At the start of the season, it appeared all hope was lost for defenceman Mark Fayne. He was clearly struggling with the new system, as foot speed and reaction time appeared to be an issue. His numbers reflected it, as the shot attempts against and the shots on goals against often increased when Fayne was on the ice. This translated into a higher expected goals against/60, which factors in shot type, distance and angle, and if the shot was a rush shot or a rebound. More on how shot quality is calculated can be found at Corsica Hockey.
Here's how the most common Oilers defenceman did as of December 9th, 2015, the day that Fayne was demoted to Bakersfield. I looked into the defensive rates (i.e. "per 60") metrics: shot attempts against (CA/60), unblocked shot attempts against (FA/60), shots on goal against (SA/60) and expected goals against (xGA/60). Please note that the stats are score, zone and venue adjusted, based on Corsica Hockey's methods, to give a more accurate assessment of player performance. Tables are sortable.
Here we see that in his first 24 games, Fayne was on he ice for a high rate of shots against, with his expected goals against/60 the highest on the team. This tells us that he would often be on the ice when high danger shots occurred against the Oilers, and that it shouldn't come as a total surprise that the Oilers demoted him to Bakersfield.
The good news for Fayne is that since he was recalled by the Oilers on December 20th, 2015, he's gradually improved, and no longer ranks near the bottom of the Oilers group of defenceman. Here are the same set of numbers for the entire season, again ranked by expected goals against/60.
Over his past 39 games, Fayne has spent far more time with Andrej Sekera, regularly taking on the best competition, and doing well in terms of shot attempts and shots on goal. Fayne currently ranks behind Davidson and Klefbom in some defensive rate metrics, but that can be attributed to the fact that he regularly takes on the top line forwards
What's worth noting is that Fayne did start the season with Sekera and played well, but was eventually paired with Oscar Klefbom as rookie Darnell Nurse started taking top line shifts with a veteran hand in Sekera (Source: Hockey Viz). Fayne never did seem to find any sort of chemistry with Klefbom, but has been receiving consistent minutes with Sekera since being recalled.
If we look at Fayne's rolling average of expected goals against per 60, we see that it's been steadily declining, a very good sign for the player. Fayne's season started around 3.0 expected goals per 60 mark, but now sits around 2.3, which is the best on the team in the past 25 games.
What's worth noting is that as a team, the Oilers rank 20th in the league at 2.57 expected goals against per 60. Below is the team's rolling average this season when it comes to this metric. There doesn't appear to be much of an improvement from last season when it comes to overall team defence, which one could attribute to the injury issues and the poor roster construction. Regardless, the team needs to improve in this facet if they want any shot at making the playoffs next season.
Without a doubt, Mark Fayne struggled early on in the season as the team allowed a high rate of shots against when he was on the ice, with plenty of them being dangerous scoring chances. It might have been the new system or the line-juggling that the coaching staff had to do to accommodate young rookies on defence that impacted Fayne's overall performance.
As of today, it appears that Fayne has found his game and is starting to play at the level the Oilers expected when they signed him to a four year, $14.5 million deal in 2014. He's been playing against the best competition on most nights since his recall from Bakersfield, with the team doing better when it comes to shots against and expected goals against when he takes the ice with Sekera.
Heading into the off-season, the Oilers could potentially look to move Fayne, which really would not make a whole lot of sense considering he's the only experienced right-hand shot defenceman who is also in his prime. The team desperately needs players that can suppress shots and goals, and may have found an excellent, though costly, second pairing in Fayne and Sekera for next season. It's imperative that the Oilers retain players that have proven track records and experience on the backend to help push this team (hopefully) into the playoffs in 2017.