Well, what seemed obvious for some time has come to pass and the NHL and NHLPA have made a deal. I wasn’t particularly motivated to write about what to expect this season for the Oilers in August or September, given that it was obvious a lockout was coming, but now that we’re going to have a season, I’m kind of curious to figure out what I should expect from the Oilers.
Whenever I’m asking myself this question, I like to start with what happened last year and whether the team’s record was a fair representation of how they played. The English have a saying that the table never lies and it’s true to an extent – it’s generally accurately tabulated. The problem is that we have a tendency to treat the standings as telling us how good or bad a team is and that isn’t what the standings are for.
I generally start at the top of what I think of as being the analytical way of looking at teams and then dig down. For me, the first thing I want to know is whether or not the goal difference produced the record that we’d expect in the previous season and that’s what I’ll look at in this post. This isn’t the only level of the analysis – it’s just the first level. Remember that if this post seems really positive – I know there are some less positive aspects to come, although I don’t know how it all ends up.
This has become increasingly complicated in the NHL, as the NHL has layered on all sorts of bastard points and fake goals in the GF and GA columns. The theory behind looking at goal difference is that goals happen randomly in accordance with a team’s underlying skill at scoring and stopping and that wins and standing points flow from that. The current rules kind of mess with that relationship, because a lot more goals become worth a single standings point (OT increases due to the incentives) and phantom goals for/against are, inexplicably, credited for shootouts.
My way of dealing with this is just to look at what happens in regulation time. I create a regulation time record by backing out OTW and SOW and adding them to the OTL/SOL column as regulation ties. I also then strip out the overtime goals and goals credited for shootouts. Finally, I knock out empty netters, as they aren’t real goals. I went through the seven NHL seasons post-2005 CBA and created regulation time standings. As you’re probably aware if you read this site, it takes about three goal difference to generate a point in the NHL standings. If your team is -3, you can expect to have 81 regulation points. If you’re -19, as the Oilers were last year, you’d expect about 76 regulation points.
I went through the seven seasons for which I created regulation time standings and collected all of the teams that -19 +/- 3 goal difference. That produces the following group of teams, which had the records indicated.
There are quite a few points to make here. First, you’ll note that the average points collected by those teams was 76.3 – pretty much bang on with what we’d expect, based on our rule of three goal difference to a standings point. Second, you’ll note that 14/17 teams were within +/- six points of the average, which is consistent with the league as a whole. 11/17 were within +/- three points of the average – again, this is consistent with the league as a whole. Third you’ll notice that the Oilers pretty brutally underperformed that average, missing by nine points. (Everyone praising Dale Tallon as a genius might want to note that the Panthers beat the average by 11 points.) If you’re someone who wants to see the Oilers do well, this is pretty promising – it suggests that they weren’t as bad as their record last year and were, in fact, much closer to being an average team than their 29th place finish would suggest.
One theory for the divergence between the Oilers record and their goal differential was that they put up a couple of blowouts. I looked into that and I can’t find a lot to it. Edmonton’s biggest win last year was a seven goal win. The average biggest win of the teams I looked at was 5.7. Expand it to the two biggest wins and the average goal difference is 9.9; Edmonton’s is 12. Expand it to the three biggest wins and the average becomes 13.8 goal differential; Edmonton’s three biggest wins produced 16 goal differential. If you go to the four biggest wins, the average goal difference is 17.4 and Edmonton was +20. In short, even kind of crappy teams have nights where the stars align. You can’t explain the disparity between Edmonton’s goal difference and record by the blowout wins.
What if we take a closer look at record in games decided by one goal, two goals, etc in regulation. This data is amazingly difficult to generate (believe me) because it’s polluted by empty netters but I went back through and, with the power of Excel, pulled the records together for the teams under consideration. First, let’s look at their collective record:
There’s an old Bill James theory that I’ve always believed was equally applicable to hockey with respect to the kinds of games that bad teams win. James’ theory, which is borne out by the data, is that a bad team is more likely to win a close game than it is to win a blowout. When you think about it for a second, the logic of this is pretty obvious: if you’re a crappy team, you have trouble scoring and preventing runs, so you’re more likely to just barely eke out a win than you are to destroy the opposition. This would seem to be true of our collection of teams that went -19 +/-3 as well.
Now let’s look at the teams individually. I’ve sorted their records into one goal games (including regulation ties) and blowouts.
Huh. Edmonton were terrible at winning one goal games in regulation but basically bang average in terms of their blowout winning percentage, when compared to this group as a whole. Now take a look at the goal difference in one goal games and in blowouts, which is set out in the table below.
You’ll note that the average team with a goal difference comparable to the Oilers was -0.1 in one goal games (basically even) and -18.8 in blowouts (call it -19). Edmonton’s spread of goal difference was significantly different – eight goals worse in one goal games and eight goals better in blowouts. The problem with this is that goals in blowouts don’t really have much in the way of win value. When the Oilers scored their ninth against Chicago, the party at my house got a little louder but 8-2 or 9-2, who cares. A goal in a one goal game is vitally important – if you slide eight goal difference from the blowout column to the one goal game column, Edmonton’s points are going to make a swift jump, because in 32 of those 39 games, a goal would mean a standings point.
The big question is why the Oilers were so poor in one goal games and so much better in blowouts. Were they actually a horrible one goal game team that just happened to get lucky and kick the living hell out of a few teams that were disinterested, for whatever reason? Or did randomness just kind of happen to bite them the wrong way in terms of the distribution of their goal difference? I tend to lean towards for the latter. The Oilers’ record in those blowouts is pretty comparable to the average record of teams with a goal difference in their neighborhood, which suggests to me that they are like these teams, just with a different distribution of goals.
One last table, highlighting the Oilers’ performance in one goal games in regulation and blowouts in the last three years:
So you can see what’s happened there – the blowout record has improved dramatically but they remained weirdly unimproved in terms of their record last year in one goal games. They’ve stayed static for three years. I’ve got some other ideas for things to look at but, on balance, I’d be inclined to believe that the Oilers were unfortunate last year in terms of their record in one goal games and, therefore, their overall record.
If the Oilers were, on merit, a 75 or 76 point club last year, underperforming the regulation goal difference is actually a pretty significant stroke of luck. Nine more points would have bumped the Oilers up into 23rd or so, a finishing spot that is perfectly useless – you aren’t really in the playoff hunt and, instead of feathering your nest with a Nail Yakupov, you get a Jacob Trouba.
One last note before I leave this post. The Oilers got seven points out of seventeen overtime games last year. They were a little light in terms of the number of OT games that they should expect to play – about twenty (as I’ve discussed previously, there’s no reason to think that getting to OT is a skill) and in the points that they took. A .500 record in OT would have made them an 85 or 86 point team.
It’s a heck of a lot easier for a true talent 85 or 86 point team to take the next step towards playoff contention, particularly if it’s adding Justin Schultz, Nail Yakupov (and those guys make some sort of impact) and a full season from a healthy Ales Hemsky than it is for a 74 point team to do so. I’ll dig some more into the question of whether the Oilers were closer to being a true talent 85 point team or so in the coming days.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org