Oilers’ Underlying Numbers Show Major Improvements

Jonathan Willis
October 24 2011 01:33AM

We are now seven games into the Edmonton Oilers’ 2011-12 season. It’s obviously still very early – early enough for Milan Michalek to be a top-five scorer, Marc-Andre Bergeron to be leading all blue-liners in points, and for players like Nikolai Khabibulin (0.969 SV%) and Dan Ellis (0.966 SV%) to be in the running for the Vezina.

Given the short schedule each team has played, it’s difficult to read much into the Oilers’ record and overall totals. Yet, in the past, the underlying numbers have offered us a more accurate reading of where the team is really headed – and this year, they’re almost uniformly positive.

To start with, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit how the underlying shot totals have done in the past at showing the team’s true performance. In 2009-10, the team got off to a great start under new head coach Pat Quinn, going 6-2-1, and many were jubilant. Yet, as Tyler Dellow showed, there were warning signs despite the team’s great record:

The Oilers have been outshot 300-226 to date. I’ve had my head buried in other matters, but about all you can take from the results to date is that any team can get results in a short period. You can get a quick and dirty feel for this by just adding up a team’s save percentage and shooting percentage for a given span of games. The Bruins led the league in shooting percentage and save percentage last year; they added up to 103.4%. The Oilers are currently at 107.3%. I haven’t seen enough games to really have any opinions about what’s going on but you don’t make the playoffs like this. The shooting rates will presumably get closer over time; 300-226 is horrific, but it’ll take a lot to make up for the percentages falling back to earth.

As it happened, Dellow was completely right; the shot ratio did come back into balance a bit (the Oilers ended up getting outshot at a rate of roughly 300-256 over the course of the season) but the percentages dropped away and the Oilers imploded, finishing dead last. In that example, the shot clock was a far better indication of the Oilers’ future than the club’s overall record.

This year, the underlying numbers are uniformly positive. Let’s start by looking at the team’s 5-on-5 shots for/shots against per 60, comparing this year to one season ago.

Season 5v5 Shots For/60 5v5 Shots Against/60 5v5 Shots +/- per 60
2010-11 26.1 30.5 -4.4
2011-12 26.4 25.3 1.1
Difference 0.3 -5.2 5.5

There’s been a slight increase offensively, but the real breakthrough has been in terms of shots against; after posting a lousy number in 2010-11 the Oilers have been superb this season. The number may be too good to be true, in fact; it would have led the league last season. Even so, the Oilers have gone from being badly outshot one season ago to holding a slight edge in the play this year.

Really impressive, though, has been the change in special teams situations.

Season 5v4 Shots For/60 4v5 Shots Against/60
2010-11 41.8 56.2
2011-12 57.5 43.4
Difference 15.7 -12.9

By eye, the Oilers power play and penalty kill have been much better, with the PK in particular putting up gaudy numbers and the power play still lagging a little behind in terms of goals scored.

In terms of shot numbers, the change has been overwhelming; almost a complete inversion from last season when both units were terrible. The penalty kill has cut down its shots/60 by more than 25%, a massive increase, while the power play has increased its shots/60 by a nearly identical rate.

Once again, these numbers might be a little too good to be true; Vancouver’s power play last year averaged 56.0 shots/60, and expecting the Oilers to replicate that seems like a stretch. Similarly, the Flyers led the league last year on the penalty kill in terms of shots against/60, with a rate of 42.9, and expecting the Oilers to be in that range is setting the bar quite high.

At a guess, we’re probably seeing schedule effects to some degree here – the Oilers have played five games at home to just two on the road after all – and as teams adapt to the Oilers changes in personnel and procedure it would make sense if we see the efficiency of the club’s special teams drop a bit. It’s also worth noting, again, that the team has only played a total of seven games.

With those caveats noted, this is tremendous news for the Oilers. The combination of incoming personnel – especially on the penalty kill, where Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth are huge additions – and coaching adjustments this season have both units humming along at optimum levels, and even if they drop back a bit from where they are currently they will be much improved over a year ago.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 gongshow
October 24 2011, 12:58PM
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JW- What proportion of these improvements do you attribute to faceoff improvements?

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#52 TigerUnderGlass
October 24 2011, 01:14PM
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gongshow wrote:

JW- What proportion of these improvements do you attribute to faceoff improvements?

Wow, people have really begun to overvalue faceoffs. This is starting to get strange.

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#53 Romulus' Apotheosis
October 24 2011, 01:21PM
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m3sh wrote:

I agree. He wasn't slated to be top 4, and he quite obviously isn't - but it's to me more about the competitiveness. I'm not asking for 20 plus minutes per night from Barker, I'm asking the minutes he is out there that he looks a bit more like he gives a damn.

To your point of adequacy, I agree, the flipside to his uneventful-ness is that at least there are no real negative events against him either. That won't hold back criticism for long.

You're right though, it's a 1 yr contract, there's no harm here, I was just hoping he could be a magic bullet for the gaping holes on the blue line, which miraculously are starting to fill in.... (knock on wood, repeatedly, until tomorrow night).

I hear you on the competitiveness angle. And, really we are debating over whether a player is adequate or terrible... so that's a good indication that Barker needs to take to the opportunity he's been given with a bit more verve.

Still though, no glaring errors. Hell, Whitney has had some doozies so far. Just think once we played Cory Cross, who was slower, dumber and was a perpetual give away machine.

So far, Barker is adequate. I'll take it for now (but not for too long).

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#54 Clyde Frog
October 24 2011, 01:50PM
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Barker + 1, only behind Petry (Who is now in the AHL) and is tied with Theo and Potter.

If Barker stays in the + range by the end of the season then this was a big win signing for the Oil.

I get we aren't even 10 games in, just saying so far our D is holding up well, just wish we had a crisper break out and got a little more generated off the rush after the first 17 minutes of the game.

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#55 OilLeak
October 24 2011, 02:05PM
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Clyde Frog wrote:

Barker + 1, only behind Petry (Who is now in the AHL) and is tied with Theo and Potter.

If Barker stays in the + range by the end of the season then this was a big win signing for the Oil.

I get we aren't even 10 games in, just saying so far our D is holding up well, just wish we had a crisper break out and got a little more generated off the rush after the first 17 minutes of the game.

So far Barker is crap, a part of me hope he improves a bit this year for the sake of the team, but a large part of me hoping he sinks, so he won't be back next year.

It's still early, but Barker has been slow, disinterested and he's playing the cushiest minutes on the team.

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#56 jake
October 24 2011, 02:05PM
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Hard to see the side printing....is that orbiter Challenger by any chance?? (hope not)

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#57 Clarence Oveur
October 24 2011, 02:20PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

@ S. Crowe:

"Life's been good to me so far."

Superb song.

Hear, hear!

Your taste in music is superb, sir.

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#58 book¡e
October 24 2011, 02:35PM
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gongshow wrote:

JW- What proportion of these improvements do you attribute to faceoff improvements?

Somebody on the internets (probably JW, maybe Tyler?) did a look at how important winning faceoffs was and surprisingly, it had only a very limited impact. This is because on the vast majority of plays (from whistle to whistle) there is a large number of puck turnovers, so indeed winning a faceoff would improve puck possession in a game, but only slightly.

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#59 HOFFFF
October 24 2011, 03:03PM
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jake wrote:

Hard to see the side printing....is that orbiter Challenger by any chance?? (hope not)

It is the Atlantis, which is a good choice because it put up huge numbers until its retirement. :)

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#60 Clarence Oveur
October 24 2011, 03:13PM
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book¡e wrote:

Somebody on the internets (probably JW, maybe Tyler?) did a look at how important winning faceoffs was and surprisingly, it had only a very limited impact. This is because on the vast majority of plays (from whistle to whistle) there is a large number of puck turnovers, so indeed winning a faceoff would improve puck possession in a game, but only slightly.

Granted, but winning a faceoff can be a catalyst for puck possession.

More often than not the better faceoff teams in the NHL are playoff teams.

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#61 Clyde Frog
October 24 2011, 03:43PM
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@ OilLeak

Meh, we as fans love to talk about intangibles when discussing our favourite or hated players.

What we often forget is the lens we view these people in is wholly internal to ourselves and has a sad lack of perspective from the reality these players live in.

We love to spout, disinterested, slow, too small, too big, not aggressive enough, too aggressive whenever we want to quantify the feelings we have watching them.

But what we don't understand is the system the players are asked to play, the gaps they are expected to maintain, the positioning and lanes they are to sit in, or the innumerable other factors that a player must respect before they get even a minute of icetime in the NHL.

Any fan that pretends to know any of that is lying to themselves, hell just look at the articles from those "in the know" in the media who seem just as suprised at our new defenseive bent.

If Barker or any other defencemen can play in Renney's system, build a decent +/- and help the team win I won't jump on them quite yet.

Of course if those stats go belly up and we end up fighting for 29th at the end of the season I will be decidedly less happy.

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#62 DieHard
October 24 2011, 04:05PM
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Is it just me or have I noticed that during a PK, the Oil, more than before, are winning the face-off and sending the puck down. Then, to top it off, they interrupt the play coming back and push it back, change the PK'ers and repeat. They are not spending the whole 2 minutes or less in their end. This is a good thing and is due to WINNING the face-off.

AND yes, Barker in noticeably SLOW and will eventually burn us.

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#63 Wanyes bastard child
October 24 2011, 04:45PM
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@DieHard

Not just you ;)

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#64 Westcoastoil
October 24 2011, 05:55PM
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I live in the dark, whiny heart of Canuckville - please, please, please throw me a freakin bone and win tomorrow

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#65 book¡e
October 24 2011, 06:29PM
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Clarence Oveur wrote:

Granted, but winning a faceoff can be a catalyst for puck possession.

More often than not the better faceoff teams in the NHL are playoff teams.

Actually, there appears to be little correlation when you look at the stats on NHL.com. I think the key factor that reduces the importance of faceoffs is the high frequency of changes of puck possession.

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#66 dougtheslug
October 24 2011, 11:08PM
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All I know is this: if I played on a team where a mulletted 35 year old was flying into the corner after every shoot in, halfways out of control like it was game seven of the Stanley Cup Final, elbowing to the front of the net knowing full well he was going to get a stick in the ribs or a puck in the chops, doing everything he was asked to do whether it was PK, PP, or just playing the dirtiest minutes against the other teams best, then I sure as hellfire would look at myself in the mirror and make sure I was doing the same. SMITTY IS A GOD!!!!!!!!

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