There’s plenty of optimism around the Oilers this week and for good reason. The club sits second in the Pacific division with 13 points, just behind the San Jose Sharks with a game in hand. After struggling in their first two games of the season the club has won six of eight - three of those wins happening in regulation.
At even-strength (5v5), it’s been the stellar play of Connor McDavid that’s really kept the team going. The club’s goal-share sits at 38.1% (8 GF, 13 GA) without him on the ice, but jumps to 60.0% (6 GF, 4 GA) when he’s on.
The club has also benefited from some sound defensive play. The Oilers have allowed 17 goals against this season at even-strength, a goals-against rate of 2.17, 11th best in the league. The team is right around league average when it comes to any of the shot-based metrics including shots against, unblocked shot attempts against and scoring chances against per hour. And their goaltending at even-strength ranks 10th in the league at 92.74%.
Special teams have been good as well. The club ranks 8th in the league when it comes to goals-for per hour on the powerplay (5v4) with 9.36. And their penalty kill (4v5) ranks 12th in the league with 6.85 goals against per hour. Worth noting that of the two, the penalty kill results appear to be the more sustainable one as the club ranks in the top quarter of the league when it comes to limiting shots and scoring chances shorthanded. The powerplay, on the other hand, doesn’t do a great job generating shots - largely because of the Oilers insistence on deploying five left-handed shooters. But it does have McDavid driving the offence and serving as a human cheat-code, so it could very well remain as a top ten powerplay unit.
What’s concerning at this point is the Oilers lack of scoring at even-strength (5v5) as they only have 14 goals so far, tied with Detroit for lowest in the league. And the team’s goal-share ranks 22nd in the league with 45.16% (14 goals-for, 17 goals-against, -3 goal differential). Factoring in time-on-ice, the Oilers rank 29th in the league with a goal scoring rate of 1.79 per hour - well below where they finished last season (2.41) and in 2016/17 (2.48).
An alternative way to put it - the club scored 166 even-strength goals in 2016/17 (8th in the league) and 163 in 2017/18 (11th in the league). Those should be the year-end targets again as it would have them in and around the top ten league-wide. Right now the Oilers are on pace for 119 goals, which would be one of the lowest year-end totals for any team over the past five seasons. Special teams could improve their overall goal differential, but that would require significant success.
Over the last two seasons, the club has typically been above the 2.00 goals per hour mark at even-strength with slumps occasionally occurring - largely because of the lack of secondary scoring behind McDavid’s line. It’ll be interesting to see who the Oilers can rely on to score goals when McDavid is on the bench, and if they can sustain a respectable level through the 2018/19 season.
Another concern is actually around McDavid, as odd as that might sound.
So far this season, the Oilers have scored 2.13 goals per hour with McDavid on the ice, and 1.60 goals per hour when he’s been on the bench. While McDavid’s on-ice goal-share of 60.0% is outstanding, the goals-for rate is well below what we should expect, considering the team scored 3.51 goals per hour in 2016/17 and 3.62 in 2017/18 with him on the ice. The good news is that his personal even-strength shooting percentage this season is at 9.52%, a few percentage points below his career shooting percentage (over the previous three seasons) of 13.32. So I think we can safely assume his goal-conversion numbers will eventually correct themselves.
Based on some quick math, and assuming McDavid plays 1,300 of the team’s 4,000 total minutes at even-strength (about 32.5%), for the Oilers to score 168 5v5 goals this season, the Oilers need to reach a rate of 3.4 goals per hour with McDavid, and target 2.1 goals per hour without him. Currently the Oilers are not close to either goal-scoring rate, which really should be getting more attention from the coaching staff, especially around the various line combinations and wingers in the top six.
One performance metric worth digging into is the Oilers possession numbers as their Corsi For percentage (a proxy for possession) sits at 47.46%, 23rd in the league and only ahead of Vancouver and Anaheim in the Pacific division. What’s odd is that even with McDavid, whose on-ice possession numbers have historically been strong, the team’s Corsi For percentage dips down to 48.12%. Without him on the ice, it’s 47.12%.
It’s worth noting that the team’s 5.91% shooting percentage is the second lowest in the league at even-strength, and we should expect it to regress towards the mean over the course of the season. The problem however is that while the Oilers are around league average when it comes to generating shots on goal, they’re in the bottom five in the league when it comes to generating scoring chances and shot attempts from the high-danger areas (as defined by Natural Stat Trick).
As demonstrated above, the bulk of the Oilers shots are from the left point, with their rate of high danger chances (in and around the crease) ranking below league average. The club will need to do a better job of generating shots from the more high-probability areas and rely more on their forwards to create opportunities off of cycles rather than find rebounds from point shots. The Oilers lack a real finisher - someone with a history of scoring goals - so it’ll be important for the coaching staff to find as many tactical advantages as they can.
The Oilers are fortunate to be in the spot that they’re in right now, banking 13 points to start the season. They’ve benefited from having McDavid carry the offence, from Klefbom bouncing back to form, good special teams and goaltending. But the coaching staff cannot be complacent. The key now will be for the team to recognize their flaws and make the necessary adjustments to generate more offence and continue accumulating points.