Change of pace today. I’m a big fan of the Marek v. Wyshynski podcast but those guys have, occasionally, discussed the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers with something less than the reverence I believe to be appropriate. Indeed, the f word has been used: fluke.
It always bugs me when people call that team a fluke because it seems to be tossed out by people who are kind of vaguely aware that the Oilers didn’t make the 2004 playoffs and keenly aware of the running joke that’s been Edmonton since 2006 and just sort of mash it all together and come up with “fluke.”
What they miss when they call the 05-06 Oilers a fluke is just how good the 2003-04 Oilers were, even without making the playoffs. Truthfully, the Oilers were unfortunate to miss the playoffs in 2003-04. They finished ninth, with 89 points (back before the days when hockey games were a points orgy) and a +13 goal difference. Nashville, at -1, finished eighth. St. Louis, also at 91 points, finished with a -7 goal difference and got the seven seed.
Moreover, the NW division was a bear in 2003-04. Minnesota finished fifth, with 83 points. Vancouver and Colorado both had more than 100 points and Calgary went to the finals. Tough division. The NW went a combined 46-31-17-6 against the Central that year. While St. Louis and Nashville were beating up on Columbus (62 points) and Chicago (59), Edmonton got to play Minnesota (83 points) and Calgary (94), not to mention Colorado and Vancouver. RIght away, you can make a pretty solid argument that the difference in schedule, with six games against in-division teams and four against conference opponents, probably let Nashville and/or St. Louis slip past the Oilers.
Another thing about those 2003-04 Oilers: they had horrific goaltending. Their goaltending was so bad that it prompted the first ever analytically correct cartoon strip about goaltending. Courtesy of old friend Mike Winters:
A little piece of history, right there. Your less bleeding edge cartoonists would have had a punchline about his GAA or wins. (By the way, Mike’s still doing Oilers cartoons at his fine Cartoon Machine site.
They ended up 22nd in the NHL in save percentage, which is bad but doesn’t really tell the whole story. They were bailed out a little bit by Tommy Salo having some injures (Salo posted an .896 in 44 games with the Oilers) and not starting as much as he otherwise might have. If they’d had even league average goaltending, which I’m eyeballing at about .908, you can slice 8 more goals off their goals against, which turns them into a +21 team and probably sticks another four points on their total.
Goalies are part of the team and all that but, if someone was going to hand me the keys to a hockey team tomorrow and I was given a choice between two teams, both of which were basically the same age wise and went +13 the previous season but one did it with .900 goaltending and one did it with .930 goaltending, I’d take the .900 one. It’s easier to fix one problem than a bunch of problems and a team with .900 goaltending and the same goal difference as a team with .930 goaltending has fewer problems. They have one localized problem that can be resolved by punching the terrible goalie in the back of the head and getting one who isn’t terrible.
That Oiler team was famously (at least in the circles I talk hockey in) good at 5v5. They outscored their opposition 148-121 at 5v5 which is awfully good. We don’t have a lot of the data we have now but when fiddling around on NHL.com last night, I realized that I could get the shot data and remove PPSF and PKSA from it, which gives me a reasonably good measure of how good the Oilers were at outshooting 5v5 – it’s still got shots taken by the shorthanded team in it, but those are relatively infrequent.
As the table (at left) shows, the Oilers score pretty well by this metric. Kind of unsurprising to see eventual Conference champions Calgary and Tampa Bay well up the charts. Also kind of intriguing to see Carolina up the chart, even in front of the Oilers. I’m rather biased but I thought that the Oilers had a better team that Carolina in 2005-06. Seeing this though, one wonders whether there was a base of a good team in Carolina that, quite simply, nobody noticed. If it can happen in Edmonton, an actual hockey city that people pay attention to, surely it can happen in Carolina, where Jim Rutherford could be running some sort of monstrous Staal breeding project and nobody would notice even when Carolina iced a team consisting entirely of 20 Staals. “Huh,” they’d say when they looked over Carolina’s roster sheet, “Carolina has a team now?”
I digress – my point is this: that 2003-04 Oilers team was a really, really good ES team, something that’s gone unnoticed. They were not, however, without their blemishes. Obviously, if they went +13 overall and +27 at ES, things did not go so well somewhere else. What’s that you say? The Oilers have historically been a terrible PP team? Astute. In fact, Edmonton scored the second fewest PP goals in the league in 2003-04 (44), with only one team behind them: Carolina, with 41. Carolina had a team? Apparently.
The average NHL team was putting up 57.2 PP goals in 2003-04, so that PP futility represented a pretty substantial hole, relative to the rest of the league. Again though, that’s a pretty discrete problem. If you’re in a position to, say, add one of the best defencemen in the league to play on the PP and have a callow 20 year old youth spend 2004-05 somewhere behind the Iron Curtain getting stronger before blossoming in 2005-06, that might be something that really helps your team make a big jump on the PP.
What about the PK? Again, it wasn’t an area of strength for the Oilers. The average team gave up 57.2 shorthanded goals; the Oilers gave up 66 shorthanded goals. They were shorthanded about the league average number of times 349 vs. 347.6. NHL.com has, in the past year or so, posted shot data for shorthanded situations going that far back and Edmonton was actually reasonably average at keeping shots against down when they were shorthanded. They allowed 42.3 S/60, which put them 13th in the NHL. The best team in the NHL was Tampa, who allowed 37.6 S/60 while shorthanded, while Washington was worst at 53.0.
(Aside: it’s kind of spooky how Carolina, (again: apparently a team that existed) was so similar to the Oilers. They allowed 66 shorthanded goals as well and weren’t terrible at preventing shots.)
If the Oilers didn’t allow a ton of shots on the PK and didn’t take a ton of penalties, why were they so bad at penalty killing? Well, they had an .839 save percentage on the PK, which is just abysmal. Tommy Salo gave the Oilers some really good goaltending from about 1999-2002 but man, did Edmonton ever pay the price for that in 2002-03, when Salo let a crappy Stars team off the hook in the playoffs and 2003-04, before they finally wised up and dumped him in Colorado, who apparently felt like lighting some money (Salo made $3.9MM) and a prospect (Tom Gilbert) on fire.
In 2005-06, with one of the best defencemen of his generation on the Oilers, they allowed the fewest shots/60 on the PK by a wide margin: 35.9 S/60. Second was Chicago, at 39.4 S/60. They were average at preventing shots in 2003-04 and then then added Chris Pronger and things got really good.
Looking back at this 2003-04 Oilers team, I’m kind of reminded of the 2010-11 Boston Bruins, minus Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas. Not in terms of how they played – the Oilers weren’t a brawling team like the Bruins – but in terms of how the team was constructed, with players being found in unusual places and a team that was built without acquiring a star player at the top of the draft. The Oilers didn’t get their Zdeno Chara for another year and, unfortunately, had already had Tim Thomas and let him go after 15 games with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 1998-99. Thomas spent the 2003-04 season in Providence, where he posted a .941 save percentage.
So were the 2005-06 Oilers a fluke? Well, they were in the sense that they hadn’t enjoyed success like that before and haven’t made the playoffs since. I can’t argue with that. What I will argue, until I’m blue in the face, is that Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish had built a very solid no-name team by 2003-04 (truthfully, the 2002-03 Oilers were pretty good too and I suspect that they were a team that was trending up as the year went along) that was really well positioned to do something big if they added a goaltender and a superstar.
They were able to get those pieces, but only for two glorious months. Then Matt Greene was slow and Marc-Andre Bergeron was negligent and the Cup was lost and the night sky in Edmonton glowed with the light from Chris Pronger’s burning furniture and it all went to hell. It was many things and it ended poorly and it still hasn’t come good again but it wasn’t a fluke.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org