The short story (spoiler alert) is that the Oilers have improved over last season. If that’s all you wanted to know about the Oilers’ progress, there you have it. If you want to know what specific ways they have improved, read on.
2014/15 Season Series Comparison
To account for quality of competition, I compared even-strength (5v5) shot metrics from each Oilers’ game with metrics from the 2014/15 season series against the same team. I referred to the difference in metrics as a Progress Index. As you might expect, a positive Progress Index indicates improvement over last season, whereas a negative Progress Index indicates the metric is worse relative to 2014/15.
Over the long run, the quality of competition balances out in a team’s schedule. The 4 metrics I tracked were:
(1) Weighted Shots (1 shot attempt = 1 point; 1 goal = 5 points),
(2) Shot Attempts (in following analytics blogger, Micah McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath), I will now refer to as ‘Shots’),
(3) Scoring Chances, &
(4) High Danger Scoring Chances (i.e., Scoring Chances from the slot).
(These last two metrics were developed by war-on-ice to help account for shot quality.)
In my report after game 30, I noted that the Oilers had improved significantly to game 25. But then because of injuries (e.g., McDavid, Pouliot, & Yakupov), certain players struggling (e.g., Fayne & Nurse), and other factors (e.g., the team stagnating in their execution of systems), the team’s metrics were trending downward to levels worse than last season. The good news: Although requiring 10-15 games, the Oilers recovered! Let’s take a look at the differential shot metrics below.
Shot Metric Differentials
As we can see, from games 26-35 the Oilers were performing worse than last season on all metrics. But then something happened from game 36 onward, especially from games 41-45, in which they played some of their best hockey of the season. Sure, Pouliot and Yakupov returned from injury–and Yakupov only very recently. But they also lost their best defenseman, Klefbom, at game 30. What changed?
I think the answer is in Todd McLellan’s observation that the Oilers had plateaued in December. He stated that he looked forward to practice at home in January to get the team back on track. With these critical practice sessions to get everyone back on the same page, which includes a rehabilitated (overly dramatic, I know) Fayne, who was down in Bakersfield (their AHL affiliate) to get his game and confidence back. the team responded extremely well. There was even a period of 6 consecutive games (Jan 8-18/16) in which they sported a 54% (scored-adjusted) shot differential (Reminder: I use “shot” instead of “shot attempt.”) and a top-5 shot suppression rate.
Seems to me this dramatic improvement kind of went unnoticed by the regular fan because the Oilers were not winning much. But for numbers person, this kind of progress leaves me feeling hopeful and not only because the team is performing better. More importantly, when the team is off track, the coaching staff is able to correct what is going wrong and correct it in a major way. Even after losing Davidson, who has surprisingly earned his way into being a top-4 defenseman, the team has stayed the course.
Not let me breakdown where the improvements have happened, namely, separating offense from defensive.
Generally, shot generation has been a roller-coaster ride. Still, from game 36 onward, the progress indices have been positive. Over the last 15 games, compared to last season, they have generated +5.9 shots and +3.3 scoring chances per hour. Great to see! On average (over 50 games), the Oilers have generated 2.6 shots and 2 scoring chances more per hour.
In addition to practice time, the return of Pouliot and Yakupov, as well as the addition of Zack Kassian, has helped the team’s offense. Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle had also picked up the pace; both who were struggling, possibly due to slow recovery from illness and injury, respectively. Unfortunately, Nugent-Hopkins was recently injured blocking a shot with his hand and breaking it. At least McDavid will be back next week, which means that even without the Nuge, the Oilers will still have a competitive group of top-6 forwards. (We can thank Draisaitl and his breakout season for that luxury.) What about defense?
In contrast to offense, progress on defense has been linear. The progress indices in defense was fairly stable over the first 25 games, but then dropped substantially over 15 games (games 26-40). Losing Klefbom at game 30 didn’t help. Perhaps this is the “plateau” (to put it kindly) that McLellan observed. McLellan and crew then got to work, serviced the defensive engine, and it’s been full speed ahead since game 41.
Overall, the improvement in defense appears to be minor because of that terrible 15-game slump. Specifically, the average progress indices per hour are only +1.3 shots, +1.5 scoring chances, and +0.5 high danger chances. But if we focus on the positive, over the last 10 games the Oilers have improved–relative to last season–in suppressing more 6.3 shots, 5.8 more scoring chances, and 1.8 more high danger chances per hour. These rates are an amazing improvement. I don’t expect the numbers to to last, but if the trend stabilizes to half that for the remainder of the season, I’ll be happy.
Altogether, the team’s metrics have improved, especially on defense!
Teams play differently depending on whether they have a lead or are trailing. Leading teams tend to play safer, whereas trailing teams tend to be more aggressive. This means trailing teams, more often than not, out-shoot their opposition during the time they are behind. So I wanted to examine the Oilers in different score situations. Also important to note is that weaker teams tend to be trailing more often than tied or leading, which makes intuitive sense.
Compared to last season, I was interested in knowing three things: Did the Oilers spend less time trailing? When trailing, were they more aggressive? (The Oilers, by their own admission, tended to get down on themselves when trailing last season.) When leading, how well was the team able to hold the leads?
Games when Trailing
Last season, the Oilers trailed their opposition almost half the time: 49.7%. This season, they’ve trailed much less: 36.1%. In particular, they spent less time trailing by 2+ goals, dropping from 20% to 12% of the time. Although their time trailing by 1 goal increased by 5% (19% to 24%), their time with the score tied increased from 36.5% to 42.9% (i.e., 4% more). So if you believe the Oilers are closer in more games this season, your belief is correct! Unfortunately, this hasn’t translated into more time leading–which is the same as last season (about 23%)–but one step at a time.
So they’ve spend less time trailing, but have they been better at pulling themselves back into games? When trailing by 2+ goals, no question! Last season when trailing by 2 goals, their 52.4% shot differential and 42% goal differential was near the bottom of the league. This season, their 58.9% shot differential is 11th best with an even stronger goal differential of 63%. When the Oilers are really down, they are not laying down. There’s more push back, much more than last season, or any season since 2007. In fact, from 2007-2015, the Oilers have the worst shot and goal differentials–yes, even worse than Buffalo–when trailing by 2 goals or more.
They’ve also improved when trailing by 1 goal, although not as much. Their shot differential has only improved by 0.6% to 53.5%, but their goal differential is much better at 50% (42% last season). The difference in goals is due to much better goaltending with save percentage improving to a decent 91.8% from a horrible 87.9% in 2014/15.
The Oilers are a better team when trailing! They are also spending more time tied in games. Both indicators of an improved team, especially the psychological element of not letting their confidence and effort drop when trailing. Ultimately, this motivation is within the players themselves, especially the leaders of the team, but McLellan’s influence is felt here too. In post-game interviews, I have heard him speak of observing the bench feeling down after a goal or two (e.g., shoulders drooped, heads down) and taking steps to motivate them, whether on the bench or between periods. Sounds like a coach who is attuned to the psychology of the team and has constructive ways to encourage the players.
Games when Tied & Leading
This is all well and good, but the team unfortunately has not improved when tied or leading. They give up leads this season as easily as they did last season. When leading, their shot differential of 42% ranks 20th and their goal differential of 33% ranks last. Both the team, who has allowed a boatload of shots (65 per hour; 25th in the league), and poor goaltending (89.1 save%), have lead to this awful goal differential.
Being in a tied game, which I noted above, is a situation the Oilers find themselves in more often. Yet, when tied, they have a rough time gaining a lead. Their shot differential is slightly worse this season than last–46.5% vs 47.7%–as is their goal differential (41% vs 43%). Goaltending cannot be blamed. When the score is tied, the save percentage is a very respectable 92.4%.
Indeed, on top of a poor shot differential, the team’s shot percentage is extremely low (5.2%; whereas 8% is more typical). To see if this low percentage is due, in part, to decreased shot quality, I looked more deeply into the numbers. Indeed, compared to last season, when the game is tied, their scoring chances dropped by 3 per hour. Most of that is due their decreased ability to generate high danger chances, which fell by 2 per hour.
I really don’t have an explanation for why the Oilers have not improved in tied games or when leading, except to repeat the obvious: The roster is weak, especially on defense and among the bottom-6 forwards. Although there’s been improved coaching, individual breakout seasons (i.e., Draisaitl, Davidson, McDavid, and Yakupov, especially with McDavid, although he is playing well without him) and more stable goaltending with Talbot, there are roster deficiencies.
Lander’s promise under coach Todd Nelson in 2014/15 has not developed under McLellan. Schultz has not flourished either. With Korpikoski on the ice, the team’s shot metrics are bad as last season’s Buffalo, which is to say monumentally bad. As I noted in a previous blog, Nurse is playing over his head. Fayne has struggled, although he seems to have found his way back onto the team recently and playing well. Still, he is a not top-2 defender.
We haven’t seen a full, healthy line-up all season, including long spells without some of our top-end players, yet we have seen improvement, especially when it comes to team defense. Players appear to be responding to the coaches, and vice versa. For instance, Fayne being put on waivers was a clear message that no contract is safe. Everyone is expected to pull their weight. Todd McLellan expects accountability from his players, and in turn, he has shown he is accountable to them when the team is under-performing.
We’re all hoping that General Manger, Peter Chiarelli, is able to accomplish two things before next season: (1) Create depth in the forward line-up (Kassian looks to be a promising piece) and (2) strengthen the blue-line with two legitimate top-2 defenders. This will likely happen during off-season with names like Travis Hamonic (my favourite), Dustin Byfuglien, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Sami Vatanen being thrown out there.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy the rest of the season without the anxiety of playoff expectations. We’ll have the pleasure of seeing our future top-2 centers, McDavid and Draisaitl, taking on their roles early. It will be a primer for the future.
Thanks for reading and please comment below. What do you think of the season so far?