Photo Credit: Perry Nelson - USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers and early goals: The bad, the bad, and the ugly

Heading into San Jose on February 10th, the Oilers knew a few things:

  • After two losses in Disneywood, the Oilers needed a win.
  • Given these are the teams the Oilers are chasing for an unlikely post-season spot, they had to salvage at least a few points to keep the California trip from being an utter disaster.
  • After giving up a goal to Los Angeles on the first shot, and then a goal to Anaheim just two-and-a-half minutes into the game, the Oilers needed to keep San Jose off the scoreboard early and get on the scoreboard first.

So what happened? Naturally, the Sharks scored on their first shot on net. It was just barely more than a minute into the game. Though the rest of the game had more ups and downs than the Matterhorn, the reality is that the Oilers once again spent a large proportion of yet another devastating loss chasing the game from behind.

These two characteristics (giving up early goals, and playing from behind) are basically now canon for this lost Oilers season. I plan to look at the pathology of “playing from behind” in a later post, but today the focus is to dig a little deeper on the “early goals” situation.

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The Data

For this analysis, I pulled the shots and goals given up by the Oilers this season (as of the San Jose game) from the database that drives the PuckIQ website*.

* As such, since both the database and the analysis of the data are mine, any errors you find are, sadly, also mine. Unless they’re the NHL’s.

Please note! Looking at this data is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. You have been warned.

The Patterns

The first thing I do when I pull a new dataset is look for interesting patterns. Here are a few things of note:

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  • It’s well known by now that the San Jose game was the tenth time this season the Oilers have given up a goal on the very first shot against. That’s almost 20% of their games this season!
  • Somehow, though, the Oilers have managed to do this in back to back games. Twice! (CAR/CHI and DAL/STL).

If we extend the pattern from ‘first shot goals’ to ‘early goals’, those given up on (say) the first 6 shots of the game, it turns out the Oilers have some really neat streaks of this kind of thing:

  • After that brilliant CGY game to open the season, the Oilers subsequently managed to give up goals on the 2nd (VAN), 4th (WPG), 3rd (OTT), 1st (CAR), 1st (CHI), and 2nd (PHI) shots. Whatever is causing this early goals problem, it showed up from the beginning.
  • The Oilers followed that with a streak of giving up goals on shots 1, 1, 4 (DAL, STL, DET), a one-game respite against BUF, then 5, 5, 1 (BOS, ARI, TOR).
  • Then it was 4, 6, 6, 1 (DAL, CHI, NSH, ARI).
  • And now the latest streak that has refocused attention on the issue, where it began with a 1st shot goal (CGY), a temporary reprieve with COL, then 6 (TB), 1 (LA), 4 (ANA), and 1 (SJS).

It’s an admirable quality that if someone decides to do something, they really commit to it wholeheartedly. The Oilers clearly have.

Not that admirable in this case I guess.

The Extended Breakdown

Of course, by extended breakdown I *could* mean the Oilers season, or the psyche of Oilers fans.

But in this case, it means delving into the Oilers ‘early goal’ data a little deeper.

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First, it helps to define what an ‘early goal’ might be. Since on average teams give up a shade fewer than three goals per game, and on average give up a c-hair more than 30 shots per game, that equates to about a goal every 11 shots. (note: shade and c-hair are formal statistical terms, I’m pretty sure)

For that reason, I would argue that a reasonable line in the sand for an “early” goal is one that occurs in six or fewer shots, which is why I used that as the line in the previous section.

If we look at the Oilers season, the Oilers have given up an early goal 28 times so far, an average of just over five minutes in. The earliest was 20 seconds in.

The PK has gotten lots of criticism, and a quarter (7) of those 28 goals were given up while shorthanded. (Not entirely clear if that percentage is good or bad, but with this team, safe to assume bad).

If we count how many occurrences of each of these shots-until-goal-given up games and chart them (called a histogram) we get this:

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It will please the completists among you to know that the Oilers have successfully managed to hit for the cycle, and give up a goal in at least one game on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th shots of the game.

The Comparables

One of the flaws I find in a lot of hockey stats reasoning is that an analyst will look at data for a player or team, but not set the league-wide context for that data. As in, something can seem unusual on its own, but in context you often discover it isn’t.

Well, bub, not in this case.

The Oilers have given up a goal on the first shot in 10 games this season. The next nearest are VAN and NYR with seven games. The league average is just 3.74 games.

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The league (population) standard deviation is 1.99 games. At 10 games, the Oilers sit more than 3 standard deviations above the mean. (if this paragraph is statistical gobbledygook to you, it’s all good – feel free to ignore, it doesn’t change the story)

On the other hand, you may be oddly pleased to discover that every single team in the league has given up a goal on the first shot against at least once!

As we did earlier, we can extend this beyond goals-on-first-shot and instead look at early goals.

With this extended definition, the Oilers once again lead the league with 28 games giving up that early goal. The average is 20.

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The standard deviation is 3.37, so this time the Oilers are a little less extreme – only 2.3 SD away! yay! – but still well outside normal bounds.

Yeah, the data confirm what you knew anyway – it’s not just bizarre, it’s unusually bizarre.

The Players

NHL play by play data lets us isolate who the players are on the ice when these early goals go in. It’s kind of a big list, but I’ve tabulated here the goalies, plus the defenders and forwards with (somewhat arbitrarily) at least four early goals against.

Because the penalty kill is a different beast, I’ve stuck to five-on-five for this particular dataset.

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Goalie Games with Early Goal
Talbot 17
Brossoit 3
Montoya 1


Defenseman Games with Early Goal
Russell 9
Nurse 8
Klefbom 7
Larsson 6
Gryba, Benning, Sekera 4


Forward Games with Early Goal
Slepyshev 8
Khaira, Caggiula 7
Maroon*, Puljujarvi 6
Strome, Lucic, Letestu, Nuge 5
McDavid, Draisaitl 4

* Yes, I’m also disappointed that it wasn’t Maroon 5

The Blame

Certainly, giving up the early uncontested goal has been a significant part of this season’s struggles. It’s easy to look at certain players, or the goalies, or the coaches, and decide that’s who is to blame. I caution you against this.

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First of all, I disagree with the idea that this is on the coaches. Whether we’re dealing with raw rookies or experienced vets, the Oilers players are all good enough to make the pros, and they’ve been playing the game for a loooong time.

They shouldn’t (ever) need a coach to tell them they need to be prepared to play hard from the first whistle.

For sure, goaltending has been subpar this season, and it’s as big a factor in this season’s underperformance* as brilliant goaltending was in last year’s overperformance. It is interesting to note, though, that every one of the Oilers three goalies this season have been victimized by an even strength first-shot goal at least once.

* Yes, I will go to my grave swearing to you this season is an underperformance, just like I was adamant throughout last season that it was an overperformance relative to the ‘true talent’ of the roster.

As for the actual players on the ice … well, certainly there are patterns there. The thing that I notice most as far as the forwards go is the sheer number of goals given up by the third and fourth liners.

Slepyshev at the top of the list may be one reason why he’s played as little as he has, despite generally being one of the more dangerous wingers many games.

As for the defenders, I won’t call out anyone specific, but the pattern points a little to players who’ve been defensively struggling much of the season – and they’d probably be the first to tell you that.

The Conclusion

The one thing we know for sure is that we are waaaay out in La La Land as far as giving up first-shot goals and early goals this season.

If the players or the coaches or the goalies knew what the issue was, I’m sure they’d do something about it.

If I knew what it was, I’d fly up to Edmonton right now and bang on the doors of OEG screaming that I know how to fix the problem. (I would then subsequently direct my lawyer to contact OEG after she bailed me out).

As it is, the only suggestion I can make is maybe the Oilers should force feed every player — especially the bottom-six — two cups of coffee ten minutes before the game.

It can’t hurt, right? Because we’re already in next-season country.

  • MrBung

    I have zero confidence in this management team to fix the problem. Given Chia’s last seasons in Boston and his time here in Edmonton, I think the game has passed him by, I think he always gets fleeced in trades (at least way more than he can pull off), got Boston into cap problems and now has already got Edmonton into cap problems.

  • Spydyr

    Short answer……It is the goalies fault. They just have not received competent goaltending from any goalie in the this season.

    This has to be addressed before the start of next season.

        • grumpyKoala

          Talbot is better than that, not much better, but he is. Somewhere along the lines of top 15-25. So yes he is a Starter The problem is that when your starter is in the lower tier, you don’t get a lot of chance that he will outplay the opponent. Also if you think bigger, very few team have win mr Stanley with a top 20 goaltender.

          • LAKID

            Nope, Talbot is a back up and a darn good Back up. Talbot has not yet proven he is a starter and it’s time to get one. Talbot was poor at the start of the season last year and is not a starter this year. The thing that blows me away is that management new this and did not address the problem and did not get a solid goalie to compete with Talbot and LB.

        • btrain

          Its wise to keep with the theme of this article and consider statistical trends before decidedly righting off Talbot. Of the goalies that currently sit top 10 for save % who have also played at least 20 games only Rask, Gibson, and Andersen haven’t had at least one unusually low save % (“off season” if you will) by their career standard. For Gibson and Andersen its probably because they haven’t been starters long enough to experience an off year yet. Current goalies below 20th in save % include:
          Price, Murray, Anderson, Howard, Varlamov, Elliott, Talbot……All goalies who each have had 3 or more recent seasons with a .919 or better save %. Most of these tenders have also had a season, aside from the current, of .912 or worse between solid years (For example, Price had a .905 in 11/12, Anderson had a .897 in 10/11 season, etc).

          Anyway, lets not go full Dubnyk on this one. Talbot is experiencing a season that is common to almost every goalie that is consider top 10 proven today.

        • Just FYI, while Talbot does not have as long a history as a top notch starter as others do, his performance this year is still at the bottom of the expected range for a starting goalie.

          My guess is in the offseason we’ll also find there are other extenuating circumstances. (that’s a WAG, I don’t have any insider info)

  • ed from edmonton

    You out a lot of work into this, thanks for that. However I think it doesn’t tell us much more than anyone watching the team already knew, although seeing some data to confirm impressions is never a bad thing. I do not however think that the coaches get a pass on this issue. I don’t claim to know anything about the dynamics of the Oiler’s team “chemistry” but I do think a coach can have an impact on it. Scotty Bowman was the winningest coach in NHL history. Reading books by both Dryden and Robinson made is pretty clear that playing for Bowman was not a pleasant thing, he had a way of keeping even teams and players that were having great success on edge, not letting them players feeling too comfortable. Things are different today than in Bowman’s day, but I do wonder if the Oilers feeling too good about themselves after last year’s success was part of the problem and TMac didn’t understand this or didn’t know what to do about it.

  • The Future Never Comes

    The sad thing is we are starting to talk about next season in February, but the even more horrific truth is looking back- this season was finished back in November. That’s the sad truth. Beginning of November I was telling people that not a snowballs chance in hell were making it. But hey, at least we have Lucic here bringing that swagger and fixing things in the room to stop the bleeding. I am glad another commentator noticed this an article back, that every time the media is doing a intermission interview on the Oilers’s, Lucic is in the background taping his stick not even in the room. Glad he’s being paid 6 million to “calm players down” and he’s not even in the room doing it. But actually how can he pipe up and be the voice of reason now of days when he can’t make a 3 foot pass anymore and is almost all but obsolete. Microcosm of the entire mess of a season, no one doing their job’s correctly.

      • The Future Never Comes

        Ed that is not the premise, the premise is every time there is a media interview he is out in the hallway wandering around by himself, not in the dressing room helping to rally the troops. Read between the lines a little better when dissecting a comment.

  • 99CupsofCoffey

    “If the players or the coaches or the goalies knew what the issue was, I’m sure they’d do something about it.”…… and that’s the problem right there. I have no faith in the coaching staff to actually….. coach.

  • Ty Guy

    I complained about this the last few seasons. It was usually because we were losing by a goal or two before the “ford keys to the game” came on…to me the “key to the game” should always be “don’t be down by two goals before the key to the game” comes on….

  • This team made the playoffs last year and beat the Sharks because their expectation was that they wouldn’t. As soon as they felt they’d win the Ducks series, they unraveled and lost.

    This season many said they were supposed to make the Cup final!

    If I was McLellan, I’d set the expectation low.

    Oilers need to be underdogs in all situations. It’s the only way they rise to the occasion.

    • Yes, that one is much on my mind. The problem is that while I can demonstrate statistically that this isn’t just variance behind an otherwise meaningless home/road split (as most such splits are), it’s too extreme for that, but I can’t explain *why* it is so extreme.

      Clearly, neither can the coaches!

  • Derian Hatcher

    “They shouldn’t (ever) need a coach to tell them they need to be prepared to play hard from the first whistle”

    Had a coach who lived by your shifts in the first 10 minutes of the game will determine the amount of ice time the rest of the game. It worked for the team, cause everyone came out busting a$$.

    The typical respeonse will be “ya but you can’t do that with these pro players” Why not? Clearly most of them cannot get themselves into the game from the start. How about they sit for a while?

    • Sure, I can see that for young players.

      But hell, I had to coach that (“be ready right away, go hard!”) into my kids when they were 6. I don’t have to explain it to them now that they’re 9yo’s though – they understand.

      One thing I will agree with you though is that one of the worst offenders (Caggiula) consistently gets more icetime than he appears to deserve, given his lack of productivity and his proclivity for giving up early goals.

      As I said earlier, the coaches certainly bear some of the blame for the way the season has gone, I don’t think they’re the issue with the early goals.

  • Big Nuggets

    I predict bounce back years for Talbot and Klefbom next season. Talbot is a good goalie who is not getting any sleep after having a baby and Klef is just a hunch, but he is way better than how he has played this year.