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The three biggest areas of improvement for the Oilers in 2023-24

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Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
7 months ago
The first few days of free agency have passed. The Edmonton Oilers still have work to do, but for the most part, the majority of their roster is set in stone for opening night in October.
The major addition for Edmonton has been RW Connor Brown, and it’s likely that they add another depth forward around the league minimum. With the assumption that RFAs Ryan McLeod and Evan Bouchard get signed, nine of their forwards from last year’s playoff lineup, all seven of their defencemen, and both of their goaltenders will return for 2023-24.
Most of the roster will remain intact, and a big question remains; can they improve next season? Can this Oilers team take that next step, and win the Stanley Cup?
Here’s a look at the three most significant areas of improvement for this Oilers team, and how likely they are to improve in each area in 2023-24.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey unless mentioned otherwise

5v5 Finishing

This is something that isn’t always talked about, but it’s an issue that has persisted for the past two seasons.
Put differently, I don’t think the Oilers are maximizing Connor McDavid at 5v5. I’ve used this visual before in the past, but here’s a look again at McDavid’s individual finishing, as opposed to the finishing results from his linemates at 5v5:
In simpler terms, if McDavid’s linemates finished at a league-average rate, he would be on-ice for at least 17 more goals, which easily results in around 14-15 more assists. That number is even higher if McDavid received above-average finishing from his linemates. Overall, McDavid led the league in shot and scoring chance assists per 60 in 2022-23, but ranked 86th in actual assists per 60. McDavid’s non-Draisaitl wingers are not fully capitalizing on their chances, and as a result, there’s some offence being left on the table.
Furthermore, finishing was a big problem against Vegas in the second round. I dove into this in greater detail in the article linked above, but the Oilers scored 9 5v5 goals on 135 chances against Vegas. On the other hand, Vegas scored 15 5v5 goals on 106 chances. That made a huge difference in that series.
Consequently, I believe the Oilers could be an even better team offensively if their top-six wingers finished at superior rates. That doesn’t mean they’re a subpar offensive team, but there’s potential to produce even more. Can the Oilers expect an improvement in this facet in 2023-24?
The addition of Connor Brown should certainly help here. Brown averaged 1.77 5v5 points per 60 from 2020-21 through 2021-22, while Kailer Yamamoto, in comparison, was at 1.44 in the past three years. Brown is considerably higher without having to play with the two best offensive players in the league, so there should be an improvement in that area.
Their $5M forwards in Hyman, Kane, and RNH must step up next time around in the playoffs. They combined for just 3 5v5 goals in all 12 playoff games in 2023, heavily dragging down McDavid’s 5v5 playoff production as a result. 
Hyman has never been a particularly strong finisher at 5v5. Even in the regular season, Hyman scored 15 5v5 goals on 28 expected goals. He’s an elite net-front presence, and generates a plethora of chances around the slot area, but isn’t efficient at finishing those chances. Still, I expect his playoff goal-scoring to bounce back, and so should RNH’s scoring rate. Both of them were quite productive in the 2022 playoffs.
However, as for Kane, he suffered an awful wrist injury back in November, and then reportedly had a broken finger on his other wrist in the playoffs. For a guy whose primary attribute is his goal-scoring, sustaining two wrist injuries in one season is a concern. Kane also turns 32 in August, and has never played a full season in his career.
The good news is that he still scored at a rate of 1.31 5v5 goals per 60 last year in the regular season, which would rank 2nd on the Oilers and 20th in the entire league. If he is healthy, I expect Edmonton’s overall finishing to improve. It’s unlikely that he leads the league in playoff scoring as he did in 2022, but if he can remain healthy, it’s very likely he scores more than 1 5v5 goal in 12 playoff games next time around.
A breakout season from Dylan Holloway, Raphael Lavoie, or even Xavier Bourgault would also be huge for the Oilers in this regard.

Limiting goals against

This issue is one that should be obvious to most. Although 5v5 finishing is still a problem, Edmonton ranks second in the NHL in goals per hour in the past two seasons, both in the regular season and the playoffs.
In the 2022 playoffs, Edmonton averaged 4.03 goals per 60, just a hair behind the eventual cup-winning Colorado team which was at 4.15. In the 2023 playoffs, the Oilers scored 3.63 goals per 60, not far behind the cup-winning Vegas team’s scoring rate of 3.93. 
Again, Edmonton still needs their wingers to capitalize on their 5v5 chances at a higher rate, but thanks to their record-breaking power-play, their overall offence is enough, or at least close enough, to win a cup. Note that Tampa Bay, a team that’s reached the cup finals in three of the past four years with two Stanley Cups to boot, never scored at a rate higher than 3.36.
It’s allowing fewer goals against where Edmonton has markedly struggled.
The Oilers allowed 3.63 goals against per hour in the 2022 playoffs, worse than any team that reached the second round. Six of the other seven teams that made the second round that year allowed less than 2.9 GA/60. 
In the 2023 playoffs, the Oilers saw a very marginal improvement to a 3.34 GA/60, but again, it was simply too high. All four teams that qualified for the conference finals allowed less than three goals against per 60. Even if the Oilers do improve their 5v5 finishing, a GA rate this high will make it difficult to win the Cup. For comparison, the 2022 Avalanche were at 2.47, while the 2023 Golden Knights were at 1.82. Tampa Bay was at a fantastic 1.7 in the two seasons in which they won the Cup.
So, the question remains; how can the Oilers improve here?
On the bright side, the Oilers did significantly improve since the Mattias Ekholm trade. Since his arrival, the Oilers had the 9th lowest (best) 5v5 goals against per 60 rate in the regular season. However, their GA was still quite poor in the playoffs in spite of the Ekholm trade. The next step to reducing their goals against, especially in the playoffs, will depend on a few factors.
Firstly, the Oilers need much more from the Darnell Nurse pairing. I can certainly give Nurse a break in the 2022 playoffs, when he played through a hip flexor injury, but in the 2022-23 regular season, the Nurse and Ceci pairing was out-scored 46 to 48 at 5v5. In the 2023 playoffs, they were out-scored 6 to 8 at 5v5, allowing 3.66 goals against per 60.
With a $9.25M cap-hit, at the very least, Nurse should be expected to drive his own defensive pairing at a positive goal differential. The fact that his pair is consistently out-scored is hampering Edmonton’s GA rates, while also negatively affecting their cap situation. Additionally, it’s nearly a guarantee that Cody Ceci will be on the roster for opening night, and considering Edmonton’s shallow RD depth after Evan Bouchard, he will also need to step up this season.
Better defensive play from their forwards would also be highly beneficial in his area, most notably from their wingers. That said, I do think McDavid’s defensive play has immensely improved in these past 2-3 years.
Another factor is fairly obvious: goaltending.
Stuart Skinner was strong in the regular season, finishing second in the Calder Trophy voting, but heavily struggled in the playoffs, with a 0.880 SV% and allowing 7 more goals than expected. Of course, it was only his first playoff appearance, and Vegas decimated every goaltender that they played, including prominent goalies in Hellebuyck and Oettinger.
I think it’s very reasonable to expect a 24-year-old Skinner to progress next season.
As for Jack Campbell, that’s a bit more tricky. While his first season with Edmonton seems like an outlier, Campbell’s poor play had already begun in the second half of his last season with Toronto. It’s hard to make a definitive statement in regards to if he can significantly bounce back.
Some will point out his playoff performance as an encouraging sign, but I have some issues with that argument. While Campbell was great for Edmonton in Game 4 against LA, he was never really significantly tested in the other games. Campbell faced roughly 20% fewer shots than Skinner did. When Campbell would come in for relief, Vegas would often sit back, running a 1-4 in the NZ and not pressing as much offensively.
Not to mention, it’s a very limited sample, and it certainly isn’t enough to account for how poorly he played in the regular season.
Campbell will receive a second chance with the Oilers next season. Goaltending is often unpredictable, so let’s hope he finds a way to bounce back.

Line-matching in the playoffs

If Edmonton’s finishing can improve, and they continue limiting their goals against, their chances of a Stanley Cup significantly increase. However, despite their flaws, I still believe there was still a way that Edmonton could’ve defeated Vegas in the second round; better line-matching.
The Oilers managed to out-score the Golden Knights by a ratio of 8 to 7 when Jack Eichel was off-ice at 5v5. Without Eichel on-ice, the Oilers controlled 57 percent of the expected goals, 59 percent of the shot attempts, and nearly a full 60 percent of the scoring chances. Vegas’ depth was a huge factor in their cup victory, but for the most part, Edmonton seemed to counter it.
The major problem arose when the Eichel line was on the ice, as that line out-scored the Oilers by a lopsided ratio of 8 to 1 at 5v5. The Oilers out-scored Vegas on special teams, but they were out-scored 15 to 9 at 5v5, meaning their performance against the Eichel line was their ultimate downfall.
No defencemen played more against the Eichel line at 5v5 than Ceci and Nurse, and Bjugstad played more against Eichel than McDavid did. Evidently, it cost them.
Simply put, Woodcroft’s decision-making and line-matching have to be much better next time around. It’s clear that the Nurse and Ceci pairing cannot handle the opposition’s best lines, and matching Bjugstad against Eichel simply made little sense. In particular, he should begin giving more trust to Ryan McLeod’s line. 
When comparing all of Edmonton’s centers against elite competition, McLeod has the lowest (best) on-ice chances allowed rate, and the best overall scoring chance differential (DFF%). The Oilers have also out-scored elite QoC at a ratio of 15 to 7 with McLeod on-ice at 5v5 in the past two seasons. Of course, this sample against elite opponents isn’t massive, but it’s a sign that Woodcroft should start putting more trust in McLeod.

Final Thoughts; will the Oilers be better next season? Can they go all the way?

This question relies on numerous factors.
As they’re exceedingly tight to the cap, Edmonton will need their players to play up to their contract. On the bright side, Connor Brown playing as a top-six winger at a league-minimum cap-hit is already great value. 
However, Darnell Nurse must start driving a defensive pairing that can out-score opponents, and Jack Campbell has to bounce back. Hyman, Kane, and RNH must produce much more at 5v5 in the 2024 playoffs. The Oilers will also be forced to rely on some of their younger players, such as Holloway and Lavoie, to earn NHL roster spots and perform/produce well on their <$1M cap-hits. 
Additionally, Edmonton should plan to make additions at the 2024 Trade Deadline if they aren’t adding any significant pieces this summer. The roster still isn’t perfect, and they could use an RD upgrade. If Cody Ceci doesn’t prove himself as a 2RD next year, expect him to be a cap casualty.
I look forward to opening night. 
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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