Meaningful Games in April

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.

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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:

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  • 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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  • Quicksilver ballet

    This team, despite still being streaky, still seems to have more compete level. The games they’ve lost seem to be by a slimmer margin (ie: 1 goal games like last night), as well as the 1 goal wins like Yak’s big celly…

    I see this as a better team. But only as far as “saw them good” goes. I think certain players are pushing for the wins more, and becoming more consistent in their efforts (ex: Gagner). This rebuild isn’t complete, so I’m still looking at the little wins, such as Paajarvi taking big strides forward.

    I want the Oilers to push for the playoffs in the worst way, but there’s no doubt it still needs to improve. How much of that can come from players growing and maturing?

  • Spydyr

    Four points better BUT in terms of wins and losses . . . but nothing. Four points more is four points more.

    If you take Dubnyk out of the equation . . . he’s a part of the team, right? So, the goaltending has been better and more consistent but that matters less than, say, shots for an against as an indication of progress?

    I think I’ll put more weight in having Dubnyk establish that he’s capable of being a NO. 1 goaltender — that WAS a big question, right? — than in shot count.

    • StHenriOilBomb

      My thoughts here are similar. 4 points partway through a season may not seem like much, but that turns to 8 points over a full season. There’s a lot more positive than negatives to take out of this season.

    • Dubnyk’s play this year has certainly been a positive step for the team – but it’s also served to paper over the lack of improvement in some other areas.

      Ideally, the rest of the team would be moving forward at the same pace he is.

      • Mark-LW

        Exactly. The point isn’t “nothing is better, and we can’t take anything positive from this season over last”. It’s to show that while we have more points, the team as a whole is performing worse.

        Having the same amount of regulation wins as last seasons team IS NOT improvement. Points earned in shootouts is more of a matter of luck than any indication of improving as a team.

      • Oilfred

        I don’t know. This was a a developement year. We all knew that.

        The big questions on any team are top 6F, top 4D, 1G.

        The foward group is there although maybe a shuffle is needed.

        The D is 3/4 answered.

        It just a matter on filling in the pieces now.

  • 106 and 106

    @JW

    “…There might be some uncomfortable questions being asked of the management group right now.”

    Shouldn’t there be uncomfortable questions being asked every-season you “manage” a team that can’t compete? Pro athletes will only keep their muzzle on for so long before someone pipes up about bad management.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    1-8 down the stretch please. Blowing the Lames out by a touchdown will be fine for me. This team clearly needs more lottery type help sooner rather than later. If the kids aren’t on/win it by themselves, the veterans are often nowhere to be found. A Vet of two out, and another rookie in please.

    Hemsky,Gagner,Horcoff,Smyth and Whitney yada yada yada, all missing in action when needed most. Nothing but a bunch of prima donnas when it mattered most. This team isn’t going anywhere till most, if not all of these guys are gone. Being the shot blocking gurus of the NHL is only a reflection of the puck always being in our end.

    Solid article Jonathan, if any, only micro improvements have been made. The kids are doing more whilst the vets do even less.

    • I agree with getting better player in the draft, hopefully finding a second line center or top 2 future defenseman in the draft. Fighting for playoff spots will suffice to some, I want a cup.

      Hemsky, Smyth, Horcoff, Whitney are all missing in action in so many of these games, and that’s the difference between a 10-11 club and a 8th place club. These kids are dragging these vets around the ice. This off season needs about getting rid of the old finally and getting cheaper more effective players.

      To me it seems like the Oilers problem is not so much systems play, its not even compete some nights. Its about carrying momentum. You often have one, maybe two lines going and half your defence. The third and fourth line spend their time hemmed up in their own zone, killing any momentum the first or second line can generate. Half this team is quick and exciting, and then there are the vets that are slow and old and provide “leadership.” (my big ass)

  • Spydyr

    This is the summer to actually build a team to compete.

    Even us bloggers know what needs to be done. Just get it done. The losing end of the rebuild HAS to end this summer. The goal all along was to compete for the Cup in the new arena. That time is getting closer.

    If the present management group cannot do it. They should be replaced with a group that can.

  • Spydyr

    Hopefully they figure it out this summer. I can understand how they might not have wanted to throw away the future on a shortened season, but this is simply the last year for excuses. Either they build a good team and we make the playoffs by closing out games when we have the lead, or gutting out a win in a close game,

    Or we continue to be soft, and our rebuild is Tampa Bay: we have some great players, but a bad team.

    • StHenriOilBomb

      Ya, we’ve become Tampa…I’d take loosing 6-5 over 2-1. I get your point however. Lots of talent, but the remaining holes are so big and never get filled. Sounds like our potholes.

      • JDP

        Is it just me or are the pit holes like the worst they’ve ever been? There are car killers out there.

        I think there have been a ton of positives this year. Hopefully in the off season we can trim some of the fat, get rid of the contracts that aren’t doing anything for the team except taking up a spot in the press box, and finally balance out our top six.

        I really like the idea someone proposed the other day about trying to trade Gags for Cotuier. I do think that is a valid trade that Philly would consider as Gagner is much more skilled, and still very young in his career.

        There were some games we had no business winning this year, but there were also others that I can’t believe we lost. If we can just get to the point where we’re closing out just a few more of those games, we become a middle of the pack playoff team.

  • oliveoilers

    “there might be some uncomfortable questions being asked of the management group” ????? You’re kidding right?
    It must be great to be an executive at Rexall; having a kind and supportive owner who doesn’t worry about results and overlooks glaring mistakes. Ignoring both errors of commission and omission. Looks to be THE best place for young people who don’t get zeros to go work!

    “might be some uncomfortable questions”??????

    WTF?????

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I’m with RB on this. Your points are effective but ignored some of the key up arrows.

    It’s too bad we won’t play a full season to measure. I think we’ve seen progres.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    The problem with losing out the season for the sake of draft picks is that it is a perpetuation of our current situation. Yes, it will land us a nice rookie, but until this team is competitive nobody is going to want to play here. You can forget about FA’s or players waiving NTC’s to come be the stabilizing veteran presence this team needs (especially on D). This team needs to play hard, kick the crap out of some tough teams, and become a legitimate threat.

    • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

      For me, this is one of the bigger questions, “Does this management team think/beleive that they are going to be faster and more talented than all the others and that this will carry the day?” How else do you explain the current roster?

      Go through the entire roster…really not a single tough player…(other than Mike Brown)

      Smid and Fistric are our version of tough defenseman…..really?

      Who upfront is tough? NO ONE….not one guy! We all hope that maybe Hall will be Messier some day…but I doubt it?

      We hope that Paajarvi will grow into a tough guy……like most of these young guns, he’ll get stronger and more physical….but will he get tougher and meaner? Messier had a mean streak. Not only didn’t he care if he hurt you….he often was trying to do so. That’s how you create room for yourself and others.

      Go down the list Nuge, Ebbs, Yak, Gags, Hemmer, etc…..NOT ONE TOUGH GUY. And no hope that they ever will be.

      Our version of a tough guy is a guy who blocks shots…most of the guys on our team do this….or a little guy like Gagner who lands a couple at waist level in a mock fight…..Hell, a guy as soft as Jones looks tough on this team…..

      We have NO tough guys…..guys who hammer you in the corner…..guys who run over you…not around you….guys who drop the gloves if you look at them the wrong way.

      Now maybe this is the new NHL but I still think the good teams have some fear of each other. Fear that if you don’t keep your head up or if you go into the corner or into the crease your going to pay a price…

      I think the Oilers have ZERO fear factor…..and worse yet….I’m concerned that they are building a team for what they perceive is or will be the new NHL….a team whose idea of putting fear into you is their threat to score on the PP if you try and play too physical against them. Too me that’s a big gamble as a game plan for a rebuild. You truly do risk becoming the Tampa Bay Lighting.

      • Spydyr

        I’m with you all the way……….your points are sound, but the main problem is that Lowe and Tamby see the NHL in a totally different light.

        Their MO has always been smaller faster…….the new NHL according to these two clowns.

  • oliveoilers

    Jay-Dubya, you started so well, but got lost! You acknowledge that the compressed season shouldn’t be compared to last season, then go on to compare them. What the duece!

    The truth is any comparison has to have a point of reference to give it context. And seeing there hasn’t been many compressed seasons to compare to, we’re kinda stuck. The context this season is that teams hoping to make a run really cannot afford to lose many games. So, instead of a nicely paced season, tweaking things here and there, and the natural order of things finally sorting itself out over 80 games, we have everybody trying to get on the bus at once.

    Otherwise, good points, as always well presented!

  • csaw84

    JW,

    The difference is that half the team had already been playing before this season started. Its not fair to compare seasons when this season is running on a compressed schedule, with no training camp, some players in mid-season form, some having not played in almost a year. Some teams records can be written off this year as an anomoly…ie; Philly.

    By eye, this team is making strides, but still has a few areas to address. To say they’ve made little to no progress isn’t likely a fair statement.

  • Spydyr

    So far they’ve played 17 home games and 22 road games. Your numbers have to allow for that before you can make valid comparisons to last year.

    Are the Oilers better this year? Probably. But the real question is “are they improving fast enough to get ahead of the rest of the league?”

    We can look at the standings and agree to the answer, and the news is not happy.

    The holes in the team are the same old holes. Is the failure to address those holes deliberate? If the answer is yes, shame on us fans for supporting the team. If the answer is no, shame on Katz for supporting management.

  • StHenriOilBomb

    Maybe Tamby is smarter than all of us?? His “do nothing”, approach to management will ensure that we draft high again. If we keep doing this for another two to three years we will be the only team in the NHL to have six number one picks playing on the same team.

    Go Tamby!

  • Mark-LW

    Also;

    The team being outshot by a bigger margin WITH Taylor Hall being much more dominant this season implies that other areas are not just stagnant, but getting much worse.

  • Bucknuck

    Considering that the Oilers won a whole bunch of games they shouldn’t have early in the season (last year) with Khabibulin playing so well, and this year they had solid goaltending. Perhaps you can look at the rest of the numbers and figure that goaltending is a non-factor, because in both samples it was excellent.

    How about if you compare January to January, and February to February and March to March and see what those numbers look like? Stats are slippery when you cherry pick.

    At the end of the day this team still isn’t good enough, which is the point I think you were trying to make. They have not improved as much as some folks would like us to think. So I agree with your point. Tambellini should be held accountable (IMO).

    With the talent they have I think it’s pretty clear that management isn’t doing their job. I am glad they didn’t blow the team up at the deadline again. I wanted to see how they played in these tough contests. We have our answer. They got pushed around like many thought they would.

    The special teams have gotten much better and I think you can thank Ralph Kreuger for that, and also probably for the better win loss record as a result. Other than that, I think the team needs to have a better mix, and that is Tambellini’s job.

  • Mark-LW

    If the Oilers maintain a .500 season this would be exactly where I thought they were capable of playing with the current roster. I would be happy with that improvement under those circumstances. Hall, Nuge & Ebs come as advertised & I think Yak will be a sniper with attitude! Don’t see anybody intimidating that kid!

    Opponents are shooting from everywhere on Dubnyk & for good reason! To me this is one of the reasons for a large shot count! He’s a decent shot stopper but I don’t really like the rest of his game! Every time he handles the puck it’s a give away & it puts a lot of stress on the D! We have to have the poorest communication between D & G in the league in my opinion!