Sam Gagner, Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky played 12:31 together at ES against Chicago. The Blackhawks put that line on the rack, winning the shot attempt battle by an amazing count of 18-4. This is pretty troubling when you consider that Hall and Hemsky both have track records as possession players and that this is supposed to be one of the Oilers’ better lines. I thought it might interesting to dig a little deeper and see what I could find out about this.
Something that jumped out at me going through this were the faceoffs when these guys were on the ice. Chicago won 16 of them, with Edmonton winning 3. I trust I’m not hammering the obvious when I point out that this is a problem. Guys like me have a tendency to downplay the importance of faceoffs but I suspect it’s pretty tough to finish anywhere near the black when you’re getting beat 84-16 on the faceoffs, particularly against a skilled team.
How badly did this hurt the Oilers? Well, consider this – I went through after each faceoff win and counted the time until possession changed hands. This was a charitable way of looking at it for the Oilers – they had more than a few situations like this:
I call that a five second possession. Clearly though, the loss of the faceoff resulted in more because it put the Oilers into a position in which they got the puck back but were unable to clear the zone. Even with those scoring rules, which stop the clock when the team losing the draw is able to exert some sort of control, however minimal, over the puck, the Oilers still spent a whopping 2:50 of the 12:31 that 89/83/4 were on the ice together trying to regain possession after a lost faceoff. They spent an abysmal 18 seconds with possession after their three faceoff wins – part of the problem here is that Gagner wasn’t winning draws cleanly, which led to very brief possessions for the Oilers.
It’s tough to do very much with those faceoff wins, although perhaps some sort of breakout could have been established off the second faceoff win. As an aside, analytics has been a big topic of discussion lately, with people like Dave Nonis saying that they don’t see much there. Imagine if you had data like this for every game that was played. You might learn, for example, that it’s particularly important to win faceoffs against a team like Chicago if you ever want to touch the puck. Maybe it makes sense, in those circumstances, to pair the guys that you want to have the puck on their stick, like Ales Hemsky and Taylor Hall, with Boyd Gordon. I don’t know – these are the sorts of questions that you could really delve into with good data.
I made this point on Lowetide’s show yesterday but players aren’t their worst game or their best game. That being said, Gagner’s struggles in the faceoff circle are nothing new and they’re severe enough that he’s one of those players who’s awfully close to the margins where winning or losing faceoffs matter. When we say faceoffs don’t matter, it’s sort of on the understanding that most guys are within a couple of points of 50%. If you go back to the last full season, 2011-12, 68% of the guys who took at least 300 draws were at 50%, +/- 5 points. For most guys, it’s a small difference. For Gagner, it hasn’t been. Spending an evening taking faceoffs against Jonathan Toews simply highlighted this.
A random observation: for some reason Hall and Hemsky seem to just be swapping wings on occasion this year. Take a look at this:
You’ve got Gagner putting up a token forecheck as Smyth and Yakupov are changing. Hall and Hemsky come out and proceed to play each other’s positions for some reason. This would be an interesting thing for someone to ask Dallas Eakins about – it shows up repeatedly over the course of the game. No idea why.
One final thing that caught my eye: zone exits. I just went through and grabbed the zone exits for this line during this game. There’s a growing body of evidence that being able to exit your zone with control of the puck, as opposed to hacking it wildly over the blue line, leads to offence. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it for two seconds: if you can exit the zone with the puck, you can have a structured attack. If you’re just whacking the puck and praying, you need a mistake.
There seems to me to be an inordinate amount of whacking the puck out there. I’m not really sure what the issue is from a technical perspective – the Oilers just seemed to be completely unable to establish control of the puck and move it out. The shame of it was that this line was able to do some things and put some passes together if they could ever leave the zone with control – they just weren’t able to do so all that often.
Anyway, a couple of things that caught my eye on what was a pretty tough night from a collection of players that the Oilers absolutely have to get more out of if they’re going to have some success.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com