So far this offseason, Oilers management has made a concerted effort to manage fan expectations for the team and for 1st overall draft pick Connor McDavid. When asked post draft, Peter Chiarelli in an effort to manage expectations stated that he does not expect McDavid to be an impact player this year. Moreover Bob Nicholson CEO of Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) avoided naming a concrete goal when asked. Instead promoting a goal of organization-wide improvement.
I for one, have much loftier expectations for the franchise this season. With the disaster that was this past season anything other than significant improvement should be considered a failure. Up until the firing of Ralph Kruger, in the 2013 offseason, the team appeared to be trending in the right direction, fighting for a playoff spot late into the season. That’s when the wheels fell off. A pair of 28th places finishes later and the Oilers seemed stagnant in their attempts to climb up the league standings.
Progression doesn’t always happen in a straight line however. Every year it seems a Cinderella story of a team, surpasses any and all expectations, rocketing their coach to a Jack Adams nomination. Why can’t this be the year of the Edmonton Oilers?
Comments from management aside, what are reasonable expectations for the Oilers this season? I sought to find out.
The Crosby Effect
Connor McDavid is widely considered the best prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby, so what better place to start comparisons than the Pittsburgh Penguins during Crosby’s rookie year. Both teams had the good fortune of winning a lottery, allowing them to draft generational talents, and franchise centremen. The Oilers are also, in all likelihood, turning over the starting goalie responsibilities over to a highly touted, if under experienced netminder in Cam Talbot, much like Pittsburgh did in Marc-Andre Fleury.
That is where the comparisons end however, as outside of an oft injured Mario Lemieux, Crosby lacked the supporting cast of McDavid. Mark Recchi, and John LeClair were both in the later stages of their careers, and although played well alongside Crosby, were a far cry from what Hall and/or Eberle can bring to help McDavid this year. It only takes a glance at Pittsburgh’s roster to realize that Crosby was the team’s main offensive driver. McDavid on the other hand has the luxury of slotting behind Hall, at least for now, as the team’s top offensive threat.
Although Marc-Andre Fleury was selected 1st overall in the 2003 draft, up to the point of Crosby’s rookie year he had yet to establish himself as an elite netminder at the NHL level. Going into this season Talbot has slightly more NHL experience, with far superior statistical performance, compared to Fleury prior to the 05-06 Season. Based off this, I feel it a fair assumption to expect Talbot to outperform the mark set by Fleury (50gp, 3.25GAA, 0.898SV%)
Even with an outstanding rookie campaign by Crosby, Pittsburgh could only muster up 58 points. It wasn’t until Malkin arrived the next season in which Pittsburgh made the jump to become a perennial powerhouse in the East. I believe the Oilers more closely resemble that Penguins team as they have similar centre depth (Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Moore, Talbot vs. RNH, McDavid, Lander, Draisaitl, Letestu), Edmonton has superior wingers, and Pittsburgh had superior defence, and I expect the goaltending position to be comparable. Performance from the Oilers somewhere closer to the 105 points put up by the 06-07 Penguins than the Penguins of a year prior, seems reasonable enough at first glance.
The Goaltending Problem
Problem is the most fitting word I can find for the Oilers goaltending last season. Outside of the glimmer of hope that was Laurent Brossoit’s first NHL start, and a run from Bachman the Oilers goaltending was abysmal. Out of the 50 Goalies to play at least 20 games this past season, Edmonton starters Scrivens and Fasth ranked second last, and dead last respectively in save percentage.
The .890 save percentage posted by Scrivens is a long way away from the league average of .915 this past season. Over an 82 game season this works out to an additional 62 goals against. That means that roughly 75% of the -83 goal differential the Oilers had this past season could have been erased if the Oilers had average goaltending. What the above image doesn’t show you is that among goalies with at least 20 GP Cam Talbot ranks 5th with 0.926. If he performs anywhere near that level this season it would go a long way towards improving the Oilers.
In the name of being conservative I looked at how the Oilers would have performed this season with a 0.910 sv%. My assumptions were: Edmonton had the same save percentage in all games, decimals were rounded to the nearest whole number, 1.5 points were given for each tie, a 50% OT/SO win rate.
My assumptions yielded 23 regulation wins, 18 games won in overtime or shootout (9wins, 9 losses) and 41 regulation losses. Slightly below average goaltending would give the Oilers an additional 11 points over the season boosting their total to 73 points. I believe this mark makes a reasonable lower limit of expectations for this season. This would represent in my opinion the absolute least that the Oilers can accomplish without me considering the season a failure. Competent goaltending should be an expectation for all NHL teams, and something we haven’t had since Dubnyk temporarily forgot how to play the position, but hey one of these Goalies has to stick eventually right?
Flow of Play trends
One of the most significant effects of the goaltending struggles, was its ability to mask an underlying positive trend in the flow of play measured by shots/game over a full season. Starting with Tom Renney’s last year in 2011-12 Edmonton averaged 4.05 less shots per game than their competition. Assuming both teams had average goaltending this would amount to roughly an additional 30 goals on the season just from allowing more shots than the opposition.
Surprisingly under Ralph Kruger, Edmonton actually worsened to 5.97 less shots per game than the opposition, It’s amazing how much better a team can look with good goaltending (Dubnyk had a .921 sv% in 38 games). The following season under Dallas Eakins wasn’t any better with 5.95 shots per game less than the competition. This past season was a different story however with Edmonton allowing only 1.62 more shots per game that their opponents. This improvement was masked however by goaltending worse than Dubnyk in 2013-14. To fully clarify how dramatic this discovery is, consider that the Montreal Canadians (110 points 2nd in the NHL), allowed on average 1.65 more shots per game than they took. They just also happened to have the Hart trophy winner in net.
What this means to me is that the Oilers actually took a monumental step forward this past season in their flow of play, and to people who have been watching these past 5 years it was evident at times early in the season. The team was more competitive in terms of the flow of the game, not getting hemmed into their own zone as much as I was used to seeing. Although it is unclear whether this improvement in shot shares will continue or regress under Todd Mclellan, I think the safe money is on the side of improvement, considering the roster improvements made this offseason.
WAR for McDavid
Next I will try to mimic the baseball sabermetric Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in relation to McDavid as second line centre instead of Derek Roy. Derek Roy himself in the 2014 offseason (A full year before McDavid was eventually drafted 1st overall) said that McDavid could put up 60 points in the NHL as a 17 year old. High praise from an NHL vet like Roy, so I grounded my analysis in his comments.
To compare McDavid to Roy first I prorated Roy’s production for the Oilers last year over a full 82 game season. This yielded 40 points for Roy split evenly with 20 goals and 20 assists. Following with Roy’s own prediction for McDavid I have placed a conservative estimate for his boxcars at 25-40-65. Only slightly better than Mackinnon’s rookie year, and this is Connor F***ing McDavid so I think that’s pretty darn conservative. Next I applied a somewhat brutish version of Goals Created (definition can be found here under GC), which showed Roy created 16.5 goals compared to a projected 24.75 goals created for McDavid. According to quanthockey.com this past season had an average goals per game of 5.324, meaning that an average of 2.67 goals would win an NHL game. Bringing this back to McDavid vs. Roy, McDavid is estimated to create enough goals more than Roy to equate to 3 wins or 6 points (8.25/2.67=3.09).
This model is probably overly conservative to a fault, as it doesn’t consider how Edmonton lacked a second line centre for the first half of the season before the acquisition of Roy. I have intentionally set it up this way in order to hopefully nullify any optimistic biases that I may have allowed into my analysis. Nevertheless adding the additional 6 points estimated by my analysis to the lower limit expectation we arrive at 79 points to serve as a middle ground for expectations.
Todd Mclellan and the Power play
One thing most people agree on is that newly hired Oilers bench boss Todd Mclellan knows how to run a power play. Over his tenure as an assistant coach to Mike Babcock in Detroit (05/06-07/08) he managed the second ranked power play in the League. Once given his first Head Coaching role with the San Jose Sharks he did not waiver. From the 2008-09 season up till this past season, San Jose ranked second in the league in pp%. If consistency is King, the Oilers may have found their solution to their power play woes. Over this same time period Edmonton’s power play struggled with inconsistency, settling at 21st in the league by percentage.
Todd Nelson appeared to have figured things out on the power play towards the end of the season, one the few sources of hope. Nelson operated at roughly 21% compared to Eakins at 13%, the difference between having one of the worst to one of the better power plays in the NHL. Over the course of an NHL season the difference between 13% and 21% assuming 250 attempts (League average), is roughly 19 goals on the year. Given Todd Mclellan’s history running a successful power play, improvement made under Nelson, and the depth of high-end offensive talent on the Oilers roster I believe a power play operating at 21% is well within reach for the Oilers this upcoming season.
If the Oilers had been able to replicate the success under Nelson during the Eakins portion of the season, it would have equated to an estimated 7.4 additional goals on the year. Using the average goals/game discussed earlier I’d estimate that this power play improvement would amount to 5 points on the season. For those keeping track that brings our total to 84 points.
This is the section most likely to have some people roll their eyes, as I am going to attempt to switch things up and use qualitative factors to explain why 84 points is still too low an expectation. First, what I believe is an improved defense core, should contribute to more wins. Even if Sekera is only just as good as Petry, he should stay on the Oilers roster for a full season rather than traded at the deadline. A full season of a more experienced Klefbom should also contribute to legitimizing the top 4. Perhaps even more exciting to me is possibility of Darnell Nurse making the big club. Although I’m not sure if he’ll make the team out of the gate due to an excess of 1-way contracts on the back end, I would expect him to be one of the first call-ups and earn his spot that way. If I had to bet, I would guess that Nurse is playing top-4 minutes by Christmas.
It’s more than just improvement on the back end however.
What perhaps is the biggest contrast between the Oilers roster now compares to a year ago is the Organizational depth at all positions, providing insulation from injuries. Bogdan Yakimov looks poised to be the first call-up in the event of an injury to one of the NHL centres. Iiro Pakarinen, Tyler Pitlick, and Luke Gazdic, all appear to be on the outside looking in for the opening night roster, but could all fill in nicely on the wing. Blue chip D prospects Nurse, and Reinhart can both be injury call-ups if they don’t make the roster out of camp, and beyond that Brandon Davidson, and Jordan Oesterle look to build on their NHL debuts last season. Their young AHL prospects are all year older and more ready to fill in for the big club when needed. As a fan I can’t recall a time in the past couple of years where there has been this level of competition for roster spots at both the NHL and AHL level.
With these factors in mind I’m going to place my official expectations for the Oilers this season between 85-90 points. The real key here is that we will be playing meaningful games deep into the season jockeying for a playoff spot in the final months. I feel the need to mention that even after all my analysis my heart still disagrees with my head. Maybe it’s just McDavid fever but whenever I seriously think about how the Oilers will do next season, I must admit that truly believe that they’ll make the playoffs. I’m not going to try and defend that belief, but if things work out for the Oil this year I’ll be the first to point people back to this article and claim that I’m an all knowing hockey genius.
In the midst of management attempting to down play the expectations for this season, Nail Yakupov’s comments were probably the most accurate. “The time is now.”
Couldn’t agree more.