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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

How Will the Oilers Improve: Part One

The Edmonton Oilers finished 15th in the Western Conference and missed the playoffs by eleven points last year.
They were 25th overall in league standings.
They were 25th in goals against and 20th in goals for.
Their powerplay was 9th at 21.2% and their penalty kill was 30th at 74.8%.
They were 28th in shots on goal/game with 29.2 and 19th in shots against/game at 31.7.

Outside of the powerplay, those numbers are undesirable.

Oilers GM Ken Holland didn’t make a major splash in free agency, which wasn’t surprising considering he had very little salary cap flexibility, but also because overpaying on July first is rarely the wise move. The reality is more often than not you have to overpay on July first. If a team really likes a player, part of signing him is knowing you will overpay.

The good news is since July 1st free agent signings have been at a standstill and now it becomes more of a buyers market. There are some good players available, and we could see players forced to sign one-year deals for less money than they’d hoped for. Patrick Maroon had to do this last year when he signed for $1.5 million in St.Louis. It was perfect for him because he got to live in the same city as his son and then won the Stanley Cup, but those situations are rare.

Maroon didn’t have a great season stats-wise, producing 10-18-28, and might have to sign another short-term, lower salary contract this summer. He isn’t the only one as other quality UFAs are still without a contract. Maybe Holland signs one in late July or August when players get a bit more antsy. Does Ryan Dzingel on a one-year deal at $2.5 to $3 million make sense? If I’m Dzingel I’d look at Edmonton, because the opportunity to play a top-six role is wide open. Have a great year and he could cash in on a multi-year deal next season.

Even if Holland signs one more UFA, that player won’t suddenly make the Oilers a contender. If this team is going to improve it will come internally. The list of players who had good seasons last year is quite short, so many players have a chance to be better.

For today’s exercise, I’m looking at realistic improvements. So I’m using league average, 16th, as the goal. Of course, you’d like players or units to be higher, but I’m looking at the Oilers just being competitive which would be 16th.

Let’s start in goal.

Mikko Koskinen finished the season with a .906 sv% and a 2.93 GAA. He was 25th in SV% among the top-31 goalies in starts. If we assume he is the starter, then he’ll be in the top-31 in games started this coming season.

Can he make ten more saves this year? If he does then his sv% would be .912 and that would tie have him 16th. Ten more saves in 51 starts? If we assume Dave Tippett’s system will be more goalie-friendly, is it not unrealistic to assume Koskinen can make ten more stops. Then add in he is spending all summer working on his weaknesses. Notably leaning back instead of forward when challenging shooters, thus giving them more room upstairs.

If he makes 15 more stops his sv% would be .915 and that would have had him 11th last season. The gap between below average and above average isn’t that much when you break it down.

I don’t think it is a stretch to believe Koskinen can make 10-15 more timely saves.

PENALTY KILL

The penalty kill must improve, but how? It is on the players to be better. There isn’t some magic PK system that will suddenly alter their success. The PK has been on a downward spiral since December, 2016. In 215 games since the Oilers PK is 31st in the NHL at an ugly 76.2%. They’ve allowed 148 goals on 622 kills. The PK has been on a trending down for 31 months. Last season it was an ugly 74.8% allowing 62 goals.

Two different head coaches and two different defence coaches couldn’t figure it out. This is on the players to be more committed, more in sync, make better reads and make more saves.

In order to be average (16th) they will need to kill off 13 more powerplays. Again, not a ridiculous number, but considering their PK has gotten worse in each of the past three seasons, this might be their biggest challenge. Koskinen has to be better. Their most experienced defenders; Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell have to be smarter, and their forwards need to get the puck out when they have a chance. It would help if they could win a few more faceoffs as well.

Last year the Oilers were -49 on faceoffs on the PK. Only the Islanders (-67), Carolina (-62) and Ottawa (-61) were worse in the dot, while the Rangers were also -49. The Canes PK was still 8th, but Ottawa and both New York teams were all below average on the PK. Losing draws and not getting the pucks out when they had controlled crushed the Oilers.

Here are the numbers for the D-men last year:

Name       TOI       GA       GA/60
Larsson    165        26         9.44
Nurse       158        26         9.87
Russell      140       27         11.53
Klefbom    109       17          9.28
Benning     87         12         8.24

The one positional change I’d make is not asking Russell to play his off-side. Getting pucks out on your backhand isn’t ideal. Move him to the left side and have Benning and Larsson as the two RD on the PK.

Name       TOI       GA       GA/60
RNH         139       22         9.49
Brodziak   116       17         8.66
Kassian      98        13         7.86
Draisaitl     94        14         8.83
Rieder        89        12         8.20
Khaira        69        10         8.67
McDavid    48        10         12.2
Chiasson    44         6         8.03

There will be changes among the forwards on the PK. Tobias Rieder will not return and Kyle Brodziak might not be a regular in the lineup. Markus Granlund should be one of their top PK forwards. He had the 2nd most PK TOI in Vancouver last season and their PK finished 11th. Khaira needs to show Dave Tippett he can be a reliable penalty killer and be used more, possibly on the second unit with Kassian. For all the good things RNH does, his inability to win a faceoff crushes him, especially on the PK, and with the new rule coming in this season where the attacking team gets to pick which side to take the faceoff, he might struggle more if he is on his weak side more often.

Maybe Colby Cave gets a look. He was 11 of 17 PK faceoffs last year. Granted he only played 14 minutes on the PK, but if he is going to be in the lineup, he has to show Tippett he can kill penalties. Gaetan Haas and Joakim Nygard were good penalty killers in Europe, so I’m sure they will get a look in preseason. If they can help the PK, then their stock goes up a lot.

I’d consider using RNH less on the PK and more at 5×5 if one or two of Nygard, Cave and Haas prove they can kill penalties. The past two seasons have been RNH’s worst when it comes to GA/60 on the PK. He was 12.4 in 2018 and 9.49 last year.

And it would help if they cut down their penalties. The Oilers were shorthanded 246 times last season, 10th most in the NHL. Having more offensive zone time, should help in this regard, because they will be attacking more than defending.

TEAM DEFENCE

Edmonton allowed 271 goals last year, 25th most in the NHL. They have to improve here. If not, they will miss the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years. They made the playoffs in 2017 despite a sub-par PK over the final 60 games, because their 5×5 defence was very good.

Every group needs to improve from goaltending to defence to the forwards.

Koskinen needs to be better, and so does Mike Smith. Tippett’s style should help, but it won’t guarantee their GAA improves if the players don’t play better. Cutting down on quality chances will help, and Alex Chiasson outlined how the forwards are responsible for too many goals against. New defensive coach Jim Playfair outlined to me his approach to helping the defencemen here.

“At the end of the day we have to defend better,” said Chiasson. “We spend too much time in our own end, and we have to become a team that is harder to play against in the offensive zone. A team that can create second, third and fourth chances and that will limit our time to defend. I didn’t watch a lot of playoff games, but the ones I did watch you see teams break out the puck really clean, there are up in the neutral zone and they play as a system of five. When you do those things you don’t have to defend as much as we did last year.”

So how much better do they have to be to be average?

They have to eliminate 27 goals against. Colorado was 16th in GA with 244. Essentially one fewer goal every three games.

Some of that will come via an improved PK, they hope, while the rest comes mainly at 5×5. Edmonton was 24th in 5×5 goals against with 179, while the Winnipeg Jets were average (16th) allowing 163. So 16 fewer goals at 5×5 for Edmonton to be average. That is one every five games.

Last year we witnessed one of the biggest defensive improvements from one year to the next when the Islanders went from allowing the most goals in the NHL in 2018, 293, to allowing the fewest at 191. It was a stunning turnaround, and they achieved it with essentially the same defensive corps, except Devan Toews who replaced Calvin De Haan. They brought in new head coach Barry Trotz, who implemented more attention to the defensive end, and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss stared 43 and 39 games respectively and posted .930 and .927 SV%. In 2018 Greiss started 25 games and had a .892sv%.

I’m not expecting the Oilers team defence to go from the outhouse to the penthouse in on year, but asking them to be average, which would put them in the race, isn’t unreasonable.

I believe much of their improvement must focus around their team defence and goaltending and come from smarter decisions, better positioning and playing the system properly.

What do you feel would be realistic improvements in these areas?

***Part two of this series will run tomorrow.***

THIRD ANNUAL OILERSNATION OPEN

After having such a blast over the past two years, we absolutely knew that we were going to organize another golf tourney for the summer and, after a few months of planning, we’re psyched to finally be able to launch our third annual golf tournament.

  • When – August 29th, 2019 (Thursday)
  • Where – Cougar Creek Golf Resort
  • How much – $1000/team or get in on the $900 Early Bird price until July 10th
  • Teams – Groups of Four (4)
  • How – Book your team here

As always, a portion of all proceeds from your ticket purchase will be donated directly to a local charity. This time we’ve partnered up with the Gregor Foundation to make sure that our kids are at their most handsome.

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  • DoubleDIon

    This will be an unpopular comment, especially since it comes from a Flames fan. The Oilers will be a bubble playoff team if McDavid and Draisitl stop flying the zone early and commit to the 200 foot game. Players like Modano, Yzerman and Sakic all never won until they started doing that. RNH is a responsible player, McDavid and Draisitl aren’t. You need your best players to buy in. McDavid and Draisitl are the best offensive duo in the league combining for 221 points. They were +2…