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Oilers Performance When Trailing and When They're Leading

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A glance at how the Oilers do compared to their standard levels.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, I looked into how the Oilers have done this season when they have a one goal lead. I was at the Nashville game and watched the team blow two one-goal leads and eventually lose the game. The majority of the chatter online and on the radio afterwards was about the goaltending and Laurent Brossoit's poor play. But when I dug a little deeper, I found that the Oilers as a whole absolutely crater when they have a one-goal lead, a trend since the start of the season. When it comes to possession, generating scoring chances and most importantly scoring/preventing goals while the team is leading, the Oilers see a significant drop from their usual performance levels.

I received some positive feedback about the analysis, and was asked by a reader how the Oilers do when they're actually trailing in a game. Based on how they've played and the lack of wins overall, combined with their injury issues, my guess was that the Oilers were not very good when trailing in games. I could only recall a few games where they played well while trailing, so I thought it'd be worth looking at the data.

First up, I created a new graph that compares how the Oilers do in all-score states at even-strength, with how they do when they're leading in a game. My previous article looked specifically at when the Oilers lead by one, so this expands the dataset slightly. Unfortunately, we still see that compared to the NHL average, the Oilers take a significant drop from their standard level of play when it comes to possession, scoring chances and goals. They don't lead in a game often (they rank 27th in the league in ice time) and sit near the top of the league when it comes to how big of a drop they take from their typical performance levels (Source: War on Ice).

So if we look at Corsi For% above, which serves as proxy for possession, we see that the Oilers drop more than six percentage points from their usual CF% when they lead. What's alarming is that while the league average drops fewer points as the shot danger goes up, the Oilers do the opposite. So when most teams drop only three percentage points from their usual level of high-danger scoring chances, the Oilers drop close to ten percentage points. The low share of goals should then come as no surprise as the Oilers are bleeding shots and scoring chances at a very high rate when leading.

Keep in mind, the bottom six forwards like Mark Letestu and Lauri Korpikoski see a bump in their proportion of ice time when the team is protecting a lead (Source: Hockey Viz) and play a role in the Oilers poor performance. Their numbers at 5v5 are poor to begin with and take a big hit, yet they still receive plenty of ice time from the coaching staff. This might be more about re-adjusting the lines, but we'll have to wait for the off-season to improve this area.

Now when it comes to trailing in a game, here's how the Oilers do. I was definitely surprised by this.

Here we see that compared to the league average, the Oilers see a significant increase in all of these metrics. It's expected that teams that are trailing will start playing their skilled, top line guys more often and take more risks to generate offence, which should show a slight bump in proportion levels. The Oilers appear to take it to an extreme level, thanks in large part to their star players like Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl who see a bump in their ice time when the team is trailing. It's worth noting that the jumps that the Oilers take are typically in the top five in league for each metric, which is definitely a positive sign. The Oilers currently do play a lot trailing, ranking third overall, but when they do trail they excel in the areas of the game that lead to goals.

Thoughts

In a perfect world, the Oilers maintain a steady level of driving possession, generating scoring chances and most importantly scoring goals at even-strength. And when they lead or trail, they should fall somewhere near the league average or better. Right now, they rank around 19th overall when it comes to possession, and poorly, often in the bottom five, when it comes to scoring chances and goals. What I've gleaned from this is that our offensive players can be relied upon to generate offence, but the bottom six players aren't very strong when the team is trying to tighten things up defensively. This also makes me question the common narrative that the Oilers get "deflated" emotionally when they give up a goal. It's obvious from the numbers above that they can in fact turn it up a few notches when they trail. But who knows, I'm no psychologist.

With Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back, and the possibility of three strong lines, the overall team metrics could very well improve. And of course the defence core has been below average and took a major  hit when Oscar Klefbom was injured, followed by Brandon Davidson's recent injury. In my mind, it'll take a combination of roster changes and altered player deployment strategies that will help to remedy the issues, something that will hopefully get figured out this summer.