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Why have the Oilers struggled so much at 5v5, and how can they fix this?

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Photo credit:© Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
11 months ago
At the beginning of the 2021-22 campaign, it seemed as if everything was going well for the Edmonton Oilers, right?
After all, it was just the first time in franchise history that Edmonton began their season with a record of 9-1-0. Four Oiler players placed in the top 10 in scoring, alongside a dominant power play that was operating near 50%.
However, there were several red flags in their first ten games, even before the injuries to their defence began piling up. When healthy, Edmonton was still just 14th in even-strength goal share and 18th in expected goal share.
These numbers should not be acceptable to a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Following their historic start, Edmonton has posted a record of 7-8 in their prior 15 games. As the Flames continue to win, while the Golden Knights begin to recover after an injury-riddled start to the season, the Oilers are gradually falling down the standings.
Looking at this entire season overall at even-strength, Edmonton ranks:
  • 23rd in goal share (out-scored 49/57)
  • 16th in expected goal share 
  • 20th in scoring chance share
I think it’s pretty obvious that the primary reason for their recent struggles is their even-strength play. So, what’s the cause for results? What can Edmonton do to improve in this facet of the game?
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Is it coaching?

A commonly debated topic around social media (most notably Oilers Twitter) has been the effectiveness of Oilers coach Dave Tippett and his system.
It’s a fascinating subject. Edmonton’s 5v5 play has indeed declined ever since the hiring of Dave Tippett, according to several key indicators.
Some may counter that Edmonton’s special teams have seen a vast improvement under Tippett. 
However, Edmonton’s current power play coach is Glen Gulutzan, who was hired in 18-19 before Tippett’s hiring. After finishing dead-last last in PP% in 17-18, they improved to 9th the following year; the power play had already begun its improvement the season before Tippett. In my opinion, Gulutzan, along with the players themselves, deserve most of the credit for its success.
It is fairly reasonable to credit Tippett for the success of the penalty kill though, even if it is Jim Playfair’s system. 
But, even if you feel Tippett deserves a significant amount of credit for the improvement in special teams, the simple fact is that EV play is more important; on average, a team spends 80-85% of their total time at even-strength.
One reason for Edmonton’s decline in 5v5 play under Tippett? Edmonton’s depth forwards – an issue that’s seemingly never-ending.
A major reason for Edmonton’s success in the 16-17 season was how that team could score with and without their best players on the ice. However, their bottom six declined in the two subsequent years, and it hasn’t seen much improvement under the new regime. In fact, the team without McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH has become worse
These results seem exceedingly odd. The forward core doesn’t look dreadful on paper, at least in comparison to the roster in prior years. Ryan and Foegele, in particular, were solid depth players before joining Edmonton and theoretically should’ve improved this team.
Here’s a visual displaying the current results of Edmonton’s forwards with and without Tippett. (I left out Yamamoto, McLeod, and Benson, as Yamamoto’s sample size pre-19-20 is too small, while McLeod and Benson have not played under any other NHL coach.)
Some of the largest improvements under Tippett have been Nugent-Hopkins and Puljujarvi. Whereas RNH primarily played as a center under McLellan and Hitchcock, Tippett has given him much more time on the wing. His defensive results are much better as a winger in comparison to his play as a center. 
Tippett has also given Puljujarvi a lot of opportunities in the top six, opportunities he didn’t have under McLellan and Hitchcock. 
Although Kassian has seen an improvement as well, I’d attribute those results to dramatically increased playing time with McDavid and Draisaitl, as opposed to Tippett’s coaching.
Conversely, every other bottom-six forward has seen a massive decline. Shore and Turris were never special players before coming to Edmonton, but they became worse with the Oilers.
Although sheltered, Derek Ryan was an excellent bottom-six player in Calgary, posting a 61% goal share and 55% expected goal share. In Edmonton, Ryan has merely a 16% goal share and 45% expected goal share. 
His deployment hasn’t seen any discernible change; his quality of competition was in the 9th percentile in the prior two seasons, while it’s placed in the 14th percentile during his tenure in Edmonton.
As for Warren Foegele, he was never a great finisher, even in Carolina. His value came from his excellent forechecking skills and how he drove scoring chances at an extremely high rate, while his defensive metrics were marginally above average.
It should be noted, though, that publicly available stats may have been overrating Carolina’s ability to generate chances. Private stat models that several NHL teams have access to and frequently use, such as SportLogIQ, have the Hurricanes generating fewer chances than public models state.
This discrepancy could mean several of Carolina’s players’ scoring chance results are overestimated by publicly available data. There’s a definite possibility Foegele could have been one of them. 
With that in mind, was it inevitable that his metrics would decline on a different team? Most likely. I still expected his numbers to fare well, though, just perhaps not to the degree it did with the Hurricanes.
But to this extent, a decrease so significant in Foegele’s goal and scoring chance share metrics is both odd and concerning.
The decline of depth players in Edmonton isn’t just exclusive to this season; Riley Sheahan, Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis, and Dominik Kahun are among numerous players who all put up superior relative metrics on other teams.
With so many forwards playing much worse in Edmonton, can you brush it off as a simple coincidence?
Personally, although Ken Holland deserves part of the blame as well, I think it’s very valid to have doubts about Dave Tippett’s system and how he deploys the bottom six.

Running McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH on their own lines

Although I stated above that RNH’s defensive results are better as a winger, it’s not as if he’s a liability at center. His metrics as a center are far superior to the defensive results of the bottom six (who are on-pace for a whopping 89 goals against). I’m surprised that this option hasn’t been tried yet, but perhaps Tippett should run McDavid, Draisaitl, and RNH on separate lines.
While this would test our depth on the wings, Edmonton could run a top 9 such as this:
Foegele – McDavid – Yamamoto
Hyman – Draisaitl – Puljujarvi
McLeod – RNH – Sceviour
I would like to see Foegele get an opportunity on the top line, while I’d also like to view how Yamamoto can perform alongside McDavid for an extended period of time. Alternatively, one of Hyman and Foegele could play RW and you could give Benson an opportunity to play with skill in the top 9 instead of Sceviour.
There’s a variety of options Edmonton could explore if they deploy the “three-headed-dragon”  down the middle. The Oilers should give it a shot, because the bottom-six bleeding has to stop.

Edmonton desperately needs a good finisher

An under-recognized need in the past couple of seasons for the Oilers is a solid finisher. This problem was evident in Edmonton’s most recent game against Boston.
Several fans have pointed to the low PDO of the bottom-six as the cause of their poor results (In simple terms, PDO is a proxy for puck-luck).
For example, the Oilers have a meager 3.47 on-ice shooting% and 84.3 SV% with Derek Ryan on-ice. The case is similar with Warren Foegele, as he currently holds a 6.34 on-ice shooting% and an 88.9 on-ice save%.

Indeed, Edmonton’s entire bottom-six has had a below-average PDO in each of the prior four seasons.
PDO is the total sum of a player’s on-ice SH% and SV%, and it can be used as a reliable indicator for puck luck in single-season samples. Every year, there will always be circumstances when a certain player is playing well and doing all the right things, but their goal share doesn’t reflect this. The vast majority of the time, that player eventually regresses to the mean by the end of the year/the following season (82% of players with a PDO of under 1.00 in 19-20 saw an increase in PDO in 20-21).
However, if a player (or group of players) consistently posts an exceedingly high/low PDO over a large sample size, it isn’t merely luck. Some players can sustain a high PDO over multiple seasons, like the league’s top playmakers/goal-scorers (e.g. McDavid, Ovechkin, Draisaitl, Kane, etc).
I think the opposite effect is occurring for Edmonton’s bottom-six; their low on-ice shooting% is due to their lack of strong finishers. In the past two seasons, Edmonton’s bottom-six has scored 33 goals on 38 expected goals in 1451 minutes.
Although coaching may be a factor in Foegele and Ryan’s inconsistent play this season, they were never great goal-scorers. They were prominent scoring chance play-drivers prior to their tenure in Edmonton, but neither of them ever excelled in putting the puck in the net. 
There are several finishers Edmonton could realistically target at the deadline for their bottom-six.
I like Joel Farabee and Zach Sanford; both are top 100 in the league in 5v5 Goals/60 in the past two seasons and play on teams that are relatively low in the standings. Neither should have an extremely lofty asking price. 
Colin Blackwell plays in Seattle and is 86th in the league in 5v5 Goals/60 in the past two seasons. He could also be a decent low-risk, high-reward bet.
Perhaps Dylan Holloway could turn out to be an impact player sooner than we think?

Conclusion

Edmonton’s top-six has been very strong this season, posting better results than in each of their previous five years. Zach Hyman has been a welcome addition, while Jesse Puljujarvi continues to improve. Based on this, the team’s overall 5v5 goal share should also be near the highest it’s been. 
To date, though, Edmonton has posted a -8 goal differential at 5v5, which just isn’t acceptable for a team that wants to contend. 
RNH, Yamamoto, and especially Barrie and the bottom six all have to perform better at even-strength. However, it’s difficult to place the blame entirely on the players, when the bottom six has been overhauled multiple times now. I think it’s becoming exceedingly evident that coaching appears to be a large issue too. 
Whatever the cause, the simple fact is that the Oilers have to be better.
What are your thoughts on Edmonton’s 5v5 play? Do you think coaching is an issue? How do you think the Oilers should try to fix these issues?
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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