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The Oilers and Score-Close Situations

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A quick glance at how the Oilers do when the score is close and which defencemen are being deployed.

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Todd McLellan's first season as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers has been pretty dreadful thus far. The club has struggled to remain competitive on a consistent basis, with the club now sitting two points away from last place in the league. McLellan is without a doubt a well qualified coach who has the experience necessary to take the Oilers to the next level. Unfortunately for him, the roster has some glaring holes and is now performing at about the same level as season's prior.

This season, the Oilers have been especially bad  when the score is close (as in the score is within one in the first two periods, or tied in the third). I focus on this game state as it eliminates score effects, as teams alter their strategy, and player deployment, depending on if they are trailing or leading. So far, the Oilers have been outscored 62-38 when the score is close, which is the worst goal differential in the league.

Below is a summary of how the Oilers have done when it comes to shots on goal and possession (Corsi/Fenwick), along with scoring chances and PDO (Source: War on Ice).

Metric (Score Close) % Rank
Shots For 46.7 28th
Corsi For 46.8 26th
Fenwick For 46.0 28th
Goals For 38.0 30th
High Danger Scoring Chances 43.4 30th
Scoring Chances For 46.3 26th
Shooting Percentage 6.5 17th
Save Percentage 90.8 28th
PDO 97.2 29th

Pretty much across the board, the Oilers have been brutal. And this is for situations when both the Oilers and their opposition are balancing their offensive and defensive tactics, so it should be of major concern to the coaching staff and management. As much as the Oilers want to talk about playoffs, the reality is that they're not a competitive club.

Something else to keep in mind is the fact that the Oilers are spending a higher proportion of their even-strength time in score-close situations this season. So far, the Oilers have played a total of 1,936 minutes at even-strength, with 1,288 of those minutes being played when the game is close. This equates to 67% of their total time, which is the 7th highest in the league,

Below is a summary of the different score situations at even-strength over the Oilers' past five seasons and what proportion of the team's ice time was played in these situations (Source: War on Ice).

Score Situation 2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16
Down 2+ 22.86% 15.07% 17.23% 22.01% 20.32% 13.31%
Down 1 22.28% 18.77% 19.38% 20.99% 19.28% 21.87%
Tied 31.74% 38.53% 33.03% 33.21% 36.15% 43.53%
Up 1 13.33% 15.64% 13.54% 14.64% 18.66% 13.30%
Up 2+ 9.79% 11.98% 16.81% 9.15% 5.58% 8.00%
Score Close 57.37% 61.50% 57.02% 57.44% 61.22% 66.52%

A few things worth noting. The Oilers play a tied game more often this season compared to season's prior. And they're not trailing by two goals or more as often as they have in the past. These are definitely positives, so it'll be interesting to see if this holds up when we get to April. Having said that, the team isn't playing with the lead that often and is obviously struggling to generate shots, scoring chances and goals on a consistent basis.

Defence Deployment

Since the defence has been the most glaring weakness of the Oilers, I wanted to know which players were getting deployed in different score situations. For this, I've posted below a graph developed by Micah Blake McCurdy that shows the percentage of a player's ice time in different score states (Source: Hockey Viz).

If we start down the middle when the score difference is 0, we see that young Darnell Nurse leads all Oilers defencemen in ice time with Schultz, Klefbom and Sekera close behind. McLellan appears to be fine deploying Nurse regardless if the team needs a goal or if they're protecting a lead, which is surprising considering that Nurse is only 20 years old.

What's also become very obvious is that the Oilers coaching staff do not see Schultz as any sort of offensive specialist. In each of the seasons prior to this one, Schultz would lead the team in average ice time when the score was close or when the team was trailing and in need of a goal. This year, when the score is close, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Andrej Sekera get more ice time than him. When the team needs a goal, Darnell Nurse and Andrej Sekera get more ice time. This is also displayed wonderfully in Micah's graph above as the blue #19 gets a lower percentage of ice time when the team needs a goal AND when they're protecting a lead. Not a good sign for the player. It's obvious that Schultz is struggling to adjust to McLellan's system for defencemen as he no longer gets a high proportion of the high danger chances he's on the ice for. On top of that, Schultz isn't shooting as often as McLellan expects his defencemen to shoot, with very few of his shots actually getting on net.

Thoughts

Going forward, the team needs to bolster their roster, especially on defence, to find more success in score-close situations. While Klefbom and Sekera appear to be the team's most valuable pieces on the blueline, Peter Chiarelli needs to find good to average defencemen who can take some of the workload and not be a liability in tight situations. While Darnell Nurse is a very good prospect, and will hopefully be a big piece in the future, he doesn't have the experience necessary to shoulder the load at this time. It's become increasingly obvious that the young prospect would be better served in a lesser role and have his minutes given to an experienced defencemen who can contribute offensively and defensively.