When the Oilers signed Chris Kelly to a professional tryout on September 9th, I figured it was mainly to meet the requirement of having at least eight veterans on the roster for exhibition games. It also wouldn't hurt for the coaching staff to have an experienced player around the younger prospects through camp. And it would increase the competition for jobs on the third and fourth line.
Nothing confirmed yet, but after Brad Malone was demoted to the AHL earlier this week, and the fact that he’s still on the roster today, it's starting to feel like the Oilers may sign Kelly to an NHL contract.
“He’s performed well. We have to see how these things turn out with Yamamoto and Jesse, and there’s a number of other variables. Chris has done well, he’s skating better than he did last year. He’s a great character, I’ve seen what he can do in and out of the room.” - GM Peter Chiarelli (Source: Oilers Now, 630 CHED)
Of course, signing Kelly wouldn’t be the end of the world. But it raises a few concerns around the Oilers and how they’re managing the roster.
The Oilers currently have 48 contracts on the books (Source: Cap Friendly), and it wouldn't make a lot of sense to use up one their two remaining spots to sign a replacement-level player like Kelly. Ideally the Oilers would either acquire or sign a more impactful player now, a forward or defenceman who can generate offence, or save a spot to bring in an impact player at the deadline. Under a salary cap system, we know it’s imperative that teams maximize each contract and squeeze out as much production as possible from players. Signing Kelly, well I’m not sure what the Oilers accomplish by having him and how Kelly can push the needle in any significant way.
This brings me to my next point. There’s a common belief that Kelly can be an effective penalty killer, an area of the team the Oilers struggled with at times last season. And the coaching staff seems to think so as well as Kelly currently leads all Oiler forwards in total ice time and average ice time per game this preseason. If you look at Kelly’s numbers on the penalty kill from the past few seasons, they do actually look good IF you only look at the rate of goals against. If you look at the rate of unblocked shots against, a better predictor of future goals against, Kelly’s numbers are actually pretty poor.
Last season, Kelly played 82 games in Ottawa predominantly on the fourth line, and lead the team in average ice time per game on the penalty kill. As a team, the Senators finished 20th in the league when it came to goals against per hour on the penalty kill with 7.24. When Kelly was on the ice, the rate of goals against was slightly lower than the team average, sitting at 5.15. On the surface that looks great - 5.15 goals against is what some of the best penalty kill units in the league posted last season. And it makes you think Kelly was a key part of the Senators penalty kill. That is until you realize that Kelly was getting a little bit lucky. The fact is the rate of unblocked shots against jumped to 79.19 when Kelly was on the ice, much higher than the team average of 74.04. To put things into perspective, the worst penalty kill units last year allowed 80 or more shots against per hour. Digging into this further, Kelly was the beneficiary of some excellent goaltending as the team’s save percentage on the penalty kill was at its highest when Kelly was on the ice.
The season prior to that, Kelly only played 11 games for Boston before being sidelined for the rest of year with a fractured tibia. In those 11 games, Kelly averaged the most ice time per game on the penalty kill and the rate of goals against were right around the team average. That’s all well and good. But when Kelly was on the ice, the rate of shots against jumped and was one of the worst rates among all skaters. If you’re the Oilers and are considering handing Kelly a contract to play on the penalty kill and limit the chances against, his past few seasons have to be a little concerning.
This brings me to another issue that this potential Kelly signing raises. Something that I’ve suspected for a while now is that the Oilers heavily favor goal-stats over shot-stats. We know goal-rates are obviously important, but they’re poor predictors of future goal-rates. Goals don’t happen very often, leaving us with small sample sizes. And they’re heavily influenced by shooting and save percentages, variables that are fairly volatile as a lot of luck is involved when scoring and stopping goals. Shot rates on the other hand have been found to be a better predictor of future goal rates, as they’re a repeatable skill and influenced by coaching tactics. The Oilers don’t appear to value shot-rates as highly when making long-term decisions, a problem that will lead to some poor long-term bets, some of which have already happened.
What I think the Oilers might end up doing is convincing themselves that they need someone like Kelly in their bottom six and to kill penalties. Sure, he plays center, has plenty of experience and has a Stanley Cup on his resume. But I think his age, his declining production over the last few years and his underlying numbers, especially when killing penalties, should be enough to dissuade Oilers management from using a roster spot on him.
The fact that the Oilers could potentially sign Kelly really should be an indictment on how poorly the depth players under contract have performed this preseason. This should cast a light on the teams procurement and scouting process, and raise questions around how the Oilers intend to improve their depth going forward. I should emphasize that this is nothing against Chris Kelly. He’s come into training camp, earned his ice time and capitalized on his opportunity. But it really should not have come down to this. And it’s going to be up to the Oilers management to address these issues if they intend on reaching 100 points again and building a championship team.
Data: Natural Stat Trick