I like Todd Nelson as a coach, and strongly suspect that the combination of a new coach and an influx of new personnel did good things to a team that seemed to be badly in need of some fresh air.
With that said, the team’s current 3-1-2 run under Nelson is built on things that are not going to last.
Some Basic Stats
The Oilers have had three coaching regimes this year, starting the season with Dallas Eakins before transitioning to a Craig MacTavish/Todd Nelson coaching tandem and finally settling on Nelson alone as interim coach. Some of the basic even-strength numbers for those three coaching configurations make an interesting study:
|Coaching regime||Goals||Shots||SH%||Goals Against||Shots Against||SV%|
There are a lot of interesting items in those numbers, but two absolutely need to be hammered home:
- No coach is going to get 0.951 EVSV% goaltending from Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth for a prolonged period of time.
- No team is going to consistently get 12.6 percent shooting at evens for a prolonged period of time, and that’s especially true for a team like the Oilers.
What A Difference?
I happen to think Nelson is an excellent coach. I got to see him and his team regularly last year, talking both to him and his players on and off the record. I came away impressed and convinced that he deserved a shot in the NHL and that he was likely to make the most of it.
I also don’t think it’s fair to dismiss those shooting and save percentage changes entirely as luck.
Some of it may be strategy, but the majority of it almost certainly isn’t; looking at NHL teams over the years coaches do seem to be able to make incremental improvements in shooting and save percentages but Scotty Bowman himself couldn’t suddenly make a team simultaneously twice as good offensively and twice as good defensively as it was only a week or two prior.
Some of it is doubtless regression. Eakins team was incredibly snake-bit at both ends of the rink; we’re talking about a team that was converting shots to goals at a rate 20 percent lower than it did under the same coach the year prior while simultaneously the goaltending imploded. People are welcome to think whatever they like about Eakins (my guess is at some point he’ll get another NHL job and do well) but the fact is that the 2014-15 Oilers were executing at well below the rate they’d established under him the previous year and that was always unlikely to last.
My own theory is that a series of changes all at once helped, too. The coach and 20% of the roster changed in a very short period of time, and the influx of new players – Derek Roy, Rob Klinkhammer, Matt Fraser, Anton Lander, along with a return to health for Benoit Pouliot – undoubtedly shook things up internally. The Oilers were a stagnant group, and a series of changes like that can help shake an organization out of a rut, stopping things from snowballing.
And, of course, some of it is doubtless just pucks going in at the right end of the rink and not going in at the wrong end of the rink.
With the other changes has come a decent drop in the Oilers’ possession numbers. Some of that is due to score effects – at evens under Eakins, just under 40 percent of all shots were taken with the team trailing, while that figure is just over 10 percent under Nelson – but even in score-tied situations we’ve seen a drop. Eakins’ team took 51.6 percent of all shot attempts at evens with the score tied; Nelson’s team so far is down to 48.0 percent (though of course it’s still so early that the latter number may fluctuate wildly).
But as much as the possession numbers are down a little and the current stretch of games is being driven by unsustainable percentages, what I take from this is that the Oilers are still a team that could finish the year well. The shooting percentage and save percentage will fall, but if they stay near league-average levels (they weren’t far off under Eakins in 2013-14) and Nelson can keep the possession numbers in the 50 percent range there’s no reason Edmonton can’t win half its games in the final half of the season.