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

Welcome to Oil Acumen. What follows is a blog dedicated to ending the tyranny of Oilers management, and making hockey fun to watch again, dammit.

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.