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A mid-season review of Edmonton’s forwards, and some thoughts on how newly-hired Jay Woodcroft could impact them

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Photo credit:© Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
9 months ago
It’s certainly been an eventful week for the Edmonton Oilers. On Thursday, Dave Tippett was relieved of his duties as Edmonton’s head coach following two consecutive losses against Vegas and Chicago
Assistant coach Jim Playfair was also given the axe. Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson were promoted from Bakersfield and took their places.
As I wrote about in my piece last week, coaching has been a significant concern this season, and firing both Tippett and Playfair was the correct decision.
Consequently, there’s been plenty of discussion on Woodcroft’s impact on the roster. Currently, we’re at the midway point of the season, so I thought it would be interesting to evaluate how well the forwards have performed so far, and what they could potentially accomplish under Woodcroft.
In this piece, I’ll dive into each of Edmonton’s forwards using on-ice results and microstats (I won’t write about Kane, as his sample size in Edmonton is quite small so far).
*All stats via EvolvingHockey, and all microstats via Corey Szjadner’s tracking project unless stated otherwise

Connor McDavid

Connor McDavid is having a fascinating season.
He’s producing at a 117 point pace with decent defensive metrics, and he still remains as the league’s best transitional player. His 5v5 xGF% is at a career-high, as McDavid is also generating scoring chances at a tremendously high rate. 
However, although his EV Points/60 is still exceptional, it doesn’t meet his typical standards, especially his EV production as of recent (although his recent defensive play has been superb). This is most likely the result of his career-low on-ice shooting percentage this season, and there have also been reports that McDavid has been nursing a knee injury.
Once McDavid is 100% healthy, I don’t expect his current production at even-strength to continue, and it’s reasonable to deduce he’s been unlucky. McDavid has still been excellent this year, and could make a push for the Hart Trophy if his oiSH% can regress to the mean.
Personal Ranking: 9/10
Strengths: Offensive Play-Driving, Playmaking, Power Play, Transitional play
Areas for Improvement: Finishing, Recent 5v5 production

Leon Draisaitl

It’s practically a toss-up in regards to who should be considered Edmonton’s MVP so far. Leon Draisaitl has also enjoyed a superb season.
Over the recent losing streak, his 5v5 production and defensive metrics have declined to an extent. Nevertheless, Draisaitl has been Edmonton’s best finisher by a mile, and his play-making has been exceptional as well. Draisaitl’s transitional abilities can also be underrated at times, as he ranks just behind McDavid in Entries and Exits. 
If you place significant emphasis on finishing, you could articulate the argument that Draisaitl deserves a 9/10, while McDavid consequently deserves an 8.5/10, but the gap between the two for this season has been minimal. 
They’ve continued to perform as Edmonton’s best players, and are nowhere close to the primary issues. Simply put, anyone placing blame on them for Edmonton’s performance is flat-out wrong.
Personal Ranking: 9/10
Strengths: Offensive Play-Driving, Finishing, Special Teams, Transition
Areas for Improvement: Defensive Play at 5v5

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Nuge’s 21-22 season has had numerous ups and downs.
He’s at a career-high in Assists/60, and has been quite reliable on both the power play and the penalty kill. McDavid and Draisaitl are the key play-drivers on the PP, but I feel that Nuge’s performance on the power play can be criminally underrated.
The top PP unit sees a significant increase in both goals and expected goals with Nuge on-ice in the past two seasons. He’s an extremely valuable asset on special teams.
However, Nuge’s 5v5 play hasn’t been exceptional. He’s producing assists, but Edmonton generates more scoring chances with him off-ice. Nuge’s goal-scoring and finishing results have also placed below average. 
Perhaps Nuge’s hesitancy to shoot has contributed to his low finishing metrics. He ranks 2nd last on the team in shots off the rush in spite of his other transitional metrics remaining above-average. Nuge has an excellent release; he should utilize it more often this season.
An encouraging sign is that Nuge’s recent 5v5 play has been exceptional. He’s first on the Oilers in 5v5 Points/60 since the beginning of January, and has a 74% goal share and a 59% expected goal share. Hopefully, it’s the beginning of a much stronger 2nd half at 5v5.
Personal Ranking: 6/10
Strengths: Special Teams, Passing, Recent Performance
Areas for Improvement: Offence at 5v5, Finishing, Shooting the Puck More

Jesse Puljujarvi

I feel that Jesse Puljujarvi can be criminally undervalued by a decent portion of Edmonton’s fanbase and media alike.
He may not always post a lofty amount of assists, but his linemates (most notably McDavid) consistently generate goals at a superior rate with Puljujarvi on ice. This is the result of Puljujarvi’s excellent forechecking abilities and how he excels at creating space for his teammates. In addition, Puljujarvi is also a very reliable defensive player, and I strongly feel he deserves an opportunity on the penalty kill.
His fundamental flaw is his finishing, and poor luck may be a factor in this. Puljujarvi’s effort is consistent, but his goal-scoring can be streaky. Still, he provides immense value to Edmonton, and referring to him as “unimpactful” or a “passenger” simply isn’t true. 
Personal Ranking: 7.5/10
Strengths: Forechecking, Creating Space for Teammates, Offensive Play-Driving, Defensive Play
Areas for Improvement: Finishing

Kailer Yamamoto

Yamamoto had a dismal start to the season, but he gradually began bouncing back as of recent, ranking 4th on the team in 5v5 points since the beginning of December.
When it comes to playing style, what caused Yamamoto to be so effective in his 19-20 stint was how he excelled at playing a tenacious, aggressive playing style while constantly pressuring defenders. However, his forechecking microstats have declined ever since, and that likely plays a role in his poor offensive play-driving totals. 
On the bright side, Yamamoto is excelling at tipping pucks and getting deflections, something most of Edmonton’s forwards struggle at. In addition, he’s also an above-average penalty-killer.
Still, for a player consistently playing in the top-six, one should expect a lot more. Hopefully, Yamamoto can eventually rebound to his aggressive play-style in 19-20 that made him so successful.
Personal Ranking: 4/10
Strengths: Recent Finishing, Deflections, PK
Areas for Improvement: Forechecking, Play-Making, 5v5 Chance Generation

Zach Hyman

Zach Hyman began the season with six goals in his first six games, but his finishing has been inconsistent ever since.
Injuries and COVID have definitely impacted his play. Regardless, Hyman’s performance when healthy has generally been solid. Hyman is typically a strong forechecker, and remains one of Edmonton’s only players who consistently crashes the net looking for rebounds and second chances. 
Overall, he hasn’t really exceeded anyone’s expectations, but he’s certainly not been worse than anticipated either. It’s fair to state that he’s performed as a relatively solid top-six forward.
Personal Ranking: 6.5/10
Strengths: Offensive Play-Driving, Forechecking, Net-Front Presence
Areas for Improvement: EV Defensive Play, consistency in finishing

Ryan McLeod

Ryan McLeod has undoubtedly surpassed expectations this season. 
McLeod has been Edmonton’s best defensive forward, as his scoring chance suppression rate ranks in the 99th percentile among the league. His high rate of defensive recoveries/retrievals have likely played a large role in this. 
McLeod has also been a solid forechecker, and his strong transitional stats are due to his excellent skating abilities. He remains the only bottom-six forward with a positive goal differential away from McDavid. McLeod is also one of Edmonton’s only bottom-six forwards that can finish at a solid rate.
His offensive play-driving needs improvement, but there’s little doubt that he’s exceeded expectations for a bottom-six player. The future is bright for McLeod.
Personal Ranking: 7/10
Strengths: Defensive Play, Skating, Forechecking Pressures, Finishing
Areas for Improvement: Play-Making, Offensive Play-Driving

Warren Foegele

Personally, I haven’t been impressed with Warren Foegele’s performance so far.
Foegele can occasionally be an aggressive forechecker, and he’s one of Edmonton’s best forwards in obtaining rebounds. However, Foegele has been Edmonton’s worst finisher, and his defensive metrics are quite poor. His play-making and offensive play-driving have been below-average as well.
The effort is there for Foegele, but simply put, the results are not. 
Personal Ranking: 3.5/10
Strengths: Forechecking, Penalty-Killing
Areas for Improvement: Finishing, Defensive Play, Play-Making, Production

Derek Ryan

Derek Ryan began the season as Edmonton’s third-line center, but was dreadful in that role, posting a 16% goal share at 5v5 in his first 15 games.
Ryan has typically been the 4C ever since, and his performance vastly improved in a sheltered role, especially defensively. Ryan is also one of Edmonton’s best forwards in regards to getting rebounds and deflections.
His abysmal start to the season was a significant concern, but if his recent play continues, he could certainly provide value as a defensive fourth-line center. 
Personal Ranking: 5/10
Strengths: EV Defensive Play, Recent Play, Net-Front Presence
Areas for Improvement: Penalty-Killing, Finishing, performance as a 3C

Colton Sceviour

With Colton Sceviour on-ice, practically nothing happens. This can be regarded as both a good and bad thing, but it’s typically fine for a defensively inclined fourth-liner like Sceviour.
His defensive stats rank 2nd on the team while playing in a sheltered role. His microstats have been encouraging as well. It’s unfortunate that he was put on waivers and is currently in Bakersfield, as it’s hard to ask much more out of a 4th-liner. 
Personal Ranking: 5.5/10
Strengths: EV Defensive Play, Forechecking, Transition
Areas for Improvement: EV Offence, Finishing 

Zack Kassian

The primary issue with Kassian is his consistency and the constant variation in his play.
When he’s on his game, Kassian can perform as a very respectable top-nine, or even top-six forward. The problem is that Kassian is only at his best for about one or two games for every twenty. 
In addition, it’s concerning that a player praised for his size and physicality is such a poor and passive forechecker/net-front presence. Kassian’s defensive metrics are also below-average, and he can be prone to generating dreadful coverage errors in the DZ.
With all of this in mind, Kassian should be deployed as a fourth-liner at most when he’s healthy (Kassian is out for 4-8 weeks with a fractured jaw). There’s little reason for him to play in the top-six at all (or for that matter, the entire lineup).
Personal Ranking: 3.5/10
Strengths: Occasional Offensive Outbursts
Areas for Improvement: Consistency, Effort, Forechecking, Finishing, Defensive Play 

Devin Shore

Devin Shore should not be a regular in the lineup. He’s a possession black hole.
In regards to his PK abilities, Shore ranks dead last on the Oilers in short-handed goals against/60, but he’s near the top in suppressing short-handed shots and scoring chances against. The Oilers have a mere 0.731 PK SV% with Shore on-ice, so he may not be a horrid PKer as his GA may indicate.
Nevertheless, his below-replacement even-strength play should suggest that he’s a decent 13th/14th forward at best. 
Personal Ranking: 2.5/10
Strengths: Penalty-Killing, Decent Finishing
Areas for Improvement: Essentially everything else

Kyle Turris

Kyle Turris was initially signed as a 3C in the 2020 off-season. It’s safe to say that his tenure with Edmonton has been brutal.
Some of Turris’ microstats are surprisingly pretty solid, but that may be the result of a limited sample size. His overall offensive and defensive results are dreadful. At this stage in his career, I don’t think Turris is an NHL player.
Personal Ranking: 1/10
Strengths: Decent transitional/defensive microstats in a limited sample
Areas for Improvement: Essentially everything else

Brendan Perlini

Brendan Perlini has been Edmonton’s best finisher and goal-scorer in the bottom-six. 
However, Perlini doesn’t really contribute much else to the game at the NHL level; Perlini doesn’t play on special teams, and he’s a poor play-driver. Nonetheless, one of Edmonton’s largest concerns is their brutal finishing, and due to this, Perlini could be deserving of a more consistent opportunity in the lineup. Personally, I feel he’s a superior option to Kassian, Shore, and Turris.
Personal Ranking: 4.5/10
Strengths: Finishing, Production
Areas for Improvement: Play-Making, DZ Recoveries/Retrievals

Tyler Benson

I’ve frequently been a vocal advocate for Benson to be in the lineup, but his results have been quite poor.
His metrics at 5v5 are still superior to Shore and Turris’ results, but he still ranks well below-average in this facet. However, Benson ranks atop the team in forechecking pressures. One of his major strengths is his tenacious play style and hard work along the boards and in the corners. 
I think Benson’s poor results have been the result of poor deployment. He could largely benefit from increased playing time and a consistent role in the lineup. An opportunity alongside skilled players, instead of below-replacement forwards, could be worth it.
With that said, this is a hypothetical statement, and it’s hard to argue against his results and the fact that he hasn’t performed well.
Personal Ranking: 2.5/10
Strengths: Forechecking, Effort
Areas for Improvement: Essentially everything else

Conclusion

It’ll be interesting to see what Jay Woodcroft does with this forward group.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a plethora of AHL statistics publicly available, but the Condors do have a 55 CF% and 53.5 xGF% this season. Additionally, every single player that played for Bakersfield in 17-18 and 18-19 (Woodcroft’s first year as head coach) posted a higher GF% under Woodcroft in 18-19, as opposed to the year prior without him.
In regards to individual players who could benefit, I think Tyler Benson will have much better deployment and more opportunities. The possibility of a Cooper Marody and/or Brad Malone call-up is also significantly higher. Perhaps Kailer Yamamoto could also see an improvement in his performance.
I haven’t watched Bakersfield much, so personally, I don’t know much about Woodcroft’s system, but as stated here, Woodcroft typically runs a 1-1-3 or 1-3-1 in the neutral zone, and a 2-1-2 narrow forecheck (I’d highly recommend following @bcurlock on Twitter, he posts great stuff regarding Bakersfield, coaching and tactics).
By contrast, Dave Tippett ran a 1-2-2 in the NZ, but there would constantly be gaps between the forwards and defencemen. NZ play and defending the rush under Tippett/Playfair has been dreadful, as Edmonton ranks 2nd last in the league in rush chances against (per Jason Gregor). Expect the forwards to gain much more support from the D under Woodcroft.
In addition, Edmonton’s forechecking scheme under Tippett was quite poor. They occasionally ran a 2-1-2, but all three forwards also had a tendency to stay low in the zone, and I felt they were constantly disorganized and too passive. In general, the team emphasized quantity over quality in the o-zone, as over 40% of their shots were low-danger point shots, with little traffic in front of the net.
If the things I’ve seen about Woodcroft are true, Edmonton’s forechecking will be significantly more aggressive under Woodcroft, and that was evident in Edmonton’s win last night against Long Island. Their forwards will likely shoot at a higher rate as well.
A coaching change won’t fix everything, and Tippett/Playfair are just two of the dominos that need to fall for Edmonton to achieve the status as a true cup contender.
Nonetheless, I feel that hiring Woodcroft and Manson was an excellent and progressive decision, and it should definitely improve the team. I’m excited to see what Woodcroft can accomplish with this team, as there’s quite a bit of potential with this forward group.
What are your thoughts? Do you think I rated any forwards too high or too low?
 
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