I get that certain moments in Oilers history are woven into the tapestry of the team and that they are true because they are true. Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe won four Stanley Cups by peering into the Islanders dressing room after the 1983 Stanley Cup finals*, Grant Fuhr never let in the next goal, the Oilers were screwed over by the CBA because it forced them to trade all of their good players who were totally about to win a Stanley Cup, Tommy Salo was ruined by the goal against Belarus, the Oilers missed the 2004 playoffs because of a loss to Los Angeles on HNiC on January 31, 2004, Adam Oates’ contract was worth it because he taught Shawn Horcoff and Jarrett Stoll how to win faceoffs, the Ryan Smyth trade wasn’t about money…these are the stories that calcify over time and become part of the story of any sports franchises.
They drive me nuts.
The one that galls me at the moment is the discussion of the Oilers down the stretch last season. There seem to be two myths that have developed about that run. The first, which is relatively easy to dispel, is that they actually played pretty well. The second, and more difficult to disprove, is that their play was somehow related to them playing looser. I’m going to deal with the first, which is easier to disprove than the second.
Robin Brownlee jumped on the bandwagon today:
Funny thing how expectations work. When there are none, you get rolls like the Edmonton Oilers fashioned in their final 20 games last season as they went 14-5-1 and looked like the 1957 Montreal Canadiens doing it.**
Brownlee’s certainly not the only Oilers fan to have developed this point of view. It’s shared by virtually all of the media. Most of the fans were relying on this to explain why they figured that the Oilers were going to be in it this year. Presumably it was in the back of Craig MacTavish’s mind when he made his utterly insane comment at the start of the year about contending for the division title.
It is, I think, too easy to overlook that the Oilers record was in no way supported by their goal differential. I’m going to leave the SO goals in to help with the point that I’m making and give the Oilers every benefit (they were 3-1 on the SO in the final twenty). During their final 20 games last year, they scored 69 goals and allowed 63 goals, for a goal differential of +6. Teams do not commonly put up 29 points while going +6 over 20 games.
If you treat 1-20, 2-21 etc. of each team’s season as a 20 game segment, there had been 62,491 20 game segments entering the 2007-08 season. 1366 of those had seen a team post a +6 goal differential. 1494 of the 62,491 20 game segments saw a team post 29 points.
I’ve tabulated some information below to try and convey just how unlikely this sort of thing is. First, the points earned by the 1366 teams that had a +6 goal differential over a 20 game slice of the season. As you can see, the Oilers are at the right end of the curve; in fact, their 29 points in 20 games with a + 6 goal differential ties the record.
You can see that, post-lockout, you’ve got about a 1/40 shot at 29 points if you’re +6 over 20 games. Those are not particularly good odds. Historically, the odds are even worse, although the whole graph is going to be shifted to the right by the ease with which the NHL dispenses points these days. I think that you can see the beginnings of that in the information presented above.
What about teams that accumulate 29 points in 20 games. What kind of goal differential do they generally require to support such a thing?
Crazy things happen in those stints where teams put up 29 points in 20 games with an extremely low goal differential. The 1985-86 Caps lost only five games in their twenty, but they got absolutely crushed in two of them – a 7-0 loss to Detroit (17-57-6 on the season) and an 8-1 loss to Pittsburgh (34-38-8 on the season). The 2005-06 Predators went 8-3 in 1 goal games, which is just an astounding volume of 1 goal games along with a spectacular success rate in them.
While low goal differential/high point runs have become a lot more common since the lockout (2/3 of 29 point runs with +10 or lower goal differential happened in 2005-06 or 2006-07), they still aren’t particularly common. The Oilers 20 game run was still very unusual but because of the low goal differential that produced the record. Their goal differential looks nothing like the typical team that goes on a 29 point run and the typical team that accumulates 29 points over 20 games has a far superior goal differential. Even in the post-lockout era, where points are free and easy, a +6 goal differential is in the 3rd percentile of goal differential for 29 point teams.
Simply put, the 2007-08 Oilers were not full value for their results down the stretch. The argument that they somehow morphed into some sort of unstoppable hockey machine once the season was lost doesn’t fit the goals for and against. Any argument that their looseness was benefitting them in the standings has to explain not only how “looseness” produces results but how the Oilers managed to spread out their goals so perfectly. I don’t see a +6 as being particularly unusual for a team like the 07-08 Oilers. The unusual bit was the results. Strange that the looseness would affect that only.
*TSN tells that story like so:
As they made their way out, Gretzky and the Oilers noticed that while the family members and team personnel were popping champagne and sipping from the Cup, many of the Islander players sat in their stalls looking tired. They weren’t partying it up so much as they were icing down knees, tending to bruised ribs and rubbing ointment on their shoulders. As Gretzky later wrote in his autobiography, he realized that these players made the mental and physical sacrifices to reach the top.
Having witnessed this rather surprising sight, Oilers’ defenceman Kevin Lowe nudged Gretzky and whispered, “That is how you win championships.”
Maybe things were different then, maybe the cameras don’t get into the dressing room fast enough, maybe a lot of things…but when I watch teams win the Stanley Cup now and the dressing room interview proceeds, I’ve never noticed a lot of ointment rubbing. It seems to me that everyone pretty much seems to be running around and getting their drink on.
**I’m not really sure what he means by this to be perfectly honest, whether he means that they were playing firewagon hockey or whether he means that they were really good. Incidentally, the 1956-57 Montreal Canadiens had stretches in which they went +6 and stretches in which they put up 29 points. The 29 point stretches involved them going +24, +27 and +31. The +6 stretches saw them put up 19 points twice. I obviously didn’t see them play (no Centre Ice) but, whatever the Oilers were doing down the stretch, they certainly weren’t channelling them.