In the first game of the 2013/14 season, the Oilers lost a game they should have won. It was one game. Both the good and the bad should be seen as nothing more than the story for that individual game. Jesse Joensuu is not likely becoming the next Milan Lucic and Devan Dubnyk is not likely turning into Steve Mason. It's virtually impossible to draw significant conclusions from the absurdly small sample size of one NHL game (even though there are many that have spent the last few days over-reacting to both positives and negatives in an attempt to do exactly that).
What I am coming away from the first game with however, is a list of things that I found interesting that I will continue to watch in the days and weeks to come to see if they were things that were unique to the game vs. the Jets on Tuesday night, or if they were early indications of a trend that we can actually track throughout the season. Some of these things had to do with the on-ice performance of individual players, but many others had to do with the deployment strategies of Dallas Eakins.
You all may have other things you will keep an eye on in future games, and I encourage you to add some of them in the comments below. For now, here are my own personal items of interest taken from the Oil's loss to the Jets.
1) Different deployment strategies of players who entered the game on the same line.
Oilers fans have long been aware of the line blender dating back to Craig MacTavish's time as head coach. While I don't think Eakins mixed his forwards around to that extent in his first game, I found it quite interesting that there were some significant disparities in the way Eakins used players who spent much of the game on the same line. A big example here is Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky. They played together a great deal of the game on a line with Taylor Hall, with the majority of the shifts starting in the neutral zone. However, Hemsky ended the game starting only 11.8% of his shifts in his own zone, and that stat INCLUDES Hemsky being on the ice for 35% of the team penalty killing time (or 2:20 of ice time).*
On the other hand, Ryan Smyth started a team low 14.3% of his shifts in the offensive zone (again, factoring in all game situations), despite being very active on the powerplay and barely playing on the penalty kill. I'm not sure what to take from it yet as we need to fill in the gaps in the data plus expand the data set to include more games, but it seems like very logical use of his players to me. If Eakins is able to play lines together frequently while finding the right nuanced situations to split his lines in order to optimize various game situations, then I think we're going to like what we see from him. I'm anxious to see how this continues.
2) Using offensive stars on the penalty kill
I think one thing that everyone noticed in the game vs. the Jets is that Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky played on the penalty kill much more than in past seasons. But have you checked out exactly how much? Hall played 3:04 on the PK (more than all forwards except Will Acton) and Hemsky played 2:20, good for fourth on the team behind Acton, Hall and Boyd Gordon. I think the one thing we can see is that Taylor Hall is going to see a lot more ice time under Eakins, but I don't know if anyone expected him to be used so heavily 4v5. It will be interesting to see if this continues once the team gets healthy. Sam Gagner was a significiant penalty killer last season.
Furthermore, I'm interested to see if Hall can stay as effective with all of these extra minutes. The team has a guy like Ryan Smyth who struggled badly 5v5 in game one, but has a history as a penalty killer. He played only 0:27 in that role against Winnipeg. I imagine he certainly could contribute more in that area if the team needs to try to manage Hall's minutes a little better. That said, I'm thrilled to see Hall up over 20 minutes a night. I'm just not sure 24 min/g isn't going to be too much to continue getting the best from him.
3) Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid
One of the areas that the strategy discussed in #1 on my list does not seem to have been applied is in regards to the blueline. It appeared by eye, and the numbers seem to support it (according to Michael Parkatti's work at Boys on the Bus) that the D pairings remained together consistently at even strength with some variations used during special teams. I don't have any issues with that, but it does present a strange item with regard to the Smid and Petry pairing. As mentioned above, the QoC numbers aren't available for Tuesday's game, unless someone can point me to them, but the previously linked work from Michael Parkatti would seem to substantiate that the Smid/Petry pairing played a lot 5v5 and did so against significant opposition. This is all fine as that pair has proven capable of managing difficult minutes in the past.
That said, Smid, being almost exclusively a defensive-minded player, only started 11% of his shifts in his own end (all zone start numbers reflect all game situations). When factoring in Smid's 2:12 on the PK, it seems that while he faced top opponents, he did so almost exclusively in the neutral or offensive zones. I'm not sure that is the best place for Smid, though it makes at least some sense for Petry, who had similar deployment. If these two are going to remain paired together, which seems a reasonable assumption, and continue facing top opposition, which, again, seems reasonable to assume given past seasons, it will be interesting to see if Smid continues to get so many shifts away from his own zone.
4) The performance of Jesse Joensuu and Boyd Gordon
I thought both players had very strong games. Joensuu was surprisingly good and Gordon was, to my eye, perhaps the most effective Oiler in the game. The line (along with Nail Yakupov) perfomed well against virtually every line (except for, strangely, the Jets' 4th line) and really took advantage of Mark Scheifele's line. If the Oilers can find a 3rd line that can consistently win the possession battle against secondary opposition like that, then it will go a long way towards helping the team win the "corsi-battle" as some have called it on a more consistent basis. I suspect that given the struggles of Ryan Smyth, Joensuu may see some time higher in the line-up, which will make Derek Zona have JF Jacques nightmares, but until the team gets healthy at centre and can move Hall back to the wing, it's likely either that or calling up Linus Omark, which seems somewhat unlikely at the moment.
(UPDATE: It appears help down the middle is coming sooner than expected, as coach Dallas Eakins has announced that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will return to the line-up on Monday night against the New Jersey Devils)
Gordon was surprising for different reasons. He wasn't buried with the toughest opposition or zone starts as he was in Phoenix, and it seemed to let him show a different side to his game. He looked very solid in front of the net on the powerplay, though I don't expect to see him there often. Instead of just managing the possession game against tough opposition, Gordon actually played against secondary opponents primarily, and was able to contribute to a line that actually seemed to overpower the Jets most of the night. If the Oilers' top forwards can play power vs. power with positive results, it could open up the opportunity for Gordon to excel in an easier role than he has been cast in over the past few seasons. Another item to watch.
5) Nick Schultz
Much of the discussion among the team's blueline heading into the season has been around the new faces, but Nick Schultz might be the most interesting guy on the back end this year. Last season, Schultz the elder was asked to babysit his younger namesake and struggled in that capacity. With daycare duties seemingly passed over to new Captain Andrew Ference this year (which should be easier as J. Schultz develops his own game) Nick has been re-assigned to a role that he may be able to perform in extremely well. Schultz played the game against secondary opposition, but started in his own zone more than any other defenceman. He brought stability to that bottom pairing and came away just on negative side of even in the possession battle (-1 corsi on the night according to Parkatti's numbers).
More than that, he was never more than a +1 or -1 against anyone, which would imply a level of steadiness and consistency to his performance. His partner Anton Belov seemed far more chaotic, and the team's other Dman, Denis Grebeshkov has a similar reputation, but if Schultz can stabilize that bottom pairing, he, along with the Gordon line noted above, could be among the biggest improvements to the bottom half of the line-up this season. He also played over 3:00 on the PK in game one. If he can perform well in that regard, it would allow the team to use the Smid/Petry pairing more heavily in 5v5 situations, which is a better alternative than more of Belov and Schultz at EV. I hope that these observations hold as more data becomes available if Schultz can perform well in this role. A low event bottom pairing is a big step forward from last season.
6) Dallas Eakins use of the 4th line
I'll say it now. I can't stand this 4th line. Not at all. If you want Will Acton on this team...fine. I thought he looked decent in the pre-season, but to my eye, was among the poorest performers against WPG on Tuesday. I accept that there aren't many better options in the organization, but that's not a justifiable excuse. Some fans are enamoured with Luke Gazdic, but he wouldn't be on my team if I had a roster of 30. Same can be said of Mike Brown. I think they are two virtually useless hockey players and a kid you can't help but like, but at the end of the day, is a replacement level NHL player at best and nothing more. You know what was great about the 4th line though on Tuesday night? How they were used by Dallas Eakins.
I think I saw one shift where they were on the ice coming off a commercial break, which gave me flashbacks to
Freddie Ralph Kueger last season, but based on what I saw, and the stats that have become available since the game, Eakins gave that line 5 minutes of time at even strength and with the exception of Acton on the penalty kill (where he played a lot. 3:15 to be exact, most of all fwds.) none of them saw a single second on special teams. Even better, it appears that they were used almost exclusively against the opposition's 4th line as well. This is how an NHL coach uses a 4th line that is of "questionable" skill. There were no instances of Gazdic-Acton-Brown starting an own-zone shift against the Ladd-Little-Wheeler line the way we saw Krueger send out Belanger's line against Jonathan Toews for a defensive zone draw coming out of a TV timeout. One game is only one game, but Eakins appeared to show better judgement and a better awareness of the strengths/weaknesses of his players than his predecessor as well as a more established strategy on how to deploy them.
All of the things above are only observations from one hockey game, but they are items that, to me, seem to indicate that there is hope for some significant improvements to the Oilers' record from a year ago. With a performance from Dubnyk that is more typical of what his career history has shown he is capable of, Edmonton would have won that game. I expect Dubnyk to be better most nights than he was against the Jets this past Tuesday, and if he is, I look forward to seeing if these other items continue to show positively in the weeks ahead.
Pass along your thoughts in the comments below regarding the items that you intend to watch closely as we continue to conduct our early assessment of this team for the 2013/14 season.
*(I should note here that I haven't yet seen zone start stats for the game broken down by game state [5v5, PP, PK]. The excellent new site extraskater.com has some wonderful data, but they are still finishing the site, so breakdowns of zone starts, Quality of Competition and time on ice are still somewhat limited. That said, I highly recommend checking it out.)