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Getting Over Those Bad Starts

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The Oilers are having trouble starting games. A quick glance at the underlying stats.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

It's become pretty apparent after 15 games how poorly the Oilers play in the first period. For whatever reason, they tend to go down early, often getting outshot, before playing stronger the rest of the way, similar to what happened in Chicago on Sunday night.

Head coach Todd McLellan recognizes this and made a few comments following the game.

"We fall behind, and then we got nothing to lose so we go and we play hard."

"We've gotta believe that we can play against these types of teams." (Source: 630 CHED)

Maybe McLellan is right and it's a mental thing, but I have no idea. I'm not a psychologist. But I do suspect there's more going on here that's worth diving into.

I decided to take take a look at some of the key possession and shot metrics at even-strength to assess the Oilers by period, along with their league-wide ranking (Source: War on Ice). My rationale for selecting these metrics follow the table.

Metric 1st period 2nd period 3rd period All
Corsi For% (Adj) 42.9% (29th) 49.6% (17th) 47.9% (20th) 47.0% (26th)
Corsi For/60 40.9 (30th) 55.4 (7th) 51.7 (15th) 49.3 (23rd)
Goals For% 30.0% (29th) 42.1% (24th) 52.6% (13th) 41.4% (25th)
Fenwick Against/60 39.6 (19th) 41.1 (19th) 41.6 (23rd) 40.8 (23rd)
Save% 88.3% (30th) 91.1% (23rd) 92.0% (17th) 90.4% (27th)

First, I went with the Corsi For%, which is an excellent proxy to measure how often the team had possession. This percentage is adjusted to remove score effects, as we know that some teams trail more often than others and play their system accordingly. The Oilers are 26th overall in the league in adjusted Corsi For and are second last in the league in the first period, ahead only of the Flames. Their second periods are noteworthy, since they play close to 50%, which increases their odds of scoring goals.

Next, I selected Corsi For/60 as this gives us a sense of well the Oilers generate shot attempts. McLellan talked about "volume shooting" recently, pointing out that shot attempts take defenders out of position and make the opposing team work. As we see here, they're last in the league in the first period, but rocket up to 7th overall in the second period. Their problem is that they still allow a lot of shots attempts against, but it's still a positive when you can rank in the top 10 in generating shot attempts.

Third, I went with Goals For%, which really just tells us what we already know: the Oilers get outscored early, but then get a much higher share of goals in the third.

For the last two metrics, I wanted to see if there was anything about the defensive play and the goaltending that might be causing the poor starts. Here we see that the Oilers are actually pretty consistent at preventing unblocked shot attempts. It surprised me to see that even when they start poor, they still block a lot of the shot attempts, something the Sharks did well under McLellan. The problem here is the goaltending, which ranks 27th league-wide when it comes to save percentage. In the first period, the Talbot-Nilsson tandem is dead last in the league, but provide fair to average goaltending in the second and third periods.

Couple Thoughts

From this brief exercise, we confirmed that in the first period of games, the Oilers don't have the puck often, and generate very little in terms of shot attempts. They do manage to block a decent amount of shots, but the goaltending has struggled in the opening frame.

Will this be able to pinpoint exactly one or two factors that McLellan should address? Probably not. But at least we can move past the "believing in ourselves" and team mantras to get a better assessment of the issues here. There might be something going on with either the on-ice tactics employed by the coaching staff or maybe the pre-game prep. But I'm suspecting it has more to do with the roster and some of the weaknesses in the bottom six of the forwards and the defence.

As always, let me know your thoughts.