Oilers’ Underlying Numbers Show Major Improvements

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.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    I think this highlights just what a fantastic signing Belanger is as well as what a nice upgrade Sutton has been (defensively/PK) over Vandemeer.

    Horc and Smyth have also been fantastic.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Who would have thunk that the Oilers would be this good on Defence? Put up your hands. What I thought. The Oilers have 2 miserable road trips this season. One for CFR. The other covers the WJHC’s. The Oilers will see thier share of losses in the not so distant future but it may be mitagated by the defensive play that they have shown recently. We’ll see where the chips fall.

  • justDOit

    It’s good to see that the stats back up what we’re seeing on the ice. Win or lose, this team is more competitive and the new faces are showing their value.

  • OilFan

    I wasn’t happy with the lose to Calgary and Minny. Wasn’t happy with the defense first change. Now I seem to like it ( 1 win later). At the very least the defense first style will keep the Oilers in some games and give them a chance of winning every night. Good work

  • Clarence Oveur

    Is the Nuge a PP specialist? He’s looked good 5 X 5, but that was a big concern going into this year…either way, his addition has helped the PP. Belanger and Smytty on the PK look great. It’s exciting to see these guys change their team completely in a year.

  • Clarence Oveur

    That’s why when Tom Renney said he was line-matching last season, I only took it to be coach speak…he wasn’t going to say “I’m just throwing guys out there to see if they can handle a particular situation,” when in fact that’s exactly what he was doing (at least in my eyes).

    Now we’re seeing what Renney really is about now that he has an improved club and the ability to be selective in who he puts out on the ice and when.