Steve Tambellini spoke to Jim Matheson the other day, giving a sort of update on where things are at this season and relative to his expectations. I’ve been kind of tracking what Tambellini says about expectations this season because it’s never been entirely clear to me what, exactly, he and the Oilers were expecting. Unsurprisingly, he says all sorts of silly stuff – Derek Zona takes apart his nonsense about the goaltending – but he also says that “I’m not going to put a number on (the number of points I expect). I want to finish as high as possible,” he said. “Again, I don’t want a lottery pick.”
That does seem to be a bit of a line in the sand. Avoid the lottery. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single, stumbling step that may actually have come about because you tripped and all that.
Of course, as it stands, the Oilers are in lottery territory. Have they really been a lottery team though? Let’s peel back the onion a little bit. Here are the NHL’s regulation time standings this year along with regulation time goal difference, good through the Buffalo game (so it doesn’t include last night, another one goal loss).
I’ve sorted this by winning percentage in regulation. As you can see, the Oilers were 22nd at the time I put this together. Their goal differential is pretty solid though – a -2 compared to lots of double digit minuses around them. A 9-2 pasting of Chicago will do that, to a degree. On the surface, it kind of looks like they’ve been a bit hard done by – the Wild have picked up 9 more points in two more games with the same goal difference.
As most readers of this site know, there’s a pretty strong relationship between goal difference and standings. It’s a good way to do a quick check and see if a team is getting what it deserves. On this, I think that you can argue that the Oilers aren’t. Also worth pointing out – they’ve only gone to overtime four times this year, less than half of the league average. I’ve written about this before, during the 2007-08 season, when the Oilers were getting into OT at an extraordinary rate:
I don’t think that the evidence would support the argument that there’s some skill in taking a game to a shootout – after correcting for the incidence of ties (which tend to increase as goals per game fall and parity increases), the correlation year over year in tie games by team is 0.02. The general theory amongst the people who write about sports through a lens of numbers is that if a result isn’t repeatable, it’s probably not due to a skill – that would suggest that while the Oilers performance in the shootout may or may not be due to their skill, the frequent opportunities to use those skills has its genesis in luck.
It’s fun looking back on the comments to that post – I assume all of the people who thought that I was undervaluing the Oilers wonderful skill at taking games to OT in 2007-08 are now highly critical of them for their failures to do so now. They’d still be wrong but I can’t imagine that they’d be so inconsistent as to accept evidence that casts the Oilers in a better light while rejecting evidence that doesn’t.
ANYWAY – here’s a graph illustrating the relationship between goal difference and points so far this year. You can see a pretty clear trend line running through it, even if I didn’t bother putting one in. Teams to the left of that line are getting less bang for their goal difference dollar; teams to the right are getting more. Note Montreal and Edmonton, right around the 0.4 mark, slightly under zero goal difference. Both seem to not be getting the bang for their goal difference.
Inefficiency at turning goal difference into standings points is one thing. If that were the only criteria, you could make a pretty good argument that this Oilers team is a cut above the past two years, things are trending in the right direction and Tambo über alles. What about the underlying data though? I’ve grabbed two different sets to look at. The first is this year Oilers’ team in relation to the past two years and the second is this year’s Oilers’ team in relation to the other teams in the lottery race. I’ve put Edmonton next to Montreal in the second comparison for reasons that will become obvious.
So at 5v5, this year’s team has a shockingly similar share of the shots to last year’s team. Why are they -7 instead of the more traditional -24 or so at this point in the year? PDO. The 5v5 goaltending’s produced a better save percentage which has kept the goals against down and a few more pucks are going in.
A point on PDO – while we say it reverts towards 1000, it actually regresses towards whatever the true talent is. A good rule of thumb for 5v5 is that the goalies will post a .920 and the players will score on 8% of shots; it’s not true with bad goalies. I’m not sure that I’d be inclined to bet on Edmonton’s PDO ending the year above 1000. Who’d you rather bet on from here – Carey Price or Nikolai Khabibulin?
In any event, if you were asked, “Is this edition of the Oilers better at 5v5 than the 30th overall teams?” you’d have a hard time saying yes, on this data. They also don’t compare particularly well to the teams around them in draft lottery contention. It’s all percentages separating them from those teams.
5v4 is more of the same in terms of percentages. The Oilers are producing about the same volume of shots that they’ve produced the past few years. They’re markedly below the shooting rates of the other teams in the hunt (poor Montreal can’t buy goals on the PP despite generating lots of shots). Are the Oilers better at 5v4 now than they were in the past two years? Only to the extent that the S% increase is real and, in any event, they’re susceptible to a cold run even if it is real.
4v5 looks like there might be some genuine improvement after the past couple years. A 12.5% decrease in opponent’s shooting rates is real and nothing to sniff at. Again, an improved save percentage hasn’t hurt either but it’s not a good thing to bet on going forward.
In short, as much as the Oilers can legitimately say that they’ve probably had luck running against them in terms of turning goal difference into points and in getting into OT games, they’re probably somewhat lucky to have the goal difference that they do, as they don’t really look appreciably better than the other bad teams on the underlying stats. They probably are a legitimate lottery team. Again.
Assuming that they are, what does this mean for Steve Tambellini? If “not being in the lottery” was this season’s pathetic goal and it wasn’t met, that’s two pretty ignominious failures in three years, the first being the Pat Quinn era. I assume that they were, if not trying, at least pretty cool with stinking last year.
It’s hard to look at this team and identify ways in which Tambellini has actively made it better, as opposed to passively accepting the blessings that the NHL forces upon the inept. He’s got a pretty long list of bad moves, including a troubling habit of acquiring guys who are defective. He’s made a lot of low percentage plays that have burned him, including Khabibulin, whatever he was trying to do with Sheldon Souray last year and Cam Barker. The Ben Eager contract looks asinine. He doesn’t really seem to be engaged in actively sifting through coal in the defenceman market.
Montreal provides another fun contrast here too. They’ve got a much more defensible case that they’re experiencing hard luck this year than the Oilers do but it’s not good enough. People get fired. While I’m not necessarily defending that, I do think that there’s something to be said for unmet expectations meaning new faces in jobs. If the Oilers can’t meet the most pathetic of goals, isn’t it time for someone else in Edmonton?