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How can the Edmonton Oilers avoid the early-season issues from last year?

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Photo credit:Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
Sunil Agnihotri
6 months ago
There’s plenty of optimism surrounding the Edmonton Oilers heading into the 2023/24 regular season, with two of the best players in the world and some of the progress that’s been made over the last year. The team’s depth was better than previous seasons, and actually outscored opponents without McDavid on the ice. Stuart Skinner had a good regular season and emerged as a reliable goaltender. And the team did a decent job limiting shots and scoring chances against at even-strength. If they can carry this over to this upcoming season, and combine that with their potent powerplay, the Oilers should be competing for a division title and hopefully for more in the post-season.
But one issue that the Oilers had last season that negatively impacted their division title chances was their poor early-season results. And it’s worth digging into to take away some lessons and hopefully improve their chances this upcoming season.
After the first 20 games of last season (up until November 24th), the Oilers had ten wins and ten losses – a points percentage of 0.500 that ranked 22nd in the league. This was only better than Arizona, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim in the Western Conference. The team performed poorly at even-strength (5v5), which needed to be much better as the special teams was pretty much a non-factor due to the terrible penalty kill. The powerplay was a bright spot, generating the third-highest rate of goals in the league during this period. But all of their net goals (+19) were completely negated by the penalty kill that allowed the fourth-highest rate of goals against in the league.
In these first twenty games at even-strength, the Oilers had a -11 goal differential (33 goals for, 44 goals against) – a 42.85% goal-share that ranked 28th in the league. The team’s below average shooting percentage and save percentage were obvious factors. But there’s a few more underlying issues.
Firstly, the Oilers were spending way too much time without the puck, as reflected by their Corsi For percentage of 47.56 per cent, which ranked 23rd in the league at the time, and 11th in the Western Conference. They were in the bottom third of the league when it came to generating shots on goal and were allowing the sixth-highest rate of shots against. Teams were having their way during this stretch regularly out-shooting and out-chancing the Oilers, who posted an expected goal-share of only 47.29%.
The other issue I noted from the first twenty game was how conservatively the Oilers were playing whenever they did hold a lead in games.
The Oilers were playing far more aggressively at the end of the 2021-22 season after Jay Woodcroft took over as head coach, with the team increasing their Corsi For percentage to a league-leading 57 per cent in this game-state. On average, teams post a 46 per cent Corsi For percentage when they have a lead, taking less risks, dumping the puck more often and not doing anything that could jeopardize their lead. The Oilers have typically been even lower than this level under previous coaches, who applied more traditional tactics.
Woodcroft appeared to be applying more modern tactics when he was hired, and with the talent up front it made sense to continue pushing for offence to keep the puck out of their own zone and better protect leads. But at the start of last season, it appeared that the Oilers went back to the more traditional methods of protecting leads as reflected by their Corsi For percentage that dropped to 50 per cent when they held a lead.
These numbers did eventually improve after the first 20 games of the season as the Oilers finished the regular season as one of the more aggressive clubs with the lead. But it was odd that for a 20-game period they didn’t use the offensive talent they had on the roster and play the style that gave them so much success at the end of the 2021-22 season.
One last issue from the first twenty games of last season was the play of Leon Draisaitl, who performed poorly at even-strength and had some mediocre results in this stretch.
Coming off of a major injury from the 2022 playoffs, Draisaitl posted some of the worst on-ice shot-share numbers on the team in these first twenty games. The club was badly out-shot and out-chanced with him on the ice. And his on-ice Cosi For percentage of 43 per cent was the second-worst among regular forwards, a major issue considering he was often playing against the top players in the league and was expected to be a major catalyst on offence.
The table below lists the Oilers skaters from the first twenty games of the season, and includes each player’s on-ice shot differential, expected goals differential and actual goal differential, all at even-strength (5v5). A basic heat map has been applied to show how each player compared against their teammates.
Because the Oilers were spending less time with the puck when Draisaitl was on the ice, his overall production was alarmingly low (for his standards) with him posting a rate of 1.76 points per hour. As the season wore on, Draisaitl turned things around and posted much stronger on-ice numbers (53 per cent Corsi For percentage), especially after being reunited more often with McDavid. His even-strength (5v5) scoring rate jumped up to 2.62 the rest of the way and was a major reason why the Oilers were able to win more games. Hopefully Draisaitl had a good off-season to recover from any ailments and has a much better start than last season.
And here’s hoping the Oilers management and coaching staff are aware of these underlying issues from last season and have a plan to mitigate any risks that could cost them a division title. Recognizing and addressing these weaknesses from last season will increase their odds of home-ice advantage, which will be a massive benefit in what should be another competitive post-season.
Data: Natural Stat Trick

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