Ten Points: Oilers on the up-swing

Looking at the Oilers’ year-over-year improvements from 2010-11, the various predictions for Jordan Eberle’s point totals, the benefits of another season in Sweden for Oscar Klefbom (should that happen) and the proper ways to use and defend against offer sheets.

1. The Oilers improvements at even-strength. In 2010-11, the Edmonton Oilers scored 132 even-strength goals. In 2011-12, they scored 142. They also slashed goals-against, going from 174 in 2010-11 to 162 in 2011-12. Put it all together, and the team’s goal differential at evens went from minus-42 to minus-18. That’s an incredible improvement, and the single-biggest reason for optimism about next year’s team. It’s also a number I’ll be digging into in the days ahead, to see where the improvement came from – a big chunk of it is undoubtedly the Hall/Eberle/Nugent-Hopkins trio, but I’d be surprised if that’s the only difference.

2. The Oilers improvements on the power play. For all the attention the power play got last year, it really didn’t drive the Oilers’ goal differential improvement. In 2010-11 the unit was plus-42; in 2011-12 it finished the year plus-47. How is that possible, given that the unit jumped from 27th in the league to third in the league in total percentage? Two reasons: first, there were fewer penalties called in 2011-12, meaning that the Oilers got 42 fewer power play opportunities year-over-year, and second the team allowed seven short-handed goals after allowing only two the season before. The fact that the Oilers’ improvement didn’t rely on the power play is actually a good thing, though – because there’s strong reason to believe that the unit will be worse next year.

3. The Oilers improvement on the penalty kill. This is the area, other than even-strength, where the Oilers made huge strides. After going +8/-74 in 2010-11, the Oilers’ kill went +4/-51 in 2011-12 – leading to an improvement of 19 goals. Some of that was because they were short-handed 25 fewer times (mostly due to the drop in calls – the Oilers were still one of the least disciplined teams in the league, finishing with the fifth-highest number of penalty kills in the NHL in 2011-12), but the big improvement was a 5.4% jump in penalty-killing efficiency, leading to 5 less goals for every 100 times short-handed. With new veterans like Eric Belanger and Ryan Smyth back on the unit next year, as well as with Nikolai Khabibulin relegated to the backup role, there’s no reason this can’t continue.

4. The “gap” in Jordan Eberle predictions. For all of the debate over Jordan Eberle in the past few days, the actual gap in terms of predicted offense between the optimists and pessimists is pretty minute. Robin Brownlee has Eberle slated for 67 points, David Staples figures 68 and at the other end of the scale Tyler Dellow’s most recent piece has it looking like Eberle will pick up 60 points. If I had to pick a number it would probably be 62 – as I like Tyler’s method but have some quibbles that push the total a tiny bit higher (Note: Lowetide’s “Reasonable Expectations” piece had Eberle pegged for 55 points, but as he’s taken pains to explain it wasn’t a prediction so much as it was a line in the sand). Now, maybe that eight point gap between the high and low ends of those predictions means we should launch holy war, but somehow I doubt it.

5. Oscar Klefbom in Sweden. At this point it isn’t 100% clear where Oscar Klefbom is going to play in the fall, but the smart money seems to be on another year in Farjestads, where he’ll play a feature role. As interesting as it would be to see him in North America this year, I think this is a good thing overall. Klefbom just turned 19 – there’s no harm in letting him continue to develop at home for another year, rather than throwing him to the wolves in the NHL (which, given the Oilers’ track record developing highly-touted prospects, would almost certainly happen). The Oilers did that with Smid (who was older but clearly could have used a little more minor-league seasoning) and it didn’t speed up his development any. Two other benefits: Klefbom will likely get more offensive minutes this year in Sweden, and his entry-level deal will slide, meaning that instead of his contract expiring in 2015, it will expire in 2016 instead.

6. Selling players as a group in Colorado. An idea that has been floated more than a few times is that the Oilers should try and sell their young players on the virtues of keeping the band together. It’s what Pierre Lacroix did in Colorado after winning the Stanley Cup in 2001 – he brought all the key UFA pieces together (Patrick Roy, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake) as well as Peter Forsberg into the Avalanche dressing room, which he’d had left in the same shape as it was when they’d won it all, and basically told the entire group what he’d be offering each individual. There was a lot of hardware between that trio – Roy had won the Conn Smythe, Sakic the Hart Trophy, and Blake was only a few years removed from winning the Norris. All three signed, for lots of money but less than they could have got on the open market, but it didn’t happen right away – it took a few weeks before terms were agreed on with all parties.

7. What I like about hockey. I occasionally get asked to expand upon what I like about hockey, since I approach it in such a dry, bookish fashion. I don’t usually spend much time on it, because it isn’t interesting: I like the same things about hockey that everybody else does. I got into the game back in 1993’s Western Conference finals between L.A. and Toronto. My mom, as a Gretzky diehard, was cheering for the Kings while my dad preferred the Leafs; given that I was seven it’s probably not surprising that I picked the Kings because Kelly Hrudey had an awesome red bandana. I’m a fan-boy at heart – I lived and breathed the 2006 Run, and have never lost the soft spot I had for all the guys involved. First on that list, by the way, was Steve Staios – who blocked a shot with his face and then got trapped on the ice, trying to hold off the opposition while clearly in a daze until the Oilers finally cleared the zone. But as a writer, it doesn’t matter: when analyzing and projecting, personal attachment to players and teams gets in the way of clearheaded analysis. I know some fans prefer a rose-coloured glasses look, but it bothers me to read them and I try not to write them.

8. Page-view sluts. It’s been suggested, more than a few times, that some guys write articles specifically to get page-views. In a way, that’s true – this is my job, and the only reason the sites I write for can pay me is because people are reading what I’m writing. So, I do things to maximize page-views – I try to write on things people are interested in, promote articles via social media, and link back to older pieces. But I also write honestly: I don’t exaggerate my opinion to get hits, and I’m not one of those anonymous frauds that make up trade rumours. There’s good money to be made in both fields, as Eklund and HockeyyInsiderr and a bunch of others are showing (and if you do it long enough the best end up with a form of credibility, as Eklund’s cameo on Sportsnet and press pass demonstrate) – because some people just like to be entertained and others are gullible – but I couldn’t do that sort of thing without losing respect for myself. Everybody has their own line, mine’s honesty.

9. The offer sheet. I thought Philadelphia’s offer sheet to Shea Weber was a brilliant play on their part – even though it didn’t work out in the end – but I’d have been aghast had the Oilers tried it. Why? Because in the last five years the Flyers have five playoff appearances; the Oilers have none. It’s a weapon that works best when wielded by a team that’s already highly successful, and a weapon that the Oilers might be able to use once they’ve hit their peak. Right now, though, there’s a pretty decent chance that Edmonton misses the playoffs next year, and it’s far from an impossibility that they end up with another lottery pick.

10. Signing key RFA’s early. One of the bonuses to getting contract extensions worked out with key pieces early on is that it limits the ability of other teams to hamstring via offer sheet. It’s something the Oilers will be vulnerable to in the coming years if they aren’t careful; Hall and Eberle have expiring contracts in 2013 (at the same time that Ladislav Smid turns UFA), and then the trio of Nugent-Hopkins, Petry and Justin Schultz all expire in 2014 (the same time Nick Schultz turns UFA). Getting extensions done early will keep teams from trying to poach.