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Have The Oilers Really Made Progress This Season?

With a little over two months left in the season it's become quite clear that the Oilers will finish the year, just like they have the last two, in a lottery position. This result is not what Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini expected and it's not what a lot of the fans were anticipating. Despite the season being a failure by this measure the media is telling fans that the Oilers need to stay the course, that Tambellini has done a good job and as a result will likely be rewarded with a new contract in the near future.

The main reason being given for allowing Tambellini to continue in his efforts to rebuild the Oilers is that there has been progress made this season even if it isn't showing up in the standings. The powerplay is better. The penalty kill is better. The goal differential is better. These are things I've been told by many fans on Twitter and most of the recent articles written about Tambellini and/or head coach Tom Renney say the same thing.

But are the Oilers really improved in these areas or is there something else driving the numbers? Derek has already looked at the Oilers powerplay results and while the Oilers have certainly improved with the man advantage this season, the results are likely unsustainable. That's not a good sign for progress. After the jump I'll look at the progress the Oilers have made when killing a penalty and when they're playing at even strength and what has been the biggest contributing factor.

Last season the Oilers penalty kill was the second worst in the NHL, this season they've improved to sixteen. But, if your goalie is indeed your best penalty killer then we need to look at how the goalies have played this season compared to last to put the overall improvement into context. The table below uses the data available from Behind the Net to compare last season's result to this year.

SEASON GP 4v5 TOI Tot 4v5 GA 4v5 SA 4v5 GA/60 4v5 SA/60 4v5 Sv%
2010-11 82 495.1 70 464 8.5 56.2 849
2011-12 49 307.5 31 260 6.0 50.7 881
On Pace 82 514.6 52 435 6.0 50.7 881
2011-12 w/ 10-11 SV% 82 514.6 66 435 7.7 50.7 849

As you can see the Oilers are on pace to give up 18 fewer powerplay goals this season than they did last year. The Oilers are giving up fewer shots but more importantly they're getting better goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk when they're playing a man short improving from a save percentage ranked 27th last season to 17th this year. To show how big of an impact the improved goaltending has I've included in the table this season's projected totals with the 0.849 save percentage from last season. Looking at it this way you can see that the vast majority of the improvement on the penalty kill is the result of the Oilers goalies simply going from abysmal to average during penalty kills.

The numbers at five-on-five show a similar pattern.

SEASON GP 5v5 TOI 5v5 GA 5v5 SA 5v5 GA/60 5v5 SA/60 5v5 Sv% 5v5 GF 5v5 GD
2010-11 82 3836.4 181 1950 2.8 30.5 907 133 -48
2011-12 49 2269.8 95 1150 2.5 30.4 917 76 -19
On Pace 82 3798.4 159 1924 2.5 30.4 917 127 -32
2011-12 w/ 10-11 SV% 82 3798.4 179 1924 2.8 30.4 907 127 -52

The Oilers are on pace to give up fewer goals, in this case 22 fewer, mostly due to the goaltending having improved from 27th to 14th in terms of save percentage this season over last. Unfortunately they're also scoring a little less, all of which works out to a goal differential that is on pace to be 16 goals better than it was last season. 16 goals would normally be worth two and a half wins so it's not an insignificant total. But (with the Oilers there's always a but) as was the case with the penalty kill, any improvement would vanish if the Oilers had gotten the same goaltending this season that they got last season.

All of this doesn't mean that there has been no progress for the Oilers this season. When I look at the play of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ladislav Smid, and to a lesser extent Tom Gilbert I see progress as each has taken a step forward this year. Looking at the save percentages it's clear that the Oilers' goalies have also made progress this season, even if the improvement has only been to average. But what this does mean is that the improvement isn't as significant as some would want to believe. Saying that the Oilers have made significant progress simply because Khabibulin hasn't been one of the worst goalies in the league rings a little hollow to me. The goaltending almost had to be better this season. Giving Tambellini credit for improvement based on that just seems wrong.