I was trying for a while before the season to put together a post explaining why it is that I’m so pessimistic about the Oilers’ chances this year and struggling to do so. It just kept getting too big and unwieldy and then the baseball playoffs and then next thing I know, we’re eight games into the season. I kind of figured that it might be better to break it down into bite sized pieces.
One of the high points of the Oilers run towards the end of the year was the PP. Souray came back from injury, Gagner got some games under his belt…things started rolling. I’ve seen detailed arguments about how much better the PP was and that it can be directly tied to the development of the youngsters and Souray’s return. Guys like Lowetide, who is a very smart observer of the game, are suggesting that “…this team…should punish opponents with a splendid powerplay.” In fairness to him, he isn’t explicitly basing this on the results achieved at the end of last year, but, and I’m sure that he’ll correct me if I’m wrong, I’m guessing that it factors into things a little bit.
The Oilers really were a mixed bag on the PP last year. Through their first 42 games, they were scoring 4.5 PPG/60. In their final 40 games, they scored 7.9 PPG/60. 4.5 PPG/60 would leave you in last over the course of an entire season in terms of PP efficiency, without even really being within hailing distance of the team in 29th, St. Louis, which finished with 5.1 PPG/60. 7.9 PPG/60 would mean that you’ve got one of the best PP in the NHL, behind only the utterly ridiculous Montreal Canadiens at 9.0 PPG/60, the surprising Philadelphia Flyers at 8.4 PPG/60 and the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings, at 8.0 PPG/60. It really was quite a ridiculous swing, going from an horrific PP to one of the best in the NHL.
What troubles me, in terms of deciding whether or not I think that the gains were real, is the manner in which the change came about. Through 42 games, the Oilers were taking 37.7 PPS/60, shooting 11.9%. In their final games, they took 41.3 PPS/60 and shot 19.2%. It was completely a shooting percentage driven jump. It will surprise nobody, I’m sure, to learn that the Oilers PPS/60 through the first 42 games was good for last place, as was their PPS/60 in their final 40 games. Their shooting percentage on the PP through their first 42 games would have put them 28th over the course of an entire season; their shooting percentage over their final 40 games would have led the league, handily beating out Philadelphia’s 17.1%.
In light of the above, I think it’s clear that in order for one to reasonably expect the Oilers PP to be a splendid one that lights up opponents’ penalty kills, one has to believe either of three things to be true: a) a low shot volume/high shooting percentage PP can be sustained over the long haul, b) if not, that it’s realistic to expect the Oilers to get luckier than Barry Fraser between 1979-1983 again or c) the combination of the players that they’ve brought in and the development/meshing of the players who were already in Edmonton will be such as to remedy the underlying problems that afflict the PP.
I’ve assembled four years of data to poke around – 2003-04, 2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08. What I’ve done, for the sake of poking around a little bit, is split the data into halves. So, in addition to the totals for each season, I’ve also got the numbers for each half. I’m trying to just come up with some general principles here that emerge from the years over which we have this data. This is a subject that I think a lot can be done with, something that I might come back to a few times over the course of the season, because there’s a lot of stuff that you can do as far as digging into this sort of stuff. If anyone wants the data, let me know and I’ll figure out a way to put the spreadsheet up.
Anyway, for this post, some general stuff. I’m tossing up a graph of how the thirty power plays have done over the past four seasons just for kicks and so we can all revel in how terrible the Oilers PP has been. I’m a MacT supporter, as I’ve said time and time again, but if he’s going to be fired at some point over the next season, the stink emanating from the PP ought to be the reason, not a failure to build on last year’s 88 points. As an aside, it’s kind of interesting how the PP shooting percentages drift into a pretty tight band – they’re all basically within two percntage points of the mean over that period.
The Oilers inability to generate shots really is a bad joke. MacT is a smart guy – I’d like to hear him explain what the hell he perceives the problem to be here. I’ve probably watched 70% of their games over the past few years and I’d lean towards an inability to get possession in the offensive zone. It’s appalling. Anyway, on to my points.
1. A team’s PPG/60 is pretty tightly tied to its shooting percentage. It doesn’t really matter how you break this down, whether it’s by looking at the 240 team halves in the chunk of data that I have or the 120 team seasons. In the former case, the correlation is .828; in the latter it’s .784. Shot rate, by comparison, isn’t so tightly correlated with the goal rate. For the 240 half seasons I have, the correlation between the shot rate and the goal rate is 0.542; for the 120 full seasons, it’s .641. My take on this is that there are so relatively few shots taken on the PP over the course of a season (and particularly in a half season) and a wide enough spread in the shooting percentages, that a good run of shooting percentage, whether it’s luck or not, can plaster over a team’s failure to generate a lot of shots on the PP. This finds a little support, I think, if you look at the data over a four year period – the correlation then between PPS/60 and PPG/60 is .694, compared to a correlation between shooting percentage and PPG/60 of .755.
2. Past shooting percentage doesn’t predict future shooting percentage on the team level particularly well. This is fascinating to me. I’m not sure how valuable doing this on a full season level will be here, given the lockout. It doesn’t really seem to me to make much sense to compare 2003-04 and 2005-06. If you look at team shooting percentages in 2005-06 versus 2006-07 and in 2006-07 versus 2007-08, the correlation is negligible at .294. If you look at the correlations in shooting percentage for the various halves between the first and second halves for 2003-04, 2005-06, 2006-07 and 2007-08, it’s virtually non-existent, at 0.08. Crazy shit happens in the course of a single half. Oddly, the best shooting percentage in a single half on the PP since 2003-04 belongs to the 2003-04 Penguins, the horrific pre-Crosby/Malkin edition of the team. That probably made Dick Tarnstrom a few million bucks though. Edmonton’s second half in 2007-08 finishes second on that list.
3. Shooting rate predicts future scoring rates about as well as actual scoring rates do. The correlations are pretty weak but still – for S/60 to G/60 from the first half to the second, it’s .238; for G/60 to G/60, the correlation isn’t much better, at .274. If you compare 2005-06 to 2006-07 and 2006-07 to 2007-08. the correlation between S/60 to G/60 is .283; for G/60 season over season, it’s .308. Weak predictive values for each.
At the end, what I take from this early sort of a look and what drives my skepticism is that the stuff that the Oilers were good at – basically G/60 and S% – isn’t the sort of stuff that tends to repeat. I have a theory that there’s a limit to what skill on the PP can get you in terms of shooting percentage and above that, you’re into luck. Does anyone really think that Edmonton is currently icing better offensive talent on the PP than teams like Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and Pittsburgh have over the past four years? Those teams have shot 14.8%, 13.6%, 15.0% and 15.5% respectively over four years. If the Oilers shot 15.5% on the PP in the last half of the 2007-08 season, their PP wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive, scoring just 6.4 PPG/60. Not the horror show of the first half but nothing respectable either. With their inability to generate shots on the PP, they simply have to have a shooting percentage in the range that I think of as lucky, in the sense that they can’t expect it to continue in the long run, in order to put up good results on the PP. We can all hope that that happens but, as I’ve said here before and no matter what we saw last year, hope isn’t much of a replacement for a plan.
I really think that the PP shooting rates are a systemic problem for the Oilers, something that goes beyond the players. Even when Pronger was in town, they were up to nothing more than average. Whatever they’re doing, it hasn’t worked for four years and the guys who’ve been responsible for gaining the zone, guys like Hemsky and Horcoff, they’re going to be big players on the PP again this year. I think that MacT is a hell of a coach, a guy capable of getting a lot out of his players but this just seems like an incredible weakness of his.
In order for me to believe in this team the way that guys like Allen Mitchell and Jonathan Willis do, I have to believe that they’re able to start generating power play shots at a realistic pace. I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they’re at that point yet. We’re eight games into the season right now and the PP is scoring a respectable 7.0 PPG/60. The same old problems are in place though – they’re getting just 33.9 PPS/60. They’re currently shooting 20.6%. As long as the shooting percentage is through the roof, the good times will roll. When the shooting percentage dries up – and it will – they’re going to be in a world of hurt if they haven’t figured out a way to start getting the shots into at least the high forties. Given that the best non-Pronger half they’ve put up in the past four years is 44.3 PPS/60 in the second half of 2006-07, I’m not going to hold my breath in this regard.
Unrelated: If you’re looking for something funny out of the whole Dave Berry thing, check out this post at Pensblog. They’re unduly harsh on Brownlee (even though I wasn’t completely in line with his take on the Oilers thing) but otherwise fair.