Is McDavid the front-runner for the Hart? Does Puljujarvi deserve a chance on the PK? Seven mid-season thoughts for the 21-22 Oilers

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
The Oilers currently hold a record of 21-16-2, as they’re 5th in the Pacific Division, and 9th in the Western Conference in terms of points percentage. Subsequent to a seven-game losing streak (and a twelve-game losing streak under Dave Tippett), the Oilers are on a brief three-game winning streak. A large reason for that is Mikko Koskinen’s excellent play over the past three games.

It’s been a season with numerous positives and negatives thus far. Here are some of my thoughts as we near the midpoint of the 2021-22 NHL season.
*All stats via EvolvingHockey and all cap-related info via PuckPedia unless stated otherwise

The impact of Evander Kane’s contract on Edmonton’s trade deadline

Of course, the hot topic surrounding the Oilers as of late is Evander Kane. Ken Holland signed him at a cap hit of $2.1M, as Edmonton used the cap-space available from Mike Smith being placed on LTIR to sign him.
What does this mean for the trade deadline? Will Edmonton still be able to acquire a defenceman and/or goalie?
A cap-hit of $2.1M is nothing significant, but Edmonton is in a pretty tight situation. Holland has already specified that the team won’t trade their first-round pick for a rental, and Edmonton can’t trade their 2nd/3rd round picks due to the conditions on the Keith deal. Consequently, it would be quite challenging to move Koskinen’s contract to clear-cap space for another goalie. Obviously, it won’t be impossible to move Koskinen, but the likelihood is quite low.
Moving Barrie seems easier and would be logical, but what are the odds that Holland trades him just six months after signing him to a 3 year, $13.5M deal?
With the exception of the Lucic/Neal trade, Holland hasn’t shown many signs of making creative moves in the cap era. Signing Kane may not have a significant impact on Edmonton’s cap space, but it does make the issue a bit more complicated. It’ll be interesting to see what he does.

Why McDavid has been unlucky at 5v5, and why he can still be a top candidate for the Hart

McDavid is currently tied for 3rd in the league in points, with 58 points in 38 games, but he’s actually been unlucky.
McDavid’s 5v5 point production is at a career-low, and so is his 5v5 GF/60. Of course, 2.3 5v5 P/60 is nothing to laugh at, but it’s not anything spectacular in regards to McDavid’s established standards.
Conversely, his xGF/60 is at a career high. The primary reason for his low 5v5 totals is merely bad luck; his on-ice shooting percentage is at an all-time low. It frequently hovered around 10-11% throughout his career, but it’s at a mere 7.4% this year. 
If McDavid’s oiSH% was at his career average prior to the season (~10.7%), he would have been on-ice for roughly 14 more goals, which is a pretty considerable amount. 
With the (hypothetical) assumption that he receives a point on about 12 of those 14 goals, McDavid would be at 3.4 5v5 Points/60, and a 4.1 GF/60. Analytically, McDavid would also rank 2nd in the league per EvolvingHockey’s WAR model if his oiSH% was at his career average.
This team has numerous flaws, but don’t be shocked if McDavid’s regression to the mean hides these flaws as the season goes on.
As opposed to last year, I think the Hart Trophy debate is wide-open this season. Ovechkin is enjoying a superb offensive season, although his defensive metrics are quite poor. Nonetheless, he does have a case.
I think Shesterkin may be the worthiest choice. He currently holds a 0.935 SV% and a 21.1 GSAx; in other terms, if the Rangers replaced Shesterkin with a league-average goalie, they would have allowed a whopping 21 goals more.
Shesterkin’s numbers are even superior to Carey Price’s memorable 14-15 season. He’s undoubtedly carried the Rangers on his back. 
Cale Makar, Jonathan Huberdeau, Auston Matthews, Mikko Rantanen, and (of course) Draisaitl are also some other great candidates. 
If I had a ballot, personally, I would have Shesterkin at the top of my Hart Trophy ranking. However, McDavid would likely be in my top two by the end of the season, assuming he can (and probably will) regress to the mean. 

The bottom-six has been somewhat of a roller-coaster

Edmonton’s depth forwards have seen their performance go up and down this season.
They started off strong, with a 66.7% 5v5 goal share in their first four games, as the Foegele-Ryan-Kassian trio had an excellent start to the season. However, they subsequently declined all the way to 25% on December 14. Currently, their goal differential is at 36.9%; they’ve definitely seen improvement in recent weeks. In the past 10 games, the Oilers have been 9/9 in goals without McDavid, Draisaitl or Nuge on-ice.
However, it still isn’t enough. The bottom six should still remain as an area that needs to be fixed.
There’s been one depth forward who’s been generally consistent for the entirety of the season; Ryan McLeod. 

Has Ryan McLeod has solidified himself as a good top-nine forward in the NHL?

McLeod’s most significant strength in the NHL so far is his superb defensive play. No other forward with the exception of Colton Sceviour has been on-ice for scoring chances against at a lower rate than McLeod (Unfortunately, Sceviour has been waived. I really liked him as a defensive 4th liner).
McLeod is an excellent skater, and I’ve frequently noticed McLeod disrupting plays in his own zone. He also isn’t prone to committing risky errors. His offensive play-driving results have room for improvement, but that may be the result of poor linemates. However, he’s been a fine finisher so far, scoring 5 goals on 2.7 expected goals. 
Historically, the primary issue with the bottom-six isn’t their scoring chance generation; it’s how many chances and goals they allow against, and how poor they are at finishing the chances they create.
Consequently, a solid finisher and prominent defensive player like McLeod is an excellent fit for Edmonton’s depth. His increase in TOI has largely contributed to the recent improvement for Edmonton’s bottom-six. 
The Oilers also have a 50% 5v5 goal share with McLeod on the ice and with McDavid off of the ice, as McLeod is the only bottom-six forward with at least 100 TOI to post a non-negative GF% without McDavid.
In addition, although it’s a limited sample, Ryan McLeod ranks 3rd in DFF% and 4th in GF% against elite competition (per PuckIQ); in simpler terms, in the amount of time he’s played against top lines and defensive pairings, McLeod has thrived. A third-line center won’t necessarily get tough matchups, especially on a team with McDavid and Draisaitl, but these are encouraging results nonetheless. 
I’ve really liked McLeod’s play thus far, and if the Oilers still desire to deploy RNH as a winger, I think he can be a fine 3C.

Nurse or Bouchard should be on the top power-play unit moving forward

Here’s how the top power-play unit performs with and without each of Nurse, Barrie and Bouchard.
They perform well with Barrie running the point, but the PP1 unit scores more goals and generates more chances with Barrie off of the ice, as opposed to with. Meanwhile, although it’s not the largest sample size, the PP1’s best results have come with Darnell Nurse.
In regards to Evan Bouchard, the sample size is even more limited. The PP roughly generates a similar amount of chances with and without Bouchard, but they generate goals at a higher rate without him. 
It seems like a left-shot defenceman is a better stylistic fit on the top power-play unit as opposed to a right-handed one. For comparison, the power play scored at a rate of 12.5 goals per hour with Oscar Klefbom on-ice in 19-20.
There’s a large enough sample size to conclude that the PP could be better off without Barrie. Even in 20-21, McDavid and Draisaitl had a higher PP GF/60 and xGF/60 without Barrie on-ice. 
Consequently, it would be reasonable for either Nurse or Bouchard to be deployed on the top unit. In the limited minutes he’s played on PP1 during this season and last season, Nurse has posted excellent results. Meanwhile, Bouchard’s superb offensive ability is undeniable, and perhaps he could perform better if granted a more significant opportunity. 

The penalty kill

The penalty kill was excellent against Nashville on Thursday night. Still, the PK has struggled recently. Since December 1, the Oilers rank 31st in the league in short-handed expected goals against/60, and 32nd in goals against/60.
Why not give Jesse Puljujarvi an opportunity there? 
None of Edmonton’s top-six forwards have been on-ice for 5v5 scoring chances against at a lower rate than Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi is a smart defensive player, and he excels at getting his stick in lanes to intercept passes. There’s a strong possibility that he could be a great fit for the penalty kill. Succeeding on the PK usually requires a different skill-set from excelling defensively at 5v5, but Puljujarvi’s playstyle should allow him to effectively kill penalties.
Additionally, I’m puzzled as to why Warren Foegele hasn’t been given a chance on the penalty kill. In 20-21 with the Hurricanes, he played 53 short-handed minutes, and had the lowest GA/60 and 3rd lowest xGA/60 among Carolina forwards. He should also be a regular penalty-killer on this team.
Another topic surrounding the PK is the effectiveness of Devin Shore, who ranks dead last on the Oilers in short-handed goals against/60 (16.6). However, he’s near the top of the team in suppressing short-handed shots and scoring chances against. The Oilers have a mere 0.691 SV% with Shore on-ice; perhaps he isn’t a terrible penalty-killer as his GA may suggest.
Regardless, Shore is well below replacement-level at 5v5. The penalty kill is important, but no level of PK ability is ever enough to justify dreadful play at even-strength. After all, a team plays roughly 80-85% of a game at 5v5, on average.

Edmonton has performed well in terms of shot volume, but not shot quality

Needless to say, goaltending is a big issue. However, the quality of their shots allowed is a concern. Suppressing shot volume isn’t an issue, as their rate of shots attempts against has been fine as of recent, but the quality of the shots they’re allowing are mainly high danger.
Chart via HockeyViz
I feel the heat map presented above matches my eye test, as improvement in their defensive play around the slot area is needed. The Oilers also struggled at defending the high slot in 20-21, but they were superior at defending the low slot. I think Adam Larsson’s departure is clearly felt.
Conversely, Edmonton’s 5v5 offence has been more reliant on point shots than shot attempts around high danger areas; they rank 3rd in the league in regards to the percentage of their 5v5 shot attempts taken by defencemen. In other words, they’re a team that frequently shoots from low danger areas, while they allow a large amount of shots from high danger areas, especially from the lower portion of the left circle. 
This is most likely a significant factor as to why their goaltending hasn’t struggled, and it’s also why SV% can be misleading at times. Save percentage only accounts for shot volume, and not the quality of shots against. In addition, this is another reason as to why I have very little trust in Edmonton’s coaching system.
Overall, it’s been an interesting first half of the season. Many encouraging signs, but also several areas that need to be fixed. What are your thoughts on Edmonton’s season thus far? 
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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