Photo credit:Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Sunil Agnihotri
6 months ago
After a sluggish start under the new head coach, the Oilers have gradually improved their overall play and got some decent results to close off the month of November. With Kris Knoblauch behind the bench, the Oilers have won six of their nine games, five of which were in regulation.
So what’ve been the key drivers for this recent stretch of success? And more importantly, is there anything that could derail their playoff aspirations?
Let’s start at even-strength (5v5), where the Oilers have broken even when it comes to goal-differential (19 goals for, 19 goals against, 50 percent goal-share) under the new coaching regime. They’re underperforming when you consider that their expected goal-share and corsi for percentage are both around 55 percent. Goaltending remains mediocre at best, as their 90.25 percent save percentage is slightly below the league average. And their team shooting percentage has been 8.56 percent in these nine games, around league-average levels. It’s a definite improvement from earlier in the season but needs to be better if the team wants to compete for a playoff spot.
Below is a high-level snapshot of the individual players at even strength, split between forwards and defencemen, with a basic heat map applied to show how each player compares to the rest of their squad. Only those that have played at least three games were included. What stands out is the performance of the team with McDavid on the ice, who appears to have recovered from whatever was bothering him earlier in the season. In these nine games, the Oilers have consistently out-shot and out-chanced opponents with McDavid deployed, but because of the goaltending, he only has a +1 goal differential. Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins have also performed well and have been getting decent results since the coaching change. McLeod appears to be a breakout candidate as the team is again doing a good job outshooting and out-chancing opponents with him on the ice. But unfortunately, he and his ice-mates can’t convert on their chances or get decent goaltending. One player worth keeping an eye on is Draisaitl as his performance hasn’t been very good in these nine games, having posted a -20 on-ice shot differential – the worst differential on the team. And he’s just breaking even in terms of results, being on the ice for six goals for and six goals against.
The new coaching staff has given Draisaitl plenty of even-strength minutes with McDavid in these nine games (about 48 minutes), but the two aren’t as productive as they’ve been in the past. Together, they’ve posted a 54 perecnt expected goals share and a 50 percent corsi for percentage. But they’ve been outscored by opponents 3-5 (a 37.50 percent goal-share). Draisaitl’s on-ice shot-share numbers take a hit without McDavid, dropping to a 46 percent expected goal-share and a 43 percent corsi for percentage. But it’s being overshadowed by his actual on-ice results – a 75 percent goal-share (3 goals for, 1 goal against). McDavid’s also had strong results away from Draisaitl, but his results appear more sustainable as his shot-shares hover around 56 percent. I suspect there might be something up with Draisaitl’s health, so hopefully he’ll be using this short break to get into form again.
On the backend, it appears that Ekholm and Bouchard are back to where they were late last season, with the team doing a very good job controlling the flow of play and scoring chances with them on the ice. Nurse on the other hand is seeing a lot of chances against when he’s on the ice. But it’s being masked by his +5 goal differential. He might not be well suited for the defensive zone starts and responsibilities he’s been getting this season, so it’ll be interesting to see if the coaching staff recognizes this and makes any adjustments before his results slip. Ceci’s numbers are also concerning but in line with what he’s posted over the last few seasons. If there’s an area for management to address outside of goaltending, it’s on the backend, where they don’t have a lot of depth. It might also be worth exploring the options in Bakersfield, as it doesn’t appear Broberg is making much progress this season.
Special teams have also been a major factor in these first nine games under Knoblauch. The powerplay is generating around the same rate of unblocked shot attempts and shots on goal as they were before the coaching change – which has always been near the top of the league. The difference now is that the Oilers are actually finishing their chances, scoring ten times  – a rate of 14.50 goals per hour, slightly higher than last season’s league-leading scoring rate. The fact they are consistently generating chances at an elite rate and have their top-end players producing should allow for this success to be sustainable.
The penalty kill in the last nine games has also been something else. They’ve allowed only four goals, a rate of 3.88 goals against per hour, one of the league’s lowest rates and a significant drop from the 11 goals per hour the Oilers were allowed prior to the coaching change. The biggest driver for their success has been their improvement in limiting shots and chances against, with the team seeing a 24 percent drop in the rate of unblocked shot attempts against and a 28 percent drop in the rate of shots on goal compared to earlier in the season. This improved defensive play has also helped the goaltenders improve their team save percentage from 70 percent to 90 percent. The league-average save percentage on the penalty kill has been around 86 percent over the last three seasons, so I’m expecting the Oilers’ goaltending to come back down to earth eventually. But overall, there is reason to believe that the special teams won’t drag the teams’ overall results going forward.
If the Oilers can maintain their ability to control the flow of play at even-strength and perform well on their special teams, they’re giving themselves a very good shot at a wildcard spot in the Western Conference. But they’ll need to address their goaltending, which is lacking depth right now and putting their starter at risk of burnout as the season progresses. Up front it does appear with McDavid back in form, the club should be scoring at the rates they were at last season. But they need some of their secondary, depth players to contribute at the same level as last season. The top six have some players who are at risk of seeing their numbers decline, and it doesn’t appear as though management has prepared any youngsters to take on larger roles on the club.
It’ll be interesting to see over the next month if the Oilers can sustain their recent success and make some ground in the western conference. The teams ahead of them in the standings aren’t very strong, and don’t have the elite talent the Oilers have. But if goaltending slips or injuries occur, it’ll be a significant blow to their playoff aspirations.
Data: Natural Stat Trick

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