Shots Against/60 29.09 33.23
Expected Goals Against/60 2.18 (19th) 2.58 (51st)
Save% 90.00% (52nd) 92.40% (23rd)
High Danger Save% 77.60% (52nd) 85.10% (9th)
Goals Against/60 2.92 (51st) 2.54 (34th)

Above is a summary of how the two netminders did for the Oilers in 2019/20 at even-strength. Included for some of the metrics is each goaltenders ranking among the 54 goaltenders who played at least 1,000 minutes this past regular season. What I found interesting was that the team’s rate of expected goals against, which again measures the quality of unblocked shot attempts, was higher when Koskinen was in net than when Smith was. Thankfully Koskinen did reasonably well, ranking 23rd overall among his peers with a 92.40% save percentage, just slightly above league average levels.

Whatever methods that the Oilers management used to determine that Smith was going to improve the team’s chances of winning games has to be under immediate scrutiny by someone in the organization. The publicly available data and research into goaltending made it clear that the probability of Smith posting league average numbers was low, which begs the question: what data and information and process was the team basing such an important decision on? What metrics were used and how well do these metrics correlate with targeted outcomes? Did they set out benchmarks and key performance indicators to measure their decision? How did the Oilers evaluate the probability of the player’s performance? Whose opinions were involved?

There has to be some level of accountability and proper evaluation of these key decisions – and it should come from someone outside of the hockey operations department. Preferably, above the general manager’s office, if Bob Nicholson has the motivation and courage to do so, or even an external consultant to ensure whatever the findings are can be actioned upon. The reality is that the second place finish in the division could be masking Smith’s poor goaltending performance, as Holland stated in his end of season media availability that goaltending was a strength. And there doesn’t appear to be any motivation for the general manager to dissect the goaltending decision from the 2019 off-season, leaving the team at risk of repeating the same mistake.

To improve their chances of landing a reliable goaltender this off-season and contend for the playoffs, it’s imperative that the Oilers evaluate how the decision was made to sign Smith last summer. The methods that were used were clearly flawed and it’s critical that management explore new ways – using data analysis, scouting and possibly an outside perspective – to evaluate goaltenders.

Data: Natural Stat TrickHockey Reference

Glossary:

  • Expected goals: Measures the quality of the unblocked shots taken, and assigns a value to it depending on the probability of it becoming a goal. Key variables include the type of shot taken, where it was taken from and compares it to historical shot and goal data to determine the value. (Natural Stat Trick)
  • Goals saved above average – the goals this goalie prevented give his save percentage and shots faces vs. the league average save percentage on the same number of shots. Minimum four shots faced per team gamed needed to qualify (Hockey Reference)

Article also posted at The Copper & Blue.

Reviewing the Oilers performance against Chicago

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Disappointing end to the Oilers season but it wasn’t completely unexpected. As great as their regular season was, the Oilers were a flawed team and their late season results weren’t that significantly better than Chicago’s. Combine that with the randomness that comes with playoff hockey and the fact that there was a four month layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of qualifying round it’s hard to be too upset.

Related articles:

While we can’t and shouldn’t make long term projections based on the series loss to Chicago, or ridiculous characterizations of the team and individual players, we can still highlight the actual results to see what the Oilers did well and where they struggled. Long-term projections that inform the decision-making process around roster construction always needs to rely on larger sample sizes. In this case, focus on the 2019/20 regular season results rather than four games in August.

For now, I want to focus on the results from the qualifying round.

The Oilers were outscored 16-15 by the Blackhawks, scoring five goals on the powerplay and allowing four shorthanded. At even-strength, they scored 10 goals, a rate of 3.28 goals per 60, which would rank them 6th among all teams, and 4th among teams that were playing in a qualifying round. Unfortunately, they also allowed 12 goals at even-strength, a rate of which was second highest among all teams.

The Oilers powerplay was solid, scoring five times in just under 30 minutes of ice time, a rate of 10.38 goals per hour. That’s just a hair below where they were in the regular season when they finished with a rate of 10.64 goals per hour – an outstanding rate which had them first in the league. They generated 58.13 shots per hour against Chicago, well above the regular season league average rate of 53.62 (over the last three seasons), which is around where they were in the regular season. And they converted about the same percentage of shots into goals, posting a 17.86% shooting percentage, which is slightly below their ridiculous 20.27% shooting percentage from the regular season.

The Oilers penalty kill on the other hand, was not as good as it was in the regular season. Allowing four goals in just under 30 minutes translates to a rate of 8.56 goals against per hour, well above their regular season rate of 5.15, second best in the league. A big reason for this was the amount of shots the Oilers allowed, one of the highest among all playoff teams with 64.21. The Oilers goaltenders were fine shorthanded posting a save percentage of 86.67%, which is right around the regular season league average rate of 86.59%. This was however below the Oilers league-leading save percentage of 90.61% in the regular season – not entirely surprising considering both goalies posted league average save percentages in their careers prior to this season.

Where the goalies really let the team down was at even-strength, as the Oilers posted a team save percentage of 85.88% – worst among all teams competing in the playoffs. What’s especially frustrating is that the Oilers did a pretty good job at controlling the flow of play, posting a Corsi For% of 53.52% over the four games and out-chancing the Blackhawks posting a Fenwick For% of 52.91%. And the Oilers did a decent job limiting the shots against (28.87 per hour, 7th best among all teams) and unblocked shot attempts against (a proxy for scoring chances) with 38.45 per hour, 6th best among all teams. Yes there were defensive breakdowns and missed assignments in their own zone, but the goaltending was by far the biggest issue allowing goals from low-danger areas of the ice.

Worth noting too that the Oilers goaltending at even-strength was one of the worst in the league during the regular season, ranking 25th overall with a 91.23% team save percentage. Among 54 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes at even-strength during the regular season, Mike Smith ranked 52nd with a 90.00% save percentage and 53rd when it came to goals-saved above average (GSAA) with -16.26. Koskinen was much better and closer to league average levels ranking 21st among the group with a 92.40% save percentage and 20th in terms of GSAA with +4.53. We knew this going into the playoffs, making the decision to start Smith in game one of the series even more perplexing.

What’s also interesting is how the Oilers forward group did in the qualifying round, with coach Tippett electing to run McDavid and Nugent Hopkins as a pair on one line with rotating wingers, and Draisaitl and Yamamoto as pair on another line. Observers are fair to question why Tippett didn’t unite the trio of Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto who posted a ridiculous 77.78% goal-share at even-strength, out-scoring opponents 28-8 in 317 minutes of ice-time in the regular season, but only played a few together against Chicago. But digging into the numbers a little more, it’s difficult to criticize Tippett when his lines actually did well against the Blackhawks, posting strong shot-share metrics, including the bottom six forwards which I was initially very skeptical about.

Metrics Draisaitl + Yamamoto McDavid + RNH Bottom six
TOI 42.43 41.57 59.05
TOI/GP 10.61 10.39 14.76
Corsi For% 49.18 56.33 56.33
Fenwick For% 52.65 52.95 56.16
Expected Goals For% 60.03 57.86 59.97
Goals For% 33.33 37.50 50.00
Sh% 8.95 12.52 2.93
Sv% 81.04 78.37 95.94

With McDavid and RNH on the ice, (no Draisaitl or Yamamoto), the Oilers posted a Fenwick For percentage of 52.95% in about 42 minutes of ice time. And they scored 4.31 goals per hour, which is well above McDavid’s on-ice rate from the regular season (3.52 goals per hour). But due to the goaltending, and a 78.37% on-ice save percentage, they were outscored by Chicago posting a goal-share of 37.50%.

Similar thing happened when Draisaitl and Yamamoto were on the ice without McDavid or RNH. The Oilers posted a Fenwick For percentage of 52.65% in about 42 minutes of ice time with them on the ice, but only came away with a 33.33% goal-share. They struggled to score, posting a slightly below average on-ice shooting percentage of 8.95%, but it was really the goaltending that sunk them as their on-ice save percentage was 81.04%.

And in about 59 minutes of ice time at even-strength without McDavid, RNH, Draisailt or Yamamoto the Oilers bottom-six forwards posted a Fenwick For percentage of 56.16%, which is just outstanding. Unfortunately, the best they could do was score one goal. The key takeaway from all of this is that the Oilers were spending more time with the puck and keeping play in the offensive zone – all the things teams need to do to give themselves a chance to out-score opponents and win games. Reviewing the underlying shot-share metrics, it’s hard to criticize how Tippett constructed his line combinations.

While we can’t project much from the four game-series, it’s still important to look at the actual results and the underlying on-ice metrics to gauge what went well and what didn’t. It’s easy to point to the lack of “intensity”, and “leadership” and develop narratives about the Oilers needing to “learn how to win”. The challenge is to look past the noise, identify what the key issues were in the playoffs and the regular season, and act on actual facts based on coaching tactics, player performance and numbers when making roster decisions this off-season. This requires effort and courage and sound decision-making processes – and hopefully Oilers management is up for the challenge.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

 

CBC Radio Active: Oilers post mortem

cbc edmonton logoI joined Ken Dawson on CBC Radio Active on Monday to talk about the Oilers series against the Blackhawks and the upcoming off-season. Full segment is here: CBC Radio Active (2020, August 10).

Topics we covered:

  • The key issues for the Oilers loss against the Blackhawks, including the goaltending and their defensive play.
  • Some of the coaching decisions around the line combinations and how it impacted the outcome.
  • What the Oilers need to address in the off-season, and which players may need to be moved to clear up some cap space.
  • The 2020 NHL entry draft, and how the Oilers can address their prospect pool.
  • The NHL playoffs, which team impressed in the first week and who we expect to see in the finals.

Big thank you to everyone at CBC for putting it all together!

 

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 15 – Scott Powers

3000by3000 (1)My guest this week is Scott Powers, senior writer for The Athletic – Chicago!

Scott has extensive experience covering the sports scene in Chicago and joins me to preview the upcoming qualifier series between the Blackhawks and Oilers.

We discussed a number of topics including the strengths and weaknesses of Chicago, how they finished the regular season, key drivers on the roster that could make an impact and how their line-up could match up with the Oilers.

Full segment below:

The SuperFan Podcast – Sunil Agnihotri · The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 15 – Scott Powers

Related articles:

Podcast channels:

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

CBC Alberta at Noon: Oilers, Flames and the NHL’s return to play

cbc edmonton logoHad the pleasure of joining guest-host Jim Brown on CBC’s Alberta at Noon radio program on Monday afternoon. Along with freelance writer Vikki Hall, we discussed the NHL’s return-to-play plan.

Full segment is here: CBC Alberta at Noon (2020, July 27)

Key topics we covered:

  • Leading up to phase four of the return to play plan, what our expectations were and our thoughts on how things have rolled out thus far.
  • Key storylines in Edmonton and Calgary heading into their qualifier series against Chicago and Winnipeg, respectively.
  • The feeling in Edmonton about being a hub city and the limited benefits to the city and its residents for hosting.
  • The impact of playing in a bubble on the players and how their performance might be impacted by the season’s pause.
  • How the NHL aims to prevent outbreaks and what we expect would happen if a positive case is found.
  • What the fan experience will be like and the NHL’s opportunity to grow the game.
  • Our expectations of the Oilers and Flames, and which team we expect to go further in the playoffs.

Big thanks to CBC and the wonderful team that put it all together!

Powering up in Chicago

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Could Chicago’s powerplay become a factor in their qualifier series against Edmonton? A look into their regular season struggles and some of the key underlying issues.

One of the storylines coming out of Chicago’s training camp ahead of their playoff series against the Oilers is around getting their powerplay going, which was one of the league’s worst in the 2019/20 regular season. The Blackhawks ranked 28th in the NHL scoring only 5.31 goals per hour, ahead of only the Senators, Red Wings and Ducks. And they were well behind the Oilers who finished first in the league scoring over ten goals per hour, which was a major factor in their second place finish in the Pacific.

Below are the top five and bottom five teams when it came to goals scored per hour (GF/60) on the powerplay this past regular season. I’ve included for each team their rate of unblocked shot attempts or Fenwick per hour (FF/60), a proxy for scoring chances, the actual shots on goal per hour (SF/60) as well as the team shooting percentage. At the bottom of the table I’ve also included the league average rates for each metric over the previous three seasons for additional context.

Rank Team FF/60 SF/60 GF/60 SH%
1 Edmonton Oilers 71.21 52.46 10.64 20.27
2 Boston Bruins 80.47 57.41 9.19 16.01
3 St Louis Blues 73.17 53.98 8.97 16.61
4 Vancouver Canucks 72.12 51.99 8.54 16.42
5 Carolina Hurricanes 80.50 58.87 8.33 14.16
27 Columbus Blue Jackets 66.88 52.55 5.70 10.84
28 Chicago Blackhawks 67.86 50.17 5.31 10.58
29 Ottawa Senators 69.83 47.38 5.12 10.80
30 Detroit Red Wings 58.71 41.53 5.09 12.26
31 Anaheim Ducks 64.41 47.91 4.79 10.00
League average, 2016-19 74.81 53.57 7.07 13.20

The fact that the Blackhawks could only muster 33 goals with the man-advantage – and on top of that allowed eight shorthanded goals (tied for 7th highest in the league) – is definitely troubling for a club that actually broke even when it came to scoring at even-strength (5v5) and had the ninth best penalty kill in the league, allowing 6.34 goals per hour. Put another way, had their powerplay converted their shots into goals at even a league average rate (13.20%) instead of 10.58%, they would have scored 41 powerplay goals instead of 33. An additional eight goals would have boosted their overall goal differential from -6 to +2, and likely much closer to a wild card spot. Thanks to the playoff format they still made it, and key players like Kirby Dach recognize the importance of having an efficient powerplay heading into a competitive tournament.

“I think power plays in the playoffs are a huge thing to gain momentum,” he said. “As a group of power-play players, we know that the regular season was kind of unacceptable and that we have a lot of growth to do there to help our team win. I think the way we’re moving the puck now and making plays, hopefully it can all come together and be a factor for us against Edmonton.” (Source: NBC Sports – Chicago)

Aside from their terrible team shooting percentage on the powerplay, the Blackhawks also had issues generating scoring chances and shots on goal this past season, ranking in the bottom ten league-wide and well below league average rates. And it was an issue all season long as the club didn’t appear to make any significant changes to their overall tactics or player deployment that would have perhaps increased their odds of scoring. Another potential reason for their lack of scoring chances could be that over 25% of their shot attempts on the powerplay came from defenceman, typically from areas of the ice with a low probability of goal-scoring. In contrast, less than 18% of the Oilers shot attempts on the powerplay came from defencemen, as we know the club often moved the puck into higher danger areas where the forwards could do their magic.

What’s interesting is that closer to the end of the season the Blackhawks did start generating closer to league-average rates of unblocked shot attempts, which really isn’t too far off from where the Oilers finished their season when it came to the same metric. The difference of course is that the Oilers’ top players were prolific converting their chances into goals, with players like McDavid, Draisaitl leading the way scoring over 40 points and getting support from the likes of Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom, Neal and Chiasson.

Chicago wasn’t as fortunate, as some of their key contributors from the 2018/19 season didn’t perform nearly as well. In the previous season the Blackhawks powerplay finished 13th in the league scoring 7.26 goals per hour and generating just over 71.0 unblocked shot attempts per hour – both numbers being right around league average. That season, Kane led the way with 30 points, Debrincat had 24 points and Toews had 23 .

This past season, Kane continued to lead the way scoring at about the same rate of points per hour (5.33) as he did in 2018/19 (5.99) but seeing a slight dip in his own rate of shots for per hour, finishing the season with 23 points. Debrincat saw his total rate of points per hour drop from 5.38 to 3.97 per hour, due in large part to his personal shooting percentage dropping from 25.0% to 21.74%. Worth noting too that Debrincat’s even-strength shooting percentage took a much more significant dive down to 4.76%, which may be an outlier considering that in 2017/18 he shot 12.68% in 82 games and in 2018/19 he shot 15.29 in 82 games. Can probably expect that to turnaround eventually, at even-strength and on the powerplay, maybe even after a three month layoff.

The player of most interest, to me at least, is Toews who scored only one powerplay goal and assisted on seven in 2019/20. He was getting around the same amount of ice time and generating the same rate of shots on goals, but just couldn’t convert on his chances posting a personal shooting percentage of only 2.63%. That’s a major drop considering that his personal shooting percentage over the previous five seasons on the powerplay had been 13.7%. He’s remained effective at even-strength this year, but for the Blackhawks to be competitive they’ll need their captain to be more productive on the powerplay.

Here’s how the powerplay units are shaping up in training camp (Source), with Kubalik moving up to the first unit and looking to make an impact with increased opportunity. He had an outstanding regular season scoring 30 goals, with 23 at even-strength, but ranked fifth on the team in total powerplay ice time behind Kane, Toews, Debrincat and Strome, and sixth in terms of minutes per game.

  • First PP unit: Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik, Keith
  • Second PP unit: Dylan Strome, Alex DeBrincat, Brandon Saad, Alex Nylander, Adam Boqvist

One other thing to consider is on the Oilers side, where their goaltending on the penalty kill had been outstanding finishing the season with a league-best 90.61% team save percentage. Among 55 goaltenders who played at least 100 minutes shorthanded in 2019/20, Mike Smith ranked first with a 91.80% save percentage, while Koskinen ranked sixth with 90.10%. Both also finished in the top five when it came to goals saved above average. Keep in mind though that Mike Smith’s shorthanded save percentage was 86.5% in his previous three seasons, much closer to league average rates, and Koskinen posted an 85.4% save percentage in his previous 55 games. Both goalies could potentially regress to league average rates and it remains to be seen if the Oilers can control the shots and chances against as they were allowing the ninth highest rates in the league shorthanded over the final twenty five games of the season.

With both teams having plenty of time to watch video and game-planning for one another, it’ll be very interesting to see how each side does on special teams and if the success and failures from their regular seasons carry over to the tournament.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

Depth perception

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One of the key drivers for success in the upcoming playoffs, aside from goaltending, is going to be consistent production from the Oilers depth players at even-strength (5v5). We can expect to see McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins get a regular proportion of ice-time, likely more, and the extra attention from the opposition. And that leaves about 40% of even-strength time that the Oilers depth forwards will have to survive and thrive without them.

This past season, the Oilers as a team were poor at even-strength, posting a goal-share of 47.32%, a -16 goal differential, that ranked them 25th in the league. And it’s well documented how special teams was the key driver for their overall success. Without one of their top three forwards on the ice at even-strength, about 40.1% of the teams total ice time, the Oilers were dreadful posting a goal-share of 38.20%, a -21 goal differential. While the Oilers without their top three forwards did an okay job when it came to the proportion of scoring chances (48.54% Fenwick For% and an expected goal-share  of 49.32%), they could not capitalize on their opportunities posting a shooting percentage of 5.67%. The lack of finishing ability outside of their top players, an ongoing problem for a number of years, has to be of concern to the coaching staff and management.

Edmonton (5v5) TOI% CF% FF% xGF% GF% Goal +/-
With
Stars
59.9% 48.44 48.68 48.61 51.20 +5
Without Stars 40.1% 47.77 48.54 49.32 38.20 -21

How do the Oilers depth players compare with the Blackhawks depth players? Chicago had a similar issue as the Oilers in that their top three players  – Toews, Kane and Kubalik – were the primary drivers of offence with a largely weak roster surrounding them. With one or more of their top three forwards on the ice at even-strength, the Blackhawks posted a goal-share of 52.22%. Without one of the three, they posted a goal-share of 45.05%, a -9 goal differential. We can always expect a team’s results to take a dip without their star players on the ice, but at least the Blackhawks depth wasn’t as poor as the Oilers.

Chicago (5v5) TOI% CF% FF% xGF% GF% Goal +/-
With
Stars
63.0% 47.67 48.62 50.43 52.22 +13
Without Stars 37.0% 47.86 47.26 45.97 45.05 -9

What I also found interesting is that over the final twenty five games of the 2019/20 season, the Blackhawks without their top three forwards posted a goal-share of 54.29% at even-strength, a +3 goal differential in about 40% of the team’s total ice time. And those results appear to have been sustainable as the depth players controlled the flow of play, owning 51.52% of the total shot attempts, and doing a respectable job controlling scoring chances as measured by unblocked shot attempts (50.25% Fenwick For%) and an expected goal-share of 49.80%.

Final 25 (5v5) CF% FF% xGF% GF% Goal +/-
Oilers 48.29 47.33 45.78 34.48 -9
Blackhawks 51.52 50.25 49.8 54.29 +3

The Oilers without their star players at even-strength over the last twenty give games weren’t nearly as good. They posted a goal-share of 34.48%, a -9 goal differential in about 43% of the team’s total ice time. Finishing chances was obviously a regular problem for the Oilers but it also didn’t help that they could only muster a 48.29% Corsi For percentage, a 47.33% Fenwick For percentage and an expected goal-share of 45.78%. If the Oilers have a weakness heading into this playoff series, it’s their even-strength play, especially with their depth forwards on the ice.

Worth monitoring how the Oilers shape up their bottom two lines ahead of the playoffs, and so far it doesn’t look promising. Early on in training camp, Khaira is getting another look at center with Neal and Chiasson on his wings. While the trio did spend about 34 minutes together at even-strenngth, all of which was in the final twenty give games, and outscored opponents 3-0, their possession numbers were dreadful, posting a Corsi For% of 41.49%. They also lost the scoring chance battle quite badly, posting a Fenwick For% of 38.05% and an expected goal-share of 32.94%. Worth repeating again: Khaira cannot play center on an NHL line unless he has a right-handed linemate who can share the centerman duties with him. The Oilers have tried him as the sole center on a line a number of times and the results have never been good. My analysis from last summer when the Oilers coaching staff was prepping for training camp can be found here: Realistic Solutions – The Copper and Blue (2019, August 2).

Also worth noting that the Blackhawks appear to be distributing their talent across their line combinations with their top three players on their own lines. Kubalik, who I think is the most interesting player on the Blackhawks finishing the season with 30 goals, has started training camp on a third line with Dach and Caggiula. Considering that he finished with more even-strength goals (23) than both Draisaitl (22) and McDavid (21) and posted an expected goal-share of 56.18% in over 300 minutes playing away from Toews and Kane, you can start to see what Chicago’s coaching staff might be trying to exploit. Anything can change at the Blackhawks training camp between now and when the qualifying round starts, but it’s worth monitoring how the coaching staff might deploy their top players against an Oilers team with even-strength issues.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

CBC Radio Active: NHL set to return to play

cbc edmonton logoI joined Rod Kurtz on CBC Radio Active today to talk about the NHL’s Return to Play plan and what to expect in the Oilers qualifier series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Full segment is here: CBC Radio Active (2020, July 10).

While it’s exciting to have hockey starting up again, it’s difficult to ignore the health risks these players and team staff members are taking on. The harsh reality is that we’re likely to see players test positive for COVID-19 and there’s no guarantee that the protocols like social distancing and masking along with regular testing will limit the spread of the virus and prevent serious outbreaks. There’s also the mental health impact of playing away from family and friends for an extended period of time in a restricted bubble. And then you have the heightened risk of players getting injured with teams scheduled to play a lot of hockey withing tight time-frames. Make no mistake, this is driven by money, not the “love of the game”. Here’s hoping players and staff stay healthy and avoid the long-term health impacts of the COVID-19 virus.

The actual series between Edmonton and Chicago I think is going to be interesting and could be closer than we’d like to think. The Oilers definitely have the edge when it comes to overall talent and the powerplay, but I think the Blackhawks had some things going for them in the latter half of the season, especially at even-strength.

Over the final twenty-five games of the season, the Oilers went 13-8-4, a points percentage of 0.600 – placing them in the top ten league wide. Chicago wasn’t too far behind and actually posted stronger results with a +11 goal differential compared to Edmonton’s +2. Chicago also did a slightly better job when it came to controlling the flow of play as measured by shot attempts (i.e., Corsi) as well as scoring chances which uses unblocked shot attempts as a proxy.

Final 25 Games (2019/20) Chicago Edmonton
Record 13-10-2 13-8-4
Points% 0.560 (14th) 0.600 (9th)
5v5 – Goal-share 55.05 (7th) 50.93 (14th)
5v5 – Goal-differential +11 +2
5v5 – Corsi For% 50.22 (14th) 49.26 (18th)
5v5 – Fenwick For% 50.42 (14th) 48.83 (21st)
5v5 – Shooting% 8.73 (10th) 9.22 (5th)
5v5 – Save% 92.76 (7th) 91.76 (22nd)

What’s interesting is that while Chicago and Edmonton ranked 19th and 20th respectively when it came to preventing scoring chances, Chicago did a much better job generating scoring chances ranking 6th in the league while Edmonton ranked 22nd. The other area where I think Chicago has the slight edge is in net, which plays a significant role in the playoffs. Edmonton finished the season 14th overall with a 90.55% team save percentage at all strengths, while Chicago finished 6th with 91.30%.

The other area where Chicago did well with consistently was their penalty kill, which finished ninth best in the league when it came to the rate of goals against with 6.34 per hour. And that was due in large part to their goaltending, which ranked third in the league when it came to save percentage shorthanded. The fact that Chicago got consistent goaltending throughout the season, and the fact that the Oilers struggled to generate offence in the latter part of the season should be of concern and will hopefully be recognized and addressed by the coaching staff during training camp.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Re-connecting

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With the NHL planning to open training camps on July 10th and a playoff format in place, I needed a refresher on how the regular season finished. Mind you, because of the gap between when the season finished due to the pandemic and when the playoffs will hopefully start, it’s pretty much a whole new season. Players have fallen out of their regular season rhythms (i.e., hot streaks, cold streaks), they’ve had time to recover from injuries sustained during the regular season. And coaches are now preparing for playoff competition, which will likely require them to adjust their overall tactics.

Having said that, it’s still worthwhile to see how the Edmonton Oilers finished in relation to the rest of the Western conference, what their strengths and weaknesses were and what progress the franchise made from last season. All of this has to be factored in when continuously making decisions worth millions of dollars, with a championship being the ultimate goal.

From a high-level, we know the Oilers were a good team this season, finishing second in the Pacific division collecting 83 points in 71 games – a respectable 0.585 points percentage. Anything over 0.600 in a regular season, and you’re top 10 in the league and considered a legitimate contender – and the Oilers were close finishing 12th overall. Their +8 goal differential (all situations) was tied for sixth best in the Western conference and third in the Pacific with Arizona.

Here’s how the Oilers compared against the rest of the Western conference. Included in the table is each team’s shot-share numbers at even-strength (5v5) to get a sense of how well they controlled the flow of play and possession (i.e., Corsi For%) and scoring chances (i.e., Fenwick For%), as well as their actual results (i.e., goal-share). I’ve also included each team’s net rate of goals for and against per hour, both on the powerplay and penalty kill, which factors in shorthanded goals. I’ve applied a basic heat map (green is good, red is bad) and sorted the teams by points percentage.

West20192020

Now we know one of the biggest drivers for the Oilers success this season was their exceptional special teams, as the club finished first in the league on the powerplay scoring 10.64 goals per hour (59 goals-for, 10 goals-against), and second on the penalty kill allowing 5.15 goals against per hour (3 goals-for, 31 goals-against). For context, over the last three seasons prior to 2019/20, the league average rate of goals-for per hour was 7.07 on the powerplay, and about the same rate of goals against on the penalty kill (7.09). The Oilers powerplay generated a slightly below-average rate of unblocked shot attempts, but converted 20.0% of their shots into goals thanks to their high-end skilled forwards. And the penalty kill while allowing the ninth highest rate of unblocked shots against in the league, had the best team save percentage in the league shorthanded (90.61%).

The Oilers were very dependent on their special teams tactics and individual players to bail out their poor even-strength (5v5) results. They finished the season with a -16 goal differential at even-strength, a goals-for percentage of 47.32% (25th in the league) only ahead of the California teams, Ottawa, New Jersey and Detroit. Had the Oilers generated the same number of shots and instead posted a league average team shooting percentage on the powerplay (13.3% over the previous three seasons), they would have scored roughly 20 fewer goals. And had the goaltending been average on the penalty kill, they would have allowed another 13 goals. So instead of a +8 all-situations goal-differential, they’d be at -25 and in the bottom of the league contending for another lottery pick. I know special teams play only makes up about 20% of a team’s total playing time, but boy, it can cover up a lot of deficiencies and make or break an entire regular season.

What’s interesting is that while the goal-share results were poor, the Oilers even-strength play wasn’t horrible, having posted shot-share numbers closer to 50% at certain points after the new year. Below are the Oilers Corsi For percentage and Fenwick For percentage in rolling 25-game segments, as well as the actual goal-share which would took a big dive toward the mid-point of the season and what may have prompted tactical changes by the coaching staff at the Christmas break. Note that game 42 was played on December 31st, 2019 against the Rangers.

RollingCFFFGF

Worth noting that it was on both sides of the puck that the team struggled with early on in the season, and we can’t say for certain that it was completely resolved as they had some issues generating and preventing shot attempts over the final twenty-five games. Below is the team’s rate of unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick, a proxy for scoring chances) for and against at even-strength over 25-game segments. The gray line indicates the league average rate of unblocked shot attempts for and against from the previous three seasons. Note that allowing 44.00 unblocked shot attempts per hour would have a team in the bottom five league-wide, and the Oilers were one of the worst at preventing chances early in the season and were trending upwards before the league shut down.

RollingFF

So shot-share metrics were mediocre and goal-share results were poor – so what was driving the poor results? Turns out it was really their goaltending at even-strength that sunk them early in the season and cost them games. Below is the team’s shooting and save percentage over rolling 25-game segments to show the input players had on the Oilers actual results (i.e., goal-share) at even-strength.

RollingPDO

The Oilers team shooting percentage was consistent all year, finishing 13th in the league with 8.43%. Over the previous three seasons, league average shooting percentage has been 7.43%. The team’s save percentage on the other hand, was one of the weak points of the team. The Oilers finished the 2019/20 season with a 91.23 save percentage, 25th overall. Note that over the previous three seasons, the league average team save percentage at even-strength has been 92.17%. Heading into the end of 2019, they had hit a league-worst 89.0% save percentage, which, to the goaltenders’ credit, they did bounce back from posting league average numbers over the final twenty five games of the season.

If the Oilers want to be serious contenders, they need consistent, league average goaltending at even-strength and should be incorporating as much information and data as possible to their off-season decision-making process around the position. That and addressing their poor results at even-strength has to be a focus for management as they can’t count on special teams posting historical numbers every season. And more importantly, they can’t be blinded by the overall success and overlook their roster weaknesses, like the bottom six, and be willing to move out assets if it means making even incremental gains elsewhere. This isn’t a complete roster, and there’s plenty of work to get done this off-season if they ever want to contend for a championship.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

The SuperFan Podcast – Episode 14 – Cameron Thomson (@ThomsonCam)

3000by3000 (1)My guest this week: Cameron Thomson!

We discussed the Oilers progress this season, how they did at the trade deadline and how we see the Pacific division and western conference shaking out. We also dug into the roster construction, areas that need to be addressed and how the Oilers should approach the off-season.

Full segment below:

 

Podcast channels:

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