Are the Oilers measurably better?

Recently, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey, argued that there is no evidence that the Oilers have improved from previous seasons. Based on the shot metric comparisons he used, that was a logical conclusion. However, there are other ways to assess progress, which I indicated in an earlier post, especially early in the season. In particular, a Progress Index can be derived by comparing the shot metrics of a game, or series of games, to the previous season’s series against a specific team. For metrics, I compare Weighted Shots (WghtSh%; 1 point for goals, 0.2 points for shot attempts); Shot Attempts (SAT%; blocked, missed, and shots on goal), Scoring Chances (SC%; defined by war-on-ice), and High-Danger Scoring Chances (HSC%; i.e., shots from the slot area). (All data is collected from war-on-ice.)

Direct comparison to the previous season series accounts for quality of competition. For instance, against an elite possession team like Los Angeles, you would not expect the Oilers to improve from a dismal 45% shot attempt differential to a respectable 50% SAT (i.e., break-even). Rather, you would expect something more incremental, such as improving to a 47% or 48% SAT. In this prior post, I show how progress indices are computed for the Oilers first two games. I have done this analysis for every game to answer the question, “Are the Oilers measurably better?” The table below shows with coloured bars whether a shot metric improved (blue), worsened (red), or did not change significantly (no colour).


Reading the bottom two rows, we see that the average Progress Indices turn out positive! Although the Weighted Shot metric improved, I find it difficult to describe in straightforward language, but I can describe the other metrics. On average, the Oilers have increased their shot attempt differential (SAT%) by almost 6 per 60 minutes (+3%) compared to the 2014/15 season series against these teams. With regard to higher quality shots, the Oilers increased their Scoring Chance differential by just over 6 per hour (+6%). Finally, there is a slight improvement in the highest quality shot, High-Danger Scoring Chances, of 0.5 per hour.

Although we see improvement in overall shot metrics, what we don’t know is if the improvement is that more offense is being generated, or better defense is involved, or both. To tease apart offense and defense, we look at shot metrics for and against, respectively. An increase in shot metrics “for” means the Oilers are finding ways to generate more shots, especially quality shots, which will translate into more goals. A decrease in shot metrics “against” means the Oilers, as a team, are doing a better job in suppressing the team’s offense. So which is more responsible for the improvement: Offense or defense? My intuition was offense, but I was wrong!


Although the average progress indices for offense has improved a little (+1.1 SAT/60; +1.55 SC/60), most of the improvement in the differentials is coming from defense! In particular, compared to last season against these same teams, the Oilers have allowed close to 5 (4.78) fewer shot attempts, 4.62 fewer scoring chances, as well as 1.29 fewer high-danger scoring chances per hour. Are you surprised? I was. So it seems that the combination of new personnel and McLellan’s systems have made more of a difference defensively than offensively, although both have improved. This is something any Oilers fan wants to see. We all know that the Oilers are not a playoff team, and that are greatest weakness is our defensive corps, but given that our team defense has improved, that’s good news!

Special Teams

The above analysis is equal-strength (5v5) data, which is about 80% of the game. What about the other 20%; special teams? Early in the season, special teams are best measured using Shot Attempts For in assessing the power-play and Shot Attempts Against to measure the penalty kill. From 2012 to 2015, the Oilers’ power-play has ranked 27th as measured by goal differential and 24th as measured by Shot Attempts For (SAT_F = 89.4 per hour). Notably, though, under coach Todd Nelson for the latter part of the 2014/15 season, their PP goal differential was in the top 10.  This young season, the Oilers’s PP units are generating shot attempts at rate of 93.5 per hour, which ranks ranks 19th. In terms of quality scoring chances (high-danger zone), the power-play ranks 11th with 20.6 high-danger scoring chances per hour. Thus, compared to previous 3 seasons combined, this season’s PP looks to be generating more offense.

Curious to see whether the 1st unit (Nugent-Hopkins/Hall) or 2nd unit (Mcdavid/Yakupov) is performing better, I looked at the their respective shot atttempt generation per hour. The 1st unit is generating more offense, with the Oilers pumping out shot attempts at rate of just over 106 per hour with Hall & Nugent-Hopkins on the ice. With McDavid and Yakupov on the ice, the Oilers are generating about 90 shot attempts per hour. When comes to high quality shots, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and McDavid have similar metrics with with a high-danger scoring chance rate of about 25 per hour. With Yakupov on the ice, this metric drops substantially to 13 per hour.

Last season, the Oilers’ penalty kill–as measured by Shot Attempts Against–ranked 12th (SAT Against/60 = 95). This season, the Oilers allowed shot attempt rate is worse at 99, which ranks 21st. Our top penalty killers (by ice-time) last season were Gordon, Hendricks, Fayne, & Ference with a SAT Against of about 99 per hour. This season, the top 4 are Letestu, Lander, Klefbom, & Sekera with a combined SAT Against of 107 per hour.

Still too early to evaluate the goal-tenders because of too small a sample size, I’ll say a few tentative words. Unfortunately, to this point, the Oilers’ goal-tending tandem has not performed well, despite their strong starts. Talbot’s adjusted save% is ranked 24th (among goalies with a minimum of 7 games played) and Nilsson’s adjusted save% is ranked 42nd out of all 60 goalies. This means that despite the team’s improved defensive, the below-average goal-tending hasn’t allowed the Oilers to capitalize with fewer goals against.

Final Notes

I was surprised by the improved team defense and the poor goal tending performances. With Talbot, I was very hopeful that the Oilers’ goalie woes were behind them, but it seems this is still a question. Time will tell. Let’s hope the improved defense, which I attribute mostly to coaching, will continue as players internalize further the systems they’ve been taught.

Hope you found this informative. Please leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.

Walter Foddis Written by: