As I sit here right now, it’s currently 2:30 in the morning Wednesday. Sometimes your best weirdest article ideas come to you late at night.
Is it the lack of sleep talking or did the Edmonton Oilers blow it with Robert Nilsson? Yes, that Robert Nilsson — the one who came to Edmonton in the Ryan Smyth trade that subsequently launched this very website. (Don’t worry, I finished this post last night and I think it makes sense).
This first came to me when I saw a post on Twitter from WoodGuy pop up on my timeline the other day highlighting how poor the Oilers’ goal for percentage is with its top player off the ice in comparison to the average split for playoff teams.
It jumped out to me that in the last 14 years, the deepest rosters constructed for the Oilers were done so by Kevin Lowe (who is underrated for what he did as a general manager.)
As I peeled back the layers, you could see the difference in a few things:
07-08 5×5: 46.35 CF%(26th), 46.28 GF% (27th), 48.67 xGF% (20th), 99.9 PDO (17th).
08-09 5×5: 47.58 CF% (24th), 50.85 GF% (13th), 48.79 xGF% (20th), 101.3 PDO (5th).
The Oilers had a massive spike in their goals for rate and PDO, all in thanks to a down year, then bounce back year in net from Dwayne Roloson. His 5×5 save percentage and goals saved above average went from .907 and -2.17 in 07-08 to a .928 and 4.66 in 08-09.
But in that 2007-08 campaign, the first where NHL analytics are publicly available, Robert Nilsson’s name had popped out like a zit on a teenager’s forehead.
With him on the ice at 5×5, the Oilers scored an impressive 3.01 goals for per hour and a 58.21 goals for percentage in the 71 games he played. Good enough to firmly plant him in the top 40 in the NHL among forwards who played over 750 minutes at 5×5.
Using the same criteria, Nilsson’s 2.4 points per hour led the Oilers and had him in the top-25 for scoring in the league. This all the while in his first NHL season.
While he was never the biggest player standing just 5’10 and 183 lbs., the offensive talent was there. After all, this was a player who broke Marcus Naslund’s rookie scoring record as a 17-year-old in the then-Swedish Elite League.
In year two, Nilsson’s 5×5 numbers came back down to earth. He wasn’t scoring as much with his points per hour dropping from 2.4 to 1.24 and his goals for percentage fell too but only down to a still solid 53.13 percent. Nilsson’s bigger issue became apparent as he struggled to stay healthy missing 18 games in that sophomore campaign.
Come year three, things fell off the tracks completely. His goals for percentage plummetted to 38.1 percent in 2009-10 even though he still scored .11 more 5×5 points than the year prior. At the end of the season, the Oilers bought out the final year of a three-year, $2-million AAV deal and he never played another NHL game.
His downfall could be attributed to a few things. In his rookie year, he played the majority of his minutes alongside Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano on The Kid Line where all three had solid campaigns despite sheltered minutes. They couldn’t quite replicate as much success the following year. Their 5×5 shooting percentage dipped from an unsustainably high 12.1 percent in 07-08 to an unsustainably low 7.25 percent playing a third less time together.
The Oilers acquired Dustin Penner ahead of that 2009-10 season and he became Nilsson’s most common linemate that season. While they dominated the expected goal share on the ice at 5×5 (59.75 percent) and drove shot attempts (53.5 percent), they just couldn’t capitalize on the plethora of opportunities they were generating. That’s shown with an abysmal 5.23 on-ice shooting percentage with them on the ice — just below half of the league average that year.
In that 2009-10 season, there was a clear explanation to what happened: Nilsson’s 5×5 luck ran out. His PDO fell from a 102.9 average in years one and two to a sad 96.3. His on-ice shooting percentage dipped from 10.33 in years one and two to 6.76 in year three. Similarly, his on-ice save percentage fell from 92.5 in years one and two to 89.57 in year three.
Nilsson never played another NHL game and there probably was some reason for that. His injuries, his lack of physical play, and the Oilers plethora of undersized players who struggled to play tough minutes edged him out.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but other young, smaller forwards who were to come like Linus Omark and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson didn’t pan out with the Oilers, or in the NHL for that matter. Edmonton would’ve been better off holding onto Nilsson.
After being bought out, Nilsson played 108 games in the KHL scoring 68 points and another 197 games in the Swiss League scoring 198 points. His NHLe in those seasons had him at a ~40 point per 82 game pace in the NHL, so his professional game did bounce back well.
Buying out Nilsson was just a sign of things to come for the organization. Edmonton has made major franchise decisions on other players, similar to that of departing from Nilsson, based on one bad stretch of puck luck.
We’ve seen it happen again here with the Oilers trading Caleb Jones. Here’s his 5×5 stat line over his three years in Edmonton:
GP – TOI
17 – 290:28
43 – 585:58
33 – 423:34
This year his most common defensive partner was Ethan Bear with the two of them playing 229:28 together at 5×5. In hindsight was maybe not the best scenario for either player. The pair struggled getting outscored 3-9 at 5×5 and didn’t get much run support with an on-ice save percentage of 3.66 (!!) percent.
So what will Caleb Jones go on to do? I’d fully expect him to bounce back to become a solid NHL defenceman in the NHL who can push for top-four minutes and have a long career, just like I had expected of him here in Edmonton.
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that low save percentages and low shooting percentages won’t last for the majority of players. But this is a lesson the Oilers have failed to learn in the last decade.
Jordan Eberle had one down season where his shooting percentage fell from 14 percent down to 9.6 percent in 2016-17. Come playoffs, he couldn’t find the back of the net once in 13 games then poof! The Oilers made a bad trade moving Eberle for Ryan Strome. They then doubled down not long after by dealing Strome for Ryan Spooner in another similar PDO-driven deal.
Jordan Eberle has scored 76 goals and 169 points in 272 games since he left Edmonton. Ryan Strome scored two points in 18 games in his final season with the Oilers despite solid underlying numbers and his game turning around before he was traded to the Rangers. Since, he’s scored 50 goals and 141 points in 189 games.
When the Oilers traded Drake Caggiula in 2018, he had a 97.8 PDO in his final 96 games in Edmonton before being traded at 5×5. Justin Schultz had a 97.7 PDO in his final 126 games. Jeff Petry posted a 97.7 PDO in his final 139 games. David Perron had a 98.6 in two years with Edmonton. Tom Gilbert? You guessed it. A 98.7 PDO in his final 126 games. Andrew Cogliano had 97.7 PDO in his final 82 games. Patrick O’Sullivan? A 96.9 in his two years in Edmonton.
Between 2013-14 and 2015-16, the Oilers PDO as a team dipped to 98.3, the worst in the league over that stretch. With the whole team having issues, it may explain what led to Perron, Petry, and Schultz being traded.
It’s a troubling trend and no matter how you look at it, it’s an issue the Oilers have failed to comprehend. Nearly all the players listed above had gone on to find success elsewhere. Eberle and Strome speak for themselves. Caggiula has bounced around but is still an NHL’er. Schultz has signed significant contracts. Petry has become a stud for the Habs. Perron continues to put up points. Gilbert bounced around a bit, while Cogliano has become one of the league’s most notorious iron-men. O’Sullivan? Well, he found himself without an NHL job not long after leaving Edmonton.
Sure, there are other elements that implicated every single one of the aforementioned deals, but the truth is the Oilers depreciated the value of their assets time and time again selling for pennies on the dollar and other teams have made the Oilers look a fool.
When will it stop? Not until the Oilers realize that analytics matter
. PDO matters
Gone are the days of being able to solely use the eye test model and recommendations from your scouts or friends or others in the league. Teams like Edmonton, who struggle to utilize analytics in a valuable way, are being left in the dust as other teams progress forward.
And for those who say analytics have no place in the game, you must realize that analytics in one form or another have been used for decades across all sports. In the last decade or two, especially in hockey, they’re being used more and more and are being utilized in larger amounts year-over-year. Even the NHL is getting deeper into tracking statistics of their own for teams to use that will show information we don’t even know exists. (I can’t wait until we can get access to some of the player tracking data the league has been working on.)
If you want to hear someone speak much more eloquently than me — and someone who has utilized analytics in the Oilogosphere for years — go and listen to this bit from Lowetide
on his show Wednesday.
Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at [email protected]