Did The Oilers Have Bad Injury Luck Last Year?

Injuries at the NHL level can have tremendous impact on the team. In 2009-10, the Oilers’ fall to last place in the NHL was blamed in part on injuries to Ales Hemsky and Nikolai Khabibulin. In the comments section here, various parties pointed to those injuries and asked how a team like the Penguins would do without Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury (one hears that less often these days, for multiple obvious reasons).

Were the Oilers been particularly unlucky when it came to injuries in 2010-11?

At first glance, the answer would appear to be ‘yes.’ According to the team’s official website, the Oilers lost 281 man-games to injury last season, a number that sounds staggering and equates to three or four players missing each and every game of the season.

Of course, to determine whether that number is actually a lot, one needs a frame of reference. $100 is ‘a lot’ if we look at the prices of chocolate bars, but considerably less if we’re out to buy a house. How can we get that frame of reference?

The method typically used is by comparison to other NHL teams. The problem with this method is that different players get injured more or less frequently – if Andrew Cogliano misses five games in a year, he had an abnormally injury-filled season, but if Ales Hemsky misses five games in a year it was a great season. Because of this, various teams employing different players should expect a differing number of man-games lost.

A better method, the method I’m going to use, is to compare a player’s total number of games missed to their three-year averages. Thus, if a player misses 20 games after averaging perfectly healthy seasons the last three years, then that would be 20 unexpected missed games. If, on the other hand, a player appears in all 82 games after averaging 10 games a season lost to injury, then the team could count itself lucky to get those ‘extra’ 10 games. Naturally, this isn’t perfect – a normally healthy player might suffer a serious injury and thus have his average skewed upward – but random injuries happen too and should be accounted for to some extent.

How do the Oilers fare by this method? We’re going to consider them by position, but before we do the number supplied by the Oilers’ website needs to be pared down a bit.

For starters, the Oilers’ itemized list of injuries shows, not 281 missed games as the top of the page states, but rather 278. Since I need the itemized list for this analysis, and that’s the number with supporting data, that’s the figure I’ll use. Additionally, I’m going to remove the 18 games lost by Taylor Chorney, as I’m only using players that started the season on the roster (in other words, we aren’t using Chorney’s 18 injured games, but we aren’t using Ryan O’Marra’s zero missed games either).

Next, there is the matter of the rookies. We have no way of knowing what an average season looks like for Linus Omark or Taylor Hall, so we can’t run this analysis on them. Those players are listed below.

Rookies

Player Games 3-Yr. Avg.
Taylor Hall 15
Jordan Eberle 13
Magnus Paajarvi 1
Linus Omark 0

Forwards

Player Games 3-Yr. Avg.
Gilbert Brule 38 6
Shawn Horcoff 33 12
Ales Hemsky 32 26
Sam Gagner 12 7
Jean-Francois Jacques 12 20
Colin Fraser 7 0
Steve MacIntyre 3 14
Andrew Cogliano 0 0
Ryan Jones 0 10
Liam Reddox 0 1
Zack Stortini 0 2
Total 137 98

Based on three-year averages, we would have expected the Oilers to lose a little fewer than 100 games; instead they lost 137. The main culprits for the deviation were Gilbert Brule and Shawn Horcoff. Neither is a terribly surprising addition to the list, but both had been relatively healthy over the previous three seasons.

Defense

Player Games 3-Yr. Avg.
Ryan Whitney 45 14
Jim Vandermeer 15 13
Theo Peckham 11 10
Kurtis Foster 5 26
Ladislav Smid 4 17
Tom Gilbert 3 0
Jason Strudwick 0 1
Total 83 81

On the blue line, the Oilers missed almost the exact number of games we would expect, although the distribution was a little different from three-year averages. Rather than losing Foster and Smid for extended stints, the Oilers lost Ryan Whitney for more than half the year.

Goaltenders

Player Games 3-Yr. Avg.
Nikolai Khabibulin 11 32
Devan Dubnyk 0 0
Total 11 32

In net, the Oilers had a fortunate year. Devan Dubnyk was unsurprisingly healthy, but Nikolai Khabibulin only missed about a third as many games as he’s averaged over the last three seasons.

Summary

Based on three year averages, we would have expected the Oilers’ veteran roster players to miss 211 games. They missed a total of 231, indicating a slightly higher than expected total but nothing extremely surprising.

Even the distribution was relatively even. The losses of Horcoff and Whitney hurt, but the players who experienced exceptionally healthy seasons – Smid, Foster and the team’s starting goaltender – help to balance that out.

I think we can say that 2010-11 was a below-average season for the Oilers on the injury front, but not by a lot.

  • RE: Hemsky

    Ales Hemsky is injured every year. Yes, it costs the Oilers each time he misses a game, but at some point that’s just the cost of employing Ales Hemsky. He’s been an NHL player for eight seasons, and has played 80 games just once. He’s played 65 games or less four times.

    When Ales Hemsky gets hurt, it’s got nothing to do with luck. He’s going to get hurt. Which is why I tend to object to it when people go ‘well, they lost their best offensive forward, so…’

    It doesn’t make sense.

  • RE: The Three Year Argument

    ‘Haven’t the Oilers had a remarkable number of man games lost over the last three years, thus skewing the numbers?’

    When a team has a high number of man games lost in a particular year, relative to history, they shrug their shoulders and call it luck.

    When a team has a high number of man games lost to injury two years in a row, they start getting worried but acknowledge that it may be coincidence.

    When a team has a high number of man games lost to injury three seasons in a row, they consider the possibility that this is just the way things are going to be.

    When a player has three crappy years in a row, we don’t say, ‘gosh, is Player X unlucky,’ we say ‘Player X isn’t very good.’ Similarly, after three years of injuries, we don’t say, ‘gosh, Team X is cursed,’ we say ‘Team X employs a lot of fragile players.’

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Particularly unlucky?

    Yes. Yes they were — not in number of games lost to injury but in who got hurt and when (which a math spin doesn’t speak to). That’s obvious. Good grief.

    a) This math spin doesn’t speak to it, because I wasn’t trying to control for that particular variable at this juncture. It would be pretty easy to put a data-based post together based on injury timing.

    b) The fact that all those guys got hurt after the season was out of reach and when the only think left to play for was Nugent-Hopkins is probably in the team’s long-term interest, but your point is taken.

    Edmonton’s best offensive defenseman plays 35 games, leaving the overwhelmed Tom Gilbert as the next-best option in terms of generating offence. Whitney outscores Gilbert by a point despite playing 44 fewer games.

    We’re confusing ‘luck’ with ‘roster management’ here. No, the Oilers could not afford to lose Ryan Whitney – but then, Ryan Whitney isn’t the defenseman Andrei Markov is and the Canadiens did okay without him.

    The Canadiens were more unlucky to lose a player the calibre of Markov than the Oilers were to lose a player the calibre of Whitney (both have reasonably comparable injury histories prior to this season). The Oilers’ lesser loss hurt more because management didn’t have any sort of blue line depth built in.

    Not one of the players who finished among the team’s top four in scoring — Eberle, Hemsky, Gagner and Hall– played even 70 games. You can’t take that much production out of the line-up of an offensively challenged and defensively suspect team and expect success.

    Hemsky routinely plays less than 70 games. Gagner’s never played 80. That leaves Eberle and Hall – both of whom left the lineup once the season was out of reach.

    It’s not about expecting success – it’s about predicting what the team should have mitigated for in advance. Hemsky, certainly. Gagner, probably. Hall and Eberle I’ll happily grant you.

    Strip a rookie-laden roster of the experience (and production) of Hemsky, Horcoff and Whitney, not one of whom played 50 games, and what do you get?

    Again: there’s a difference between bad luck and putting together a lousy team. The losses of Horcoff and Whitney were to some extent unlucky – because it was predictable that they would miss time, given their history, but not that they would miss so much time – but the loss of Hemsky was not.

    This is balanced in part by the fact that the team’s reliable veteran starter was healthy for the first time in ages – something that should not have been expected, given his history.

  • Robin

    I generally like Willis’s articles. Also give you kudos when I like your article. Instead of saying we have a terrible team, the Oilers tell EVERYONE that injuries are a major contributing factor. Many parrot that as a fact. Guess they believe fans won’t examine that argument. Agree completely that losing Whitney early really hurt. But he is similar to Hemsky and Horcoff in that no one expects 80 games out of them. if we get 185 games out of the 3 of them this year that has to be considered a great year

    Feel free to check but before injuries we peaked at what 26th overall? So when you say Whitney, Hemsky and Horcoff got hurt and then refer to it as “unlucky”, you are either being stubborn, ignoring reality or being disingenuous.

    Liked your subbing for Lowetide yesterday on Nationrado for portion I heard. Decent job! Think you are wrong on comparing Jason Smith and C Barker . Smith had heart in spades and the knock on Barker is to contrary but I hope you are right. All sorts of high draft picks have failed in NHL but maybe Barker can find a home here.

    • I’m wasn’t comparing Smith and Barker as players, as I stated clearly. I’m pointing out they arrive under somewhat similar circumstances in regard to their respective careers. Like you, I’m not sure Barker has anywhere near the drive to succeed and compete that Smith did.

      I was only OK Saturday, but thanks. Barker tossed a wrench in the mix by calling in about 10 minutes late, forcing a ham-handed fill by yours truly.

        • Your e-mail was fine, but it was something I’d hoped to save for the final segment.

          When the guest for a main segment (top of the hour segments are 20 minutes) doesn’t call in, you’re screwed. I was wondering how the hell I was going to fill if Barker didn’t call at all.

          Plus, it backs everything else up unless you cut-off the late guest at 1:20, even if he’s only been on for a few minutes.

  • — First, I’m not confused about anything, thank-you very much.

    — You’re always slick at doing this, but your choice of words with Gagner, in that he’s NEVER” played 80 games is a reach and a dodge.

    NEVER, as in four seasons? OK. And is 80 games the magic mark now? Gagner played 79 and 76 games his first two seasons. No question of durability there as the rule of thumb around the rink is that 75 or better is fine, allowing for bumps and bruises, not to mention coaching decisions where players are healthy scratches. So, no, that doesn’t really just leave Hall and Eberle.

    And “again,” I’m not confused about the difference between bad luck and putting together a lousy team. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. Both are at work here.

    • It is totally different.

      In his first four seasons, Gagner twice played what can reasonably be called — and is by hockey people — a full season by getting into 75 or more games. Especially, again, allowing for healthy scratches. Did you check on that? No.

      Durability wasn’t an issue in Gagner’s first two seasons and I’d suggest it wasn’t last year either, unless we should have seen a freak injury from a teammate’s skate while on the bench coming. “Never” is a tap dance.

      And there’s nothing hinky or arbitrary about using 70 games. None of Edmonton’s most productive players — Hemsky, Hall, Horcoff, Eberle, Gagner or Whitney — hit that mark. The Oilers were without their best players for huge chunks of the season.

      Dig in like you always do, though. I’d expect nothing else. Alas, still no sale.

      • stevezie

        “And there’s nothing hinky or arbitrary about using 70 games. None of Edmonton’s most productive players — Hemsky, Hall, Horcoff, Eberle, Gagner or Whitney — hit that mark. The Oilers were without their best players for huge chunks of the season. “

        Isn’t the point that the oilers were wrong to be unprepared for getting If I drive an unreliable car and it breaks down on the worst possible stretch of road to break down on, am I unlucky?

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    I don’t think you’re confused, I think you’re deliberately confusing the issue.

    Tom Gilbert’s status as the Oilers second-best defenseman has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Whitney injury was foreseeable or unlucky. It has everything to do with roster management.

    Further, the Oilers’ offensive ability as a team has absolutely nothing to do with whether we should view a Hemsky injury as bad luck or something foreseeable.

    The question of luck involves whether these injuries were aberrations that could not have been predicted or whether they’re par for the course for the players involved. Neither of those questions has anything to do with how the roster is structured.

    A player’s level of ability isn’t what makes his injury a bad stroke of luck or not – it’s whether that injury was somewhat predictable based on past history or if the team had no reason to expect and mitigate for an injury.

  • Clay

    I think the back and forth between Mr. Willis and Mr. Brownlee is a perfect example of why injuries, and the role they play in team sports, is such an enigma.

    Crosby, Malkin, and Staal only play 41, 43, and 42 games respectively for Pittsburg, yet the team finishes with 106 points – tied for third best record in the league. I wouldn’t consider their team exceptionally deep up front without those three, and Fleury, although he played well, was far from having Vezina-type numbers, but they found a way to be successful.

    My point is only that you can find umpteen examples in any team sport that will support both sides of this argument. Star players get hurt, team tanks. Star players get hurt, team finds a way to get it done.

    It makes for great debate though!

  • @ Robin Brownlee:

    Saying that none of the four offensive players hit the 70 game mark – when three of them played 65+ – is a way of framing the debate and you’re too smart not to know that.

    Similarly, saying Sam Gagner’s never hit the 80-game mark – when he’s come close twice in four seasons – is a way of framing the debate.

    It’s precisely the same tactic, and precisely as arbitrary in each case. Using your logic, I could say, ‘There’s nothing hinky or arbitrary about grabbing the 80-game mark. Gagner’s played four seasons and never reached it.’

    It’s simply a choice of benchmarks that fits each argument. Going back to your point, I could rephrase it this way:

    “The Oilers had great injury luck! Three of their four top offensive players played more than 75% of the season/65 games/until March!”

    It’s equally as factual as saying ‘none of them played 70 games!’

    But then again, I’m not saying this for you: you know these things. I’m just surprised you chose to pick at me for doing what you’d already done.