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Scrappy, Meat and Potatoes Hockey

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I like good story lines. But let's keep things real, shall we?

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Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Since the disastrous home-stand a few weeks ago where the Oilers lost five straight, the club has been playing much better, going 4-3 and posting some respectable numbers. Of the three losses, I'd say that the only one that really stung was against the Blue Jackets. The other two losses were tight games, on back-to-back nights, against Los Angeles and Anaheim, who at this point are two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. All in all, it's been a solid run, but one in which the Oilers have been getting a 94.5% save percentage from their goaltending at even-strength (Source: War on Ice).

What I've found odd is the teams emphasis on being "scrappy" over this recent stretch of games. I honestly can't think of a day where Todd McLellan or one of the players haven't mentioned the word "scrappy" or "meat and potatoes". This just doesn't jive well since it;s obvious that the team is relying on some outstanding goaltending and haven't really improved much in other facets of the game like team defence or shot generation.

I get that the team has been playing some physical games, with plenty of fights and after-the-whistle events. But if these things don't translate into goals and wins, I tend to overlook it. But I figured it'd be worth looking into the numbers a little more to see was if I was missing something that would suggest that this team might be turning a corner and actually playing a "scrappy", hard-to-play-against style. And if they are in fact playing a new style, then it should show up in the numbers, especially the ones that measure the different events against.

For this, I looked at shot attempts (Corsi), unblocked shot attempts (Fenwick), scoring chances and high danger scoring chances against per 60 minutes at even-strength. I split it into two time periods: games before and including the loss to the Senators ("Pre-Scrappy") and the games following the loss against the Senators ("Scrappy"). What I was expecting was some sort of drop across all four metrics, since teams that are hard to play against should be suppressing shots and preventing teams from doing what they need to do to score goals.

Here we see that the Oilers are actually allowing more shot attempts and scoring chances over the last stretch of games since the loss to Ottawa. Keep in mind that the Oilers rank near the bottom of the league this season when it comes to these four metrics, and don't appear to be making a whole lot of progress. Small sample size for sure, but it's something worth keeping an eye on and updating at the end of the year.

Blue Paint

One area that the Oilers have improved slightly with is preventing the high danger scoring chances, which occur in the home plate area in front of the net (as defined by War on Ice). We've heard McLellan talking about getting into and protecting the "blue paint" (Source: 630 CHED) as it's where the bulk of the goals are scored from in the NHL. The Oilers are 11th in the league when it comes to generating these chances per 60 minutes, which is great, but they rank 29th in the league when it comes to preventing them. Since the Oilers have improved slightly in this area, I thought it would be worth seeing their rolling 10-game average and uncover any patterns.

Here we see a slight drop in recent games, which is great news. But they've managed to have a decent stretch in the past as well (games 42-48 in January). My point here is that the team has always been capable of playing a physical game and have seen their high danger scoring chances against reduce, but they've never been declared as being "relentless", "gritty" etc. Really, the only difference now is that the Oilers have a few new faces to embody the image of being scrappy.

Thoughts

The Oilers have been doing well over this recent stretch, playing some competitive games and getting outstanding goaltending from Cam Talbot. Prior to the scrappy era, the Oilers were getting a 91.6% save percentage from their goalies, which ranked them second last in the league. In the past stretch of games, they're at 94.8% save percentage, which places them near the top of the league. Based on that alone, it just doesn't make sense to continue harping on how scrappy the team is and its importance to winning when we know its been the goaltending that's winning games. I get that the addition of Cracknell, Maroon and Pardy give the team size, but the team has to demonstrate an ability to play team defence, and preventing teams from doing things that lead to goals, before declaring themselves as being scrappy.