As expected, Steve Tambellini got his extension from the Oilers. It’s for an undefined period of time. Also aggravatingly undefined are the expectations, as John MacKinnon noted in his piece about the extension:
Where did Tambellini envision his team by the end of his shiny new mandate?
“I hope we’re a continual playoff team,” Tambellini said. “Let’s see how we develop here.
“Our goal is only one thing here — it’s to win a championship. And there’s a price to pay to win a championship.
“You have to pay a price of developing, you have to pay the price of doing the right work to bring the right people in here. You need the right coaching staff.”
And when might all this development mature into a winner?
“We’re going to get there as soon as we can get there,” Tambellini said.
Expectations and timelines have been a bit of a sore point for me for a while with this meandering fiasco of a hockey club. Tambellini is pretty good at refusing to set any sort of public goal or expectation, lest someone point out that the Oilers aren’t getting there but it’s pretty obvious that they haven’t achieved what they set out to do in two of the three years where he’s been the guy. In 2009-10, he thought he was putting together a playoff team with veteran coaching and an MVP calibre goaltender; they finished thirtieth. While he wouldn’t say what his expectations were last year, he did say he didn’t expect to be in the draft lottery and the decision not to renew Tom Renney’s contract also suggests pretty strongly that the Oilers did not accomplish that which they set out to do.
The somewhat frustrating thing from the perspective of the fan is that it’s difficult to know what the timeline should be. The Tambo fanboys throw around references to the Chicago model and the Pittsburgh model and the cynics mutter about Atlanta and Columbus but there’s been little in the way of hard data produced to show what the norm is for teams on the path that the Oilers are walking. So I set out to produce something.
I’ve taken each season from 1995-96 to present and converted the point totals such that there are 2.24 points awarded per game, as there was in 2011-12. I’ve then created two groups of teams and looked at how they performed in their next five years. The first group is teams getting between 57 and 67 points in a season. I’ve summarized how those teams progressed in the table below.
To the extent that Tambellini had expectations of competing for the playoffs in 2011-12, I think that those expectations were probably unrealistic. It’s more than a little unfortunate for Tom Renney that he ended up not getting renewed; the Oilers improved about as much as most teams coming off a 62 point season do. If you figure it takes 85 points to get into playoff contention, only two of 22 teams coming off a 62 +/- 5 point season managed that.
Jason Strudwick had a piece at OilersNation a little while back in which he said that Scotty Bowman couldn’t have made the Oilers into a playoff team; after Renney was let go, Bob Stauffer went on the air and suggested that Strudwick owed his career to Renney and that they were old friends and that this was one friend looking out for another. The data seems to agree with Strudwick insofar as teams as lousy as the 2010-11 Oilers don’t really make great leaps forward the following year.
Now, you can take this table and argue that Tambo is behind the curve. In 2009-10, the Oilers put up 62 points. The average team improves by about ten points a year. The Oilers didn’t have a better record in 2010-11 and then went up about ten points this year. Tambo added two useful players to the 2010-11 team in Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall and the team went nowhere. That’s not the way these things normally work. If you’re charitable, you might say that they were just punting on the year and, while I don’t think that they intended to seriously contend for a playoff spot or anything, it’s a bit unusual that they just sat at the bottom of the standings, like a fish that’s died and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
What if we just look at the teams who had two terrible years in a row, as the Oilers had endured entering the 2011-12 season. I defined a group of teams between 57-67 points in year one and fewer than 70 points in year two. It produces the following:
We’re focusing on the YR+2 column here and considering that against the 2011-12 Oilers’ season. The 1998-99 and 1999-00 New York Islanders aren’t really an appropriate comparator because of what they ultimately did to rebuild – acquire Alexei Yashin, Mike Peca and Chris Osgood, amongst others. The 2006-07 Pittsburgh Penguins absolutely exploded in their YR+2 but that’s not really a fair comparator either; the Pens improved their save percentage by nearly 20 points and added Evegeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, amongst others. It seems to me that there are three teams identified here as being comparable to the OIlers in terms of coming off of two horrendous years: the 2006-07 Chicago Blackhawks, the 2001-02 Tampa Bay Lightning and the 2002-03 Atlanta Thrashers.
As you’ll note, Edmonton’s point total compares pretty well with those teams. All of them posted about the same point totals. It’s YR+3, or what will be the 2012-13 season for Edmonton where the separation started to occur. Tampa Bay improved by 24 points, the Blackhawks by 18 points and Atlanta by only five. Chicago and Tampa Bay went on to better things; Atlanta went on to not much and, ultimately, to Winnipeg.
It’s probably worth commenting a little bit on just how Chicago and Tampa Bay went about improving so much. Chicago added Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Robert Lang, who ended up being three of their top four scorers on the season. Chicago probably deserved a playoff spot but was done in by some crappy goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin. Tampa Bay saw the trio of Martin St. Louis, Vinny Prospal and Vinny Lecavalier increase their goal production from 54 to 88, as the Lightning went from scoring 178 goals to 219 goals.
I then tried slicing the data another way, to see if I could get a bigger sample to work with. I created a group of teams with between 69 and 79 points – the Oilers point total this year +/- five points. You’ll notice that the values tend to roughly correspond with the values from a year later for the teams getting 62 +/- 5 points. For example, those teams averaged 84 points in YR+2; these teams averaged 85 points in YR+1. The teams travel roughly the same path, with the teams starting from 62 +/- five points just being a year behind.
As you’ll note, making the playoffs the year following a year like the Oilers just endured is awfully tough to do – only a quarter of teams managed to produce 95+ points. Realistically, you’re looking to set yourself up for a playoff push in the following season. What then, should you hope to see in order to feel confident that you’re on the right path?
Well, of teams that posted fewer than 90 points in YR+1 (39 teams) just ten of them went on to make the playoffs in YR+2. Basically, there’s not a lot of difference between being a 75 point team and a mid-80s team in terms of becoming a playoff contender. For teams with 90 points or more in YR+1, (22 teams) 59% of them made the playoffs. That’s a pretty high hurdle for the Oil to climb over next year.
What if we cut at this another way? What are the odds of making the playoffs in YR+1 with X points in YR? The story there is pretty much the exact same: teams with 87 points or fewer have about a 24% shot at making the playoffs in YR+1. Teams with 88+ points have a 44% shot at making it. I suspect that we see the drop in probability of making the playoffs compared to looking at teams that are clearly rising because we’re now including teams that aren’t young and improving.
What does it all mean? Well, I think it means that the bar for a successful season next year, one in which you can say “This is clearly a team headed in the right direction” is awfully high. I’m thinking somewhere along the lines of 88 points or more. Anything less, and the Oilers start to look more like the Atlanta Thrashers than they do the Chicago Blackhawks or Pittsburgh Penguins.
Is it likely to happen? I’ve got my doubts. It sure looks like something close to last year’s team will return. Hemsky being healthy for a year is going to help but the Regression Fairy’s coming for Jordan Eberle, which will negate some of that. Adding Nail Yakupov will, in theory, be helpful but young players aren’t generally all that great at the NHL level. If pressed, I’d guess that they end up high 70s or low 80s.
That doesn’t set them up very well for a playoff push the following year. Even if you’re willing to overlook the entire 2009-10 cratering and what that says about his judgment, even if you’re willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on 2010-11 – if this team isn’t in the high 80s in points next year, it will be undeniable that they’re off the rebuild pace. Surely that’s a standard that we can all agree on, even if Tambo himself refuses to admit to any goals or expectations?