Off-season roundtable

Took part in a Q&A/roundtable over at The Copper & Blue. Below were my responses.

The Oilers exited the play-in round a little more than a month ago, and it’s given us time to think a bit about the year. How do you feel about how the season went? Are you satisfied?

Even though they missed the playoffs, it’s hard to complain too much considering they posted a 0.585 points percentage in the regular season, finishing second in the Pacific and 12th in the league. The team was competitive most nights, special teams were outstanding, their top players did well and we saw a cluster of players transition from the minors and take on important roles. But the Oilers definitely over achieved, and Coach Tippett recognized that at his end-of-season availability. They were badly outscored at even-strength (5v5) relying heavily on their powerplay, posted mediocre shot-share numbers and their goaltending was sub-standard. Aside from their superstar players and the hope that more players will graduate from the AHL, there aren’t many indications that this team is going to be competing for a championship anytime soon. Over the course of the regular season, the team did very little to better position their roster construction going forward. They added a few bad contracts to their books, including signing Kassian to a long-term deal, and sent away much needed draft picks.

So while the results were good, management’s off-ice decision-making has been very concerning.

Who is this team’s top line right winger at the beginning of next season, and why?

Based on how much ice-time he received from the coaching staff at even-strength in the regular season and the contract that management gave him, it’s probably Kassian. He was fourth on the team among forward in total ice time and average ice time per game, even ahead of Nugent-Hopkins, and was McDavid’s most common linemate. Two things the Oilers need to do here: (1) find a better option for McDavid by either adding depth – this should not cost a lot, and (2) come to the realization that you do not pay a premium for players who do well with McDavid. The Oilers can’t be content with their current situation at right-wing.

Mikko Koskinen is signed for another two years in Edmonton, while Mike Smith is an unrestricted free agent. What should Ken Holland do between the pipes for the Oilers heading into next season?

First, review the process and methodology or whatever that led the Oilers to sign Smith to a contract last summer and fire it into the sun. Retain Koskinen since he’s provided league-average goaltending and expect him to start half of the games next season. His contract is a little high for the amount of workload expected, which makes it even more critical that they not overspend on the second goalie. Who they find as a second goalie doesn’t matter as long as they’ve posted league average numbers over the last few seasons and the acquisition cost is low. The only way the Oilers can acquire a higher-profile goalie like Holtby, or Lehner or Murray is if they’re planning on moving Koskinen – which I don’t suspect there’s much of a market for considering it’s a buyer’s market this off-season. I do like the idea of acquiring a younger goalie who has shown well recently like Alexander Georgiev, but that would require taking on some risk which I don’t think management is comfortable with. Also – look at goaltender coaching/consulting options and pray that one of the goalie prospects in the system continues to develop.

What do the Oilers do with Ethan Bear’s next contract?

The same thing that the Oilers did with Klefbom when they recognized his abilities early and wanted to see his best years happen in Edmonton. A long-term deal for Bear is ideal to potentially reduce the annual average value, knowing full well that he could be overpaid in the early years, but holding a value contract over the majority of its term. Financial risk is spread between the team and a player that it drafted and developed and deployed, and it’s how things have to be done in a salary cap world.

Is there any scenario where the Oilers can win a deal by moving Oscar Klefbom?

Definitely, as long as the manager isn’t basing his decisions on the NHL Guide and Record Book. The player coming back would just have to be young, on a long-term team-friendly deal and can contribute on the powerplay and penalty kill. Honestly, if the Oilers are so frisky to move a top-four defenceman, show some courage and start creating a market for Nurse whose perceived value is going to be much higher than his actual value.

We are a year away from the next expansion draft, but it’s never too soon to begin thinking about who could be selected. Who do you hope Seattle takes from the Oilers? Is there a player you believe the Oilers ought to keep, but is at risk being selected?

Ideally Seattle takes an older Oiler who’s on a bad contract and under producing, or whose actual contributions might be overhyped. Kassian and Neal come to mind, but it could be someone younger and further down the depth chart like Khaira. Knowing who Seattle has working in their hockey operations department, I suspect they’ll target young players who have shown well at the professional level and whose contracts are under team control.

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.

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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.

 

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.

Boosting the powerplay

coppernblue.com.full.54273With the Edmonton Oilers even-strength (5v5) performance being so poor this season – ranking 29th in the league in terms of goal-share with 44.69% (-19 goal differential) and often getting out-shot and out-chanced – it’s become even more critical that the Oilers generate as much offence as possible on the powerplay. It’s a game-state the Oilers should excel within given the high-end talent on the roster and the success the group – including McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Klefbom – have had in previous seasons.

The good news is that the Oilers currently rank near the top of the league with the man-advantage, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning, scoring 10.69 goals per hour – a metric that also captures how efficient teams are at scoring in a time-pressured situation. Since it’s a competitive results-driven league, it’s also important to dig behind the outputs and determine if the results are in fact sustainable and try to uncover any areas that might need attention from the coaching staff and management.

The first thing to note about the Oilers powerplay is that it’s allowed seven short-handed goals – the most in the league and the highest rate of goals against per hour with 1.92. That doesn’t drive down their overall results on the powerplay significantly as they would still rank third in the league if we factor in goals against. But not allowing those goals would have them at an even overall goal-differential today and likely a little higher up in the Pacific division standings. Worth noting that the Oilers don’t allow a lot of chances against, but when they have, their goaltending has been poor.

The second issue is that the Oilers are heavily reliant on their top powerplay unit, which isn’t surprising considering (a) their top end talent, (b) the amount of time the Oilers have typically trailed in games this season and (c) the lack of depth options on the roster. In fact, the Oilers for the second year in a row are near the top of league when it comes to the proportion of powerplay ice time the top unit is deployed. The league average proportion of ice time for top powerplay units is typically around 65% over the last three seasons. The Oilers currently deploy their top unit 81.0% – second in the league only behind the Washington Capitals.

Note: To determine the top powerplay units proportion of ice-time and their results, I took the forward with the most ice-time on each team and used them as a proxy for the first powerplay unit and divided their ice time with the team’s total powerplay time. The second powerplay units ice time and results were determined by subtracting the ice-team leaders TOI and results from the team totals. Data can be found in the Appendix.

It’s worth noting that a team like Tampa Bay who have historically been excellent with the man-advantage and are competing with the Oilers for the top powerplay have enough depth to ice two productive powerplay units this season. The first unit, using Kucherov as a proxy, is deployed for 66% of the total powerplay time – much closer to league average rates – and has generated 11.22 goals per hour (a total of 25 goals), well above the league average of 7.93 goals per hour. And while Kucherov and his group take a much needed break and to stay fresh for even-strength play, the second unit scores at a similar rate, generating 11.32 goals per hour; a total of 13 goals. That’s very impressive considering that second powerplay units on average generate 5.51 goals per hour. Both Lightning units are also above average relative to similar deployment groups when it comes to creating chances with the man-advantage, with the top powerplay unit generating 89.74 unblocked shot attempts per hour and the second unit generating 78.42 per hour. On average, top powerplay units generate 80.34 unblocked shot attempts per hour and second powerplay units generate 56.78 per hour. Put another way – the Lightning’s second powerplay unit generates more unblocked shot attempts per hour than half of the league’s top powerplay units.

Note: for special teams analysis, I include unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick) to assess a team’s ability to score or prevent goals against. Blocking shots and keeping pucks to the outside is a big part of killing penalties, so Fenwick gives us a sense of how well the skaters are doing their jobs and helping out their goaltenders.

The Oilers on the other hand don’t have enough depth to regularly deploy two powerplay units, as the bottom six forwards are predominantly penalty-killing specialists – a major focus for Oilers management this past off-season. In the limited minutes that McDavid hasn’t been on the ice for the powerplay, the Oilers have scored only one goal – a rate of 1.43 per hour – and generated 31.81 unblocked shot attempts per hour – both of which ranks last among all second powerplay units. What the Oilers roster is missing are depth players, individuals on the third and fourth lines at even-strength, that can play powerplay minutes and contribute, similar to the Lightning have available in Maroon, Killorn and Gourde and what the Oilers had in Letestu a few years ago.

As long as the Oilers second powerplay unit can’t even generate league-average rates of shots and chances, the pressure will remain on McDavid and the top group to continue producing. So far they’ve been excellent, generating 86.95 unblocked shot attempts per hour and 12.86 goals per hour – both of which rank highly among top powerplay units.

But since the Oilers management group ignored the results and findings from last year’s powerplay – one in which the top unit played close to 80% of the total time and the second unit was one of the worst in terms of goal-scoring – the pressure will remain on the likes of McDavid and Draisaitl to continue playing league-leading minutes and producing. Hopefully the Oilers recognize that their depth forward group isn’t just for penalty killing and begin finding cheap, reliable options for the second powerplay unit. It’s going to require critical analysis of their powerplay and looking past the results, something that’s historically been ignored by Oilers management when the overall results have been fine.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Appendix A: NHL powerplay units, 2019/20 (As of January 5, 2020)

NHL PP First and Second Units - 20190106.jpg

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

Top six bottom six

oilersjets

Currently ranking fourth in the league with a 0.750 points percentage, going 7-2-1 and accumulating 15 points, the Edmonton Oilers are in a great spot but have a lot of work to do if they want to keep things on track and compete for a playoff spot. The issues that plagued them in years past including production from depth players, overall even-strength play and the penalty kill continue to exist, but have largely been masked by stellar goaltending and production from their top end players.

Even though the Oilers are having success to start the season, it’s imperative that management and the coaching staff apply a critical lens on their roster and overall play to determine if the results are sustainable. The big challenge of course is to actually address these issues, either by making changes to the roster, by way of trade or minor-league call-ups, or by adjusting the on-ice tactics or player deployment. The good news is that the Oilers issues aren’t hard to determine as long as shot-metrics which are helpful to predict future results, and a basic understanding of statistical variance are part of the evaluation.

Focusing on the team’s even-strength (5v5) play, the Oilers have posted a goal-share of 51.43% (18 goals-for, 17 goals-against), good for 14th in the league and fourth in the Pacific behind Arizona, Anaheim and Vancouver. It’s also somewhat encouraging that the team’s save or shooting percentage isn’t abnormally high after ten games, something that I think could be perceived looking at the team’s overall record and the roster construction.

Corsi For% Fenwick For% Goals For% Sh% Sv% PDO
46.88% (25th) 47.86 (24th) 51.43 (14th) 8.57 (12th) 92.48 (13th) 101.0 (11th)

What’s worth noting here is that while the Oilers are allowing a 10th ranked rate of 2.11 goals against per hour and rank quite well when it comes to shot attempts against (i.e., Corsi) and unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick, a proxy for scoring chances against), the Oilers have struggled to score, now ranking 17th in the league with 2.23 goals-for per hour. What’s especially concerning is the team’s inability to generate offence, ranking 30th in the league in shot-attempts against and unblocked shot attempts against per hour.

Offence (5v5) Results
Goals-for/60 2.23 (17th)
Corsi-for/60 48.43 (30th)
Fenwick-for/60 36.04 (30th)

One of the biggest issues for the Oilers is the lack of production from the depth forwards, those playing predominantly on the third and fourth checking lines. Using McDavid, Draisaitl, Neal, Kassian and Nugent-Hopkins, the top five forwards in terms of overall even-strength ice-time, as a proxy for the top six, I was able to determine using Natural Stat Trick’s line tool what the split has been like between them and the bottom six forwards.

Metric (5v5) Top 6 Bottom 6
TOI 323.85 160.57
GF-GA 17-10 1-7
Goals For% 62.96% 12.50%
Corsi For% 48.12% 44.36%
Fenwick For% 48.42% 46.70%

Starting with goal-share, the Oilers have seen a significant drop when it comes to the bottom six forwards who have scored only once and allowed seven goals against this season (a goals for percentage of 12.50%). The team’s possession numbers have been very poor with the depth forwards on the ice, with the team posting a 44.36% Corsi For percentage and a 46.70% Fenwick For percentage. This is partly due to the fact that the depth forwards are starting more often in the defensive zone, but that alone shouldn’t be enough to justify the poor on-ice goal and shot-share metrics.

My initial thought when looking at the results of the bottom six was that maybe someone from the top six could be moved on to the third line or perhaps the Oilers could call-up someone from Bakersfield. But what’s interesting here is that it’s not as though the top six forwards are having great, sustainable success. While their goal-scoring rate has been excellent, they are only slightly better than the bottom six when it comes to shot-share metrics and the rate at which they’re generating and allowing shots and scoring chances.

Oilers (5v5) Team Top Six Bottom Six
Corsi For/60 48.43 49.84 45.59
Corsi Against/60 54.87 53.73 57.17
Fenwick For/60 36.04 36.87 34.38
Fenwick Against/60 39.26 39.28 39.24
Goals For/60 2.23 3.15 0.37
Goals Against/60 2.11 1.85 2.62

We know the team overall is having issues generating offence, so lets focus on that. As a team, the Oilers rank quite low overall when it comes to generating shot attempts (48.43 Corsi For/60) and unblocked shot attempts (36.04 Fenwick For/60). When the top six forwards have been on the ice, those rates only increase slightly relative to the team with the difference between them and the bottom six being about 4.25 more shot attempts per hour and 2.49 more unblocked shot attempts per hour. Defensively at even-strength, the bottom six has been just fine, allowing a rate of shots and scoring chances close to the overall team rate and being part of the reason why the team overall has had success.

The main takeaway here is that while the bottom six is getting a lot of attention for its lack of production at even-strength, there are also significant issues with the top six that really need to be addressed by management and the coaching staff. Heading into the season, the Oilers were aware of the lack of depth across the roster, and made a number of changes to address the issue. The early signs indicate that it hasn’t been enough, and that in order to compete for a playoff spot, they’ll have to take a closer look at their roster construction, tactics and player deployment and make the necessary changes. The concern now is that management has already bought into their overall results without looking at the underlying metrics, moving forward without regard for statistical variance and focusing solely on the bottom six forwards.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

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.

Realistic solutions

jujhar-khaira-oilers-edmonton.jpg

The Oilers have spent a lot of time and resources this off-season addressing their forward depth, signing NHL-experienced players like Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, Josh Archibald and Alex Chiasson, and also dipping into the European market to find options like Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard.

The Oilers obviously recognized one of their biggest shortcomings in the 2018/19 season as their forwards were inept offensively, getting out-scored badly when McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins weren’t on the ice. In 1,395 minutes at even-strength without their top three forwards on the ice (34.6% of the total ice time), the Oilers were outscored 45-26, a goal-share (GF%) of 36.62%. While the Corsi For percentage (CF% – a proxy for possession) and the Fenwick For percentage (FF% – a proxy for scoring chances) were fine, the team’s on-ice shooting percentage was 3.97%, well below league average rates and a good indication that the roster was lacking actual scoring talent.

TOI CF% FF% GF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV%
1395.88 49.76 50.31 36.62 3.97 93.04

With the increasing likelihood that McDavid will play significant time with Draisaitl again, and Nugent-Hopkins will be centering the second-line, there should be some concern regarding the players Holland has brought in to bolster the bottom six and if they have the talent to improve the team’s goal-share. One particular area of concern is the vacancy at center on the third line, something that Dave Tippett addressed in an interview on Oilers Now with host Bob Stauffer.

Stauffer: You mentioned the pairs thing, you mentioned McDavid with Leon, and you mentioned Neal with RNH. Third line center, is it wide open right now, in your mind?

Tippett: I think there’s going to be some different..we’re going to look at some different people. I think the young Haas kid from Switzerland is going to get a look there. I think JJ [Khaira] will get a bit of a look there. I’ve talked to [Khaira] quite a few times this summer and he’s got some center in his background and would like the opportunity to play there a little more. So there’ll be some options there that we’ll have a look at.

Bob: Sam Gagner has kinda reinvented himself, certainly in Columbus as a specialist, bottom six right wing. Is he an option at all down the middle, Dave?

Tippett: I like him better on the wing, and I know him a little better than the other guys just because I’ve had him in Arizona before. I agree with you. He’s a real good complement player, he’s a smart player, got good skill and will jump around your line up and complement some people. Where he ends up, I’m not sure. But that’ll be determined in training camp. He’s another guy that will jump around a little but until we find the right fit for him.

Source: Oilers Now (2019, July 30)

What stands out here is the fact that Khaira is very likely going to receive yet another tryout as a depth center, which is odd considering there’s enough evidence from his 154 NHL games that suggests he’s not well-suited for that role. Dave Tippett will be the third NHL coach that will grant Khaira a tryout at center.

Quick summary of Khaira’s career and how he’s been utilized by the Edmonton Oilers.

Season GP TOI (5v5) G-A-P P/60 CF% (Rel) GF%
2015/16 15 153.87 0-2-2 0.78 46.39 (+2.19) 41.67
2016/17 10 90.95 1-0-1 0.66 51.72 (+0.33) 66.67
2017/18 69 740.28 9-8-17 1.38 50.07 (-0.49) 43.40
2018/19 60 650.00 2-13-15 1.38 46.51 (-2.00) 38.89

As a 21-year old in his rookie season Khaira played on the wing, pairing up with center Anton Lander for 43.8% (67.35 minutes) of his total ice time in a more depth, shut-down role, and with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for 38.7% (59.60 minutes) of his total ice time on a second line along with Jordan Eberle. The remaining ice time was spent sporadically with Leon Draisaitl or Mark Letestu, both of which were regular centermen that season. While Khaira didn’t produce well overall, it’s worth noting that he was an effective winger with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle at even-strength (5v5), as the trio posted a goal-share of 57.14% (4 GF, 3 GA), and a Corsi For% of 50.0% in 53 minutes together.

Khaira’s second season in 2016/17 was similar to his first – limited minutes and predominantly on the wing. He spent the bulk of his ice time with one or both of Mark Letestu and Matt Hendricks, both of which I considered centers as they took faceoffs more regularly than Khaira. Of his 90.85 minutes of total ice time at even-strength, 93.1% (or 84.68 minutes) were spent with Letestu, Hendricks, Desharnais or McDavid (in very limited minutes).

In 2017/18 is when Khaira started getting some time as an actual center, with head coach Todd McLellan giving him an extended look in the bottom six to close out the lost season. For  a good portion of the season early on he was being deployed with Ryan Strome, giving the team a depth line with two players with opposite handedness who could share centerman responsibilities. The duo turned out to be quite effective playing together at even-strength, posting a Corsi For% of 52.64%, a Fenwick For% of 55.30% and a goal-share of 50.0% in 278 minutes.

Unfortunately the coaching staff went a different route, splitting the duo. And when they tested out Khaira as the sole center on a depth line to close out the 2017/18 season, the results were dreadful. With a variety of wingers including Lucic, Puljujärvi, Pakarinen, Caggiula, Kassian and Slepyshev, Khaira’s on ice goal-share as the sole center on his line was 33.3% (5 goals for, 10 goals against) over the course of 318 minutes. This was due in large part because the team allowed a higher proportion of shots against when Khaira played center, as his on-ice Corsi For percentage fell to 46.08%.

McLellan and the Oilers coaching staff appeared to have recognized that Khaira was better suited as a winger, or someone that could split centermen duties on a line, as he opened up his 2018/19 pre-season playing predominantly with Strome, who he had positive results with in 2017/18, and Puljujarvi. Unfortunately, the line was not given much of a chance when the actual season started, playing only 10 minutes together at even-strength before McLellan was fired and Strome was inexplicably traded away for winger Ryan Spooner.

Within a month of Ken Hitchcock’s arrival, Khaira was again being tested out as a centerman, and again his results were poor. In 2018/19, in his 204 minutes without any of the regular centers (i.e., McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins or Brodziak), Khaira’s on-ice Corsi For% at even-strength dropped to 43.08%, and his goal-share was 25.0% (3 GF, 9 GA). Khaira spent a third of his total ice time in this situation, giving the Oilers very little value and something that could have been avoided had Hitchcock and the coaching staff simply looked at Khaira’s on-ice results from the previous season under McLellan.

You can understand why Khaira would express interest in playing as a center – there’s clearly a need there and it’d be in his best interest to demonstrate his versatility, increasing his value to the team. However, based on his on-ice results as the sole center on a line under two different head coaches and the fact that the Oilers desperately need production from their bottom six, it would be in the club’s best interest to have Khaira on a line with another centerman (preferably a right shot) that he could potentially split faceoff duties with.

Data: Natural Stat Trick

Also posted at The Copper & Blue.

Buying low and managing expectations

NHL: Washington Capitals at Nashville Predators

The Oilers made a sensible deal last week acquiring forward James Neal from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Milan Lucic. For a minor fee, the Oilers were able to bring on a forward that has a better chance of bouncing back, considering the drop in his shooting percentage last season compared to his career average, and they also gained some much needed cap flexibility in the future if they need to buy-out the remaining years of the contract. The Flames slightly reduced their cap-hit and also shed some real dollars, but I still can’t understand why they were so desperate to move Neal that they would take on a heavy, burdensome contract like Lucic’s.

Below are Neal’s even-strength (5v5) stats since 2008/09, including his total goals, assists, points, shots, shots per hour and individual shooting percentage.

Season Team GP TOI G-A-P Shots Shots/60 Sh%
2008/09 DAL 77 949.37 15-11-26 126 7.96 11.90
2009/10 DAL 78 1064.82 22-19-41 148 8.34 14.86
2010/11 DAL/PIT 79 1119.63 16-18-34 157 8.41 10.19
2011/12 PIT 80 1134.65 22-26-48 208 11.00 10.58
2012/13 PIT 40 514.70 11-7-18 93 10.84 11.83
2013/14 PIT 59 802.70 14-17-31 153 11.44 9.15
2014/15 NSH 67 950.97 16-13-29 170 10.73 9.41
2015/16 NSH 82 1248.35 24-13-37 197 9.47 12.18
2016/17 NSH 70 978.22 15-9-24 148 9.08 10.14
2017/18 VGK 71 992.12 17-12-29 156 9.43 10.90
2018/19 CGY 63 784.55 5-8-13 108 8.26 4.63

What we know about Neal is that his point production has gradually declined, with his most recent season being his absolute worst. What especially stands out is his individual shooting percentage of 4.63% last season, an anomaly over the course of his career and well below his career average prior to the 2018/19 season (11.11%). Knowing that individual shooting percentages typically regress towards the mean over time, there’s a decent chance Neal’s bounces back next season. How much of a bounce-back depends of course on the player’s aging, as well as the situations (i.e., teammates, competition, zone starts, etc) that the player will be in.

Neal - Shooting percentage.jpg

While the Oilers hope that Neal’s 2018/19 season was an anomaly, it’s worth noting that his overall play has gradually declined even prior to his arrival in Calgary. Looking at his relative-to-team stats over the last five years, we see that his more recent teams have done better without him at even-strength than with him. The graph below includes relative to team Corsi For% (CF% – proportion of shot attempts, a proxy for possession), Fenwick For% (FF% – proportion of unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances), Scoring Chances For% (SCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick), and High Danger Scoring Chances For% (HDCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick).

For instance, in his single season in Vegas in 2017/18, the Golden Knights posted a 50.51% Corsi For percentage at even-strength with Neal on the ice, but a slightly better proportion of shot attempts without him. Relative to the team, Neal was a -0.51 Corsi-rel, which must have been a little disappointing for the Vegas coaching staff considering he received top-six minutes (finished fourth on the team among forwards in ice time per game with 13:58) and he always posted solid numbers with and without star players in Pittsburgh and Nashville. Vegas also did better without Neal when it came to scoring chances, a trend that continued and got worse in Calgary.

Neal - Rel Stats

What’s interesting about Neal’s stint in Calgary is that he finished seventh on the team among forwards in ice time per game (12:27), most often playing in the bottom six with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. His reduced playing time might have to do with the fact that against elite players, his on-ice numbers had been in decline. (Data: Puck IQ)

Season Team TOI TOI% CF% (Rel) DFF% GF%
20142015 NSH 335.98 35.42 53.6 (+5.40) 51.9 (+0.90) 57.10
20152016 NSH 470.25 37.74 55.8 (+8.00) 60.2 (+9.50) 71.40
20162017 NSH 315.08 32.34 48.4 (-1.60) 48.1 (-2.50) 39.10
20172018 VGK 378.37 38.05 44.9 (-6.40) 43.4 (-12.70) 41.70
20182019 CGY 223.90 28.54 52.4 (-0.60) 47.9 (-5.10) 50.00

The table above includes Neal’s numbers against elite talent, as defined by Puck IQ. Included is Neal’s on-ice Corsi For percentage and relative to team mates number, as well as Dangerous Fenwick (DFF%), which is a “weighted shot metric using shot distance location and type of shot to give each shot a danger value”, and goals-for percentage (GF%).

In Nashville, and prior to that, Neal was playing often against the other team’s top end players, spending over 35% of his ice time at even-strength in these situations and faring quite well relative to his teammates. In 2016/17 however, while playing 32.3% of his time against top end talent and finishing second on the team among forwards in ice time per game, he posted a 48.40% Corsi For percentage in these situations, which was a drop relative to his teammates (-3.73). When he was left unprotected by the Predators in the expansion draft and went to Vegas, things got even worse as he again played often against elite talent but posted a very poor 44.90% Corsi For percentage, or a -6.40 relative to his teammates. The Flames coaching staff may have been aware of his declining performance against high end talent and his poor goal-share as they deployed him far less frequently against elites (28.5% of his even-strength ice time spent against them) and did see him post a very solid 52.40% Corsi For percentage (-0.60 relative to teammates) and a 50.0% goal-share. Unfortunately, this reduced playing time meant less time with skilled forwards, which may have played a role in his 4.63% individual shooting percentage.

It will interesting to see how the Oilers manage Neal, who because of the lack of scoring talent will likely get plenty of opportunities playing with McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins. Hopefully the Oilers are aware of Neal’s declining on-ice numbers and how poorly he’s fared against elite talent when he was getting top six minutes. It would be in the Oilers coaching staff’s best interests to have a deployment plan in place to mitigate any risks Neal’s acquisition brings to the team and get as much offence as they can from the player.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ

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Also posted at The Copper & Blue.