The Good: Winning Hockey Games
by Ryan Batty
You can’t make the playoffs in October but you can do a lot to miss the playoffs. And unfortunately for Oilers fans this has been our reality in recent seasons. The team has stumbled out of the gate, getting bad goaltending, bad coaching, or just plain bad luck (and in some cases all three) and the season would be all but over before it had even begun. In an 82 game season, knowing that you’re effectively out of playoff contention in the first weeks or month of the season makes the rest of the season seem unbelievably long.
After five games last season the Oilers had two points. One lousy win. And as bad as that total was it was actually an improvement over the year before where the Oilers managed just a single loser point in their first five games of the season. In both cases the slow start was the first sign of another long and less than enjoyable season for Oilers fans. Jump ahead to this year and the Oilers find themselves near the top of the NHL’s standings with a 4-1-0 record and eight points through five games; they’ve also scored a league high 20 goals.
When the Oilers’ season wraps up 77 games from now, nobody expects the team to finish with 131 points; they’re likely not even going to get to 90 points. But we don’t always have to worry about things like that, with one eye on the numbers trying to figure out what lies ahead, there will be lots of time for that in the coming months, sometimes we can just enjoy the wins. That’s what I’m doing right now because I’ve lived through the alternative and I can tell you that winning is a whole more fun than losing.
The Bad: The Oilers Underlying Numbers After Five Games
by Sunil Agnihotri
What the Oilers should be concerned with after five games are two things: their below-average possession numbers at even-strength, and their above average share of scoring chances.
After five games, the OIlers rank 22nd in the league when it comes to the total share of shot attempts (CF%) with 46.66. The Oilers have held leads in their games, so this number has been score and venue adjusted (Source: Natural Stat Trick). Even with a pretty good top line, and a defence group that is better than years past, and even with four of their first five games at home, the team still can't put up good possession numbers. The team is generating a decent rate of shot attempts per 60, with 53.29, good for 15th in the league. But they currently rank 26th when it comes to shot attempts against per 60, with 60.92. If the Oilers are serious about contending for the playoffs, or at least increasing their chances, they'll need to eventually get their overall possession number above 51%.
When it comes to their total share of scoring chances at even-strength, the Oilers are doing quite well. They currently rank 9th in league with a 52.34% share of scoring chances, well above what they've done in years past. Their rate of scoring chances for is 22.89 per 60, 11th in league, while their rate of scoring chances against is 20.85, good for 16th in the league so far. I'm suspecting that young Connor McDavid is the reason for these scoring chance numbers, but it's probably best to wait until we have a larger sample size before we can confirm that.
We should also be mindful of the fact that the Oilers are 10th in the league when it comes to PDO, as they sit at a 101.2, indicating that they are getting a little lucky. Their team shooting percentage is currently 10.4%, ninth in the league, and a couple percentage points above their historical average (usually around 7.5-8.0%). When it comes to goaltending, they rank 14th, with 90.82%, a number that the Oilers should actually be able to sustain as long as Talbot stays healthy. So if you believe in everything in life regressing to the mean, we can expect that shooting percentage to drop and some bounces going the other way. Although, there is the McDavid effect, which is real and spectacular.
The Ugly: I’m Sorry, Kris Russell
by Minnia Feng
I have a confession to make.
Yes, I was a hater. Quite a mild hater, if you measure it by the overall reaction to Kris Russell’s signing right before the beginning of the season, but my expectations for him were as low as they were for the movie Now You See Me 2, which I couldn’t even bring myself to go watch.
I believe I masked my skepticism as well as I possibly could in my introduction of Russell to the team, though a biting penchant for sarcasm took over near the end, proliferating the more I stared in horror at the grotesque advanced stats staring me in the face. By merely looking at the numbers and the reactions from delighted Flames fans all over the internet, one would have been led to believe we were signing the worst defenseman to ever skate across an NHL rink, one whose only skill is using his small frame as a human barrier between puck and net. He made things even more contentious when he casually rubbed against the still raw wounds of the Taylor Hall trade by choosing to wear #4.
Well, guys, at this point in the season, I quite like this small, courageous human being, proving doubters wrong with every nifty defensive move, diffusing dangerous situations like he’s Alberta’s MacGyver. He catches my attention for the best of reasons, consistently sound with his positioning and stick, and rarely makes a mistake defensively. The shot block thing is still being done, and as someone who approaches all sports I play like dodgeball (mostly unintentionally), I truly have a newfound appreciation for an action that I know I could never bring my cowardly self to do in front of an NHL shot.
Kris Russell has been one of the team’s best defensemen so far this season in a top-4 role, playing on his opposite side, and has earned the trust of his coach, tied with Adam Larsson now for the most even strength minutes played (92). He’s shown some offensive flair, too— excluding Mark Fayne, he even leads Oilers defensemen in Scoring Chances +/- per 15.
Sometimes, a tendency to pronounce signings and trades as immediately terrible can actually be deleterious. It may be a reflexive mechanism after ten years of missing the playoffs, but I think it would do the fanbase some good to reserve making harsh judgments until at least a few games have played out. It also seems to be much more conducive for overall happiness— being a hater is no fun.
I’m not proclaiming Kris Russell to be the second coming of Duncan Keith now either, because five games is admittedly a small sample size, and the caution against making grand proclamations applies to positive ones, as well. But if anything, this experience has taught me to hold back on writing anyone off before they’ve been given a chance to prove their case otherwise. Kris Russell, sorry for being a mild hater-- if you keep up the good play, I promise to write you an epic rap song called “To All My Haters.” It will be glorious.