The Oilers played some very good hockey in the month of December heading into the Christmas break.
The club went (7-3), outscoring their opponents 37-26 in all situations. That +11 goal differential was massive for the team as it started pulling them out of the deep hole they put themselves in October and November, and things appeared to be on the right track. They defeated some pretty good teams that month, including Columbus, San Jose and St. Louis. And they put together an impressive four game winning streak.
||vs San Jose
||vs St. Louis
Not only did they get the results they desperately needed, but at the time their success also appeared to be sustainable. The Oilers were dominant when it came to possession metrics, posting an even-strength (5v5) adjusted Corsi For percentage of 54.0% and a Fenwick For percentage of 56.1% over those 10-games. These are shot-share levels that the Oilers haven’t been able to reach at any other point in the season.
It’s worth noting that what bogged the Oilers down in December were the same issues that have plagued them all season. Their goaltending was mediocre, their powerplay wasn’t producing, and their penalty kill was abysmal. Nonetheless, they were very good at getting a higher proportion of shots at even-strength, posting a 61.9% goal-share (a +10 goal differential) and picked up some much needed points.
One of the big reasons why they had success in December was because the coaching staff was willing to deploy a balanced offence spread across three scoring lines. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each had time centering their own units, with varying degrees of success. Here’s what the most common even-strength line combinations were over the 10-game stretch heading into the Christmas Break, including the on-ice shot-share, goal-share, shooting percentage and save percentage for each.
Starting with goal-share, only Nugent-Hopkin’s line featuring Maroon and Cammalleri struggled, posting a 42.86% goals-for percentage – thanks in large part to an on-ice save percentage of 87.1%. Those struggles were off-set by the other two units, as Draisaitl’s line featuring Khaira and Strome had excellent goal-share results as did the trio of McDavid, Lucic and Puljujaarvi.
What was promising about rolling three scoring lines were the shot-share numbers for each. The Corsi For% was above 52.0% for all three units, suggesting that the process and tactics the coaching staff deployed were positive and the team as a whole was headed in the right direction.
It’s worth noting here that the Oilers were without two of their top defencemen during this stretch, as both Andrej Sekera and Adam Larsson missed time with injuries. But it didn’t seem to matter one bit when the forwards were deployed for offensive success. It’s amazing how well three good scoring lines can mask some of deficiencies on the blue-line. Similar really to what Pittsburgh did in last year’s playoffs with their key defencemen were out of the lineup.
What’s the point of all of this?
Because of where the Oilers are in the standings, this 10-game stretch and the underlying factors that drove their success are very likely going to be dismissed. A 7-3 record and +11 goal-differential may be perceived as a fluke – a meaningless blip in a disaster of a season – by fans, the media and the team. Even though the results were real and sustainable, it will be overshadowed by the overall record and the fact that they missed the playoffs.
Now the Oilers have plenty of soul-searching to do this off-season to try getting things back on track to win a championship. But management has to be looking for lessons and takeaways using as much information and data as possible.
The problem we’ve seen with the current regime however is their lack of understanding of how variance works in hockey. Rather than look at underlying shot metrics (which predicts future goal-share well), decisions by the Oilers are often based on goal-metrics, which we know is heavily influenced by shooting and save percentages, and serve as a poor predictor of future success. The concern from my point of view is that the Oilers will be fixated with the standings and overall goal-differential, and incorrectly assign blame to players and areas of the team that may not be as significant as they think. By all means – question every part of the roster. But approach your problems with sound logic and reasoning, and with as much applicable information as possible – and hopefully this leads to well-informed decisions.
What the team really needs to do is look at different segments of the season, find patterns and outliers, such as the December run, and determine whether the results were real or not. From there, it’s important to draw out the lessons and better understand how things came about and why. Even though it was only a 10-game segment, there were takeaways that management needs to consider to (a) ensure they have a better read of the club and (b) to ensure they don’t make another blunder when trying to improve the roster.
Data: Natural Stat Trick
Full article is at The Copper & Blue.