a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

Welcome to Oil Acumen. What follows is a blog dedicated to ending the tyranny of Oilers management, and making hockey fun to watch again, dammit.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

05/10/15 Learning To Love Again

Optimism is a foreign feeling for Oilers fans. It's certainly strange for me. It's a bit hard to believe now but this blog started out with a very optimistic view of things in Oilerland, and slowly transitioned to bitter cynicism. I have to admit that emotionally I'm having trouble figuring out where to go from here.

McDavid is heaven sent, of course, but I think getting MacTavish out of the driver's seat will be more important in the long run. I respect Craig MacTavish, just like everybody else, but seeing him removed along with Kevin Lowe felt like... well, it felt like this:

But then we got word that MacTavish is going to be number two under Chiarelli, and we still haven't heard anything about Scott Howson. On one level this makes perfect sense. Being an outsider, Peter Chiarelli is tasked with figuring out the Oilers' entire organization while going into a very important draft and off season. Firing the people who have key information wouldn't make sense.

Oilers fans know all that on an intellectual level, but there's still that nagging bug in our ears that says: MacTavish is still part of the decision-making process, and Lowe wasn't fired, he was shuffled around again.

It's going to take action from Chiarelli to silence the doubt -- actions like seeing Justin Schultz for what he is, getting rid of Ference and Nikitin, and hanging on to good but unpopular players. We won't get all the answers we need right away. However, each move that shows a departure from the old ways will make the entire hockey world feel better.

I wish things hadn't played out this way, because all the very good things that are happening feel just a little tainted. I suppose when the general manager being demoted is a good thing, there are bound to be mixed emotions. Oilers fans were writing open letters that sounded like breakup notes, which is a measure of the commitment we all feel. It's a silly cliche to care this much about a hockey team, but we do. Hunkering down in a warm place to watch an Oilers game instills a strong sense of community, especially when the games matter. If not for hockey, what on earth would you look forward to in November? Or January?

It's been a long time, but I remember freezing my butt off fortyish times a year to watch the Oilers play. I remember the sweet relief of reaching the entrance to the arena and the warmth of the foyer after walking from the car. I remember the couple we sat next to every game. It's as vivid as if it happened yesterday. Canadian hockey fandom is a meme, but it's impossible to overstate the connection it creates. Rememeber how everyone was your best friend in 2006?

And it's precisely that attachment we feel that makes it hard to trust again. Even if it's not Mike Babcock, the Oilers are probably on the verge of getting a great new coach, they have a winning and experienced GM, and Connor-freaking-McDavid. So why don't things feel like they're going to be okay? I want them to be. But we'll see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

04/15/15 The Myth of the Nelson Turnaround & Other Thoughts

Remember 2007-08, when the Oilers brought in the kids of the first rebuild, started 27-30-5, and then finished 14-5-1 in their last twenty games? Ah, the hopes we had then. We Oilers fans have been fooled by late-season improvements more times than I care to remember, and it's happening again.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

02/03/15 Odds & Ends: Six Dead Horses Get A Beating

Here are six more topics you've read about before, but (hopefully) from a different viewpoint.

I have to start with Dallas Eakins because of his recent interview. There's a lot of backlash about the fact that Eakins didn't take any ownership for the complete disaster that was his tenure with the Oilers. Fair enough, I thought the guy was doing a bad enough job to deserve to be fired so he deserves some of the blame in my view. But there's one problem with that: he doesn't have a job anymore, and the people who hired him do.

I'm not going to say Eakins deserved more time - he struck me as a bit of a tyrant and I think that's showing with the body language of the team - but if you were hoping to land another job some day would you appear on the radio and go: "well, I completely screwed up a team that was ready to take the next step"?

Or would you say something like: "I thought I'd have more to work with"?

On Enforcers

I've been thinking about Luke Gazdic lately, and enforcers in general, and something came to mind: if you've built a team that needs Luke Gazdic to defend it, then you've built the team wrong. No offense to Gazdic the person, but if he's got a spot on an NHL team it's because it's a weak team.

On winning NHL rosters, every player serves a purpose; each man has some use in helping the team play better hockey. The idea behind an enforcer is that he allows other players to free-wheel around the ice without fear of getting hurt or intimidated, which is a fundamentally flawed rationale when it comes to team building. If the other eleven forwards can't function properly without an enforcer to protect them, then they can't function properly. That's why the enforcer is going the way of the dinosaur.

An OEL Trade??

I've been reading about Oliver Ekman-Larsson perhaps being available. There's no way that's true, unless all the knocks to the head Don Maloney took as a player are finally coming home to roost. There might have been a time when an aggressive and smart team could have acquired OEL, but that time has passed. If it was somehow possible, I'd throw Eberle and the 2015 first round pick out there. That pick isn't likely to be first overall, but it would give Arizona a chance at two picks in the top five or so. Huge value for a rebuilding organization, plus a proven scorer with term and youth enough to be valuable to a rebuild.

When the Oilers' rebuild began, we all knew that there would be casualties if it meant building a balanced team. That time has come. But Ekman-Larsson isn't going anywhere.

Draft Position and Expectations

Being drafted first overall is a funny thing, because it's relative to the other players that are available. Would Yakupov have gone first overall in a draft that included Taylor Hall? Nathan MacKinnon? John Tavares? There's no way to know for sure, but it brings some interesting perspective to mind. Imagine that Yakupov was drafted third overall relative to his class, like Leon Draisaitl.

Draisaitl played 37 games for the Oilers right out of the draft, and had nine points. No big deal - he was a third overall pick, not ready for the NHL and everyone said so. Back to Junior he goes. Would Yakupov have benefitted from a demotion earlier in his career?

Draft position doesn't say as much about a player as we sometimes think. There was an automatic feeling that Yakupov would be in the NHL right out of the draft because the previous two first overall picks did it. I won't criticize the Oilers too harshly for falling into this trap, because I thought he could play in the NHL right away too. What's more, Yakupov had 9-11-20 in his first 37 games, which is over double Draisaitl's total. But Yakupov was far from a complete player when he was drafted, and unfortunately now he has to learn to be one in the world's best league.

Hidden Asset Value

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Oilers keep getting the results of a rebuilding team because they keep behaving like a rebuilding team. That's why you don't trade a player like Boyd Gordon, or even David Perron.

Money aside, the bottom line of sports is something called "winning". Asset management doesn't just come down to what you can get for player X. In Perron's case, there's some truth to the notion that the Oilers wouldn't want to re-sign him for more money, but how do you assign value to him helping the team get closer to making the playoffs next year? I'm not suggesting that Perron is the difference between making the playoffs and not making them, but he certainly helps next year. And if the Oilers are still sellers at next year's deadline, could they still get a second round pick for Perron? I think so, especially if the rest of the team were to be improved next year.

Boyd Gordon is similar. There's value for the Oilers in showing the rest of the league that they're not just going to continue a cycle of rebuilding. That's why UFAs and players with NMCs and NTCs won't come here.

When it comes to the Oilers, you have to talk in terms of what they should do and in terms of what you think they will do. They should hang on to good players like Gordon and Perron and Petry for next year, improve the team around them, and push hard for the playoffs. What they will do is maximize the value they can get for these players because they've accepted that they're still not going to be good enough next year. There's a clear divide there, but the latter course of action is why the team keeps failing to improve. Dennis King had a good line on the Monday morning Lowdown with Lowetide, saying (I'm paraphrasing here) that the Oilers don't have enough ingredients to make anything good for dinner, so they might as well throw out the bread too.

Oh, and do you remember when the Oilers decided to trade Kyle Brodziak? They spent the next several years trying to replace him, with more than one failed attempt. Let's not do it again with Gordon.

Roster Whac-A-Mole

Matt Hendricks is another player I would hang on to. It's hard not to like the guy, especially with the season he's having. His situation reminds me of Nick Schultz, though: I like the player but not the cost to acquire him. Devan Dubnyk is reviving his career, both on a poor team in Arizona and a good team in Minnesota. MacTavish's words that "if you have to ask the question, then you know the answer" are now infamous, but I don't see how they're any less true about Scrivens and Fasth than they were about Dubnyk.

I'm borrowing a term from Bruce McCurdy here, but the Oilers continue to play Roster Whac-A-Mole by filling one hole and opening another. That's inevitable when you build a team, but the problem is that the Oilers have traded a center and a goalie for two wingers (Gagner and Dubnyk for Purcell and Hendricks). MacTavish said he doesn't want to fill holes at the expense of opening others (link), and yet that's precisely what he has done.

MacTavish's moves aren't so bad individually, but when it comes to team building they're ugly. He strengthened the wing by weakening the all-important center and goalie positions, and then weakened the wing by trading Perron for a pick.

It goes back further, too. MacTavish strengthened the team's cap position by trading Horcoff, which weakened the center position (I know people will say Gordon replaced Horcoff, but then who replaced Belanger's role?).

The Oilers are strong on the wing and weak everywhere else, which is why they should be trading wingers out, not bringing more in at the expense of other positions.

Friday, 16 January 2015

01/16/15 Don't Trade Taylor Hall

I can't believe we're even talking about this, but it would be insane to trade Taylor Hall.

Admittedly, Hall is having a bad season by his standards, just like everyone else on the team. Half a decade of losing probably hasn't helped in that regard. But let's get down to the nuts and bolts of why you don't trade a player like Hall.

Here are Hall's even strength points per hour since he entered the NHL. His league ranking in brackets is based on all NHL forwards who played at least 30 games.

2014-15: 2.02 (81st)
2013-14: 2.91 (4th)
2012-13: 3.15 (6th)
2011-12: 2.07 (77th)
2010-11: 1.78 (158th)

Something's off this season (maybe a few things), but over the last two years Hall is one of the most elite point-producing forwards in the league. Even at his worst, as a rookie fresh out of the draft on a last place team, he was producing like a very good second line player.

Now let's look at his possession numbers. Corsi needs context, so below I've shown Hall's rank anong Oilers forwards (20 games played) in relative Corsi since he entered the league.

2014-15: 1st
2013-14: 6th
2012-13: 2nd
2011-12: 1st
2010-11: 1st

This is a bit crude, but it certainly shows how it's Hall who is driving the play for the Oilers. He's most often their best forward in terms of possession, except for last year when he led the team in scoring with 80 points in 75 games. 

That offensive total last year is 1.07 points per game. Guess how many times a player has scored at least 1.05 points per game (45 games played) since 2005-06?

127. That's under 13 players per season on average.

I heard Paul Almeida on Lowetide's show today make a hilarious but sadly probable comment. What if the Oilers trade Hall for a top-six forward with some grit and a top-four defenseman? With another couple of pieces that's a good return, right? Except that the Oilers are about to lose Petry (top-four defenseman) and have already traded Perron (forward, grit)!

I hope the Oilers aren't stupid enough to trade Hall, but they keep reaching new levels of stupidity, so who knows.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

01/13/15 Odds & Ends: More On Yakupov, Trading Gordon, Trading Marincin, Voracek's Year & More

A busy brain is the readers' gain! Here are eight more thoughts on the Oilers and around the NHL.

I'll start by officially throwing my hat into the "don't trade Boyd Gordon" ring. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Boyd Gordon is completely irreplaceable for the Oilers, because there's nobody in the organization who can do his job. It's as simple as that, because a trade or free agent signing to replace a player under contract for another year would make no sense at all.

Gordon being on the wrong side of thirty may worry some, but it shouldn't. The goal for the Oilers has to be winning next year, and Gordon's age shouldn't prevent him from helping the team do that in the short term. If the Oilers are somehow able to turn the corner, they should be thinking about re-signing Gordon at this time next year, not trading him.

Among NHL centers who have played at least 30 games, Gordon has the fourth-toughest zone start workload in the league. He's starting in the offensive zone just 18.7% of the time at even strength. Dominic Moore has it the fifth-toughest, at 26.1%. Gordon is also facing the toughest competition among the Oilers' regular forwards.

He's totally irreplaceable, really by any means, and if the Oilers trade him they will just spend the next several years trying to find another Boyd Gordon.

Yakupov's Struggles

In my previous article about Nail Yakupov's struggle to find offense, I forgot to mention that his personal on-ice shooting percentage at even strength has dropped from 11.11% to 7.37% to 5.69% over his first three seasons. That last number especially is low, and his 957 PDO suggests a player who has been quite unlucky this year. As we know, these things tend to turn around.

Don't let his mistakes trouble you too much, and the Oilers shouldn't focus on them too much either. This kid had 170 points in 107 OHL games, but he finished his junior career with a modest plus-13 rating. In his first year in Sarnia he was a minus-2(!) with 49-52-101 in 65 games. The Oilers had to know the player they were getting. I've said this before, but if they want to maximize his value they need to put him with some defensively sound forwards (like Derek Roy has been for him), and just let that horse run. Trying to turn him into something he's not is a recipe for the failure we've seen so far.

Signing Derek Roy

I've liked Derek Roy just as much as the next guy since he came to Edmonton, and even wished the Oilers had signed this player in the off season rather than rushing Leon. But let's just wait and see before anybody jumps to re-sign the guy. I don't think Roy's phone is going to be ringing off the hook in the off season, and it's not like signing him to an extension right now is going to avoid the frenzy.

Small sample size is so deceptive with players. Remember how good Corey Potter looked early in his first season with the Oilers, and how poor he looked after he signed his extension? We need more games before making a call on Roy, and that goes for Klinkhammer as well.

Voracek Makes Howson Look Silly

Jakub Voracek is having one hell of a year in Philadelphia. With 17-35-52 in 43 games, he's leading the league as of this writing. Remember when Scott Howson traded him along with a pick that became Sean Couturier and another pick that became Nick Cousins? Jeff Carter played 39 games for Columbus, scoring 15 goals. Voracek has already got 80 goals and counting for Philadelphia, not to mention Couturier's work. I understand why the move was made, but trying to have a goal-scoring center play with Rick Nash always seemed strange to me.

Anyway, that's Scott Howson for ya - our very own Senior VP of Hockey Operations.

Oh, and Voracek is making the Oilers look foolish in another way: he was picked one spot after Sam Gagner. I remain a Gagner fan, and I won't blame anyone for picking him over Voracek at the time, but if the Oilers flipped a coin at the draft they came out on the wrong end. Such has been their decade.

Fixing The Shootout

There's still debate about the way the shootout points system should be handled, even after all this time. I don't expect that the NHL would care what I think (I don't expect you to care either, but I'll tell you anyway!), but a few years ago I had an idea that might work:

Award two points for a regulation or overtime win.
Award one point for an overtime loss.
Award one point for a shootout win, and no points for a shootout loss.


Both teams lose something if the game goes to a shootout, which makes them more likely to try to end the game in regulation, especially in a playoff race. Teams still get something for winning the shootout, leaving its relevance intact. This way the NHL would not have to revamp the points system entirely by introducing three points for a regulation win.

Trading Martin Marincin

This is a player whose name has been in trade discussions for a while, even before he played an NHL game, and all the reasons that made it plausible then are still true now.

No player is untouchable, depending on the return, and if trading Marincin is the right thing to do then it is. The problem I have with it is that this is a player the Oilers drafted outside of the first round, and who has actually given them a return on their investment. He's inexpensive useful depth and unknown, mostly untapped potential at this point. I wouldn't be in any rush to move him unless it was part of a very significant upgrade to the here and now.

The Tank Must End

I won't say that it's wrong for Oilers fans to cheer for losses and Connor McDavid, because if this blog had existed in 2009 you would have found a bunch of articles about the virtues of a Fall For Hall.

From December 3rd, 2009 to December 11th, 2009 the Oilers won five straight games on the road - and barely moved in the standings. It was then that I first felt that tanking for the future was the only way forward. The Oilers might have felt that way, too, because the team went on to win only one of their next 21 games, including zero in the month of January. We can certainly debate the wisdom of my thinking, and the wisdom of the men at the controls, but it did award the Oilers one of the best players in their history.

Having said that, I do think that it's time for the tanking mentality to end, McDavid or no McDavid. Rather than selling players off and hoping to lose, it'd be nice to see the Oilers try to win and convince them to stay. Maybe they'll convince others.

Which brings me to:

The Jeff Petry Conundrum

If it is Jeff Petry who wants out, and not Oilers management that wants to be rid of Petry, then the organization is in a tight spot. However, that doesn't mean that it's not management's fault. As Ryan Batty pointed out, saying that a player didn't want to stay is often just another way of saying that the team isn't worth playing for or caring about. That's on the people running the show.

But they can redeem themselves. It would be a mistake to simply trade Petry, as others have already stated in greater detail. Read this, or maybe this one, or even this! This guy has got to come back if the Oilers hope to compete next season.

So because the Oilers can't offer Petry a winning team, they'd better offer him money. A lot of money. It could be that money and winning wouldn't be enough - maybe he wants to play closer to home, like in Detroit - and if that's the case I hope we hear about it after he's gone. But my sincere hope is that we don't hear that Petry left Edmonton because of dollars.

Nikita Nikitin has never shown as much as Petry, he's not a former draft pick of the team (although they gave one up to acquire his rights), and he got $4.5 million to be very sub-par. Is $5 million outrageous for Petry? I don't think so, especially on a shorter-term deal.