The Oilers In Seven: Part 4 – Regression is the Best Christmas Gift

Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
6 months ago
In segment four of the Oilers season, we saw the Christmas miracle of regression.  All of the stuff that went wong, suddenly started going right.
Pucks were going in the net at a great rate. Chances against were minimal. Goalies were making saves. The powerplay we know and love returned with a vengeance. The penalty kill, my goodness, continued its strong showing from the prior segment. Probably most surprising, the Oilers went from nearly dead in terms of playoff aspirations to nipping at the heels of a wildcard team with more than 50 games remaining in the season. Let’s take a look at all the data and some key reasons why the season turned for the better in segment four.
RECORD, PTS%1-5-1, .214% — 31st3-4, .429% — T-10th4-3, .571% – T-10th5-2, .714% – 9th13-14-0-1, .482% – 24th
GF-GA17-30, 36.17% — 30th22-22, 50% — 16th31-27, 53% – 7th26-18, 57.8% – 6th96-97, 49.7% — 19th
5v5 GF-GA10-18, 35.71% —28th13-14, 47.1% — 21st17-18, 48.6% – 19th15-14, 51.7% – 13th55-64, 46.2% — 27th
5v5 xGF%54.58 — 8th59.6% — 2nd55.1% – 6th61.2% – 2nd57.8% — 1st
POWER PLAY7-for-27, 25.9% — 8th6-for-22, 27.3% — 9th7-for-28, 25.0% – 8th7-for-18, 38.9% – 1st27-for-95, 28.4% — 4th
PENALTY KILL20-for-27, 74.1% — 24th18-for-26, 69.2% — 27th28-for-31, 90.3% – 7th15-for-18, 83.3% – 9th81-for-102, 79.4% — 20th
SV%.861% —31st.885% — 18th.886% – 29th.904% – 14th.891% — 32nd
5v5 SV%.886% — 29th.907% — 16th.872% – 29th.909% – 21st.878% — 31st
One item of note here. The two games against the Florida teams skewed the numbers poorly. The team was headed for a very strong seven game segment by numbers until those teams came through town. Coincidentally (not!), the team went from having an exceptional seven-game segment in terms of points gained to just a strong seven-game segment. I note this because the margin for error with this team remains razor-thin. It cannot afford to have two game-losing streaks too often, and it certainly cannot start the next segment with a three-game losing streak. Time to break the streak.
What happened to create a 5-2 record? As the article’s name implies, regression was a big part of it. The powerplay had an incredible seven-game segment, scoring at a nearly 40 percent clip. The team finally got some goaltending with a reasonable .904 save percentage at all strengths. No question that Skinner increased his play and that helped a lot.
The penalty kill has really come into its own in the last two segments. Was that regression? I believe some of it was. However, some of it was coaching. The team really hasn’t changed the way it plays the formation. It is a 1-1-2 or a triangle plus one style. It was only a matter of time before some of the PDO against it was going to turn, and it was doing so as Jay Woodcroft was being dismissed. The luck piece was always going to smooth out. However, I am a big believer that you make some of your own luck. No question the Oilers, under this new coaching staff, have improved their play. It just isn’t from any structural changes in the overall system. Take a look at this penalty kill example from the outdoor game in Commonwealth. The structure, when executed, is very conventional. The issue was the rotation on the top. It is simply too slow. Probably also a bit to aggressive at the top when the Flames had control. Better to sit back and take a lane until the next play is made.

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The problem was the structure wasn’t even being followed by the end of the Woodcroft era. Look at this clip from Vancouver (a game I maintain ended the Woodcroft era) without any of the visuals queues. What an absolute mess this penalty kill was.

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It’s no surprise they were scored on.
Now, have a look at an example from the New Jersey game. As you’ll see, it is the same structure—two significant differences from the above clips. The forward rotation is much quicker and the slot area is locked down much tighter. Then notice when the puck does come out high, you can see New Jersey has two players in the middle lane for screens, deflections and rebounds. Watch Ryan work hard to the middle to take that away, forcing the play to wing. Now, on the final freeze, look at this perfect set-up. Ekhlom set up to challenge the weakside flank player. Ryan pressuring the puck to force a wasted shot. Desharnais and Nugent-Hopkins are taking away the middle, and now the two Devils are wasted in the slot. The only place for the puck is strong side post, and Skinner can easily play. Folks, this is how you play the PK.
Watch the remainder of the clip, and it will bring a tear to your eye. Quick rotations. Stop-start skating to stay in positions instead of looping. Shot blocks. Tight triangle collapse when puck comes to the middle. It is the way to penalty kill.

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The combination of all these factors has led to far less slot availability or seam passes. The numbers bear that out. Before the coaching change, the team gave up an average of 2.5 high-danger chances per game on the penalty kill, according to Natural Stat Trick. The team also gave up a stunning nine goals against goals coming off high-danger chances in only 13 games. Since the coaching changes, the average HDCA is down to 1.6 per game and the Oilers have given up 2 HDGA in 15 games.
The other change that was made is nothing to do with tactics. It was simply picking a group of forwards and empowering them to run the penalty kill. Derek Ryan, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor Brown, Mattias Janmark and Ryan McLeod have been tasked to win these situations. Players who are no longer required to do so are Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Using all 12 forwards in roles where they can succeed is a big deal. It is good for them individually and it is good for the dressing room. If there is one criticism I have of Jay Woodcroft it was his failure to realize this and adapt.
The other part this segment was goaltending. Some of this is the play in front of him. Natural Stat Trick has Skinner facing the 5th most rush chances against of all goalies with an average of 1.76 per game. This segment he was down to 1.5 chances per game, which ranked 17th most. So a modest improvement by the group in front of him, especially his forward group working hard on the back check to eliminate odd man rushes.
However, Skinner needs a lot of credit here. His year-to-date goals saved above average are awful. At 5v5, his goals saved above average is 73rd in the league at -6.64, and in all situations, it is 78th at -9.67. Not good. This past segment improved to essentially break even. His expected goals against was 9.42 per game, and he only allowed nine at 5v5, and it was the same rough average in all situation events.  I understand that we need additional goaltending support, but in this segment, Stuart Skinner regressed to the mean a bunch, and that helped lead to a 5-2 record.
This segment was easily the Oilers’ best. It also is one that may mark a turning point in the season. The team has climbed from a deep hole to within reach of the wildcard spots in the Western Conference. While the margin of error remains slim, there is hope at the end of this segment that the playoffs may be a reality.
That’s it for this segment. See you again in seven games. Wishing each of you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays.

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