The good, bad and ugly from the Oilers’ start to the season

NHL insider Nick Kypreos on Sportsnet's Starting Lineup discussing the main issue with the struggling Edmonton Oilers, which is speed on the wing, says other than Connor McDavid, they can't keep up with other contending teams.

After spending years as the NHL’s punching bag, the Edmonton Oilers had newfound success in 2016-17, which led to understandable optimism around the team heading into this season.

Expectations were so high, in fact, they started the year with the second-best Stanley Cup odds, behind only the two-time defending champion Penguins. The season is only two weeks old, but those odds have already plummeted from 9-to-1 to 12-to-1 in the blink of an eye.

Losing four of your first five games tends to lead to that kind of reaction. But even more than that, it’s the manner in which they’ve lost that’s stirred up a level of consternation. Prior to their overtime win in Chicago on Wednesday night, they’d given up 16 goals combined during that four game tailspin, having to switch goalies on two different occasions just to try and stop the bleeding.

As dreadful as they’ve looked at times, this type of early-season turmoil always serves as a good reminder of why it’s important to be pragmatic and level-headed over the course of an 82-game marathon season. While it’s fair to question whether the Oilers should’ve ever been as hyped as they were, things also aren’t nearly as bleak as they appear right now. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, and it stands to reason a five-game sample like this in January wouldn’t be as big of a deal.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s gone wrong in Edmonton, whether there are any silver linings to hang on to, and what we can reasonably expect from this team as currently constructed.

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The Good (News)

There’s surely a segment of readers who’ll immediately roll their eyes and start typing ‘Yeah, but..’ in the comments section when they read this. But hockey is ultimately a process-oriented game and and with such a small sample in the early portion of the season, shot metrics are illuminating.

The reason why we put stock in things like ‘who’s taking the shots’ and ‘how often are they taking them’ is because it’s well established that the answers to those questions are a better predictor of future success than goal data itself.

Sure, there’s the odd team that captures lightning in a bottle and finds success in spite of their underlying numbers, but it’s typically fleeting and those exceptions only reinforce the rule that winning teams are the ones that dominate at even strength. It’s a fairly straightforward formula: to win games you need to score goals, to score goals you need to shoot the puck, and to shoot the puck you need to have possession of it in the first place.

That’s good news for the Oilers, because they’ve controlled the run of play at five-on-five so far, tilting the ice in spectacular fashion as they sit perched atop nearly every single category we’d use as a proxy for puck possession:

Metric Oilers Total Oilers League Rank
Shot Attempts/Hour 63.54 1st
Unblocked Attempts/Hour 48.90 2nd
Shots on Goal/Hour 57.93 2nd
Corsi For % 56.67 3rd
Fenwick For % 57.93 4th
Shots on Goal For % 57.41 4th

(All stats via Corsica, updated through Thursday night’s slate of games)

Unfortunately for them, that good process hasn’t translated into the results they’re looking for because they haven’t been able to buy a bounce yet:

Metric Oilers Total Oilers League Rank
Goals For/Hour 1.50 29th
Goals Against/Hour 2.50 20th
Goals For % 37.46 29th
Expected Goals For/Hour 3.26 2nd
Expected Goals Against/Hour 1.93 4th
Expected Goals For % 62.80 1st
Shooting % 4.14 31st
Save % 90.68 22nd
PDO 94.82 29th

More on the goaltending in a second, but for now let’s focus on the offensive side of things.

The positive spin here is that there’s no conceivable way they can continue to convert this small of a fraction of their opportunities into goals. If you’re betting on their showing so far being representative of a fundamental problem and not just a statistical blip on the radar, you’re betting against history because:

Last season this same Oilers team shot 8.29 per cent at five-on-five when adjusting for game score.

From 2007 to 2017, the league as a whole shot at an average of 7.81 per cent at five-on-five.

During that time frame the 2014-15 Coyotes and 2013-14 Sabres, both of whom were openly tanking, were the two most offensively feeble teams and they still shot 5.72 per cent and 5.84 per cent, respectively.

The Oilers are currently being outscored 12-7 at five-on-five, tied with the Sabres for the fourth worst goal differential in the league. Based on their underlying performance, we’d expect that ratio to be flipped to 15-9 in their favour. If that were the case, they’d be first in the league in goal different just ahead of the Maple Leafs, and we’d surely be looking at this team and their start to the year in a much different light.

Dimitri Filipovic provides entertaining and thoughtful dialogue about the game of hockey with an analytical edge. Not as nerdy as it sounds.

The Bad (News)

It’s not entirely that simple, however. As analysts we need to dig a bit deeper beyond the surface, accounting for circumstance and context. That’s where score effects come into the equation.

Team % Time Trailing % Time Leading % Time Tied
EDM 60.77 15.20 24.03
MTL 57.10 7.28 35.62
FLA 55.72 16.85 27.43
ANA 50.41 13.14 36.45
NYR 49.56 18.82 31.61
BUF 44.48 27.71 27.81
ARI 44.36 25.85 29.79
NYI 43.91 33.04 23.05
DET 38.72 15.37 45.91
CBJ 37.19 28.06 34.75
CGY 37.05 27.88 35.07
PIT 36.90 44.80 18.31
BOS 36.00 36.78 27.23
SJS 34.05 33.16 32.79
VAN 32.55 29.56 37.89
VGK 32.19 32.99 34.82
NSH 31.94 29.28 38.78
WSH 31.82 32.45 35.73
COL 31.09 38.71 30.20
WPG 29.90 31.07 39.03
NJD 23.67 48.44 27.89
CHI 21.67 43.64 34.70
TOR 21.46 38.95 39.59
DAL 20.74 48.55 30.71
PHI 19.33 33.62 47.06
CAR 18.93 31.15 49.92
OTT 17.68 34.31 48.01
STL 16.00 50.19 33.81
LAK 15.28 40.14 44.58
TBL 13.74 55.42 30.85
MIN 9.18 33.68 57.14

We can chalk some of Edmonton’s shot clock dominance up to the fact they’ve been down big for large swathes of their games, having trailed a staggering 70 per cent of the time thus far. More specifically, they’ve gone down by multiple goals early on throughout that aforementioned four-game swoon:

• 0:32 into the 2nd period against the Canucks
• 16:27 into the 1st period against the Jets
• 9:31 into the 1st period against the Senators
• 4:53 into the 1st period against the Hurricanes

When teams are defending a lead they tend to play a more conservative brand of hockey, and the Oilers have been feasting on the defensive shells they’ve been going up against, peppering the puck at the opposing goaltender.

The shot metrics are adjusted for taking score state into account, but within reason; they’re not necessarily designed to accommodate for this type of disparity in time spent trailing. The sledding would presumably be tougher if Edmonton’s opponents weren’t willingly eating their jabs and playing against the clock as much as they’ve been playing against the Oilers.

The Ugly (Truth)

Heading into the season it was easy to see what Oilers believers saw in the team they liked so much. At the same time, the reasons for pessimism were equally transparent:

1. Cam Talbot’s workload: Talbot was nothing short of spectacular last season, earning every single vote he received in finishing fourth in Vezina Trophy voting. It’s been awfully rewarding seeing him vindicate the bet the Oilers made on him after he had thrived in limited viewings during his time with the Rangers. Especially since you never really know how well a goalie will handle the transition from sparse usage as a backup to being an everyday starter.

That said, the Oilers overdid it with how heavily they leaned on their shiny new toy last season. It’s no accident that the league has progressively transitioned further and further away from the days when starters were playing 70-plus games. Since the start of the decade there’s only been eight examples of a goalie starting more than 70 games, and only Cam Ward’s ridiculous 74-start campaign in 2010-11 top Talbot’s workload last season.

Knowing what we know about peak performance and the effects fatigue can have on it, sending a goalie out there 70-plus times in a season these days is borderline malpractice.

Talbot will ultimately be fine and there’s no reason to believe he can’t regain his form after this uncharacteristic early season dip in individual play. He didn’t suddenly go from being a goalie stopping around 92 per cent of the shots he faces down to 90 per cent over the summer.

With that said, the Oilers would be well served to not make a habit of running him into the ground with how often they use him in the regular season.

2a. Health and injury regression: Last season the Oilers were hovering somewhere around the middle of the pack in terms of injury impact, but that’s not necessarily representative of how fortunate they really were in the health department. Some of the depth pieces were in and out of the lineup for various reasons, but for the most part their core – top six forwards and top three defencemen – all played in at least 79 of their 82 games.

The regular season tends to be an unforgiving grind, and injuries inevitably happen. We’re already seeing them be less fortunate on that front early on this year, with Leon Draisaitl and Andrej Sekera most notably missing time. Not always having a full lineup is a reality of the league, and something you need to account for by stockpiling a requisite amount of depth. Speaking of..

2b. Blue line depth: One of the main criticisms of Peter Chiarelli’s off-season was that he didn’t really do anything to address the team’s depth issues, particularly on the blue line, even knowing full well that Sekera would be out of action for the foreseeable future. They instead chose to try and cover that hole with in-house options, which has made them a one-dimensional team sorely lacking a second reliable defensive pair.

There was always a heightened baseline floor for this team with a generational talent such as Connor McDavid in tow. But it’s tough to get over the nagging thought that not nearly enough was done to supplement him and optimize this final year in which Edmonton has the good fortune of having McDavid on a rookie salary.

Considering all of the above the Oilers’ early struggles can’t come as a surprise. What is jarring, however, is the fact that all of the red flags we highlighted in the pre-season materialized so quickly and converged into one big worst-case scenario in Edmonton. The end result is a team that’s sputtered coming out of the gate, and one that could desperately use a few bounces to start going their way any day now.

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