Here in Oil Country, where looking for a silver lining has resulted in untold cases of eye strain and grasping at straws has worn fingers raw from Hinton to Lloydminster, Edmonton Oilers GM Craig MacTavish managed to set the bar even lower during his media availability last week.
MacTavish’s tense and carefully-managed exchange with media has been well dissected already, so I’ll skip a bunch of rehash. What’s stuck with me in the days since and in the wake of Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks was his contention, “I think we are visually better than our record.”
With the Oilers sitting 30th overall in NHL standings today at 7-16-5 and just taking what MacTavish said at face value, it’s next-to-impossible to imagine the Oilers looking worse than their record and their .339 points percentage – short of insisting players wear their skates on the wrong feet and making bad haircuts mandatory – no?
Visually better? Sure. Here and there, I suppose. There are even some advanced stats, specifically improved but still modest possession numbers, supporting that (rendered meaningless by lousy goaltending and the inability to hit the side of a barn on the attack). Maybe that’s what MacTavish was getting at, given the team’s embrace of spreadsheet hockey.
When it comes to the numbers that matter most, this is a case of what you see isn’t necessarily what you get and what is reflected in the daily NHL standings.
PERCEPTION AND REALITY
“The Oilers have a lot of offensive talent.” With Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle, sure they do, in terms of individual skills. When they get buzzing, when the game turns into a track meet and Hall is lugging it to the net or RNH is dealing, the Oilers look dynamic offensively.
Appearance aside, the bottom line is the Oilers have scored 62 goals. That’s 27th in the league. The power play sits at 12.9 per cent, also 27th. Pizazz on the attack and pumping more shots at the net hasn’t translated to enough goals. The shooting percentage is dismal. Will it improve? Probably, but not necessarily markedly enough to translate to more wins.
“If the Oilers keep possessing and shooting the puck and get better goaltending, they’ll win more games.” Probably. Right now, the Oilers have next-to-no chance with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth combining for a .884 saves-percentage, which ranks 30th. Goaltending has flat-out cost the Oilers points in games they’ve played pretty well in.
While Scrivens and Fasth have shown the capability to bump up that .884, there is no guarantee it’ll happen, or that any improvement they make will be enough to translate to significantly better results. Does getting it to .900 matter? What if goaltending improves and the shooting percentage bumps up a point or two but the possession numbers fall off?
THE BOTTOM LINE
So, while MacTavish’s “visually better” contention is backed by some of the numbers, it’s no surprise what he’s seeing and what he chose to emphasize at the media availability didn’t sell like hotcakes with the fan base because it hasn’t provided results.
When the offense is clicking the goaltending stinks. When the goaltending is OK, the Oilers can’t put the puck in the ocean off a pier. As far as putting all the components — offense, defense, goaltending, special teams — together at the same time for an entire game, it hasn’t happened.
These visually better Oilers are about to miss the playoffs for a ninth straight season. They have gaping holes in the middle. They’re thin on the blue line. They don’t consistently play hard enough. On and on . . .
The Oilers are 7-16-5 with a .339 points percentage as they prepare to take on the Anaheim Ducks tonight. Visually better doesn’t get it. Fact is, a whole lot better might not be enough either when it comes to the numbers that matter.
Better, my eye.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.