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It’s tough to know what, exactly, to make of the Oilers’ start. The usual red flags are being raised about the rock on which their record is built – 7-2-2 is great, 7-2-2 while being outshot and relying on unsustainable goaltending is less so. With that said, they’ve been torched shotwise in two games and one of those was against one of the best possession teams in the league (Washington) while the other was the second half of a back to back, played at altitude.
As has been noted in a number of places, Tom Renney is really matching lines this year. (Data is pre-Blues game.) He’s not only matching lines against other lines but he’s matching lines against places on the ice. Jordan Eberle (66.7%), Taylor Hall (64.4%), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (62.5%), Ryan Smyth (32.5%), Ryan Jones (30.1%), and Shawn Horcoff (27.7%) all have notable ratios of faceoffs in the offensive zone to faceoffs in the defensive zone. The chart at left is a summary of data from the last four years relating to faceoff ratio, based on the 1209 forwards to have played at least 40 games and 10 minutes a night. So, for example, just .7% of players have had between 65% and 70% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone.
You can see, therefore, that Renney’s running is at the edges of what’s been accomplished in the NHL over the past four years. Just 1.7% of players have had 35% or fewer of their faceoffs in the offensive zone – Smyth, Jones and Horcoff would all join that group if Renney ran his bench this way for the rest of the year. On the flip side of that, only 5.3% of players have had 60% or better of their faceoffs in the offensive zone – Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are all on pace to join that group. In fact, the groups of three both have a decent shot at being in the most favourable and least favourable 1% in terms of faceoff starts, respectively – the cutoff is currently at around 65.4% on the fun end and 33.2% on the hard end – four of them would qualify if trends hold. This is a remarkable turnaround from the past couple years, where it appeared that the coaches basically just opened the gates, like a father coaching an atom house team.
The third column in the table above is the average percentage of the shots taken by the various groups when they’re on the ice. So, for example, guys who enjoy between 65% and 70% of the offensive zone faceoffs have averaged 56.7% of the shots over the past four years; guys who are on the ice for between 25% and 35% offensive zone faceoffs average about 46% of the shots. It’s a pretty big structural difference and presumably explains a lot of the shot numbers for those players, as are set out below:
There’s a ton of fascinating things going on from a coaching perspective, and some worrying things as the Oilers play ten of their next twelve on the road. Some graphs:
I’ve defined “best players” as Iginla, J. Staal, M. Koivu, Ovechkin, Stastny, D. Sedin, Gaborik, Arnott and Legwand. Your mileage may vary.
So what does this tell us? The young fellows have been absolutely torched in their limited road sample to date, getting around 30% of the shots when they’re on the ice. When they’re at home, they’ve been sheltered to a level that I don’t recall ever seeing before – I was fiddling around with Darcy Hordichuk’s numbers from last year after he made his silly comment about hitting the Sedins (despite not really being allowed on the ice against guys like the Sedins) and his sheltering wasn’t that extreme. They’re basically playing in a different, lesser league than Horcoff/Smyth/Jones, who have faced what you could quite fairly call an Olympian level of competition so far.
The next twelve games will tell us a lot, I think, about whether the Oilers are going to be in the playoff discussion this year. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to see whether the young guys continue to get destroyed on the road and the extent to which Renney is going to be able to protect them. I would expect that he’ll get into a pattern of throwing them over the boards every time the opposition’s first line comes off, something that, outside of Minnesota, he’s had some luck in doing so far. The Oilers have played so few road games to date that you can’t really conclude anything yet. By the end of November, we should have a much better idea as to how things are likely to play out.