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Blame the Goalies and Blame the Penalty Kill

Blame the GM for the trades, but not for the season.

Hockey: World Cup of Hockey-Press Conference Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The other day at work, I was noting how cold it was this winter. Having only lived here five years, naturally, I was bombarded with “You should have seen it when we were Kids!!” and “There was snow up to our armpits, and it was -40 every day”. Of course, none of those claims are true. It’s an interesting thing about the human mind though. Realistically, things like that probably happened once, for maybe a week, and yet, these people use the very small instances of that to claim that this is a mild winter by comparison, and that my growing up in Kelowna doesn’t give me the right to come here and complain about the -20s that just don’t go away. People, in general, often use an outlier as a benchmark. I have a hunch that people perceive things as longer when they were a child, just because a week was a much larger point of their life than it is an adult. These years do start going fast and faster, it seems.

It reminded me of when I was a kid. Lots of people seem to have this idea that in Kelowna, we’re all sitting on the deck and playing golf in January. Of course, that’s ridiculous and isn’t the case, but it keeps being perpetrated by people who either want to make their home there sound nicer, or their home here sound worse. I don’t know why anyone does that, but they do. To prove that there is, in fact, snow and cold weather in Kelowna, I thought about the time I was sure I had done something amazing.

It was 1995 in late December, I had recently turned five and was impatiently counting down the days until Winter vacation. At my elementary school, we had a blacktop with basketball hoops, hop-scotch patterns, and a fence around the whole thing. The asphalt was surrounded with a curb about two inches high to keep the water off the lawn and drain into the sewer grate on one side. On this curb, there was a piece cut out. A group of friends and I used our recess before the winter break to jam ice, snow, dirt, and rocks into this hole to make a dam. Our goal was to keep the water from getting through, and we were damn well going to accomplish that. Satisfied with out repairs, the bell rang and we went back to class, forgetting about our cause a mere hours later.

Upon returning from winter break, we had made an incredible discovery. The hole we had patched up with our snow and dirt concoction was now solid concrete, permanently keeping the water flowing to where it belonged. Naturally, our grade one minds were convinced that we had created concrete and went on to tell our amazed friends our incredible accomplishment. We had solved the problem, and realized the formula for concrete!

Of course, now that I am no longer a five-year-old, I have a sneaking suspicion that the school board had scheduled a concrete crew fix the curb over the winter break with quick-dry concrete. This shouldn’t be difficult for an adult to understand, but for a child, it seemed like too much of a coincidence to imagine that me fixing the minor issue and it being permanently fixed were unrelated. There is an entire fallacy for this called the Post Hoc. It means that if something is done prior to something else, the result was caused by the initial action. It — among every other imagineable fallacy — is often used in politics to either assign blame, or place praise, regardless of if any of the prior actions actually had anything to do with what happened later. It’s one of the many reasons I avoid political topics on public platforms. Now, I’ve written almost 600 words, and if you’ve gotten this far, I’m sure you’re wondering what the hell any of this has to do with the Oilers. Well, I suppose it’s about time I get there..

The Oilers are sporting a terrible 23-27-4 record right now and there is no shortage of justified outrage. How can this be happening? We have the best player in the world, we’ve tanked for years acquiring top picks in the draft and we came into the season as Cup Contenders. What caused this? Or more importantly, who can we blame? Results like this require a pound of flesh, and I’m going to get it, damnit! This is one of the most common narratives:

Travis Yost, like many other observers, have taken issue with the front office. It makes sense, you can’t be trading away players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, the pick used to take Mathew Barzal, and expect to be a better team. Especially when the returning players among the likes of Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, and Adam Larsson. Now, make no mistake, Larsson and Strome are good players, they’re just objectively not as good as the players going the other way. One thing I’m sure we would all love to know, would these players on the roster improve our record?

I started playing around on the team corsica page and found a less than surprising conclusion. The Oilers are a very good team. It’s easy to look at the roster and claim that we don’t have depth due to the name basis, but we’re not getting killed out there. The lines are more than holding their own, and realistically should be scoring even more than they actually are. The roster is worse than it could be, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also hard to get to the conclusion that Peter Chiarelli’s moves over the past two summers have lead to this record.

Going further into the Corsica rabbit hole, I adjust the query from 5v5 to all situations. This is where it really takes a turn. The Oilers go from being one of the best teams, to one of the worst. More specifically, our Penalty is killing us. We all knew that though. I know what you’re thinking, that Benoit Pouliot was one of the players on our penalty kill last year and he was — unnecessarily — bought out over the summer. I am quick to agree that the buyout was unnecessary and ill-informed, however, that’s not the real problem. The real problem, is actually one of our most important players in Cam Talbot. He’s better than only Scott Darling in high danger scoring chances against on the PK, that is simply not good enough. The L formation is bad, but the Oilers aren’t actually giving up many more chances than other teams on a shot basis. This is another instance of me having a hard time blaming Chiarelli for the Oilers’ record. No one expected Cam Talbot to be posting numbers comparable to Steve Mason, and it’s a good bet to expect him to rebound by next season. I’d like the Oilers to change that crappy L formation, but I have a hard time imagining that Chiarelli is the one telling players to line up with that ridiculous tactic.

Now we get to the Power Play. Before I start on this, I should point out that the right-side half-wall setup has been changed recently and has posted far better results. I’m not ready to say that it’s a solved problem — we did go 0/3 against the Sharks the other day — it is however, showing progress. And that’s important. When I look at the guys struggling this season, it’s not as though it’s a result of McLellan not having enough options with the man advantage. Leon Draisaitl has 12.5% of his points on the powerplay this year, and Connor McDavid has 21%. Typically, a top player has between 25% and 33% of their production coming on the man advantage. Leon Draisaitl has a great shot, as we’ve seen with the new powerplay setup, and having him down below the goal line with the man advantage for the better part of the year has hampered his production and effectiveness. That shouldn’t be overlooked.

I know we’re still angry about the team’s record and the team that could have been, but I’m not overly convinced that even a completely loaded team would be able to win many games with this kind of goaltending, or this type of powerplay. Those are unmitigated disasters, at least as much of a failure as trading top players for less than top players.

Back to talking about my ice and dirt dam. It’s a simple conclusion to draw that trading away good players is causing this record. I’d be quick to point out, though, that Jordan Eberle wouldn’t be helping our penalty kill, nor would he be helping our goaltending. Taylor Hall is the really big issue. He’s one of the best wingers in the league, and trading him for Larsson really is a fireable offense all by itself. There is no reason to brush that off.

Remember last year? Eberle went through a slump (trading him over it was dumb) and Taylor Hall wasn’t here, yet, we made the playoffs anyway? Remember when people were pointing to the record and the 2nd round playoff appearance to justify the Taylor Hall trade? It was ridiculous and wrong to give the GM credit for those moves then, and it’s equally wrong to point to the record now and blame the GM. You really can’t have it both ways, no matter how much you want that GM fired. There’s enough evidence to suggest Peter Chiarelli should be fired without having to use supporting evidence that holds about as much water as my ice and dirt dam on the blacktop.

It particularly bothers me that Travis Yost has taken this position. Not the position that Chiarelli should be fired, I can get behind that easily enough. I’m annoyed that he’s correlating the record to the trades. He’s billed as an advanced stats junkie, one of the best things about advanced stats, is that they can be used to refute lazy narratives. Yost has instead used his platform to promote the laziest of lazy narratives. It’s a shame, really. Maybe it’s a little off to suggest that bad trades causing a bad record is the equivalent to thinking that snow and dirt made concrete, but the process is eerily similar.

The real problem I have with all of this, is that I end up looking like a Chiarelli apologist just by comparison to how unreasonable people are being. I find the need to emphatically state, those trades are REALLY bad. They hurt the team, they lacked foresight, they should be criticized, and everyone has earned their pound of flesh. BUT... I consider the Oilers current record largely inadmissible as evidence. Luckily for Chia haters, there is plenty of legitimate evidence. Really, there’s no shortage. No need to bother with things he didn’t cause, just worry about what he does cause. Remember that Kris Russell deal? There’s a summer coming up with cap complications. The pitchforks are necessary, just leave the sub .500 record out of it, because you’d be ignoring ample evidence that goaltending and coaching have a lot more to do with it than the GM or his horrible trades.