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

Welcome to Oil Acumen. All Oilers, all the time... Occasionally other stuff.

Friday, 30 December 2011

12/30/11 On Pace for Last Place?

So Christmas time is over and done with and all those nice residual feelings have subsided, which means that it's time to cast a disparaging eye on our Edmonton Oilers. Thursday night's loss to Minnesota was the Oilers' 17th in their last 25 games, and they appear to be back on course for another high pick in June.

Losing 17 of 25 games is just as serious and alarming as it sounds. Only one of those losses came in the shootout, which means that the Oilers have managed to pull a paltry seventeen of a possible fifty points.

Lack of personnel has certainly played its part. The future of the defense is playing in Edmonton, but in the World Junior Championship; not for the Oilers. With Whitney, Barker and Sutton hobbled, out and suspended the defense has begun to slip. The Oilers have allowed 18 of their 23 total powerplay goals-against in the last 25 games, and they've been allowing 3.24 goals against per game over that span as well.

I know what you're thinking. 25 games is more than half the season, so it makes sense that they would have allowed most of their powerplay goals over a long stretch of games. What this really means is that the Oilers have now been playing losing hockey more than twice as long as they were playing in a fashion that results in consistent... what's that word? Oh yes: "wins." The Oilers' PK percentage started out at 89.1%, but over the last 25 games it's been 80.6%, which would be good for 22nd in the league.

Amazingly, even that is an improvement over last year, when the Oilers finished 29th on the PK at just 77%. But can the Oilers still finish 30th? Or did they - as many of us thought - do enough early in the season to ensure that they could give the key to the basement suite back to Gary Bettman?

Last year the Oilers were 12-17-7 with 31 points after 36 games. The year before that they were 15-17-4 with 34 points. In the three seasons prior to those, the Islanders, Lightning and Flyers had 26, 33 and 20 points respectively after playing 36 games and each ended up in last place. Edmonton's current total of 33 points puts them right in the middle of that pack. So yes, the possibility still exists that the Oilers could come in 30th.

The 2007-08 Tampa Bay Lightning boasted Vincent Lecavalier, who had a remarkable 40 goal, 92 point season, and Marty St. Louis who put up 83 points in 82 games. Vinny Prospal provided some nice secondary scoring, with 29 goals and 57 points in 62 games and Brad Richards was there for 62 games and 51 points. Simon Gagne scored 41 goals for Philly the year they came in last, and Mike Knuble had 54 points in 64 games.

Those totals provide a note of caution to the assertion that pure offensive improvement (like the Oilers have shown) will keep a team away from the bottom. Of the nine total goalies used by Philadelphia and Tampa in those years, Martin Biron had the best save percentage at 0.908 and he was the only one above 0.900.

This is good news for the Oilers. While Khabibulin's stats are relenting a little at a time, he's still a major reason why this team isn't completely topsy-turvy. Edmonton will have to hope that Khabibulin can maintain a respectable level of play throughout the season, and if he does there's a chance that the Oilers stay out of the cellar.

At least part of the question, though, is whether or not it's worth it to not finish 30th. The mentality around these parts has lately been that a pure nose dive will result in the best possible player at the draft, and therefore that's the way to go. That's probably true in a lot of cases, but there are two caveats:

First, there's that pesky draft lottery thing. The team to finish 30th in the league only has a 48.2% chance of retaining the first overall pick. That's exactly what has happened over the last four seasons, but eventually that 30th place team is going to get bumped back to second overall. That's still a good pick, but it's not the best pick.

Second, there's the morale of the fans to think about. At this point we're all overjoyed to have Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, but it's time to see some of the fruits of having those two - however small they may be. The improvement of the powerplay has been welcome, but a jump of at least a few spots in the overall standings would keep the belief alive that the team is headed in the proper direction.

At the end of the day, it's going to be up to the players to not fold their tents and to play for their pride. Sure, the blueline is depleted and it was never good enough to begin with, and yeah there're still plenty of problems with this team, but there's got to be enough here to not finish last. If there won't be playoffs in Edmonton for a sixth straight season, hopefully the Oilers can at least give us that much.

Friday, 23 December 2011

12/23/11 Christmas Comes Early

The Edmonton Oilers gave the fans their Christmas gift early by decisively putting the screws to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. There's plenty to dislike about a season that has seen the Oil go 15-16-3, but here are a few other little presents that Oilers fans have enjoyed.

1) Ryan Nugent-Hopkins! The one known as the Nuge (or NUUUUUGE) is leading all rookies in points by a mile. His 13-21-34 is ahead of the next-closest (Adam Henrique) by 9 total points, and he's got 2 more goals and 4 more assists than any other rookie. If he can somehow keep this up he'll be the highest scoring Oilers rookie ever in the NHL. Happily, Nugent-Hopkins is also a plus-1 on the season, which is a testament to his complete game.

2) Ryan Smyth's Return! If Ryan Smyth was on pace for forty points and had something like 7-10-17 so far the fans would probably be happy with that production from a 35 year old. Hell, just having Smytty back is morale boost enough. But instead of that, Smyth has put up 13-15-28 and a plus-3 rating in just 34 games. He's on pace for 31 goals and 68 points as of this writing.

3) Jordan Eberle! Eberle's 15 goals puts him on pace for 36 on the year and if he keeps this up he'll finish with 87 points. If that actually transpires it would be the highest point total by any Oiler since Doug Weight posted 90 way back in 2000-01. Point totals aside, Eberle has been an absolute treat to watch since joining the Oilers and especially this year.

4) Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid! After being the whipping boys of many Oilers fans for a number of seasons, these two defensemen have finally silenced all of the critics and come into their own. Gilbert and Smid are the Oilers' one high quality defense pairing that could potentially be patrolling the blue line for years to come, and if Whitney ever finds his game again it means the Oil are that much closer to being complete on the backend.

5) Taylor Hall! Hall is quietly on pace for 26 goals and 63 points, which would be the highest point total of any Oiler since Dustin Penner in 2009-10. Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins (as well as a shoulder injury) have stolen some of the luster from Hall's sophomore season, but so far he's been immune to the slump and has steadily improved his play. Hall got better as last season went on, so it's not out of the question to expect big things from him in the second half.

6) Ryan Jones! Jones signed a new two-year deal in the off season that had some fans wondering if he had been overpaid for one 18 goal year. Jones has proven that he is a solid two-way player and he's already got 11 goals on the season. He's on a staggering 27 goal pace right now, and he's sixth in PK ice time per game at 2:44. Even if Jones repeats as an 18 goal man he's become an indispensable part of the team.

and finally...

7) Nikolai Khabibulin! Khabibulin posted a 10-32-6 record last season with a fugly 3.40 GAA and 0.890 save percentage. This year he's done a complete 180 and has been one of the team's MVPs at the Christmas break. His 2.00 GAA and 0.932 save percentage are perhaps unsustainable over a full year (they would be the best numbers of his career), but his play is vastly improved. This is the best Khabibulin has played since his last season in Chicago when he posted a 0.919 save percentage and 2.33 GAA, and he's been exactly the goaltender the Oilers thought they were signing.

Like I said, there are plenty of negatives as well, but at Christmas time you've got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Just wait until next year...

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

12/21/11 Tracking Progress

By eye everyone can tell how much better a lot of Oilers players have been this year, but here's a brief look at how much better (or worse) some of the notables have been statistically over last year.

Jordan Eberle
Last Year: 22 points after he'd played 33 games; 9-13-22, minus-1
This Year: 13-21-34, minus-1

Taylor Hall
Last Year: 14 points after he'd played 25 games; 8-6-14; minus-2
This Year: 9-13-22; plus-1

Ryan Smyth
Last Year: 20 points after he'd played 33 games; 11-9-20; plus-3
This Year: 12-15-27; plus-2

Shawn Horcoff
Last Year: 18 points after he'd played 33 games; 7-11-18; plus-2
This Year: 7-13-20; minus-6

Ryan Jones
Last Year: 9 points after he'd played 33 games; 7-2-9; minus-5
This Year: 11-6-17; plus-4

Sam Gagner
Last Year: 18 points after he played 26 games; 8-10-18; plus-2
This Year: 3-10-12; minus-4

Ales Hemsky
Last Year: 19 points after he'd played 22 games last year; 7-12-19; plus-4
This Year: 3-8-11; minus-3

Tom Gilbert
Last Year: 11 points after he'd played 33 games; 5-6-11; minus-7
This Year: 3-10-13; minus-2

Ryan Whitney
Last Year: 14 points after he'd played 16 games; 0-14-14; Even
This Year: 0-2-2; minus-6

The most interesting difference here is obviously the point production from the kids. Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have combined for a 20 point improvement after the same number of games each last season. Nugent-Hopkins has helped them both out with his 21 helpers. Ryan Jones is also miles ahead of his production from last year, and his plus/minus has seen a 9-point swing to the positive side. If he reaches 20 goals and 40 points he'll be worth every penny of his $1.5 million cap hit.

Shawn Horcoff is what he is. Despite this current slump, if he stays healthy he might get close to 20 goals and right now he's on pace for 50 points. Should he manage to hit that mark it would be a solid season from the captain.

The Oilers need a lot more from Hemsky, Gagner and Whitney, but they are all players that should be able to turn it around at some point. It will be interesting to see how the season plays out.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

12/20/11 Much Ado About Nothing: Struggling Oilers

Even if the Oilers hadn't teased us all with their 9-3-2 start to the season, the fans were probably always going to be ornery by this point in the season. It's hard to watch a team lose for six long years, and we all knew this was coming.

After the NHL Entry Draft it's really easy to forget how vile the season was - especially when your team comes away with consecutive first-overall picks. But this year we the fans expected more, even though we probably shouldn't have.

That doesn't mean that this thing isn't going to work.

Remember Matt Greene? Maybe you remember him taking three bonehead penalties in Game Four of the Quarterfinal Series against Detroit way back in 2006. It's possible you even screamed at your TV screen when they announced that he was going back to the sin bin for a third time against the best powerplay team in the league that year. Greene spent a total of 151 games in Edmonton and was a minus-31 over that span (including a dreadful 2006-07 when he was minus-22) before being traded to LA.

And since the trade, Greene has been a plus player every single year including this one. He's been a very important part of that Kings team and he was named an Alternate Captain.

Speaking of defensemen, Oilers fans suffered through five up-and-down years of Ladislav Smid's play before he finally got things figured out this year. Tom Gilbert played way over his head and had mixed results before finally settling in this season as well. Excluding the super elite, it usually takes NHL defensemen a while to round into form.

Corey Potter has played a grand total of 28 NHL games. Theo Peckham has appeared in 131. Jeff Petry is a veteran of 61 games, and Colten Teubert played his first ten in the big show this year. Games played by Gilbert and Smid before this year? 337 and 331 respectively.

The point here is that some very good NHL defensemen came out of those long, often hard games to watch. It took a lot of seasoning for these players to be any good. The same thing will be true of one, two or perhaps all of Petry, Teubert, Peckham and Potter, but it's going to take some time and a lot of patience.

And this principle doesn't just apply to defensemen. It's going to take NHL action for Devan Dubnyk and some of the forwards to come into their own (or not). And let's face it: the Oilers' recent struggles offensively have been a result of the inability of Smyth, Horcoff and Hemsky to provide secondary scoring, not ineffectiveness from the kids. Those veterans will come out of their slumber eventually because they are too good and too experienced not to.

The progress that this Oilers team makes this season may be hard to see on the scoreboard at times, and the standings certainly have not been easy on the eyes of late, but the value of playing time for this group cannot always be measured by those means. Just like before, these hard times will pay dividends when the Oilers really need it, and that was never going to be this year.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

12/18/11 What The Oilers Are Missing

The Edmonton Oilers have come crashing back down to Earth faster and harder than Mir. Their 31 points puts them in 24th place, just one point out of 26th and a mere 9 points away from another stay in the NHL's basement. The question is: why?

Coming into this season we knew that management hadn't done enough to completely right the ship. Here is a look at all the problem areas for this team (those areas where the Oilers are below average):

Shots For: Edmonton is currently sitting 29th in the NHL with an average of 26.1 Shots For per game. San Jose is in first in this category with an average of 34.2 per game, and the league average is 30.1 per game. Ten of the top 15 teams in Shots Per Game are currently in playoff position. This Oilers team should have the ability to get shots to the net, but the players are either too young to get there consistently or seemingly too disinterested. Here are their top ten players in Shots per Game (S/G):

Hall: 2.8 Shots per Game
Smyth: 2.7 S/G
Eberle: 2.3 S/G
Nugent-Hopkins: 2.2 S/G
Gagner: 2 S/G
Hemsky: 1.9 S/G
Horcoff: 1.6 S/G
Jones: 1.6 S/G
Belanger: 1.5 S/G
Gilbert: 1.2 S/G

For a grand total of 19.8 shots per game. Paajarvi was firing 1.9 pucks on net per night but he's no longer on the roster. The Oilers need ten shots per game from their defense and fourth line that they aren't getting, and that's just to reach league average. The defensemen the Oilers have used have been good for just 0.84 shots per game between them so far (Ryan Whitney has just 6 in 15 games). The top six forwards should be good for at least 15 per game on their own. Paajarvi proves that shooting pucks on net doesn't necessarily create scoring, but the puck will go in exactly 0% of the time if it isn't directed on goal.

Shots Against: The Oilers are sitting in 20th place when it comes to Shots Against per Game, because they are allowing an average of 30.8 per night. Aside from Gilbert and Smid, the defense has been as ugly as expected. Ryan Whitney has struggled to return to form, and the current bottom three D-men combine for just 217 games of NHL experience (Potter, Petry, Peckham). Each is a good player in his own right, but there are bound to be growing pains along the way when you're dealing with that much inexperience.

Goaltending: Shockingly, the trouble with the goaltending has been Devan Dubnyk, not Nikolai Khabibulin. Khabibulin has posted an impressive 2.00 GAA and 0.932 Save Percentage and a record of 10-7-5. Unfortunately, his counterpart has not fared as well, with a 3.10 GAA and 0.903 SV% and a dismal 4-8-0 record on the season. If Khabibulin had played every game the Oilers might have come up with a few more wins, but that simply isn't practical. Dubnyk has got to be better for the Oilers to succeed. Even if he had a .500 record that would represent an improvement of 4 points in the standings and push the Oilers up to 9th in the West and 15th in the NHL.

Overtime/Shootout: Edmonton has only one shootout win in four tries this year, and that came way back on opening night against Pittsburgh. Like it or hate it, the shootout is a legitimate way to accumulate points and the Oilers aren't getting them. Last year the Oil were 2 and 9 in the shootout and things aren't looking any better so far. They scored just 8 shootout goals all year, but this season the Oilers have already scored 6 goals on 16 opportunities. Unfortunately, they have been marred by a 28th-place 0.467 Save Percentage in shootouts.

Giveaways: The Oilers have given the puck away more than any other team in the NHL so far, with a total of 370 misadventures. At least part of that can be chalked up to the inexperience of the players, and the ability to hang on and make good decisions may come with time. On the other hand, Edmonton finished last in giveaways in 2010-11 as well, so some of the old habits are dying hard. The good news here is that the Oilers are 11th in takeaways with 230.

Faceoffs: Despite an obvious effort to improve in this area, the Oilers are still 26th in the league in team faceoff win percentage at 48.0%. In fact, that number is an improvement over last year's 44.2% win percentage. Shawn Horcoff has dipped down to 49.2% but Eric Belanger is still comfortably above average at 55.4%. What the Oilers gained with Belanger they lost with Nugent-Hopkins, who, while improving, is still just 39.2% on draws. Sam Gagner hasn't played regularly at center this year, but he's up to an acceptable 49.5% on 103 times in the dot. Anton Lander is winning 41.1% of the time on the fourth line, which is not ideal for that role.

Hits: It's been said for years that the Oilers are too easy to play against and that's still true. So far this season they are 25th in the NHL in total hits with 590. They're on pace for just 1512 hits on the season, which would actually be down from last year's total of 1794.


The Oilers are average or above average on the powerplay, penalty kill, shot blocking, goals for per game, takeaways, goals against per game, and 5X5 goals for/against. That couldn't be said last year, when the Oilers were at or near the bottom of the league in every one of those categories save shot blocking and takeaways. There have been improvements, but they're hard to see when the team is still losing.

I can't stress enough that we knew this would be the case. One would be hard pressed to find anyone anywhere who thought before the season that Edmonton would be in the 2011-12 playoffs. This is a process, and the process is coming along, but there's still plenty of work to be done.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

12/15/11 Griffin Reinhart Could Have An Extended Stay In Edmonton

If the NHL season were to end before Thursday night's action, the Oilers - despite their improved play over last year - would finish in 22nd place. That would give them the 9th overall pick in the draft, and this is a draft that is rich in defensemen.

Over at the Copper and Blue, December's Consensus Top 100 draft eligible players list is out. This list takes the rankings of a number of sources into account and it should be considered a good picture of how players are being seen right now. Nine of the top 15 players on the list are defensemen, which is an area where the Oilers could still use some star power.

If the Draft was today, then the Consensus 100 list would see the Oilers selecting Griffin Reinhart. It could be a very good fit, considering that Reinhart already plays in Edmonton for the Oil Kings. The scouts wouldn't have far to go to get a lot of good looks at the young defender, and it doesn't hurt his case that he's playing with some pieces of the Oilers' future in Kristians Pelss and Martin Gernat.

Incidentally, Pelss is starting to come into his own offensively this season with 13-11-24 +20 in 32 games. Pelss had 14 goals all of last year. Gernat's plus/minus is even better at +23 (tied for the team lead) and he's posted 7-18-25 in 31 games. The Oil Kings have won ten straight and sit atop the WHL's Eastern Conference.

The Oilers have the horses to stay out of the basement this year, so the scouts will probably be taking a lot of looks at defenders who are expected to go sometime in the 5-20 range of the first round. On the other hand, we've seen some very highly rated defensemen plummet on draft day in recent years. Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley were in the top-five conversation and fell to 12th and 13th overall respectively in 2010. In the 2011 Draft, Ryan Murphy slipped to 12th, and Dougie Hamilton made it to the ninth spot. The Oilers may get lucky with a player like this in 2012, but then again all the teams that passed on Cam Fowler will be wary of making the same mistake.

As for Reinhart, he's got 6-11-17 +11 in 25 games with the Oil Kings this season, and he's already a big body at 6'4" and 202 pounds. Could he be a player in the Shea Weber mould? Time will tell. For now, we know that Reinhart is big, mobile and has a good shot; attributes that made him the 3rd overall pick in the WHL Bantam Draft by the Oil Kings. He's now a big part of the turnaround of one Edmonton hockey team.

Perhaps he will stick around for another.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

12/13/11 After 30 Games

As has been the running theme this season, today we'll take a look at the Oilers' key numbers after a milestone game (this time it's game number 30) in order to understand how much better they are than the team that finished 30th last year.

As hard as the Oilers have been to watch in the last five weeks or so, this team is still improved in almost every meaningful category. As expected, they don't have the look of a playoff team just yet, but they are taking steps in the right direction. First we'll look at the Goals For and Against.

Goals For After 30 Games in 2010-11: 77
Goals For This Year: 82
Difference: +5

Despite massively improved offensive performances virtually across the board, the Oilers are only scoring slightly more this year than they were last year at this time. On the other hand, Edmonton's 82 Goals For puts them in 11th in the NHL and 12th in Goals For per Game.

Goals Against After 30 Games in 2010-11: 101
Goals Against This Year: 77
Difference: +24

77 Goals Against makes Edmonton tied for 13th in the NHL and 13th in Goals Against per Game as well.

All told, the Oilers had a -24 GF/GA ratio last year. This year they have a +5 in that regard, which is an improvement of +29 GF/GA from last season to this season at this time.

Shots For After 30 Games in 2010-11: 757
Shots For This Year: 791
Difference: +34

The difference isn't great but the Oilers are shooting more. However, they still are not shooting enough to win consistently. The Oilers are 23rd in total Shots For and 28th in Shots For per Game. Interestingly, only Anaheim (29th in NHL) and Minnesota (1st in NHL) are worse in the latter category.

Shots Against After 30 Games in 2010-11: 1039
Shots Against This Year: 906
Difference: +133

The Oilers have allowed 133 fewer shots this year than last, but again it's not enough. Edmonton is 21st in Shots Against, but they are better (14th) in Shots Against per Game. Last year the Oilers were 30th in the NHL and 21st in Shots Against and Shots Against per Game.

The Oilers allowed 282 more shots than they took after 30 games last year, while this year they have allowed 115 more than they have taken. That's good for a difference of +167 over last year at this time, but they are still getting consistently outshot.

Powerplay Goals For After 30 Games in 2010-11: 18 (16%)
Powerplay Goals For This Year: 24 (19.8%)
Difference: +3.8%

The powerplay has been one particular bright spot this season, thanks in large part to the wizardry of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers have scored the 4th-most powerplay goals in the league this year, and their 19.8% efficiency puts them 7th in the league. Last year the Oilers finished 27th on the powerplay.

Powerplay Goals Against After 30 Games in 2010-11: 33 (71.3% Kill Rate)
Powerplay Goals Against This Year: 22 (83.1% Kill Rate)
Difference: +11.8%

The penalty kill has wavered of late and like many of these numbers it's still riding on early season success. However, an improvement of 11.8% over last year at this time is certainly nothing to sneeze at. Last year the Oilers finished 29th on the PK at 77%, which is only marginal improvement over the first 30 games. It may be too much to hope that the PK will improve by almost 6% by the end of this year as well, but if it can remain at the current level it will be passable. 83.1% puts the Oilers ever so slightly ahead of Calgary in the overall standings at 13th in the NHL.


As you can see, things are clearly looking up. The Oilers teased us all into thinking that they were already a playoff team with their early season heroics. Coming in we all knew that this team had a long, long way to go from back-to-back 30th place finishes to a playoff spot, but that they were improved enough to get out of the basement. These numbers are in line with what we expected, and they won't go unnoticed across the NHL if they continue over a full season.

Friday, 9 December 2011

12/09/11 Notes On A Win

That's more like it. Here are a bunch of notes on Friday night's 4-1 win over Colorado.

In the video above we see the uncanny connection between Jari Kurri and Wayne Gretzky. Everyone in hockey is resistant to make the Gretzky comparison to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and for good reason. Wayne had 137 points in 79 games in his first NHL season, which is a total that even Sidney Crosby has yet to hit. Still, there are things in RNH's game that are eerily similar to Wayne's. Does the first goal in the clip remind you a little of Nugent-Hopkins' pass to Sam Gagner for the fourth Oilers goal on Friday?

More importantly, Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle seem to have the beginnings of a connection that harkens back to the old Gretzky-Kurri days. The opposition must know that the cross-ice feed is coming from RNH to Eberle, but they just can't stop it. There's a new Fric and Frac in town.

- The old cliche proved to be true again. When the Oilers play their game they can dominate hockey games. On the other hand, the Oilers absolutely had to win this one. There was a serious fire lit under them by the coaches, the media and the fans. Last season we saw a team that played well after a swift kick in the behind and yet they still managed to fall to 30th place by year's end. The real test for this incarnation of the Oilers will be to see if they can stay motivated without being embarrassed first. That, and beating Calgary, which they absolutely have to do on Saturday. If they win against Calgary it may be evidence that the Oilers are for real. If not, there will be more work to do before this team is ready to contend for a playoff spot.

- Only Ben Eager played less than Magnus Paajarvi, and Eager did more with his time. That said, Magnus had some positive moments in this game and showed some real chemistry with Anton Lander. Having a player that Paajarvi is comfortable playing with is at least as important as one with a load of skill. Ales Hemsky may be much more skilled than Lander, but Lander and Paajarvi have been on the same team and on the same ice surface together for years. Sometimes in the NHL all you need is a duo, not a full line.

- Sam Gagner now has 10 points in his last 9 games. Playing with the sublimely skilled Nugent-Hopkins definitely helps, but Gags looks highly motivated out there and he's showing everything that he's capable of. He worked his way up to the top line without anyone else and doesn't seem to just be comfortable in a lesser role like some others - *cough* Hemsky *cough cough.* If the Oilers do (unfortunately) decide to trade Gagner, his stock is rising rapidly.

- Trading Hemsky seems to be a more and more attractive option. He still has the ability to be a game-breaker, but the Oilers have had to learn to get by without him - sometimes even when he's in the lineup. If things continue this way it may be time to do the once unthinkable and pull the trigger on a deal involving number 83. Hemsky isn't finished being a great hockey player, but there are certainly a number of GMs who will overpay for him based on past performance alone. It would allow the Oilers to get more size into the lineup with a player like Hartikainen, or even a Pitlick or Hamilton somewhere down the line.

- On the subject of trades - and I realize that this isn't Oilers related - Jim Rutherford managed to unload Tomas Kaberle to the Canadiens on Friday. Not only did the Hurricanes shed $4.25 million in salary over the next three years, but they also acquired an asset who is a pending Unrestricted Free Agent in Spacek. When the Canes flip Spacek for an asset at the deadline, this deal will look even better. If that asset turns out to be an actual NHL player, well, as they say in the Mafia: fuhgeddaboutit.

- Friday's game was a must-win from a morale standpoint, but Saturday against Calgary is almost as big. The Oilers need to crush the Flames to be respected and to respect themselves. If they do, they'll deserve that respect.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

12/08/11 Gagner Is No Bust

It didn't take the fans long to jump on Sam Gagner in what is supposed to be the turning point season of his time with the Oilers. He's had four years to figure it out and people want more. Now, finally, they are getting it.

The kid in the picture above is the same one that came into the NHL as an 18 year old and scored 49 points in 79 games. What he showed there was no mere flash in the pan; no anomaly. Gagner is a bonafide NHL player. If he's given the chance, he'll show everyone just how much of an impact he can make.

As yet, the only player from the 2007 draft that has more points and games played than Gagner is his former teammate Patrick Kane. Some players have a chance to catch him (Logan Couture comes to mind), but the Oilers would have been hard-pressed to do better with that 6th pick overall.

However, this season Sam started slow. He had just four points in his first 15 games, including a 7-game pointless streak which was his longest since his rookie year. In fact, as a rookie Gagner had a stretch of 7 games and 13 games where he didn't register a point. And yet he scored a career-high 49 points that same season.

From February onward, Gagner scored 28 points in the last 29 games of the season, aided by a run of nine consecutive games with at least one point. Before that, he had a modest 21 points in 50 games. In hindsight, it's easy to forget that his hot streak didn't start until February. It may seem needless to point out, but we aren't even through December yet in this young season, so it's a little early to judge Gagner's contributions. There's still a lot of hockey left to be played.

19 of Gagner's 42 points last season came after January ended, as did 24 of his 41 in 2008-09. In 2009-10 Gagner scored 15 of his 41 points from January 16th onward, and he also missed the last ten games of that year.

Having said that, it looks like Gagner's game may have already turned the corner this time around. He's collected 7 points in his last 8 games and is now up to 9 in 21 contests. His shooting percentage is an unsustainably bad 2.3%. 2.3%! If mere luck had allowed him to score at his career average percentage (say around 9%), he'd have 4 goals in 21 games and be on pace for 14 in 75, which is a total that he's still very capable of reaching.

Gagner's much maligned faceoff ability seems to have come around some as well, as he's sitting at 51.3% on 78 draws right now. Here is his progression year after year in the dot:

2010-11: 43.8% on 935 draws
2009-10: 47.4% on 709 draws
2008-09: 42% on 690 draws
2007-08: 41.8% on 299 draws

If he can keep up his current pace he'll be a perfectly acceptable option in the faceoff circle, as well as a solid offensive contributor. He's clutch around the end of the year when a team needs its players to step it up, and he's still extremely young and relatively inexpensive for the whole package that he brings.

The fact is that even if Sam Gagner ends up as a 50-point player for his entire career he'll be a solid draft pick and a very good second line center. Only 35 centers scored 50 or more points last year, which means that to have one of them is a huge boost. Incidentally, in an injury-shortened season Gagner was still 49th in points among centers last year.

Trading Gagner may seem to make sense to some at the moment, but he still has plenty of room to grow into his role. What's more, he's a more offensively gifted option for the second line than any of the Oilers' other centers. Shawn Horcoff may be outscoring Gagner at the moment, but Horcoff is 33 years old. It can't and won't continue for much longer, whether Gagner is an Oiler for it or not. It may be a hard pill, but eventually the Oilers will be better served to have Horcoff play less minutes and be a very good third line center while Sam fills the middle slot on the second unit.

Here is a look at the depth chart at center with and without Gagner, and the effect that injuries would have on the lineup:

Center depth chart with Gager included

Centers Without RNH Without GagnerWithout HorcoffWithout Belanger
Nugent-Hopkins Gagner Nugent-HopkinsNugent-HopkinsNugent-Hopkins
Gagner Horcoff HorcoffGagnerGagner
Horcoff BelangerBelangerBelangerHorcoff
Belanger Lander Lander LanderLander

Center depth chart without Gagner as an Oiler

Centers Without RNH Without HorcoffWithout BelangerWithout Lander
Nugent-Hopkins Horcoff Nugent-HopkinsNugent-HopkinsNugent-Hopkins
Horcoff Belanger BelangerHorcoffHorcoff
Belanger LanderLanderLanderBelanger
Lander O'Marra O'Marra O'MarraO'Marra

The depth chart is much stronger with Gagner on the team and with Lander as a callup than it is without Gagner. Pushing Lander down the depth chart gives the organization much stronger depth and means that one injury wouldn't be so devastating. It also means that Lander would be playing big minutes in OKC and would be that much better as a callup.

If the Oilers and their fans stay the course with Sam Gagner, he can still be a very big part of the future.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

12/08/11 Honest Appraisal

The collective fingers of Oilers fans are hovering over the panic button. It's not time to push it just yet, but after losing to a 29th place team on a 6 game losing streak, that time is approaching fast. Here are some notes about the loss and this streak of futility.

The Oilers are 4-5-1 in their last ten games, but that's actually a fairly flattering number. Edmonton is 5-10-1 since that whirlwind 6-game winning streak back in late October and early November. During that streak we were wondering if this team was for real, and we appear to be getting the answer.

The Oilers are continuing to score first (that's good!) and then blowing the leads (that's bad). Edmonton's 79 goals is 9th best in the whole NHL (that's good!), but their 76 goals against puts them in 17th (that's bad). Though inept on Wednesday, the powerplay is 8th in the league (that's good!). Unfortunately, the penalty kill continues its downward spiral and is sitting in 16th (that's bad).

The men with the Oil drops on their sweaters have outshot the opposition just nine times in 28 games. What's worse, they're just 4-4-1 when outshooting their opponent this season.

But if we're talking solely about the time since the winning streak, here are some other numbers:

Goals For prior to/during winning streak: 27 (2.25 GF/G)
Goals For since WS: 51 (3.18 GF/G)

The Oilers' scoring has been more in line with what we expected since that winning streak than it was before and during. Unfortunately, so has the defensive side.

Goals Against prior to/during winning streak: 16 (1.33 GA/G)
Goals Against since WS: 57 (3.56 GA/G)

Edmonton is allowing better than 2 goals per game more than they were to start the year. When the GF/G number is smaller than the GA/G over an extended period, you're going to have a tough time winning hockey games.

Penalty Kill % prior to/during winning streak: 5 goals allowed on 47 opportunities (89.4%)
Penalty Kill % since WS: 16 goals allowed on 72 opportunities (77.8%)

The Oilers have allowed at least one powerplay goal in each of the last 8 games, and in 12 of the 16 games since the winning streak ended. Edmonton's PK finished 29th last year at 77%, which is exactly what we've been seeing for the last 16 games.

- Nikolai Khabibulin's numbers are still more than respectable at 2.00 GAA and 0.932 SV%, but Devan Dubnyk hasn't been getting it done in the crease. He's got a Goals Against Average of 3.10 and a 0.899 save percentage to go with a record of 4-6-0. Khabibulin has lost 6 times in regulation as well, but he's started 7 more games than Dubnyk has.

- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins became the fastest Oilers rookie ever to score 30 points, having done it in just 28 games. Jason Arnott needed 35 games for the feat back in 1993-94. The game against Carolina could very well have been the battle of the reigning and future Calder Trophy winners. It's certainly going to be difficult for any of the other rookies to catch RNH. Nashville's Craig Smith is the next closest in points with 22 in 27 games. Even better, Nugent-Hopkins is tied for 5th among rookies in plus/minus at plus-5. Former first-overall-contender Sean Couturier is better at plus-7, but he only has eight points.


The Oilers probably aren't actually as bad as they've been in the last six games (1-4-1), but they also aren't as good as that early season stretch would have us believe. It seems almost impossible that they could finish 30th for a third straight year, and that's thanks in large part to their offensive production. Nugent-Hopkins needs just 14 points in the next 54 games to better Jordan Eberle's team-leading 43 from last season. The Oilers have 5 players on pace to improve on those 43 points by a mile, and 6 on pace for 20 or more goals.

We knew coming in that this would be the strength of the team and that the other elements would be weaker. That simply means that things are proceeding on schedule (or massively ahead of schedule in the case of RNH), and there's nothing wrong with that.

Monday, 5 December 2011

12/16/11 Realigning Expectations

Thanks to the tireless efforts of a team of graphic designers, I am pleased to give you the map of the NHL's new Four Conferences. Everyone, say hello to your new rivals.

If you don't know your geography (hands up if you know exactly where all these cities are in your head) the map helps to show why the Conferences are laid out like they are. It's all neat and tidy out West and then it gets a little funny looking out East, but that's the way the decision makers decided to do it so that Boston, Montreal and Toronto would stay together and so would Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Washington gets lumped in with Pittsburgh there as well, which will make for some marquee matchups come playoff time.

As for the Oilers, this is not good news. The road to the playoffs is going to be paved through 5 playoff teams from last year. Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim, Phoenix and Los Angeles were ranked 1st, 5th, 9th, 11th, and 12th in the entire NHL last season and under the new system at least one of them will be guaranteed to miss the playoffs.

15 of the top 30 scorers in the NHL from last year will be located in the new Conference of which the Oilers will be a part. If Edmonton is going to compete they will have to hope to add a few names of their own to that list.

The trouble is that the Oilers can be a very good team and still miss under this system, which isn't good for a team that is at the tail end of a rebuild. It's safe to say that for the foreseeable future Vancouver, San Jose and Los Angeles will be all but assured of a playoff spot under almost any system. That leaves exactly one opening for five teams.

This development may cause the Oilers to take a step backward in their development next year. Edmonton will get San Jose, Los Angeles and Phoenix twice more than they do now. The Oilers should be ahead of Phoenix by next year, but those other two are a different story. Not only that, but under this system every team will play at least two games against every other team in the league (home and away). That means the Oilers will now get powerhouses Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington twice a year.

There's always the chance that the Phoenix Coyotes will need to be moved out of their current home and possibly to another Conference. Some of the candidate cities:

Seattle: The Conferences would remain the same.
Kansas City:  A team would move out of Conference B (the red circle one). Possibly Winnipeg would join Edmonton's Conference.
Quebec City: Who the heck knows. Either there would be a whole new realignment, or the Conference in black would have eight teams. The latter would be the fairest way.
Vegas: Conferences remain the same.

Undoubtedly there will be plenty of pros and cons to the new system that we can't even see yet, but it will be interesting to watch it unfold. It's a whole new landscape and the shifting may not be over yet.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

12/04/11 By The Numbers: Hall, Oilers, Standings

If the season ended today, the Oilers would finish 17th in the league, which is a quantum leap forward from last year. Here are a boatload of other numbers about a variety of topics ranging from Taylor Hall's importance to the team to the quality of the penalty kill.

Let's start with Hall. It's impossible to overstate the importance of Taylor Hall to this Oilers team. Last season the Oil were 12-1-4 when Hall scored at least one goal, and this year they are 5-0-0 when Hall scores. Overall, that means the Oilers have a record of 17-1-4 when Taylor Hall riffles the twine. The Oilers are 4-12-5 with Hall out of the lineup altogether, although that stat is a bit deceiving because there were so many other corresponding injuries last season.

- While we're on the subject of injuries, here is a look at three key ones from last year and how they affected the team:

Oilers record last season with Hemsky, Whitney and Hall all in the lineup (we'll call this the control): 6-5-2; 46.1% Winning Percentage, 53.8% Points Percentage

Record without Hemsky11-17-7 overall. 32% Winning Percentage, 42.6% Points Percentage

Record without Whitney13-28-6. 27.6% Winning Percentage, 34% Points Percentage

Record without all three: 3-10-4. 17.6% Winning Percentage; 29% Points Percentage

Obviously losing all three was devastating, but these numbers indicate how important Ryan Whitney was to the Oilers last year. They also show how much better this team could have been if all three had stayed healthy for any length of time. The Oilers weren't as far away from being competitive as it looked, but they couldn't ice a healthy squad. If they ever manage to get all three of these players (let alone RNH) together for an extender period, watch out.

- Edmonton's record when Jordan Eberle scored last year: 10-5-2. This year: 6-2-1. Overall: 16-7-3.

- After December 3rd last year the Oilers were 9-12-4 with 22 points, good for 15th in the Western Conference and 26th in the NHL. The Islanders, Devils, Leafs and Panthers were worse at that point. In fact, the Islanders had a record of just 5-14-5 and 15 points. Interestingly, Colorado had a record of 13-9-3 (Edmonton is currently 13-11-3) after December 3rd and the same 29 points that the Oilers have this year. Colorado ended up finishing 29th.

- Edmonton's powerplay is 5th in the NHL right now and 1st at home, where it's clicking 25% of the time. The Oilers' 22 total powerplay goals is tied for 3rd in the NHL.

- The penalty kill has dipped down to 15th overall, but it's actually been better on the road than at home. The Oilers are 15th in the league in PK% at home and 13th outside of Rexall. The Oilers have allowed 19 powerplay goals which puts them in 23rd place. The least PP goals allowed by a team this year? That would be New Jersey, which has allowed just 5 in 25 games.

- After one game Nugent-Hopkins was 13.3% in the faceoff circle. After four games he'd improved to 24%. He's now sitting at 37.3% on draws, which isn't great but isn't horrible. He won a career-high 71% against Nashville on November 28th.

- The Oilers' best player in the faceoff dot right now is actually Ryan O'Marra. O'Marra has won 10 of the 14 draws he's taken so far, good for 71.4%. Sam Gagner has taken 74 faceoffs and won exactly half of them, which is a stat that should make fans rejoice. Shawn Horcoff has taken by far the most draws of anyone on the team at 535. He's won 49.3% of them so far. Among those who have taken at least 100, Eric Belanger is best with a 55.2% winning percentage on 373 faceoffs total. Overall the Oilers are 27th in faceoff winning percentage. At 712 and 790, the Oilers rank 24th in faceoffs won and 24th in faceoffs lost.

- The Oilers are 27th in Shots For per Game, which is going to have to improve. Right now they are averaging just 26.3 per outing.

- The Shots Against per Game total is much more encouraging. The Oilers are 13th in the NHL in that regard, allowing an average of 30 per game.

- The last few games have been a bit of an anomaly in that the Oilers have blown leads. Overall the team is 10-4-3 when scoring first, and 4 of those losses have come in the last 5 games. That also means that the Oilers have scored first in 17 of their first 27 games (63% of the time), while last year they scored first in just 32 games (39% of the time).

No matter how you slice it, the Oilers are better. This is definitely a season to build on, whether they make the  playoffs or not.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

11/29/11 Lander Should Not Have Remained in the NHL

Before all the Anton Lander fans out there decide they want to start putting anthrax in my pillowcase, it should be said that Lander is a good player and will be part of the future of the Oilers. It's just that the future isn't now.

The decision to keep Lander in the NHL even after Sam Gagner returned from injury has had far reaching effects on the team. Through no fault of his own (at least to begin with), Gagner was unable to slot into his natural position at center because the Oilers had four healthy ones already in RNH, Horcoff, Belanger and Lander. After coming off a season shortened by injury and having to start the season late because of one, Gagner was being unintentionally set up to fail. On a team deep in wingers, Gagner had no hope of breaking into the top six, and was playing out of position.

A lot of the rationale for keeping Lander was that he was playing well in his role, which is true. Anton Lander is a good hockey player and the penalty kill was performing admirably. As a matter of fact, the Oilers' penalty kill is 9th in the NHL at the moment, so the team must be doing something right. However, Lander is sitting down in 10th among the Oilers when it comes to PK ice time per game, and 5th among the forwards. The only other forward that averages more than a minute of PK time per game is Lennart Petrell, which means Lander is essentially the second-least active forward among the regular penalty killing forwards.

His faceoff ability is certainly no better than Gagner's either. He's 68 and 107 in the NHL this year, for a 38.8% total. Gagner is sitting at 48.5% after 66 draws.

Lander has put up 2 points in 23 games thus far, which means that he's on pace for just 7 points all year. His lack of offensive contribution has been part of the struggles of the bottom six to chip in some goals.

But it's hard to put up offensive numbers when you're not getting any ice time. Only Petrell, Eager and Hordichuk are averaging less ice time per game than Lander is. He's currently counted on for 11:08 of ice time per night, and 1:41 seconds of that is shorthanded. Much like Hartikainen, it would probably be better for Lander to have learned the pro game in the AHL by playing in all situations and lots of minutes each night.

Now that Taylor Hall is injured the Oilers are stuck keeping Lander in this situation (although he may now be injured as well), but it could have and should have been rectified a long time ago. Anton Lander played well enough in camp to earn an NHL spot and Gagner's injury sealed it, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he should be in the NHL when the Oilers have other options. Jeff Petry was demoted so that his development wouldn't be stunted by lack of playing time, and that same path should be taken with the forwards when necessary.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

11/26/11 More Odds & Ends: Edmonton vs Calgary

Feaster's wager is looking more and more like a very bad bet as the days and games go by. The Oilers are now 9 points clear of Calgary in the standings, and they're breathing the rare air of playoff position. The last time the Oilers finished ahead of the Flames? That would be 8 years ago, in 2002-03.

Of course, 22 games does not a season make, but so far the trends seem to be clear. On this date last year Calgary was 9-11-2 with 20 points, which put them 5 points out of a playoff spot. They went 24-11-9 from January onward and still missed the post season by 3 points. It's not that their current 9 point deficit is insurmountable, but it's going to require even more from the Flames than they did last year. Is this team capable of that?

Jarome Iginla is a notoriously slow starter, but right now he's being outscored by Tom Gilbert and carrying a team-worst minus-11 rating. He had 18 points by this date last year (in 22 games), and had scored 9 times, while this season he's got a modest 6-4-10. Again, there's nothing saying that Iginla won't put his game together, but traditionally he's scoring by now.

He's not getting much help either. Alex Tanguay is leading the team with 15 points and Curtis Glencross is pacing them in goals with 7. The Oilers currently have five players with at least 7 goals, and all of those players have more points than Tanguay.

As a matter of fact, the Oilers have scored the third-most goals in the Western Conference to this point with 62; 17 clear of Calgary's output. It's rare that Oilers fans get to rub it in a little, so let's all enjoy it while we can.


While we're pumping the tires of the Oilers, let's look at a few other tidbits.

- Edmonton currently has the 5th-best powerplay in the NHL, which is clicking at a 22.2% clip. Last year's powerplay? 27th in the league with 14.5% efficiency.

- The penalty kill is 7th-best in the league, since it's killing 86% of opposing teams' opportunities with the man advantage. Last year the Oilers killed just 77% of the penalties they took and finished 29th in the NHL on the PK.

- Last year the Oilers were 21st in shots against per game; averaging 31.7 against each night. So far in 2011-12 they have improved to 12th in that regard, averaging 29.5.

It's not all roses though. The Oilers are averaging fewer shots per game than they did last season. So far they are 29th in the league with 25.7 shots per game, while last year they were 29th with 26.7 S/G.

The special teams are really what tell the tale of the season so far. Last year 8 of the top 10 teams on the powerplay ended up making the playoffs, as did 8 of the top 10 penalty killers. All three teams (Vancouver, Montreal, Tampa) that were top ten in both the PP and PK ended up making the playoffs, and two of them had deep playoff runs. Just sayin'.

- The Oilers were 6-12-4 after 22 games last year. They were on pace for 60 points and finished with 62. In 2009-10 the Oilers had a record of 9-10-3 after 22 games. They were on pace for 78 points and ended up with 62. The season before that they were on pace for 82 points and finished with 85. Pace is not an exact indicator of the eventual point total, but none of these teams were on pace for a playoff spot after 22 games and none of them made it.

There are dangers with this, though. Edmonton was 13-8-1 in 2006-07 after 22 games (101 point pace), but finished 6th-last in the league. Of course, that was when Ryan Smyth was traded away and the Oilers proceeded to lose 18 of their final 20 games (only one of those in OT). Before that they had a record of 30-26-6, which put them on pace of 87 points.

In other words, the rate your team is winning at after 22 games is a decent indicator of how their season will go; barring some crazy unforeseen circumstances, that is. If that holds true for this year, Oilers fans should be doing backflips with joy. There may not be playoffs in the future this season, but there probably will be meaningful games in April.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

11/23/11 Odds & Ends: Carle Rumor, Minnesota, Iginla, Rieder

This article is suggesting that the Philadelphia Flyers are going to be looking to move Matt Carle in the near future, and lists the Edmonton Oilers as one of the teams that might be interested. Ah, the rumor mill. How little sense you sometimes make.

Carle is set to become an Unrestricted Free Agent in the off season, which means that whichever team decides to add him will probably be a contender. If the Oilers are still in this spot in the standings before the deadline there's a possibility that the Edmonton will want to bolster the blueline, but Steve Tambellini said that he doesn't feel under pressure to make a deal for a defenseman despite his depleted group.

Nor should he. This defensive group has performed admirably under trying circumstances, and has earned a chance to run with this thing. If the Oilers decide that Carle is a player that they are interested in adding, they can always do it in the off season without having to give up an asset.

Having said that, the Oilers are perhaps one very good defenseman away from having their team finished. The hard part of building the forward battery is more or less done, and the way the defense has been playing suggests that it may be closer than any of us thought. For the sake of argument, let's assume the Oilers are able to sign Ryan Suter in the off season as a UFA. Next year's pairings would look something like this:

Suter - Whitney
Smid - Gilbert
Potter - Petry

Those are three quality pairings that could match up with just about any in the NHL, especially after Petry gets another year of experience under his belt. That still leaves Teubert, Chorney, Plante and eventually Fedun on the farm as callups.

Obviously there's no guarantee that the Oilers will pursue a player like Suter, let alone get him signed, but a top-pairing defenseman appears to be the final large piece of the puzzle.

With Calgary struggling to make up ground in the Western Conference and a playoff spot slipping away, the talk about trading RW Jarome Iginla has started up again in earnest. He's coming off a 43 goal, 86 point campaign last year but the market for Iginla in trade might be smaller than anyone thinks.

Every team in the NHL would love to have Iginla on their roster, but there are other things to take into consideration. A team must have the cap space to take on his $7 million cap hit, or be able to clear the space in a trade. The team must be a contender because that is the only kind of team that will give up assets to acquire him and the only kind of team Iginla is likely to waive his No Move Clause to go to. After the trade is said and done, Iginla must be a clear upgrade for the potential suitor, which limits the number and quality of roster players that are moved for him.

The Washington Capitals could move Semin to clear room for Iginla, but it would take more than a pending UFA to get a deal done. The Buffalo Sabres can clear out the cap space for Iggy, starting with moving Brad Boyes and his $4 million hit, but again the Sabres will need to greatly sweeten the pot. There aren't many contending teams that can take on Iginla's contract without doing a significant roster shakeup. Among those few teams are Chicago ($5.5M in space currently), Detroit ($5.3M), and perhaps the Minnesota Wild ($7.9M). Will one of those teams make a pitch for Iginla if he becomes available?

- While we're on the subject of the Minnesota Wild, it's worth noting how hot their start has been. In fact, they're on top of the Western Conference with 29 points. But, as we've already seen, sometimes hot starts can be a mirage. The Wild have scored the fewest goals of any team currently in playoff position in the West, and the 4th-fewest in the Conference. On the other hand, their 42 goals against is the best in the West and it's due in large part to the play of their goaltenders.

Before this season, Niklas Backstrom had a career Save Percentage of 0.917 and a 2.42 GAA. Before Wednesday night's game, his numbers were 0.935 SV% and a 1.97 GAA.

Josh Harding had a career SV% of 0.915 and a 2.66 GAA coming into this season, but before Wednesday he had a 0.945 SV% and 1.79 GAA this year.

Unless the 6th-lowest scoring team in the NHL can manage to find some offense, they will have a hard time stringing wins together when their goaltending comes back down to Earth. That will be good news for everyone in the Conference, and most particularly those in the Northwest Division. If only Edmonton could win against Minnesota.

- Everyone has a favorite prospect outside the NHL, and Tobias Rieder is slowly becoming one of mine. The 114th overall pick (Rd 4) in 2011 has had a fantastically hot start to this season. He's amassed 18-13-31 in just 23 games with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL, after 23-26-49 in 65 games as a rookie. If he keeps it up he's on pace to score 51 goals in 65 games, and collect a total of 88 points. At just 5'10" and 165 pounds his prospects of having success beyond the NHL aren't great, but they will depend on his drive and willingness to do whatever it takes. Hockey's Future lists his compete level as an area of strength, so there's a chance he could end up as a late round gem from the Magnificent Bastard.

Monday, 21 November 2011

11/21/11 After the Quarter Pole

The Oilers have now played their 20th game of the year, and we are one quarter of the way through the season. Here are a bunch of notes and facts about the first twenty, and a comparison to the previous [horrible] seasons.

- The Oilers have scored 50 goals. After 20 games last year the Oilers had scored 49 goals.

- 47 pucks have gone past Oilers goaltenders this year, while last year at this time the Oilers had allowed a whopping 82 goals against. 

- Without that 9 goal outburst against Chicago the Oilers would actually be greatly below their goal output from last year. On the other hand, they have shown staggering improvement defensively over this time last year.

- In 2009-10 the Oilers had scored 58 and allowed 63 after 20 games.

- The Oilers have put 505 shots on goal this year (25.25 SF/G), and allowed 586 (29.3 SA/G)

- Edmonton sits in 10th place currently, which is the better than the previous two seasons after 20 games. The Oilers had won all of 5 games last year at this time, so 10 wins is like a revelation.

- Oilers' records after 20 in the years since the lockout:

2005-06: 10-9-1 (Stanley Cup Final)
2006-07: 11-8-1 (Did Not Qualify for Playoffs)
2007-08: 7-12-1 (DNQ)
2008-09: 9-9-2 (DNQ)
2009-10: 8-10-2 (DNQ)
2010-11: 5-11-4 (You get the idea)

- Number of Western Conference teams that were outside the playoff picture on November 21 but ended up making the playoffs since the lockout:

2005-06: Anaheim, San Jose
2006-07: Calgary
2007-08: Calgary, Nashville
2008-09: St. Louis (14th in the West on this date, but made it), Columbus
2009-10: Vancouver, Nashville
2010-11: Nashville, Anaheim, San Jose

That's just 12 teams in six years that have made the post season after not being in on November 21. The good news for the currently 10th place Oilers is that there's at least one team each year that got in after being on the outside. The bad news is that only two outside teams make in per year on average, and Vancouver is all but guaranteed to be one of them this season.

- Points for Ryan Smyth this year: 20. After 20 games last season: 7-5-12

- Points for Taylor Hall this year: 14. After 20 games last season: 4-5-9

- Points for Jordan Eberle this year: 18. After 20 last season: 4-8-12

- Points for Shawn Horcoff this year: 12. After 20 last season: 7-7-14

- Points for Tom Gilbert this year: 10. After 20 last season: 3-2-5

- Points for Magnus Paajarvi this year: 1. After 20 last season: 2-4-6

- Points for Eric Belanger this year: 3. After 20 last season: 4-6-10

You win some, you lose some. Overall there's improvement everywhere. Plenty for beleaguered fans to be happy about.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

11/20/11 Duh, Winning

Did you see that? The Oilers beat  destroyed Chicago on Hockey Night in Canada. If ever there was a time to send a message to the whole of this hockey-crazed nation, it was Saturday against the best team going. Here are some notes from the game:

Told you he was going to be fine. Taylor Hall scored his second career hat trick faster than John Tavares, Steve Stamkos or Patrick Kane scored two. He's back on pace to score 27 goals and nobody would be shocked to see him score more than that. There's nothing like a hat trick to get people to stop worrying. After having a shooting percentage of just 7% coming in, 75% of Hall's 4 shots went in on this night.

- Theo Peckham responded from a minus-3 night against Ottawa by going plus-5 against Chicago in just 14:52 of work.

- Jeff Petry had a whale of a game with 3 assists and a plus-5 rating as well.

- Nugent-Hopkins is back on a point-per-game pace with 7-12-19 in 19 games. He tallied 5 assists in just 13:20 of ice time. It might be a tad premature to think that RNH could match or better Jari Kurri's 75 points in 75 games as a rookie, but nights like Saturday make it seem possible. If Nugent-Hopkins only scores a point every two games from now on, his 50 total points would make him the 5th-highest scoring Oilers rookie of all time. Sam Gagner currently holds that spot with 49 points, which is a note of caution. On the other hand, Gagner only had 9 points in his first 19 games as a rookie.

- Speaking of Sam Gagner, he was one of nine Oilers who went without a point on Saturday. Magnus Paajarvi was held without a point as well. Both of them looked more dangerous than they have recently, but it's time for them to start scoring.

- The Oilers now have five players on pace for 50 or more points, and four players on pace for 20 or more goals. If the season ends that way, it will be a vast improvement over last year. In 2010-11 the Oilers had one 20 goal scorer (Hall) and no players with 50 points.

- Edmonton is now just barely back inside the playoff cut line with 22 points. We all talk about wanting the team to play meaningful games in March, but the truth of the matter is that just playing meaningful games in December would be a nice change. The Oilers haven't had a winning record after 19 games since 2008-09.

- This was a good game to be at. Besides all of the goals and the electric atmosphere in the building, the best part of being there was the fans' chant of "We Want Ten" after the Oilers scored their ninth goal. For those who don't remember, the fans sarcastically chanted "We Want Ten" when the Oilers were down 9-2 against Buffalo back in 2009. The Sabres lit up Dwayne Roloson for 3 goals and Jeff Deslauriers for 7 on the way to a 10-2 drubbing. Chicago won 9-2 in Edmonton on December 16th of that same year, so there's a certain amount of symmetry to Saturday's game. This win, and that chant, were like seeing the Oilers turn the corner; even if it was just one night of many on the road back to respectability.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

11/16/11 Slump? What Slump?

Rumblings are beginning that Taylor Hall is slumping, and it's made worse because Tyler Seguin has been tearing it up over in Boston this year, with 20 points in 16 games. Did the Oilers pick the wrong man? In a word: nope.

First let's look at the stats:

Hall: 16 games played, 3-8-11, Even
Seguin: 16 games played, 11-9-20, plus-15

At first glance it appears that Seguin is tearing Hall a new one in the heads up comparison, but there are a few things to consider here. First of all, Tyler Seguin is scoring on 22.4% of the shots he's taken so far. That is a percentage that is simply not sustainable. Seguin has taken only 6 more shots than Taylor Hall, but he's scored 8 more goals.

Taylor Hall is scoring on just 7% of the shots he's taken so far and has 3 goals. Over their two short NHL careers, Hall has a shooting percentage of 10.9% and Seguin's is 12.2%. If they were each scoring at their career average percentage, Seguin would have six goals and Hall would have five.

It's also important to remember that Tyler Seguin is playing on a team that won the Stanley Cup last year and didn't have an enormous amount of turnover on the roster, but Taylor Hall is playing on a team that finished 30th with a center that has just 17 games of NHL experience. Nugent-Hopkins is a very good player, but he's still a raw rookie. Ironically, being a linemate of RNH has meant that Hall has been sheltered much more than he was last year, and his average ice time has suffered by a full minute per game.

Despite all that, Hall actually is doing better than last year. After 16 games last season Hall had accumulated 3-4-7, and a minus-7, while this year has has 3-8-11 and is an Even player. Even though he wasn't scoring a ton to start last year, he ended with 22 goals in 65 games. Last year he had three stretches of seven games without a goal and still his scoring was strong overall. This eight game drought is a minor blip.

Taylor Hall is going to be fine. Just saying.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

11/15/11 Who's Going to Miss the Playoffs?

Last time we looked at the teams that were in playoff position last year after 17 games, and who stayed there. Today we'll find out why teams that started in playoff position dropped out, and see if the same fate is likely to befall the Oilers.

Columbus: The Blue Jackets were off to their best start in franchise history last year at 11-6-0 after 17 games. In fact, they made it all the way to 14-6-0 in their first 20 before the wheels fell off on their season. So what happened?

In those first 20 games Steve Mason was merely average, posting a 0.902 save percentage and finishing the year with a save percentage of 0.901. No real anomalies there. However, his counterpart Mathieu Garon started that year with a 0.943 SV%, three shutouts in 7 games (plus one relief appearance), and a record of 6-1. His save percentage came back down to Earth in a big way after that, as he finished at 0.901 and with a record of 10-14.

After those first 20 games, Columbus proceeded to lose 5 straight and 14 of their next 20. The Jackets allowed 609 shots on goal in the first 20 games, and those shots resulted in 47 goals against (0.923 SV%). In the next 20 games Columbus allowed 608 shots on goal and they resulted in 70 goals against (0.885 SV%). But things didn't really get dismal until the end of February. Columbus managed just 3 wins in their last 22 games. Their goaltenders allowed 75 goals over span on 648 shots, for a 0.884 SV%. Only Colorado and Edmonton allowed more goals in the West that year.

St. Louis: The Blues were 12-5-3 in their first 20 games last year, but ended up finishing in 11th place in the West. It's much the same story as Columbus. Jaroslav Halak was 10-4-2 to start the year, with 3 shutouts. His save percentage was North of 0.920 ten times in those 16 games. In the entire rest of the year it was above 0.920 17 more times in 41 appearances, and it was sub-0.900 on 17 occasions as well. He won 17 games the rest of the year. Ty Conklin wasn't much relief, finishing with a 0.881 SV% and 3.22 GAA.

Dallas: An average team that nearly made it but fell out on the last day of the season. This team didn't exactly over achieve early on, and they finished about where they ought to have (9th). The fact that they were in the playoff picture early on and fell out was merely because the race was so tight.

Minnesota: Niklas Backstom's save percentage was above 0.930 in 9 of his first 14 starts, and above 0.920 in 11 of them. He had a record of 8-4-2 to start the year. Jose Theodore was 3-2-0 in his first 5 starts for Minny, posting an impressive 0.920 SV%. Both goalies finished the year with identical 0.916 save percentages and Minnesota missed the playoffs. The two would combine for 24 more wins in their next 60 starts.


There are certainly many other factors (injuries, trades, bad luck) that conspire to make a team miss the post season after being so good early on. However, hot goaltending has the uncanny ability to mask the other deficiencies that a team may have, and make that team appear better than it is. None of these goalies finished with abysmal save percentages by the end of the year, but all of these teams (save Dallas) had goaltenders that were playing well above their norm early in the season.

Interestingly, a marginal team like Nashville got into the playoffs on the back of a 0.929 save percentage from Pekka Rinne, and it was Jonas Hiller's 0.924 SV% that pushed Anaheim into the post season as much as anything else (50 goals from Corey Perry didn't hurt though). Phoenix probably didn't belong in the playoffs either, but Dave Tippet's systems and the 0.921 SV% of Ilya Bryzgalov got them through.

Not all playoff teams have great goaltending. Jimmy Howard's save percentage last year was a modest 0.908 and he won 37 games, but that's because Detroit has a very good team.

If the Oilers had average goaltending would they be where they are now? If the answer you're thinking is no, then that means Edmonton is very likely to miss the playoffs because this type of stellar goaltending isn't likely to continue. But these performances from Khabibulin represent a feel-good comeback story, so who cares if it's not sustainable? The Oilers are showing flashes of what they will be, and we all knew that was the best we could hope for coming in.

Monday, 14 November 2011

11/13/11 Who's Going To Make It?

The Edmonton Oilers have played 17 games this season and find themselves in playoff position. Here is a look at last season's standings after 17 games from all the teams in the West, and who ended up in an out of the playoffs.

The actual standings at the end of last year were as follows:

1) Vancouver
2) San Jose
3) Detroit
4) Anaheim
5) Nashville
6) Phoenix
7) Los Angeles
8) Chicago
9) Dallas
10) Calgary
11) St. Louis
12) Minnesota
13) Columbus
14) Colorado
15) Edmonton

However, after each team had played 17 games last year the standings would have looked something like this:

1) Detroit 12-3-2 -- 26 Points*
2) Los Angeles 12-5-0 -- 24 Points*
3) Vancouver 10-4-3 -- 23 Points*
4) Columbus 11-6-0 -- 22 Points
6) San Jose 9-5-3 -- 21 Points*
7) St. Louis 9-5-3 -- 21 Points
7) Dallas 10-7-0 -- 20 Points
8) Minnesota 9-6-2 -- 20 Points
9) Anaheim 9-7-1 -- 19 Points*
10) Colorado 9-7-1 -- 19 Points
11) Nashville 8-6-3 -- 19 Points*
12) Phoenix 7-5-5 -- 19 Points*
13) Chicago 8-8-1 -- 17 Points*
14) Calgary 7-10-0 -- 14 Points
15) Edmonton 4-10-3 -- 11 Points

What can we learn from this? The teams with an asterisk beside them made the playoffs. That means that only half the teams that were in playoff position after they had all played 17 games actually made the playoffs. Of the teams that were out of playoff position after 17 games, none made the playoffs if they were more than 3 points out. No team that was below .500 made the playoffs.

Columbus dropped the farthest, having gone 11-6-0 to start the season and earning 22 points (64.7 points percentage), but winning just 23-29-13 in their next 65 games (45.4 points percentage) and finishing in 13th place.

St. Louis's record was tied with that of San Jose, but the Sharks finished 18 points higher in the standings by year's end. Despite strong starts to the season, the Blues and Jackets were only 2 and 3 points ahead of the 9th place team respectively.

Below is a look at this year's standings so far. Which of these teams are likely to maintain their strong starts, and which teams will fall off?

We can be fairly certain that over the course of the season Los Angeles and Vancouver will make the post-season. That means that at least two teams that are currently in the top 8 have got to come out. If last year's trend continues, and no team that is more than 3 points out of the playoffs at this point makes them at the end, that means Calgary, Anaheim and Columbus are finished. That leaves 12 teams fighting for 8 spots, and we know that Chicago, Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose and Los Angeles are almost certain to make it. Therefore there are 7 teams going after 3 playoff spots.

Which teams will those be? And will the Oilers be among them? Edmonton's 20 points is good for fourth in the West right now, but the team is only 3 points removed from 12th. The good news is that the Oilers have made it much, much easier on themselves to make the playoffs this year than last, but there is still a lot of work to do.