Adjusting for the Oilers’ declining assets

Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Sunil Agnihotri
6 months ago
One of the key concerns I had this past off-season was how the top six group of forwards, which features some excellent pieces, was aging. And that some of the key players on long-term deals, including Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Evander Kane, who are all over 30 now, are at risk of seeing their productivity drop off. While all three bring specific skill sets to the team, management and the coaching staff need to be aware of the risks and manage these assets accordingly to ensure that the team remains competitive – especially in the short term.
I found that Evander Kane was especially at risk as his on-ice shot-share numbers, which can be used to predict future results (i.e., goal-share), had gradually declined over the past few seasons. Starting in his last two seasons with the San Jose Sharks, his numbers indicated that his team was often performing worse with him than without him at even strength – a major red flag for someone who consistently played top six minutes with the top players on his team. His worst numbers came last season in Edmonton. Despite playing often with McDavid and Draisaitl, Kane posted some of the lowest shot-share numbers on the team, with the Oilers doing much better at controlling the flow of play and out-chancing opponents without him on the ice than with him. Injuries were obviously a factor last season, but it appears that his decline in even-strength performance started much earlier than that. And that shouldn’t be surprising based on what we know about player aging curves.
Now, it’s only been four games, but it appears that Kane’s productivity has continued to decline this season. In just over an hour of playing time at even-strength (5v5), Kane has posted a Corsi For percentage of 50.93%, which is -8.67 lower relative to his team. And his on-ice Expected Goals For percentage is 34.34% – the worst on the team and far below the team’s rate of 53.01%. Because the Oilers are spending less time with the puck and getting out-chanced consistently with Kane on the ice, he’s only generated six shots on goal – a rate that’s half of what it’s been over the last few seasons. And he has one assist so far – not good enough for someone playing in the top six alongside some high-end talent.
Ahead of Saturday night’s game against Winnipeg, the coaching staff has moved Kane down the depth chart to the third line, which is ideal considering how Kane’s poor play has impacted those around him. And Kane would be in a good spot playing with young Ryan McLeod, who he’s actually performed well with since joining the Oilers.
In the last two seasons, Kane has played 82 minutes with McLeod as the featured centreman, which means no McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins on the line. And with a variety of wingers, including Jesse Puljujärvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and Warren Foegele, Kane and McLeod have posted a Corsi For percentage of 57.10% and an Expected Goals For percentage of 51.80% – solid numbers that should improve the odds of Kane generating shots and collecting points. The lesser competition would also benefit Kane, something the Oilers coaching staff may have recognized last season deploying him less frequently against elite-level players at even strength according to Puck IQ’s methodology.
It will be critical for the Oilers’ coaching staff to make these types of adjustments to line combinations and player deployment, as there are players in the top six who are at risk of seeing their productivity decline at even-strength. These are risks that Ken Holland took by prioritizing veteran experience and signing them to long-term deals that take them well into their 30s. And it’s now up to the head coach to properly evaluate player performance using all the available information and data. Based on some of the other recent roster decisions, including elevating Janmark up to the second line and moving Holloway down to the fourth – it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in the coaching staff’s evaluation abilities. But at least addressing the Kane situation warrants a little credit and should allow for McDavid and Draisaitl to be more productive.
Data: Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ

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