With last night’s loss in Anaheim, this season is now virtually certain to end with the Oilers missing the playoffs. If you listened to Shawn Horcoff and Taylor Hall talking after the game, you can tell that they know. Horcoff had a note in his voice that I haven’t really heard since the end of 2006 from him, sounding like someone who has had all hope extinguished. Hall sounded beaten down.
When this season’s over, after the Oilers go 5-2-2 or so in their last nine games, there’s going to be a chunk of the media and the fanbase that’s going to point to this season as a critical step forward for a young team that’s learning how to win games. It’s consistent with historical narratives about hockey. It will be completely untrue. This season is the first of the years in which you can win a Stanley Cup with Taylor Hall as your best player thrown away because of how screwed up everything else is. I don’t expect them to put together a Stanley Cup contending team overnight but when you’re starting with a player of his calibre and you’ve had three years since you admit the rebuild started in 2010, you really ought to be doing better.
To my point about young teams learning how to win games and all that and how that’s not really the issue here, I’ve assembled a list of guys who played in Edmonton from 2010-12, when the Oilers finished 30th and 29th, and so far this year. I’ve then gathered their SF and SA data for those periods, which I’ve presented below. I’m just using time in Edmonton for Ryan Smyth and Eric Belanger (and I’ve excluded Nick Schultz rather than pick through his data from last year).
The key data in this table is the SF/SA columns and the DIF column. In brief: five of the Oilers who were here last year are at least matching what they did in terms of their SF/SA. Eberle and Hall have both seen big jumps in their numbers. I was critical of Eberle last year because I didn’t believe the offence was real – this is a far, far more positive sign from him than last year’s big S% year. The guy’s a good hockey player, even if he’s not what the Oilers thought they were buying.
The rest of it though…good lord, what a disaster. Horcoff and Jones have kind of posted similar numbers to last year, albeit in awfully small samples due to injury. Smyth’s numbers say he hasn’t performed as poorly as is widely believed, at least relative to last year. Then it just gets ugly. It’s easier to appreciate the scale of this if I do a comparison between the actual shot differential when given players are on the ice and what it would have been if they’d had the same SF/SA ratio as they had in the 2010-12 seasons.
Let me explain this table. Jordan Eberle has been on the ice for 311 SF at 5v5 this year. He’s been on the ice for 276 SA. 311-276=35. If the Oilers had taken 48% of the shots with Eberle on the ice, as they have for the past two years, they would be getting outshot 282-305 with him on the ice, which is a shot differential of -23. 35-(-23)=58. So, the Oilers have a shot differential that’s 58 shots better this year with Eberle on the ice than it would be if they were performing as they had between 2010-12 with him on the ice. Repeat for 18 other players.
It is, I hope, pretty apparent where things are really going off the rails for the Oilers this year. Start with Smid and go down. The numbers for what is basically the second line (Hemsky, Gagner and MPS) and the fourth line (Petrell/Belanger/Eager/Smyth) are horrific. Even if we thought the fourth line guys were bad last year – and I did – they seem to have gotten dramatically worse for some reason. I’ve seen a lot of talk about Gagner on Lowetide’s site, how he cheats for offence but I think it does bear mentioning that he was once a guy who, while not great, didn’t get slaughtered at ES. This year, it’s Stalingrad out there.
Let’s look at this from a different angle. Between 2010-12, the Oilers got outshot 3858-3358 at 5v5. That means that they took 46.5% of the 5v5 shots. When Jordan Eberle wasn’t on the ice, they got outshot 2835-2415 – they took 46% of the shots. This year, they’re getting outshot 948-784 – that’s 45.3% of the shots. When Jordan Eberle isn’t on the ice, they’re getting outshot 672-473, which means they’re getting 41.3% of the shots. When Eberle is on the ice, as I mentioned above, they’re outshooting 311-276. (I’m using Eberle here because he’s a decent proxy for the Kid Line, in that he misses fewer games than Hall.)
I’m going to write this paragraph in bold because it’s so astonishing to me. If the Oilers had simply managed to run in place for this season when Jordan Eberle isn’t on the ice, they’d be getting outshot 894-838 overall, which is 48.4% of the shots. This would be better than they have done at any time during the period in which the NHL has collected detailed information about who’s on the ice for a shot for/against. It would likely make them about 8 or 9 goals better in the old goal difference column, which is worth 2 or 3 points in the standings. You can look at the standings yourself and see how that would change things.
The Internet’s Woodguy had a theory about why the Oilers have had such a hard time this year:
I have no proof, but by eye the Oilers up ice pressure system where the D steps up and the Fs cover has not worked well. F’s don’t cover when they should, D making bad decisions on when to step up. I think that system is sound, but both the players (moreso the D than F imo) need to implement it better.
It would also help to have better players. To run that type of system requires everyone knowing exactly where everyone else is supposed to go and actually executing it (see Jones lollygagging everywhere on the ice creating holes where they are not supposed to be) So when I see the Oilers getting more lit up in terms of SA/60 and then by eye I see way more odd man rushes, which often turn into multiple shots against, I think I can see why the corsi is in the tank.
4-93-14 are just so goddam good together it doesn’t show up in their numbers, but its show up everywhere else. Petry was a rock last year and this year he looks hesitant and unsure when to step up and when to skate backwards and mind his gap. I really do think a lot of the SA is due to the system with poor implementation and meh players. An upgrade in D and a full TC to teach the system will help.
They seem to be getting better at is as well, but this year is pretty much lost.
I don’t know of any evidence that contradicts that theory. I’m not saying that I endorse it but it strikes me as plausible. I don’t know how else to explain what’s gone on this season – it’s absolutely bizarre to see most of a team collapse the way in which the Oilers have done.
So, to circle around to the main point that people should take away from this: the rebuild has worked, insofar as the Oilers now have a first line of highly skilled guys who they drafted and developed. This should be a playoff contending team. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, whether it’s tactics or players who can’t implement the tactics or both, they aren’t a contender. That has to fall on management and there have to be some hard questions of the coaching staff and management as to why they can’t assemble a group of players and coaches who can support the fruit of the Oilers being terrible forever.
Oh – one more nugget: I threw this fact out on Twitter last night: “Teams that picked first and couldn’t makes playoffs in next three years since 92: TB (92/98), OTT (93), ATL (99/01), CBJ (02), NYI (09).”
That is not respectable company in which to spend one’s time.Email Tyler Dellow at email@example.com