I’ve talked before about how much I don’t really like the start of the NHL season because for the first ten or fifteen games, there’s very little in the way of signal and lots in the way of noise. If you’re a person who’s inclined to pay attention to the numbers, it can be awfully infuriating if a team is running hot or cold to start the year and you’re subjected to a torrent of “SENATORS BEST TEAM EVER?” or people who get giddy when the Oilers get some bounces and write lunacy like this:
I accept that Renney,Quinn and Tambi are a hell of a lot smarter than I am in regards to their team.
I believe that we have exceptional management now. So far, they have proven every expert blogger and writer from this past summer as wrong.
We can all agree that the author probably regrets the comment. Whatever happens tonight and for the rest of the month, there’s no point getting too up or too down about the results. The process will tell us more at this stage of the year than the results. With that in mind, there’s three process points that I’m going to be keeping my eye on.
1. How much will Eakins play the fourth line? This is a huge question and an area in which Eakins might coach a little differently than MacT. MacT (much to Joffrey Lupul’s shock, even after he played for him for a year) liked to have a fourth line that he could play. Shortly after Lupul got to Philly, he popped off about how little he’d played in Edmonton, which was insane.
I actually went and tracked down how much each team in the NHL played their most played forward, second most played forward, etc. It turns out that Lupul was hilariously wrong (hockey players frequently are when they say something about the game that you can check with data) but I reference that post because it maybe gives us a baseline for how little a team can use a fourth line – the Lightning had their fourth line down around five minutes on a given night.
Ideally, you’d like to have four lines that can play. I’m not sure that the Oilers have that this year and even the third line is a little bit dicey at the moment. As is the second line centre. Time heals all wounds and a month or so from now, that won’t be a huge problem – with a reasonably healthy lineup, the Oilers should have three lines that can go. I’m expecting a lot of churn through the Oilers fourth line over the course of the season but I think it will be interesting to see how much Eakins uses his fourth line in the opening few months of the year. It wouldn’t surprise me too much if they very much assumed a specialty role – killing penalties, punching faces and the odd 5v5 shift. How Eakins runs his bench is going to be one of the more interesting things to watch early.
2. The Corsi% question. Look, last year was an unmitigated disaster in this department. It was a relentless series of shifts that saw the opposition cruising into the Oilers’ zone and generating shot attempts while the hapless Oilers tried and failed to turn things back the other way. I’ve sort of concluded that it was coaching related which is convenient, in that the coach has been replaced and if I didn’t believe it was tied into that it’d be awfully tough to get excited about this team. The key argument, to me, was pretty simple: when essentially everyone on what is a young team gets significantly worse and there’s a new coach, he’s the guy at whom you look.
I’ve put a table at left listing the best ten game Corsi% stretches for each guy who played at least ten games on last year’s Oilers. If I’m right that the coaching was the real culprit and Eakins has been able to implement sufficient changes to address whatever crept in last year, I would expect to see multiple guys post a ten game stretch at the start of the year that’s better than anything that they did last year. I’m looking at guys like Hemsky, Smyth, Yakupov and whoever makes up the fourth line here, assuming that MacIntyre isn’t playing games because he’s something of a special case. Justin Schultz is a good guy to focus on too.
I’d happily take a 3-6-1 start or something equally rough if it came with real signs of improvement in terms of the Corsi%. The Corsi% has to improve for the Oilers to be real contenders and a hot start with ongoing problems there is just kind of a prelude to more of the same. It’s really something to keep an eye on early.
Generating shots at 5v4. I was in court once for a procedural hearing on an old file and the master made a joke about how she didn’t want the file to ultimately have a bar mitzvah. The Oilers inability to generate shots at 5v4 is kind of edging up towards that – it’s been a problem for more than a decade.
The thing with shots on the power play is that there’s a kind of continuum in effect. At one end is a team that shoots every time it crosses the blue line. That team would generate a ton of shots, likely more than any team in the league, but would be unlikely to have a particularly good power play. At the other end is a team that only shoots when it’s absolutely sure of scoring a goal. It’s unlikely to be the best power play team either – passing the puck into the net probably isn’t the most efficient way to score goals.
The Oilers have the second best 5v4 shooting percentage in the NHL over the past six years. Despite that, they’re 18th in the NHL in 5v4 G/60 over that time. Because they’re 30th in S/60, nearly four shots worse than the next worst team, Phoenix. It’s hard to criticize the Oilers (or, more accurately, to find people who are receptive to the criticism) because of the results that the PP has put up over the past few years but it’s been all S%. If the Oilers want to have long term success, they need to build a foundation of rock at 5v4. You don’t do that with S%, which is fickle and comes and goes. You do it by building a machine that generates shot volume. More so than whether or not the pucks are going in early, I’ll be watching to see whether the shot volume is there.
Crazy things happen in the early days. If there are positive developments in the areas I’ve highlighted, I’ll get even more optimistic than I already am for the coming season, whatever those early results might be.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org