Despite the Oilers poor effort at home against the Flames on Saturday night, the team has shown some signs of life this season. It's easy to point out the individual flaws and the decade of bad hockey in Edmonton. But we can't overlook what this current group of players has accomplished this season under new management and a new coaching staff.
Now lets be real for a minute. This is a 30th place team. But a lot of it has to do with the injuries to key players. It has to do with poor roster construction which management did not address over the summer. And it has to do with games like the one this past weekend, where weaknesses, like the defence and special teams, get exposed. But before we trade everyone away this summer, it's worth looking at the overall team performance and compare it to previous seasons.
An important metric worth including in our regular assessments of the club is Corsi, which has been used as a proxy for possession. The metric tells us which teams are spending more time in the offensive zone, and we've learned that over time outshooting eventually leads to outscoring (Sources: Objective NHL, NHL Numbers)
What we can also do, thanks to Corsica Hockey, is adjust Corsi to take into account things like score effects, team and player zone starts and venue (since home teams tend to get their shot attempt counts inflated). This way we can get a much more accurate assessment of a teams performance when it comes to possession and have a lot more confidence when comparing teams.
Now if we look at the past six seasons including the current one, we see that the Oilers have gradually improved when it comes to their share of total shot attempts at even-strength, especially over the past three seasons. The Oilers rank 20th in the league this season in Corsi For%, which is notable as the team typically ranks in the bottom five of the league.
When we look at the possession numbers by season, we can see the improvement under Tom Renney over his two seasons behind the bench. And then following his dismissal, we see that the club took a major dive with Ralph Kreuger in the lockout season and continued that trend the following season under Dallas Eakins. The 2014/15 season did see a jump in their possession numbers, but the club could not translate any of that into wins as poor goaltending and an incomplete roster cratered the clubs chances for success. The good news is that the Oilers are currently sitting just under 49%, which would be their best Corsi For% in the past six seasons, despite having glaring holes on defence and losing key players to injuries.
Another way to look at a team's performance when it comes to possession is by looking at 25-game rolling averages over the course of each season. This tells us a better story and can give us a sense of which way the team was trending based on the data available. Please note that the 25-game averages only include games from that season and did not account for games from the previous year (or playoffs..hah).
So starting from the far left are the 2010/11 and 2011/12 seasons under Renney who showed steady progress within his first season and stabilized things well in his second season with no significant drop-off. With Kreuger behind the bench in 2012/13, the team saw a major drop from the previous year and never came close to recovering by April. Things got even worse with Eakins behind the bench with the team starting off slightly better than the previous season, but eventually cratering by the end of the season. In Eakins' second season, the team did post some much improved possession numbers, but the team could not translate that into wins going 7-19-5 before a coaching change was made. You can almost see the point where Todd Nelson took over, as the club's possession numbers took a significant dive. Poor roster construction played a big part here as the Oilers traded defenceman Jeff Petry at the deadline and relied heavily on Justin Schultz and AHL call-ups to finish the season.
What the rolling averages tells us is that even though at a season-by-season level the club improved possession-wise, there was an obvious downward trend as the two previous seasons wore on. This season under McLellan has been much different. Even though the roster construction has been poor and the injuries piled up, the club actually showed a much more progressive trend, even crossing that 50% Corsi For percentage mark at one point.
These improvements don't happen by accident, which tells me that the coaching staff has been getting its message across to players, and the roster, despite their flaws, has been able to improve their play from last season. The last thing the Oilers should be doing is tinkering with the parts of the roster that drive possession on a nightly basis and moving players for the sake of change. Instead, management should be looking to improve two particular areas that are relied upon to suppress shots in key situations. The first being defence, which badly needs experience, mobility and skill on the right side. And the second being the bottom six forwards, who McLellan relies on heavily to protect leads, but often gets destroyed when it comes to shot-share and goal-share. Make improvements there, try to build on the progress of this season, and compete with a full, NHL calibre roster before even thinking about moving any of the core players.