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

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

10/11/11 Precedent for a Turnaround

Most in the hockey world are skeptical about the Oilers' chances of returning to the playoffs this season, and after two 30th place finishes they should be. It is uncommon for a very bad team to get good from one year to the next, but it is not unheard of.

In 1991-92 the Quebec Nordiques finished 21st in the NHL (2nd last) with a record of 20-48-12 and 58 points. Only the San Jose Sharks were worse. The Nordiques were coming off last place finishes in each of the three previous years, and they had not made the playoffs since the 1986-87 season. Then, in one of the greatest turnarounds in NHL history, the Nordiques made the playoffs in 1992-93 with a record of 47-27-10 and 104 points. That's a quantum leap of 27 wins and 46 points in just one year.

How on Earth did this happen? Here is a look at the scoring depth of each Nordiques team from one year to the next:

Rank1991-92 Players Points1992-93 PlayersPoints
1 Sakic29-65-94, plus-5Sundin 47-67-114, plus-21
2 Sundin 33-43-76, minus-19Sakic48-57-105, minus-3
3 Nolan 42-31-73, minus-9Duchesne20-62-82, plus-15
4 Paslawski 28-17-45, minus-12Ricci27-51-78, plus-8
5 Hough 16-22-38, minus-1Nolan36-41-77, minus-1
6 Tartarinov 11-27-38, plus-8Kovalenko27-41-68, plus-13
7 Lapointe 13-20-33, minus-8Young30-30-60, plus-5
8 Smail 10-18-28, minus-11Rucinsky18-30-48, plus-16
9 Gusarov 5-18-23, minus-9Kamesky15-22-37, plus-13
10 Kamesky 7-14-21, minus-1Lapointe10-26-36, plus-5

The Nordiques improved from a -63 goals for/against differential in 1991-92 to +51 in 1992-93. They allowed only 18 fewer goals from one season to the next, but they scored almost 100 more; improving from 255 Goals For in 1991-92 to 351 GF in 1992-93. The chart above shows the reason for this. 45 points was 4th-best on the team in 1991-92, but would only have been the 9th-highest total in 1992-93.

The group on the left has two 30 goal scorers, and three 70+ point players, while the group on the right has four 30 goal scorers and five 70+ point players. The group on the right has seven players with 20 or more goals.

Mike Ricci, Andrei Kovalenko, Scott Young and defenseman Steve Duchesne were all new additions to the 1992-93 squad. Duchesne and Ricci came over from the Eric Lindros trade, Young came over from Pittsburgh in a trade, and Kovalenko was a rookie who had been drafted by the Nordiques in 1990.

This 1992-93 team is still a lot different than the one that eventually won the Stanley Cup in Colorado in 1996, but it does represent a massive improvement over the previous year and a playoff appearance that was anything but assured.

So could the Oilers do something like this?

There certainly is potential for the Oilers to score a lot more goals this year than they did last year. The addition of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins should add a few goals, and so will healthy seasons from Whitney, Hemsky, Gagner, Hall, and damn near everyone else. The natural progression of the youngsters could add a lot of goals. Edmonton finished last year with just one 20 goal scorer in Taylor Hall, but this year they should be expecting at least 20 from several of their players.

Having Whitney back (eventually) will be equivalent to an off-season addition, but otherwise the defense and goaltending are more or less the same. If the Oilers are going to make a run at the post-season it will have to be a lot like Quebec's run in the early 90s. That is to say, it will be the Oilers' scoring that carries them. They probablly won't score 100 more goals this year than they did last, but they should score a lot more. Whether or not it's enough to push them into the playoffs remains to be seen.

It's not out of the question.

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