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

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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.

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