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.