One of the items that the optimists watching the Edmonton Oilers have pointed to as a sign of progress is the fact that the team is playing meaningful games this late in the season. They were still in it at the deadline and they were still in it in April; these are big improvements over previous years.
Or are they?
It Isn’t A Normal Season
The fact is, with the compressed schedule, being in the hunt in April of this year is roughly akin to being in the hunt in January if last year; at 40 games, the difference between the also-rans and the nearly-ins and the barely-ins is a lot smaller than it is after 80 games.
That becomes pretty clear when comparing the Oilers’ record this season after 39 games to the Oilers’ record last season after 39 games:
- 2013: 16-16-7, 39 points, minus-7 goal differential
- 2011-12: 16-20-3, 35 points, minus-4 goal differential
It’s a four point improvement, but in terms of wins and losses the Oilers are actually in the exact same position as they were one season ago; the difference is entirely the result of four losses taking place after regulation rather than in 60 minutes. The Oilers slumped in the last half of 2011-12, while in 2013 there is no last half of the season to slump in. Ultimately, though, they’re at a pretty comparable place to where they were a year ago.
The difference is that the 39th game a year ago was the start of January; this time it’s the start of April.
The Shot Numbers
Another item to consider is goaltending. The single-biggest factor in the Oilers’ late season slump in 2011-12 was Nikolai Khabibulin’s implosion, just as the single-biggest factor in their early season dominance was Khabibulin’s brilliance. He went 11-8-3 with a 0.932 save percentage before Christmas, then 1-12-4 with a 0.881 save percentage afterward. In other words: the team’s early success and late failure was distorted first by Khabibulin’s excellence and then his struggles.
This year, the goaltending’s been solid throughout, giving the Oilers an advantage last year’s team didn’t have. If we remove goaltending from the equation, and just look at shots for and shots against, how does this year’s group compare to last year’s?
- 2013: 1055 shots for, 1281 against; Oilers take 45.2% of all shots
- 2011-12: 2186 shots for, 2518 shots against; Oilers take 46.5% of all shots
Basically, although individual players (hello, Taylor Hall) have taken significant strides, the team as a whole isn’t doing any better at out-shooting the opposition. That’s a problem, and suggests that the improvements the team has made are only skin deep. If not for Devan Dubnyk taking the starting job and running with it, there might be some uncomfortable questions being asked of the management group right now.
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