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

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Monday, 11 July 2011

07/11/11 50.0 By the Numbers: Can The Oilers Make the Playoffs?

Hemsky scores series winning goal in 2006

Remember when Hemsky scored that goal? Remember that jubilation? Of course you do. The Edmonton Oilers are hoping to give their fans that feeling again sooner rather than later, and it will all start with making the playoffs next season for the first time since 2006.

Is it possible? One way to quantify the amount of improvement the Oilers will need is to look at the statistics of playoff teams and compare them to what our boys managed last year. Not surprisingly, the Oilers are at or near the bottom of the league in almost every meaningful category, so this comparison will try to illustrate the minimum amount of improvement necessary to grab a playoff spot.

The five categories we will focus on are Powerplay (PP%), Penalty Kill (PK%), Goals For per Game (G/G), Goals Against per Game (GA/G) and Faceoff Winning Percentage (FOW%).

The Phoenix Coyotes got themselves a playoff berth despite a poor showing statistically. They finished 23rd in powerplay efficiency (15.9%) and 26th in penalty killing (78.4%). They were also mediocre in Goals For (2.76) and Goals Against per game (2.68), finishing at 14th and 13th in the league respectively. One area of strength for the Yotes was in faceoffs, where as a team they finished 7th in the NHL (51.5%). Most of the teams that made the playoffs last year were strong on draws, and the ones that weren't generally got ousted in the first round.

(As an aside: Nashville reached the second round and won 50.2% of their draws during the regular season. Every team below that winning percentage mark went out in round one: the Sabres (47.7%), Ducks (47.7%), Rangers (47.7%), Canadiens (49.0%) and Penguins (49.2%). However, we'll deal with getting the Oilers past round one once they finally make the dance.)

Because of all that mediocrity in Phoenix, the loss of Ilya Bryzgalov and the games he stole them will be felt deeply in the win/loss columns next season. The Coyotes will probably miss the playoffs this coming year, and the Oilers could steal their spot.

However, the Oilers have a bit of a climb even to reach Phoenix's numbers. The Oilers were 27th on the powerplay at 14.5%, 29th on the penalty kill at 77.0%, 28th in Goals For per Game at 2.33, and 28th in Goals Against per Game at 3.17. The Oilers were dead last in faceoffs won, at just 44.2% for the team.

To get to Phoenix's totals the Oilers would have needed to score roughly 4 more powerplay goals, and allow roughly 5 fewer goals while shorthanded. Not bad at all, and definitely doable. But keep in mind that the Coyotes were one of the weakest statistical teams in the playoffs and it showed in their first round sweep by Detroit.

Phoenix scored 38 more goals than the Oilers, and the Oilers allowed 43 more than the Coyotes, for a differential of 81 goals. This stat won't be so easy for Edmonton to swing.

The Rest of the West:

No team in the Western Conference made the playoffs last year without:

- Scoring at least 219 goals (26 more than the Oilers scored)
- Allowing no more than 241 goals (28 less than the Oilers allowed)
- Winning at least 47.7% of their faceoffs (3.5% more than the Oilers won)
- A powerplay clicking at no less than 15.2% (0.7% better than the Oilers)
- A penalty kill that was effective no less than 78.4% (1.4% better than the Oilers)

The emergence of Taylor Hall and the other youngsters should help the Oilers to score at least 26 more goals, particularly if Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can make an impact. The same is true for the powerplay; which was much maligned last year but should be able to make up the 0.7% difference between the Oilers and the weakest playoff powerplay in the West.

Replacing Colin Fraser's faceoff numbers among the Oilers' regular centerman with Eric Belanger also makes a difference. If we assume that the Oilers' centers last year were most often Gagner, Horcoff, Cogliano and Fraser, those four combine for a winning percentage of 44.6%. Simply by removing Fraser and inserting Belanger the overall winning percentage for the regular centers jumps to 47.3%. If Gagner can take a step forward and Horcoff can bounce back, the Oilers shouldn't have any problem winning faceoffs at least 47.7% of the time.

Having control of the puck will also help on the PK, which should improve enough to at least match the worst powerplay in the Western Conference Playoffs this year.

On the Other Hand

All of the teams that were bad statistically and still made the playoffs either had spectacular goaltending (Nashville and Phoenix), or they excelled in another area. For example, the Detroit Red Wings were 17th on the PK and 23rd in GA/G, but they were 5th on the PP and 2nd in G/G.

The Oilers probably do not have the ability to make a leap into the top five or ten in any one of these categories next year, and their goaltending is suspect to say the least. Because of that, it's still highly unlikely that the team will make next year's playoffs.

But it's not all doom and gloom. Management has made changes that will help this team with all of its weaknesses, save goaltending. If the team picks up steam and is in contention for a spot in February, the Oilers could be buyers at the deadline and add a piece or two to get over the top. If not, one more season of picking in the top 14 won't hurt the prospect cupboard, and will make for even more flexibility in future trades when the Oilers are right on the cusp.

Don't hold your breath for the post season, but get ready to watch more winning hockey than this town has seen in the last several years.

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