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 March 2012

03/30/12 The Oilers Are Bad, But Calgary Is Worse


The Edmonton Oilers are at times so bad that you want to gouge your eyes out with hot pokers rather than watch them, or possibly blind yourself with lasers. But believe it or not, the standings lie. In many ways, the Calgary Flames are worse.

The Proof


Let's go through all the stuff that makes a team good and see who's better. We'll do this heads up (Calgary vs. Edmonton only) so no other teams matter. The team that is currently higher in the league in each category will get the check mark.

Goals For: Edmonton
Goals For Per Game: Edmonton
Goals Against: Calgary
Goals Against Per Game: Calgary
5x5 Goals For/Against Ratio: Edmonton
Powerplay: Edmonton
Penalty Kill: Calgary
Shot Per Game: Calgary
Shots Against Per Game: Edmonton
Team Faceoff Percentage: Edmonton
OT/Shootout Wins: Edmonton
Blocked Shots: Edmonton
Takeaways: Edmonton

Sure, the Flames are better than the Oilers in many ways too. A somewhat notable one is the amount of games they've won compared to what Edmonton has managed. The trouble is that the Flames have the 5th highest payroll in the entire league and they're still trailing a team like the 29th-place Oilers in a lot of important statistical categories. That's probably not a good thing.

Also interesting:

Highest scoring Flames defenseman: Jay Bouwmeester (26 points in 79 games; $6.68 million cap hit)
Highest scoring Oilers defenseman: Jeff Petry (24 points in 71 games; $1 million cap hit)

Combined salary of Flames' top three scorers: $13,500,000
Combined salary of Oilers' top three scorers: $8,683,333

Combined points of Flames' top three scorers: 174 ($77,586 per point)
Combined points of Oilers' top three scorers: 177 ($49,058 per point)

Combined age of Flames' top three scorers: 100 years
Combines age of Oilers' top three scorers: 59 years

Number of Flames' No Move or No Trade Clauses: 11
Number of Oilers' No Move or No Trade Clauses: 3

***

Am I sour that the Oilers lost their 47th game of the season on Friday night? Sure. Are the Oilers perfectly managed and guaranteed to become a contender? Nope. But having watched parts of both the Calgary and Edmonton games on Friday and also keeping an eye on both teams throughout the season, it's clear that even the 29th place Oilers are in a better spot than the Flames.

If you're an Oilers fan, hopefully that makes you feel better.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

03/29/12 Underlying Numbers: Shawn Horcoff


Shawn Horcoff is overpaid. Of that, there is no doubt. If there was an amnesty clause to get his contract off the books the Oilers would be wise to use it, because removing that one cap hit would free up enough space for one of their wunderkids or a number one defenseman. However, the captain brings a lot to the table that can sometimes be lost on the casual observer. Below are a few of those things.

Horcoff is facing the toughest competition at even strength of any of the Oilers' regular forwards by a fairly substantial margin, and he's starting in his shifts in the offensive zone just 44.5% of the time. Only Eric Belanger has had a bigger hill to climb when it comes to zone starts. With all of that in mind, you'd expect Horcoff to have a poor Relative Corsi number, but it's actually right in the middle of the pack. He's the type of center that every team in the NHL would want if he was at a better price point.

It's not surprising that Horcoff's minus-20 is the worst on the team, but plus/minus is only a part of a larger picture. After several injury-plagued seasons, Horcoff has played all 76 games this year and put up 34 points. It's not as though Horcoff has been especially lucky, and yet his point production is respectable for a center playing behind Sam Gagner and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and against some long odds.

Of course, he's leading all forwards with 19:39 in total ice time per game, including 2:56 on the powerplay, so he should be producing with all that ice. However, Horcoff is also spending 2:33 per game on the penalty kill, which is tops among the forwards.

Yes, Shawn Horcoff is doing it all for the Oilers.

If only it wasn't for that contract of his. Over the next three years Horcoff will be paid $13 million, but his cap hit will still be even higher at $5.5 million. Buying Horcoff out wouldn't make sense because once the Oilers have replaced him they won't have saved much in cap space or salary after you factor in the buyout.

The best thing to do - the only thing, really - is to leave Horcoff alone and let him fill the role of an overpaid, but mostly effective third line center. He's 65th in the NHL in points by centers, which puts him right around where you'd want from a third line player, and on top of everything else his 1386 faceoffs ranks 8th in the league. He has won 49.4% of them.

In Horcoff the Oilers have a center who should be very useful if they ever make it back to the playoffs, and if that causes them to get closer to a Stanley Cup then his cap hit will seem much less onerous. The trouble will be building a contending team with a few million dollars less in cap space than there could be. The trouble is not how Horcoff has played.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

03/28/12 The Impact of Hall's Surgery


Seven or eight months from now, hopefully we'll be talking about the concern with Taylor Hall's injury being overblown and unnecessary as he starts his third NHL season strong and healthy. For the moment we don't have that luxury, and analysis of what his surgery means will be bounced around for weeks. Some thoughts below:

Now is Teemu Hartikainen's time to shine. He's found a home on the Oilers' second line LW with Hall out, and the fact that #4 isn't coming back this season likely means that Hartikainen will get the balance of the season to show what he can do. After scoring 3-2-5 in twelve games at the end of last season, Hartikainen has been a little quieter this time around with 3 assists in eleven outings. He's averaging just over 13 minutes per game so far; almost all of which has been at even strength. 2:35 of Hartikainen's ice time last year came on the powerplay, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a look there with Hall out.

Also getting an opportunity is Ryan Jones. Starting with the game against Calgary in which Hall got hurt, Jones has collected 7 points in 6 games. After scoring no points in the eight games prior to that, Jones has flourished in his new top line role. He's seen his ice time increase in each of the last four games, all the way up to a season-high 20:06 against Columbus; a game in which he scored a goal and two assists and was a plus-3. Jones obviously isn't a long term solution, but it's nice to know that he doesn't look out of place on the top line in a pinch. His shooting percentage (13%) is directly in line with his career average (13.1%), which means this is something close to the real Jones we're seeing and not a mirage. A 15-20 goal man for that price with Jones' versatility is a very good asset to have in the fold.

But at the end of the day, Hall is the one who's got to fill that left wing slot on the Oilers' top line. His 8 powerplay goals leads the team, and his absence is a big reason that the Oilers have gone 2 for 15 on the PP since he's been out. This is a player that the Oilers have been searching for for years, so being bit by the injury bug as frequently as he has is very bad news.

On the other hand, if this was going to happen there could have been worse times. Next season, for example, when the Oilers hope to be (and should be) battling for a playoff spot. If Hall has been playing with this injury since Junior, as he says, then it was only a matter of time before it had to be dealt with. Better to get it out of the way now when the Oilers' season is already over, with a long, playoff-free summer to rehab. Also of note is Hall's age. He'll bounce back from surgery much easier at 20 years old than he would even in his late twenties, as evidenced by another Oiler who has had shoulder problems.

Another take appeared over at Lowetide, wherein he says that the Oilers may want to think about lifting the untouchable status from Taylor Hall when it comes to trade talk. No doubt, the fearless winger could fetch a hefty price on the open market, and maybe even a bigger one than this year's first round pick because Hall is a proven NHL player who still has a ton of untapped potential. That's precisely the reason that such a deal would be a substantial gamble. Then again, it's an even bigger gamble to stake the future of a team on a player that is as oft-injured as Hall has been. Seven-time 30 goal scorer Marian Gaborik may be one of the best players in the entire world when he's healthy, but that hasn't happened enough over his career.

At this point no one is suggesting that the Oilers should trade Hall, or that a decision of this magnitude should be made without careful consideration, but the possibility is there. Of course, other teams will have as many questions about Hall's health as the Oilers and the fans do, and the Oilers will also have questions regarding just how good Hall will be. Until some of those are put to rest, don't expect any movement unless the deal is too good to be true.

For the moment, the best that fans can do is hope for a speedy recovery for the star winger, and pray that his luck will be better next season. Things can't be as bad next year for Hall as they were this year on the injury front. A skate to the head? Really?

Sunday, 25 March 2012

03/25/12 Odds & Ends: Calgary, Standings, Dubnyk


Sunday's win over Columbus brings the Oilers up to 31 wins on the season, and extends a streak over the last 11 games which has seen them go 6-2-3. The implications of this run are many, but are they a harbinger of things to come? Time will tell. For now, however, improved play from the Oilers means the following:

- The Oilers have caught up to the Minnesota Wild in wins on the season and they have 26 Regulation or Overtime Wins (ROW) to the Wild's 23. The Oilers have played one more game than Minny has, but when the Wild were on top of the Conference they had 20 wins to the Oilers' 14, and Edmonton was sitting in 13th place. The Wild are 3-7-0 in their last ten games, and if things continue this way it's a good bet that they'll finish behind the Oilers.

- Speaking of finishing behind the Oilers, the Calgary Flames could still be a candidate for that if it wasn't for the loser point. The Flames have lost five straight after a five game win streak, and now sit with 34 wins on the season - just three more than the Oilers have collected. Even if the Flames finish a few wins ahead of the Oilers, that has to be viewed as an unacceptable result for Flames fans that were guaranteed playoffs before the season. The Oilers will have a tough time catching the Flames in the standings thanks to Calgary having 6 more points from OT/Shootout losses, but the win column is still within striking distance.

The Flames get the Stars, Kings, Avalanche, Ducks and Canucks twice in their final six; and all of those teams save the Ducks should be highly motivated. The Oilers get the Kings and Ducks twice, along with the Stars and Canucks. Not an easy game in the bunch for Edmonton, but the team has been playing much better lately and they might surprise one or two of those teams.

If the Oilers can take a record of 3-2-1 out of those last six games it would give them a record of 9-4-4 in their last 17. That's actually better than the way their started the season, when the went 9-6-2 in their first 17.

- A big reason for the reemergence of the Oilers is the play of Devan Dubnyk. Dubnyk has won 9 of his last 13 starts and he's owned a 0.933 Sv% over that time. On the whole, his save percentage is sitting at 0.914 on the season. Make no mistake: that's starting goalie territory. Of goalies who have played 40 or more games this season, Dubnyk's save percentage ranks 17th right now. Some notables below him in that category include Antti Niemi, Craig Anderson, Jonas Hiller, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov and Martin Brodeur. Of course, this doesn't mean that Dubnyk is a lock to be a starting goaltender in the future, but the indications are that he is giving his team as much of a chance to win as these other goalies; many of whom are backstopping far superior groups. At one time I found Dubnyk to be the most disappointing Oiler of 2011-12, and now he's become one of their strengths.

- With two assists on Sunday afternoon, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has re-taken the rookie scoring lead in the NHL with 49 points in 56 games. Gabriel Landeskog went on a bit of a tear recently and yet his 48 points have come in 77 games with Colorado. It's been said before and deserves to be said again: if Nugent-Hopkins hadn't been injured there would be no debate about rookie of the year honors. It may not factor into the final decision in Calder voting, but Landeskog was thought to be the most NHL-ready prospect available at the draft, while Nugent-Hopkins wasn't even supposed to make the Oilers in the eyes of many. His performance speaks for itself.

- The Oilers are within 4 or fewer points of the Wild, Islanders, Leafs, Ducks, Hurricanes and Lightning in league standings right now. If a few of those teams fall off and the Oilers continue to roll, they could find themselves on the outside of the NHL Draft Lottery. Time will tell if that's a good thing or bad thing, but it may reduce the conflict about drafting a defenseman this year. Start getting familiar with names like Reinhart, Murray, Dumba, Trouba, Rielly, and Ceci, because they could all be in the conversation from 3-10 overall.

Friday, 23 March 2012

03/23/12 Ales Hemsky Is Due


Ales Hemsky has had a tough season by the standards of a lot of players. But how has it been by the standards that he's used to? Think: Hindenburg, Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez. Hemsky's 0.56 points per game is his lowest mark since his second NHL season back in 2003-04. Thankfully, his slump is due to end any time.

This year Hemsky has dropped into the second tier of offensive forwards in Edmonton. His total ice time (17:36 per game) ranks him 5th among Oilers forwards. He's averaging only one second less than Nugent-Hopkins, but almost a minute less than third-ranked Taylor Hall. Hemsky and Jordan Eberle are experiencing very similar total ice time this season, but don't let that confuse you with the way they are each being used.

Hemsky is doing a lot of heavy lifting at even strength this season; second only to Shawn Horcoff in toughness of competition among the regular forwards. He's also starting his shifts in the offensive zone 50.7% of the time at even strength, so he's not getting much of a push from the coaching staff. Meanwhile, Eberle is facing the easiest competition of the top-six forwards and his shifts start in the offensive zone 60.2% of the time 5x5.

It's interesting that people assumed that the presence of some young offensive stars would  free up Hemsky to knock easier competition out of the park. In fact, the opposite has been true. The desire of the coaching staff to shelter Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins has led to Hemsky being pitted against the toughs this year. As the kids mature and the workload gets spread around more evenly, the theory that more offensive players is better for Hemsky will actually hold water. For the moment, it's contributing to his struggles.

As for those struggles, there's less to worry about than it appears at first glance. Despite difficult opponents and the fact that he's coming off of major surgery, Hemsky is driving the play in the right direction. Only the very best players in the league can take on difficult competition with average zone starts and still take over the game. However, the hockey gods have not been smiling on Hemsky of late. His shooting percentage is sitting at 7.6% even with his three goal outburst against Nashville, but before this year he'd scored on 11.8% of his career shots. It's not as though there haven't been games where you forget Hemsky is in the lineup, but even when he's average he's still a good player. When he's on, he's very good.

Like Nugent-Hopkins, Hemsky can sometimes take over a game and be all over the ice, or he can barely be noticeable and still end the evening with points in the boxscore. He's adjusting to a new role for the Oilers, and handling himself quite well given the circumstances. When Craig MacTavish was head coach, Hemsky was very sheltered in terms of the competition he faced. Those days are over for him, but there's no indication that that means he has ceased to be an effective player. That's very good news for the Oilers and their fans. When the kids start taking on a heavier load, Ales Hemsky will be the perfect complimentary player.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

03/21/12 Best Player Available


Is this the face of the young man who will be the newest Edmonton Oiler at the end of June? This is Mikhail Griogorenko, who plays for the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL, and he has the talent to be selected as high as second overall at the 2012 Entry Draft. If the draft was today the Oilers would be picking in that slot.

Mikhail Grigorenko

Born: May 16, 1994 in Khabarovsk, Russia
6 feet, 2 inches tall and 191 pounds
Shoots: left
Position: C/RW

40-45-85 in 59 games, plus-35, 12 PIMs

It's plainly obvious that the Oilers require an overhaul to their defense, and there has been plenty of talk about trading this year's lottery pick to do it, or even just using the pick to add a blue chip defense prospect. Both of those might be options, but if the Oilers actually use the pick they should still use it on the best player available. If that player is  Grigorenko, the Oilers should add him regardless of their glut of talented youth up front.

Having three highly skilled centers in Grigorenko, Nugent-Hopkins and Gagner would be an embarrassment of riches, and it's a situation similar to the one that worked out so nicely for the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the 2006 Entry Draft the St. Louis Blues selected defenseman Erik Johnson first overall, and with that the Penguins didn't have a conflict about whether or not they should draft a forward. There wasn't another defenseman picked until Ty Wishart went 16th overall to San Jose, and Pittsburgh certainly wasn't using their second pick overall on that player. Instead they added Jordan Staal, despite the fact that they already had two brilliant centers in Crosby and Malkin. Three years later Pittsburgh won the Stanley Cup.

Adding Grigorenko doesn't mean that the Oilers will be able to completely emulate what Pittsburgh did, but it would draw the comparison a lot closer than it stands currently. The Oilers need some size up the middle, and Gagner (5'11", 195 lbs) and Nugent-Hopkins (6'1", 175 lbs) don't bring much to the table. Having these three would make the Oilers three lines deep and one day they would be very difficult to match up against.

Other notes:

Grigorenko is second on his team in total faceoffs taken and he's just a hair over 50% at 572/1131. Not necessarily a master in the dot, but he's keeping his head above water as a 17 year old in his first QMJHL season.

At the 2012 World Junior Championship, Grigorenko had 2-3-5 in 6 games and helped Russia to a silver medal. It was his first appearance in the tournament. At the World U18 Championship in 2011 he had 4-14-18 in just 7 games in Russia's bronze medal finish.

The playoffs start Thursday for Grigorenko's Remparts, and they have drawn the Drummondville Voltigeurs in the first round. The Remparts will have home ice advantage.

His decision to play for the Remparts in the CHL shows a certain amount of commitment to playing in the NHL, and should eliminate much of the stigma of being a Russian-born player.

***

The Oilers have done very well recently in drafting the best player available instead of the biggest player or the position they need most. The draft shouldn't be about what you need now, but which of the players that is available projects to be the best in the long term. Adding Grigorenko may set the Oilers back a touch as they wait for him to develop, but that shouldn't stop them from choosing him. He'll almost certainly develop at a faster rate than any defenseman picked in that slot. If the organization feels that none of the draft-eligible defensemen stack up to the forwards, then going off the board is probably ill advised.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

03/21/12 Good Business and Replacing Management


Imagine for a moment that you are the manager of one of the many fine Rexall pharmacies. Now imagine that decisions you made cost your boss, Darryl Katz, millions of dollars. Think you'd still have a job? Enter Oilers management.

Running an NHL team can be a funny business. General Managers move players around like they are commodities instead of people, and fans and media types tend to think of them that way too. And yet, the NHL is a business, and last anybody checked, business is something that Darryl Katz is pretty good at. The same can't always be said for the people running his team.

During that summer of 2007 when all the really good free agents treated the Oilers like the ugly kid at the school dance, Kevin Lowe managed to sign Sheldon Souray to a five year, $27 million contract. Not all of the things that eventually soured the relationship can be blamed on Lowe, but Souray didn't mince words when he said that things started to go south with Lowe right away. It's hard to imagine that Oilers management could have loaned out Souray to Hershey of the AHL last season without Katz's approval, since they paid him $4.5 million to stay away from Edmonton. But the subsequent buyout is costing the Oilers 3 million more dollars, and that's something that the owner can't be terribly pleased about.

Also on the buyout list this season? Our old buddy Robert Nilsson. In April of 2008, Lowe signed Nilsson to a three year, $6 million contract extension. A lot of luck went Nilsson's way in 2007-08, but it came back down to Earth and finally crashed over the next two seasons. His overall work ethic didn't do him any favors either. Buying out the final year of that contract - the most expensive year, unfortunately - cost the Oilers $833,334.

So far we're sitting at $8,333,334 in expenditure for players to not play in Edmonton. Again, all of this can't be blamed on management because there are factors that are outside the control of any management team. However... Eight million, three-hundred thousand dollars! It's not chump change, even when you're a billionaire.

Another glaring example of poor handling of Katz money is the contract of Shawn Horcoff. The captain signed his deal on July 16, 2008 and it was worth a whopping $33 million over six years. Some of the comparable contracts on CapGeek bring Horcoff's deal into perspective. A few of the names on the list include Martin St. Louis, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Henrik Zetterberg. The deal was too rich at the time it was signed, but Horcoff's 97 points in 196 games over the last three seasons puts him in a class with a load of cheaper centers. Including - and you're gonna love this one:


That's right. Eric Freakin' Belanger. Belanger's $1,750,000 cap hit is a $3,750,000 savings over Horcoff's. Of course, Belanger's mass has been so great this season that not even scoring can escape, but he's been a fairly consistent scorer over his career and he's done it on the cheap. In fact, most of the comparable points per game scorers over the last three years are loads cheaper than Horcoff.

But it's not just all that. Kevin Lowe built a cap team for 2008-09 that finished in 19th place and out of the playoffs, and Tambellini kept with that proud tradition in 2009-10 when the team finished last. Thanks to all that spending, Patrick LaForge said that the Oilers were losing money. The deal the Oilers have with Northlands is hurting them compared with what other NHL teams have, but so was having one of the league's highest payrolls.

What Am I Getting At?


Whether or not you believe that the current management is doing a good job in terms of managing the team, one thing that can't be denied is that they are doing a bad job of handling their owner's money. Sure, Darryl Katz is a hockey fan, but one has to think that he's a business man first and a hockey fan second. At what point does the gross mismanagement of all this money get the men at the top removed? These are just a few examples of ways that the Oilers are wasting money and resources (cap space).

I'm not normally one to harp on the topic of what a bad management team Lowe and Tambellini are, and they have done a reasonably good job in a few areas. On the other hand, fans should probably be concerned if people aren't being held accountable in regard to money matters. Lowe and Tambellini may be able to reassure Katz when it comes to their hockey moves, but their moves with his money should be plainly understandable to a savvy businessman. It doesn't matter to fans how much of Katz's cash gets wasted, but if he doesn't care it may mean that he's not paying proper attention.

Monday, 19 March 2012

03/19/12 Expendability


Apparently, the emergence of Jeff Petry is what made former Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert expendable at the trade deadline. It's true that the two have similar styles, but how does Petry stack up?

In order to answer that question let's have a look back at Gilbert's rookie season with the Oilers back in 2007-08 and compare their results. Technically Petry was a rookie last year, having appeared in 35 games with the Oilers, which is ten more than the limit for being considered a rookie in the NHL. Gilbert played 12 games with Edmonton in 2006-07, which is why the following season was his rookie year. Both played college hockey, and they are similar in age when it comes to the timing of their pro careers. Gilbert started the 2007-08 season at 24 years old, and Petry was 24 to start this year.

Ice Time

Gilbert 2007-08:

22:11 per game (4th on Oilers)
17:24 even strength (3rd)
2:31 penalty kill (8th)
2:15 powerplay (10th)

Petry 2011-12:

21:36 per game (1st on Oilers)
18:05 even strength (1st)
2:16 penalty kill (6th)
1:13 powerplay (13th)

The Oilers used 11 defensemen in 2007-08. Sheldon Souray was on the team, but he played in just 26 games, and this was the year before Lubomir Visnovsky came to town. In terms of total minutes played on the year Gilbert led the defense, followed closely by Steve Staios. That should give some indication as to how thin the defense was for most of the season.

Eleven defenders have been used at various times by the Oilers this season as well. Ladislav Smid is leading the pack in total ice time of the defense, but Petry is second and he's played eight fewer games.

Points

Gilbert 2007-08:

13-20-33 in 82 games

Petry 2011-12:

2-17-19 in 64 games

Over an 82 game span Petry is on pace for around 24 points, which would put him a little bit off the pace that Gilbert kept as a rookie. The goal scoring in particular is a glaring difference, but it should be noted that since that season Gilbert has never scored more than six goals in a given year. His shooting percentage (13.3%) was more than double what he's averaged since 2007-08.

"Real Time" Stats

Gilbert 2007-08:

27 hits
159 blocked shots
74 giveaways
33 takeaways

Over 82 games, Petry would have:

140 hits
132 blocked shots
101 giveaways
42 takeaways

Petry is a much more physical force than Gilbert was, which frankly is an upgrade. The other stats are all close enough to not be major downgrades at the same point in their two careers (and Petry had more takeaways).

***

What do these stats mean? There's no way to judge two different players on two almost completely different teams and say definitively which one is going to be better based on early returns. What we do know, however, is that Petry is close enough to how good Tom Gilbert was a number of seasons ago to call them a good comparison. That means that the Oilers have a few development years left to wait before Petry can handle every situation like Gilbert can. Petry may have more upside in the end, but it will be almost 300 games before we know for sure.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

03/17/12 Rake


It's been so long since the Oilers were in the playoffs that it's easy to forget what Chris Pronger meant to the team. If Edmonton is ever going to see playoff hockey again, they're going to need a player on the back end that can fill the role that the Human Rake did night after night.

During the 2005-06 regular season Pronger was a beast. He led the Oilers in ice time by a wide margin, averaging 27:59(!) per game. Here is how his ice time broke down:

Even Strength: 16:08
Powerplay: 6:40
Penalty Kill: 5:11

Yes, Pronger was Mr. Everything for the Oilers that season. He was averaging about a minute or better on both special teams more than any other Oiler, and comfortably led 5x5 as well. Through all that, Pronger managed to put up 12-44-56 in 80 games, with a plus-2 rating. 42 of Pronger's points came on the powerplay, which was tied for first on the team with Ales Hemsky, but Hemsky played 81 games. Pronger was third on the team in blocked shots and takeaways, although the nature of his game (ie: first pass, lots of minutes, lots of touches) meant that he also gave the puck away the second-most. He was 9th among NHL defensemen in scoring, and 5th on the Oilers overall.

In the playoffs he was even more prolific. He was third in playoff scoring for the entire league with 5-16-21 in 24 games and led the Oilers offensively. He also averaged a staggering 30:57 of ice time for the Oilers, which was second in the NHL behind Nicklas Lidstrom, who only played 6 games. In the grinding, attritional battle that is the NHL post season, Pronger was the best.


This year there isn't a player in the league that is averaging the kind of ice time that Pronger did during the regular season for the Oilers. However, the third-highest average of all NHL skaters belongs to pending UFA Ryan Suter, who is on the ice for 26:41 per game. Suter is 22nd in the league in powerplay TOI per game at 3:47, and he's averaging 2:26 on the penalty kill as well. In last year's playoffs, Suter led the league in ice time per game at 28:51, and he was 7th in powerplay time with 4:51.

7-34-41 in 67 games puts him on pace for around 48 points this year, as he has missed three games.

The Nashville Predators have a good team this season, and a deep run into the playoffs will go a long way toward convincing Suter to re-sign in the Music City. But there will be fans around the NHL cheering for whatever team Nashville is up against in the playoffs just so that their team will have a crack at signing this stud defenseman. If they get the chance, the Edmonton Oilers should be one such team.

Despite their impressive collection of young talent, the Oilers are still a long shot to land Suter, and that might be putting it mildly. However, there is little doubt that the team should have interest in this player, based on the range of skills he possesses, and his ability to be a minute-muncher than can handle himself against anyone. Along with Shea Weber, Suter is facing far and away the toughest competition of Predators deensemen, with just 45% offensive zone starts at even strength.

The Oilers may never be able to replace Chris Pronger, but they should make a very strong push to find a way. Since losing the Rake the team has never been the same, and the numbers above illustrate exactly why that is so. Ryan Suter would go a long way toward correcting the problem, but signing him will be a tall order.

Friday, 16 March 2012

03/16/12 Is Omark the Next Robert Nilsson?


Right now nobody (including the Oilers) is sure if Linus Omark is a fit in Edmonton. Some think he's a brilliant offensive player, and others wonder if he is a bit like another player with promise that fell short: Robert Nilsson. What do the numbers say?

It looks like Omark will finish the year with the Oilers, so there's still time for him to turn some heads. The organization is certainly hoping that he makes the most of his time here, and gives them a clearer indication of whether or not he belongs on this team or if he's a useful part of a potential trade. Either way, Omark is likely to pursue a one-way deal for next season, which means if the Oilers want him they'll have to want him in the big show. Making the wrong determination on Nilsson ended in a buyout that the Oilers are still paying for, so the right decision is a must this time around. Below are some numbers.

First of all, both of these players had extremely productive stints in the American Hockey League. Omark has 47 points in 46 games for 1.02 p/g, while Nilsson had 98 points in 103 games for 0.95 p/g. Not much to separate them here. What about the NHL?

Because there is such a small sample size for Omark, I've only collected data from Nilsson's first 51 games in Edmonton during the 2007-08 season; the same number of games that Omark played as a rookie. Nilsson started that season with Edmonton at 22 years old and then turned 23 in January of 2008. Omark started his rookie season as a 23 year old and turned 24 in February of 2011. Right now he's 25 years old. The difference in age is mostly negligible. I didn't use Nilsson's rookie year because that was with the Islanders; in a different Conference, with different travel and competition, and it also pre-dates available advanced stats.

Robert Nilsson's first 51 games with Edmonton in 2007-08:


- 68 shots on goal
- 18 PIMs
- Plus-5
- 5 goals
- 28 assists
- 33 points
- 7.4% shooting percentage
- 13:55 TOI per game

Linus Omark's first 51 NHL games:


- 93 shots on goal
- 30 PIMs
- Minus-20
- 7 goals
- 22 assists
- 29 points
- 7.5% shooting percentage
- 14:24 TOI per game

Omark had many more shots on goal, but created slightly less offensively than Robert Nilsson did in his first 51 games in Edmonton in 2007-08. However, the Oilers were much better at scoring overall in 2007-08 than they were in 2010-11 (when Omark played his first 51 games). In 2007-08 the Oilers scored 220 goals as a team, while last year they scored just 191. Also, the Oilers were 19th in the NHL and had a winning record in Nilsson's first full season here, but they were 30th last year when Omark came in.

If we look at these two players' first full seasons in Edmonton as a whole (regardless of games played), we can get into a few advanced stats. All numbers below are 5x5.

Nilsson


- 53.6% offensive zone starts
- The fifth-best Relative Corsi of the forwards (40+ GP)
The highest PDO of all forwards not named Zach Stortini (40+ GP) < --- What is PDO?
- The fifth-toughest competition of Oilers forwards (40+ GP)
- 2.37 Points/60

Omark


- 53.4% offensive zone starts
- The third-best Relative Corsi of the fowards (40+ GP)
The lowest PDO of all Oilers forwards (40+ GP)
- The third-easiest competition of Oilers forwards (40+ GP)
- 1.78 Points/60

There are a few things going on here, but the PDO is most striking. Put simply, Nilsson was getting a lot of bounces going his way in 2007-08, while the opposite was true for Omark last year. The other stats are relatively close comparisons, so I would bet on Omark every time over Nilsson. In 2008-09, Nilsson's PDO came back down to more normal levels and his point totals came right down with it, even though his ice time increased.

The Verdict

In an unlucky season for Omark, he scored 0.53 points per game last year on a 30th place team that scored 191 goals as a group. In an extremely lucky season for Nilsson, he scored 0.58 points per game on a 19th place team that scored 220 goals as a group. Based on everything we've seen here, Omark is a better player than Robert Nilsson was; and keep in mind that Nilsson was not a rookie in his first full year in Edmonton, where the above data was collected from.

I'm not sure that there's enough here to state definitively that Linus Omark is going to be an offensively potent top-six player, but there is enough to quell a lot of fears that he'll be as much of a bust as Nilsson was.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

03/15/12 Turning it Around: Scoring Defensemen


You can barely recognize Senators superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson in this picture from his draft day. A lot has changed since then, but most notable is that Karlsson has changed the fortunes of Ottawa's NHL team. As it turns out, defenders who can put up points are kind of important.

The Oilers, who are currently wedged in 29th place, don't get much scoring from the back end. Their highest scoring defenseman is Corey Potter, who has put up 4-16-20 in 53 games. Over an 82 game stretch that's around a 31-point pace, which isn't nearly good enough for the Oilers to compete. It doesn't help that Potter is leading the D in scoring as a rookie. Even Tom Gilbert, who was perhaps the Oilers' best offensive option on the defense, has just 18 points in time split between Edmonton and Minnesota.

Of the eight teams currently holding down playoff position in the Eastern Conference, all but one has at least one defenseman who is in the top 30 in defense scoring in the NHL. The same goes for all but two teams in the West. It makes sense that teams with good players would be in the playoffs, but this goes beyond that. Scoring from the blue line gives a team a multi-dimensional attack, and tips the scale of scoring manpower against teams that don't have point-producers on defense.

Sixteen of the top 30 defenders in scoring are playing on the top ten teams in the NHL's league standings. Eleven of them are on the NHL's six best teams. That's no coincidence. Hockey is about scoring goals, and any way that offensive pressure can be added is a good thing; especially when it's coming from an area other teams can't match. It doesn't hurt that these defensemen can also move the puck effectively up to their forwards.

The Oilers have the kind of forwards that should one day be able to keep pace with just about anyone in the league, but until they get some help from their blue line it's going to be a struggle. The Ottawa Senators still had some good pieces, but Karlsson has probably been the single biggest reason that their rebuild has been able to turn around so quickly. Edmonton's system is brimming with defense prospects, but none that are close enough to the NHL to make an impact in a timely fashion, and no offensive defenders with the pedigree of Erik Karlsson.

Adding a player like this, therefore, will be tricky. This type doesn't get moved every day. The Oilers were lucky to snag one in Lubomir Visnovsky in exchange for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, but finding another such deal could be tough. We know now that Visnovsky is too long in the tooth to fit the Oilers' long term plans, but a guy like 28 year old Dennis Wideman could be a fit. Wideman is an Unrestricted Free Agent on July 1st, and he's tied for second in NHL scoring by defensemen with 44 points. He's also a right handed shot, which is an asset that the Oilers are now short on after the Gilbert trade. Wideman will command a high price as a free agent, but would be worth a look if Edmonton isn't a suitable suitor for Suter.

Of course we won't know who the Oilers will decide to pursue until the time comes, and after the Entry Draft is said and done, but an offensive defenseman should be #1 on Oilers management's list of priorities heading into the off season. If they go into next season depending on Ryan Whitney (injury concern) and Jeff Petry (less than 100 NHL games played), the Oilers could once again be in trouble.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

03/13/12 What Ice Time Tells Us


Tom Renney made some pointed comments after the Oilers' 3-2 loss to San Jose on Monday. What he didn't do is indicate exactly what players he wants more from. The one currency that a coach has is ice time, so what does the way it's being distributed tell us about the favor of the coach?

Ice time paints a very clear picture. Let's start with the game against San Jose, after which Renney said that "it doesn't take many [players] with the wrong attitude to make its way through your dressing room." One would assume that the players who were drawing the ire of the coach would not see much playing time.

Ryan Jones has played less than ten minutes in a game just four times this season, and Monday night was one of those occasions. All four of those outings have come within the last 18 games. Jones has been a major problem in terms of secondary scoring with just 2 goals in his last 32 games played.

Also a problem lately is the play of the captain, Shawn Horcoff. The $5.5 million man has been somewhat improved recently, with 2-1-3 in his last six games, but he still has just 5-6-11 in his last 30. Horcoff played 19 or more minutes in 26 of the Oilers' first 30 games, scoring 20 points. In his last 30 he's been on the ice for 19+ minutes 15 times, and only 8 times in his last 20 games played.

And Ryan Smyth? Anointed as an answer for the Oilers' lack of hard work, Smyth has seen his ice time drop with his dwindling production. Like Horcoff, Smyth has 11 points in his last 30 games played, and just 4 of those points are goals. He's played 19+ minutes only eleven times in the last 30 games, after playing 19+ minutes in 21 of his first 30. In the last 15 games, Ryan Smyth has been on the ice for more than 19 total minutes just once, and he had his second-lowest total of the season on Monday at 15:27.

Ales Hemsky had one of his lowest ice time totals on the season on Monday as well at 15:29. He's played better than at the start of the year in some ways, but he still has just 3 assists in his last ten games. Renney obviously isn't happy with Sam Gagner's production either (1-1-2 in his last ten games), and Gagner's ice time has dropped accordingly in the last three contests. Eric Belanger has cracked 12 minutes of ice time just twice in his last ten games.

There are other players who aren't pulling their weight on this team, but the ones I've listed above represent what would reasonably be all of the secondary scoring, and they all appear to be in Renney's doghouse.

On the other side of the coin are the three kids.

Taylor Hall played 19+ minutes twice in his first twenty games, but in his last 30 games he's cracked 19 minutes seventeen times; including 8 times in his last ten games played and four straight.

In Jordan Eberle's first twenty games he saw 19 or more minutes of ice time just once, and his overall usage led me to speculate that Renney wasn't properly utilizing his best player. He still hasn't gotten enough action this season considering the quality of results, but Renney has finally seen fit to give Eberle 19 or more minutes of ice time in five straight games, and 20+ minutes four times in that span.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has played over 20 minutes in back-to-back games. In the eleven games since returning from injury RNH has been on the ice for 20+ minutes four times. In the 37 games before he got hurt, that happened four times as well.

***

The Oilers have too many passengers, and the coach has pointed this out to everyone by means of their ice time. He's also rewarded the forwards that he feels are giving their all. The problem here is two-fold: the forwards that are in the dog house are supposed to be the leaders of this team, and without them producing the Oilers have next to no secondary scoring. The top end of this team is doing just fine, but other members that are supposed to be the core have underperformed in the extreme. Unless things improve significantly in the final games of the season, there will need to be big changes to what is considered the leadership of the Oilers.

The real leaders are all under 22 years old.

Monday, 12 March 2012

03/12/12 Why You Think You Want Calgary to Rebuild


You hear it all the time now. "The Flames need to rebuild." It has gotten so bad that even Oilers fans are spending time talking about it with conviction. But here's a thought:

You, Oilers fan, don't actually want the Flames to rebuild. Not one bit.

Is it longing for a more competitive era between the two rivals that has Oilers fans thinking of ways to fix the Flames? Is it wanting Calgary to have a taste of Edmonton's pain? Temporary insanity, perhaps? Could it be a product having been in exactly the same position that Calgary fans are in? That is, watching a bubble team year after year with impact prospects being few and far between. It could be all of those things (insanity included), but the main reason is something else entirely. Being copied is the purest form of flattery; especially when it's a rival stealing your idea.

The Oilers and their fans have absolutely no guarantees that the course the team has taken will lead to a quality NHL team. There are some positive signs and some truly elite pieces in Edmonton now, but the team is still in 29th place. For the Flames to follow the Oilers down this sometimes horrifying pit of suck would be a signal to Calgary fans - and fans all across the league - that what the Oilers are doing is the right thing.

That's it. That's all. Oilers fans don't actually want the Flames to follow their lead because that might result in some fantastic young talent landing in Cowtown. As much as there are no guarantees that what the Oilers are doing will turn out, it's possibly worse to be guaranteed of mediocrity. That's something that fans in Edmonton are all too familiar with, and it closely resembled the current situation down highway 2.

Of course, some of the best hockey in the world took place between two very good Alberta teams back in the 80's, and it wouldn't hurt the game to have that back. There may be a small voice in all Alberta hockey fans with that exact message. But deep down fans from these two cities can't help but cheer for the worst for each other. Admit it: there was a small part of you that didn't mind losing to the Sharks on Monday night because that would make it tougher for the Flames to make the playoffs. And in turn, Flames fans hope that all of Edmonton's high draft picks will only result in the Atlanta Thrashers of the West and not the West's Pittsburgh Penguins. Like any good rivals, we don't have each other's best interests at heart.

You may think that it's painfully obvious that it's time for the Flames to rebuild (and from where I'm sitting they are fast approaching that time, if they haven't arrived there already), but no Oilers fans really want the Flames to fix themselves by any method. Don't feel too bad though. Flames fans are undoubtedly enjoying the Oilers being at the bottom of the league for a third straight year and out of the playoffs for six. It's in our nature.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

03/10/12 Let Eberle Run


At some point, the Oilers are going to have to let their young players run with this thing into the wild blue yonder. That time should be now.

There have been plenty of rumblings around the fan base and in the media that Tom Renney should not be brought back as head coach because of some of the decisions that he's made at the helm. Renney has a solid resume, including a Memorial Cup Championship with Kamloops, as well as the best ever winning percentage as a coach (0.714) in CHL history. Before taking over the Oilers, Renney had a record of 203-170-45 in the NHL. But when it comes to how ice time has been distributed this season, he's left much to be desired.

Case in point: Jordan Eberle.

Eberle is averaging 3.15 points per 60 minutes of even strength ice time, which is the best of all Oilers forwards, and second in the NHL among forwards with 30+ games played. And yet, this season he's been the 7th-most used Oilers forward at even strength with an average of 13:57 per game at 5x5. Six players (Hemsky, Hall, Smyth, Gagner, Horcoff and Nugent-Hopkins) have received more ice time at even strength this year, despite the fact that Eberle has had by far the best results. The fact that Eberle hasn't been a go-to player at even strength has resulted in his being 6th in total ice time per game of Oilers forwards, at 17:11.

For some context, Steve Stamkos is averaging better than four minutes more per game than Eberle at 21:36, and more even strength ice time alone than Eberle has averaged in total. Malkin in Pittsburgh and Claude Giroux in Philadelphia are both averaging 4 minutes more than the Oilers' number 14. Eberle has had the lowest average time on ice of any of the NHL's top 30 scorers (he's 13th).

It makes a person wonder what he could do if he was given more responsibility. With all of the evidence pointing toward utilizing Eberle as much as possible, the current coaching staff has failed to do that.

In fairness, Eberle's ice time has jumped in the last three games up to 21:33, 20:49 and 19:01. He's got two goals and a minus-2 in those games. It's the first time all season that he's played 19 or more minutes in three straight games. It could be that Renney has decided to lean on the young man who has clearly been his best player all season.

The Oilers are in 29th place. There's nothing to lose by playing Eberle more, and if anything it could give him the experience he'll need in taking on tougher competition. It would be nice to see some skill on display for the last 15 games in another losing season.

Friday, 9 March 2012

03/09/12 Forward Progression


Things are going to get better. The kids will grow up and be able to dominate even the toughest NHL competition. Or so we are told. How have some other young stars developed over recent years? Did they look like the young Oilers do now when they started out in the world's best league?

In order to answer that question, I decided to look at five young stars from around the NHL. To be eligible they had to have been a rookie no earlier than the 2007-08 season, so that their advanced stats can be tracked thanks to the fantastic Behind the Net.

Patrick Kane

Kane came into the league right after being selected first overall by Chicago in the 2007 Draft. Here are his 5x5 numbers from that season:

He faced the second easiest competition among regular Hawks forwards
He had the third best Relative Corsi of the regular forwards
He started 55.4% of his shifts in the offensive zone

So, Kane was very sheltered as a rookie with Chicago and had good results. He still managed to average 18:21 of ice time per game, thanks to his average of 3:56 of powerplay ice time, and he also led his team in scoring with 72 points. By the time Chicago was in their Stanley Cup Championship season, his 5x5 numbers looked like this:

He faced the 7th toughest competition of 13 forwards who played more than 30 games
He had the 4th best Relative Corsi of the regular forwards
And he started a whopping 67.4% of his shifts in the offensive zone

The level of competition that Kane faced was middling by the time Chicago was a Cup contender, and his zone starts were still being heavily sheltered 5x5. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that he had career highs in goals (30) and points (88) that season, especially because he led his team in powerplay ice time per game with 3:14.

In the playoffs, the numbers are even more striking.

Kane faced the 6th toughest competition among the forwards
He had the 5th best Relative Corsi of the forward group
And he started an eye-popping 75.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength

Should we be surprised that Kane had 28 points in 22 playoff games on the way to winning the Stanley Cup? The Hawks had five forwards who could face the tougher competition in the playoffs and allow Kane to do his thing. He didn't get significantly better at facing the tough competition, but the quality of his supporting cast was such that he could be free to pick apart weaker opponents.

Jonathan Toews

One cannot think about the Blackhawks and Patrick Kane without also looking at Jonathan Toews. The Hawks' captain was a rookie the same year as Kane, and his progression was fairly similar. In 2007-08 his 5x5 numbers were as follows:

Toews faced the 4th easiest competition among regular forwards
He had the 5th best Relative Corsi of the forward group
And he started 55.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Toews was not thrown into the deep end and expected to swim, which is what we might think happened considering what we know about him now. He was still a rookie, and he was given the rookie treatment. He scored 54 points in 64 games, and like Kane his 18:40 of ice time per game was propped up by his average of 3:41 on the powerplay.

In the regular season during 2009-10, Toews' 5x5 numbers looked like this:

He faced the 3rd toughest competition of regular Hawks forwards
His Relative Corsi was 3rd best among the forwards
And he started 58.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Toews progressed steadily into a more trusted role with his coaches, and despite his competition he put up 68 points in 76 games. 2:59 of his 20:00 of average ice time was spent on the powerplay, which is the second-most powerplay time behind Kane. Here are his playoff numbers at even strength:

Toews faced the 7th toughest competition among the forwards
He had the 2nd best Relative Corsi of the forwards
And he started 62.9% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Interestingly, Toews faced slightly easier competition than Kane, and he was starting a high percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength. He was less relied upon to be a workhorse in the playoffs than the regular season, and Chicago marched all the way to their Cup win.

Nicklas Backstrom

The Swedish Nicklas Backstrom went 4th overall to Washington in 2006 and debuted as a rookie in 2007-08. Here is what his rookie season looked like:

He faced the 7th toughest competition of the regular forwards
Had the best Relative Corsi of the forwards
And started 60.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Backstrom has always been a player that drives possession; even as a rookie. He was being helped out by middling competition and with a high percentage of offensive zone starts at even strength. Also, his point totals are owed partially to the fact that 4:02 of his 18:59 of ice time was spent on the powerplay. Below are his numbers from last year, which was Backstom's fourth in the NHL.

He faced the 7th toughest competition of the forwards
Once again, he had the best Relative Corsi of the forwards
And he started 51% of his shifts in the offensive zone

There isn't much movement here, except that Backstrom's zone starts have gotten tougher. That, and Washington's defensive style that year, may have helped contribute to Backstrom having the lowest point total of his career to date.

Steve Stamkos

Super-sniper Steve Stamkos went first overall to Tampa in 2008 and premiered in the NHL the following season. Here are his 5x5 numbers:

He had the 2nd easiest competition of the regular forwards
The 6th best Relative Corsi of the forwards
And started 58% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Stamkos was very sheltered as a rookie, and managed to post 46 points in 79 games. He was 7th on the Lightning with an average of 2:50 per game on the powerplay, and 16th on the team in total ice time with just 14:56. Last year he had 45-46-91 in 82 games, and his underlying 5x5 numbers looked like this:

The 5th toughest competition of the regular forwards
The 7th best Relative Corsi
And started 49.8% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Stamkos was given much tougher assignments in his third NHL season, and managed to handle himself quite well. Not surprisingly, he was first on the Lightning in poweplay ice time per game with 4:32, and 5th of all their skaters at 20:11 per game in total. This is a player who has learned to dominate very quickly. He seems to be every bit as good as his counting stats would have you believe, and he's earned himself a spot in the very top tier of NHL talent.

John Tavares

John Tavares may be a closer comparison to a player like Taylor Hall than either one of them is to Stamkos, but time will tell. As a rookie:

Tavares faced the 7th toughest competition among the forwards
Had the 8th best Relative Corsi
and started 59.6% of his shifts in the offensive zone

Tavares wasn't sheltered in the extreme, but he managed to have some reasonably good success in his first year with 54 points. He played 18:00 per game, and 4:08 of that on the powerplay. Last year:

He faced the 3rd toughest competition
Had the 5th best Relative Corsi
and started 55.6% of his shifts in the offensive zone at even strength

His assignments got a bit tougher, and yet Tavares improved to 67 points in 79 games. 3:30 of his 19:15 of ice time was spent on the powerplay.

That's a lot of data

Darn tootin' it is! So what can we make of it? More importantly, how do players like Hall and Eberle stack up? I'm glad you asked!

Taylor Hall

Last year at even strength:

3rd toughest competition among the regular forwards
The best Relative Corsi of the forwards
52% of his zone starts in the offensive zone

At least partially because of the lack of better options, the Oilers tossed Hall directly into the fray. And he flourished. Relative to the forwards on his team, Hall faced the toughest competition of any of the players I've listed so far. His zone starts weren't pillowy soft, and he was driving the puck in the right direction. Hall was 7th in powerplay ice time on the Oilers with 2:43 per game, and averaged 18:12 in total ice.

This year at even strength:

4th toughest competition among the regular forwards
The best Relative Corsi of the forwards
57.9% offensive zone starts

Hall's team has a bit more of a veteran presence up front with the addition of Ryan Smyth, and that has bumped him back on the competition level. He's up to 3:10 per game on the powerplay, but he's only on the ice for a total of 18:25 per game - an increase of just 13 seconds per game over his rookie year. Most of the forwards listed above had increases - sometimes very large increases - in ice time per game, but Hall has not enjoyed that privilege yet. He's already the best player the Oilers have at driving the play forward, and when he starts to be trusted more by his coaches he could explode offensively just like these others did.

Jordan Eberle

Last year at even strength:

5th toughest competition among the regular forwards
2nd best Relative Corsi among the forwards
49.3% offensive zone starts

Eberle was also given some tough assignments right out of the gate, but he wasn't overwhelmed. He drove the play in the right direction, and led the team in scoring despite 2:32 on the powerplay and 17:40 in total ice time.

This year at even strength:

8th toughest competition among the regular forwards
5th best Relative Corsi
62.7% offensive zone starts

Even though Eberle is leading the Oilers in scoring, and has already potted 30 goals, he's actually averaging less ice time per game than he did as a rookie with just 17:11. He's up to 3:11 per game on the powerplay, however. Eberle has been aided this season by a remarkably high shooting percentage (19.4%), but one can only imagine what he could do with the kind of ice time increase that some of the other players listed had. His competition and zone starts have been easier than last year, but at some point he will have to be given some tougher tasks for the sake of more ice time.

***

There isn't enough data yet to make a call on Nugent-Hopkins (though the preliminary numbers are fairly promising), but what we know about the progression of some other stars around the league compares favorably with what the Oilers have in Hall and Eberle. These two are already the best the Oilers have at controlling the direction of play, and are showing many positive signs.

What happened in Chicago shows us that if the Oilers want to win soon they will need to build up a strong supporting cast of productive veteran players. Remember that when the Oilers were winning at the beginning of the season it was because the vets were taking on the toughest assignments and managing to put up points. This allowed the kids to pick apart the middling and softer competition. If the Oilers don't get veterans who can score consistently, they're better off handing the reigns to the young players and giving them a bigger chunk of the ice time. The coaching staff hasn't done that regularly enough, and the team has slid downhill.

Oilers management thinks of "protecting their young players" in terms of adding enforcers that don't play a regular shift, but the best way to protect them would be to add quality bottom-six forwards that can shut down the opposition's best and allow the kids to pick off the stragglers. Many fans aren't exactly confident in the ability of this management group to bring in the type of players this team really needs, but if it does happen the Oilers have a foundation that is just as good as some very good teams. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

03/07/12 Oilers and the NHL Awards


That lovely piece of hardware is the Lady Bing Memorial Trophy, and each year it is awarded to the NHL player that best exhibits both sportsmanship and a high level of play. It's one of two trophies that Edmonton Oilers players have a realistic shot at. How likely are they to win?

The last Oiler to win the Lady Bing was Jari Kurri way back in 1984-85. Since the lockout only two players - Pavel Datsyuk and Martin St. Louis - have won this particular award, so it would take quite an exceptional performance for an Oiler on a bottom team to usurp them. Jordan Eberle is such a player. Eberle is currently sitting in 12th in NHL scoring with 63 points in 62 games, and he's only got 8 penalty minutes all year long. All of the players above him in scoring have more penalty minutes, and Marian Hossa, who is close with 16 PIMs, has just one more point than Eberle in 5 more games played.

The numbers from past winners:

2010-11: Martin St Louis, 4th in league scoring with 99 points; 12 PIMs
2009-10: Martin St. Louis, 6th in league scoring with 94 points; 12 PIMs
2008-09: Pavel Datsyuk, 4th in league scoring with 97 points; 22 PIMs
2007-08: Pavel Datsyuk, 4th in league scoring with 97 points; 20 PIMs
2006-07: Pavel Datsyuk, 17th in league scoring with 87 points; 20 PIMs
2005-06: Pavel Datsyuk, 18th in league scoring with 87 points; 22 PIMs

Over the last four years the winner of the Lady Bing has had to be inside the top 6 in NHL scoring, but Datsyuk's wins in 2006-07 and 2005-06 show that it can be done without being at the very top of the league in points.

Jordan Eberle won't be in the top six in NHL scoring, but he does have all the attributes to at least be a finalist for the Lady Bing. The trouble is that players who are sportsmanlike can also sometimes fly under the radar, and it could take Eberle some time to build up enough of a reputation to win a major NHL award.

Other potential finalists this season: Claude Giroux (3rd in NHL with 77 points; 25 PIMs), Phil Kessel (5th in NHL with 70 points; 20 PIMs), Loui Eriksson (16th in NHL with 61 points; 6 PIMs)


That is the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL's rookie of the year. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still near the head of the line for this one, with 39 points in 46 games. The two players ahead of him are Adam Henrique and Gabriel Landeskog, who each have 43 points. However, Henrique has played 58 games and Landeskog has appeared in 68, which means that they have 0.74 points per game and 0.63 points per game respectively. Nugent-Hopkins is scoring at a 0.85 points per game clip, and he's also more than three years younger than Henrique.

This one doesn't always go to the best point producer among rookies, but there doesn't appear to be a goalie or defenseman who's really in the mix for this award. Nugent-Hopkins compares favorably with some skaters who are past winners of the Calder:

2010-11: Jeff Skinner, 1st in points by a rookie with 63 (0.77 points per game)
2009-10: Tyler Myers, 3rd in points by a rookie with 48 - 1st by a rookie defenseman (0.59 points per game)
2007-08: Patrick Kane, 1st in points by a rookie with 72 (0.88 points per game)

I didn't include 2008-09 because it was won by Steve Mason, and I stopped after 2007-08 because in the years prior to that the rookies of the year were Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin. To compare Nugent-Hopkins to them is unfair, especially in the context of deciding who is the top rookie for 2011-12.

Notably, however, is the fact that Nugent-Hopkins wouldn't be at all out of place when it comes to the points per game of past winners. He's also scoring at a rate that would see him finish first in rookie scoring this season. Landeskog is on pace to finish with 52 points, and Henrique should put up another 12 points or so for 55 total. If Nugent-Hopkins keeps scoring at his current pace he'll finish the season with about 56 points in just 66 games.

No Oilers player has ever won the Calder, which means that if Nugent-Hopkins does, it will be a major milestone for the organization. At the end of the day these awards don't mean anything unless the team starts to win, but for Oilers players to be considered means that the team is taking a step in the right direction. It's a moral victory more than anything else, but right now we'll take it.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

03/04/12 Rick Nash and the Implications for Edmonton


Even if Rick Nash wanted to come to Edmonton (he doesn't), the Oilers don't need to trade for him. However, if the Nash trade does happen before the NHL Draft, there will be meaning for the Edmonton Oilers in the long term. A trade involving the superstar right winger will set the value of such a player across the NHL.

It has come out into the open that the Oilers want to add at least one "top end" defenseman before next season, and according to Darren Dreger that will most likely come about via trade. It's hard to argue with a man as plugged in as Dreger, so now the question remains: what would the Oilers have to offer for such a player? That's easy. Considering their current position, the Oilers will be picking at the top of the draft, where two elite forwards are available.

Nail Yakupov and Mikhail Grigorenko are not proven NHL scorers, as Nash is, but they are highly regarded enough to fetch a massive price on the market. When Nash is traded we'll have some idea of how much those two could be worth. Elliotte Friedman reported in his 30 thoughts that the Blue Jackets rejected an enormous offer from the New York Ranger for Nash: Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, Christian Thomas, J.T. Miller and a first round pick.

A little history:

Tim Erixon is a former first round pick by Calgary, who refused to sign there and was subsequently traded to New York. Christian Thomas is a former second round pick (40th overall) who followed up his 41 goal sophomore season in the OHL with a 54 goal campaign last year. Miller was New York's first round pick in 2011, going 15th overall. Hockey's Future has those three listed as the Rangers' second, third and fourth best prospects behind only Chris Kreider. Them, plus Dubinsky and a first round pick is a huge price.

The Rangers didn't want to tinker too much with their team chemistry, so they didn't add enough proven NHL scoring in this offer, and Scott Howson turned it down. When the season ends there will be 29 teams that didn't win the Stanley Cup, and trading proven NHL players will become more palatable. That's when Nash will be moved, and when the Oilers could also add to their roster. Happily, the Jackets want to add scoring in exchange for Nash, which won't tamper with the defensive market that the Oilers will be dipping into.

In fact, it may make it easier for the Oilers to find a trade, as teams will be more apt to part with defense in exchange for scoring. Even a pick as high as second overall may not fetch the bounty that Nash will, but it would be valuable enough to vastly improve the defense in Edmonton. If a team overpays for Nash, it will only improve the Oilers' bargaining position.

The Oilers always have the option of using their first round pick on a defense prospect like Ryan Murray, Griffin Reinhart or Matt Dumba, or testing the free agent market to improve the defense. But if they want to add a proven NHL player via trade, Rick Nash will have an effect on the market that may be good for Edmonton.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

03/01/12 The Oilers Are Not Like the Islanders. Here's Why


If you spend time around the interweb (you're here, so you must), you've probably seen someone call the Oilers "Islanders West," or something similar. As it happens, the troubles the Isles are having has nothing to do with Edmonton, as the two teams aren't that similar at all.

Whether or not you believe the Oilers' rebuild started in 2007, the fact remains that it was then that the team first finished low enough to pick high in the draft and began to accumulate assets. We'll have a peek at both the Oilers and Islanders from 2007 onward, and note the similarities and differences. Both teams are sporting players that were drafted first overall, but there is a lot separating them as well.

Since 2007 the Oilers have made 8 selections in the top 22 spots of the Draft. The pick they surrendered in the Penner offer sheet ended up becoming Tyler Myers (oops), but at least the Oilers were able to turn Penner into one of the 8 first rounders (Klefbom), as well  as former 2008 first round choice Colten Teubert. Including Teubert, they've added 9 players taken within the top 22 in five years. Five of those players (Gagner, Eberle, Paajarvi, Hall and RNH) are already in the NHL and all except Paajarvi are bona fide impact players.

By contrast, the Islanders have added 5 players who were picked in the top 12 since 2007, along with Brock Nelson who went 30th in 2010. Of those, John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Nino Niederreiter are the only ones in the NHL, and only Tavares has been truly impactful.

Wrong though it may be that failure is rewarded richly in the NHL, that is how the Draft works. Had the Islanders picked first overall in consecutive years, as the Oilers did, they would be sitting on John Tavares and Taylor Hall. Instead, the Islanders picked Nino Niederreiter 5th in 2010, who has only 2-1-3 in 48 NHL games thus far. They picked 5th last year as well and took Ryan Strome. Strome has many good characteristics, but he has taken a bit of a step back this year with the Niagara IceDogs in terms of points per game.

For whatever reason (see: luck; losing a lot), the Oilers have had the edge over the Isles at the Draft. In 2008 New York picked Bailey 9th overall with Jordan Eberle still on the board, who didn't hear his name called until 22nd. Because of horrendous losing seasons Edmonton picked up Hall before Niederreiter and Nugent-Hopkins before Strome.

But it wasn't just that. One of Edmonton's first round picks in 2007 originally belonged to the Islanders, and was traded to the Oilers in the Ryan Smyth deal. Also in that deal were the Islanders' 2003 and 2005 first round picks Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra. The resulting player, Alex Plante, isn't setting the world on fire with his play, but New York never had the chance to make the right selection.

Outside the Draft, the Islanders have other problems. Say what you will about the Oilers' blue line, but the men patrolling the back end on the Island may be worse. Mark Streit is the only veteran locked into a contract beyond this year, and that's probably a good thing considering that the roster is a who's-who of badness. Milan Jurcina (minus-28), Mark Eaton (minus-12), Steve Staios (minus-13), and Dylan Reese (!?) make what the Oilers are packing look like the 2007 Anaheim Ducks.

Any other troubles? Sure!

The Islanders may lose one of their leading scorers in PA Parenteau to free agency. Also, after a monstrous 34 goal season last year, Michael Grabner has seen his production slip to 15 goals in 62 games. Rick DiPietro has played a total of 47 games over the last four seasons, and his contract (which expires in 2021!) makes Khabibulin's seem like a bargain. Evgeni Nabokov has been good as a replacement, but unless they can get him re-signed he'll be gone in the off season as well.

As you can see, it's a combination of really bad management, bad luck, and not selecting at the very top of the Draft that has made the Islanders this horrible. Their run of top-five picks actually makes them closer to the Columbus Blue Jackets than it does to the Oilers. 

Make no mistake, however. Having a boatload of picks in the first round does not guarantee success for the Oilers. Having said that, the NHL Draft is a crapshoot and the more choices you have in the high-probability rounds, the better your odds of success. The Islanders haven't done as much as the Oilers have since 2007 when it comes to gathering extremely high end assets, which is why Edmonton and New York are very different. Having another pick as high as second (or even first) overall will only put the Oilers that much further ahead, and widen what will one day be a large gap between them.