It should come as no surprise that one of the Oilers biggest issues in the 2017/18 regular season were the number of goals against. Now a lot of the damage was done when the Oilers were on the penalty kill, as the club finished 27th in the league, and allowed one of the highest rates of scoring chances against when shorthanded. But it was also at even-strength (5v5) when the team struggled, allowing 176 goals - the fifth highest in the league - with a rate of 2.62 goals against per 60. What’s especially disheartening is that the Oilers actually scored 161 even-strength (5v5) goals this past season, 12th best in the league, and only four goals less than the season prior when they finished second in the Pacific division.
Needless to say, team defence was a significant issue. Not only were the goals against pouring in at even-strength, but the Oilers were also one of the worst teams in the league when it came to the rate of high-danger shots against, as well as the rate of scoring chances against. Another metric that captured the Oilers deficiencies on the defensive side of the puck was the rate of expected goals against (xGA), a weighting placed on every unblocked shot against based on the historical probability of the shot becoming a goal, taking into account the type of shot and shot location.
What’s troubling is that team defence has been an ongoing issue for the Oilers since Chiarelli and McLellan arived in the spring of 2015. The Oilers have historically had issues with defence, but you would expect things to improve considering the number of moves the current management group has made to address the blueline, including significant trades and free agent signings.
Here’s how the Oilers have done over the last three seasons when it comes to different defensive metrics, and where they’ve ranked league wide.
|Edmonton Oilers (5v5)||2015/16||2016/17||2017/18|
|Goals Against/60||2.56 (29th)||2.09 (9th)||2.62 (25th)|
|Fenwick Against/60||42.08 (24th)||39.47 (9th)||42.96 (17th)|
|Shots Against/60||30.22 (25th)||28.75 (11th)||31.76 (22nd)|
|Scoring Chances Against/60||26.24 (25th)||26.17 (26th)||28.57 (27th)|
|High danger shot attempts against/60||10.64 (23rd)||11.06 (26th)||12.07 (27th)|
|Expected Goals Against/60||2.33 (23rd)||2.41 (23rd)||2.61 (29th)|
|Team Save%||91.53 (28th)||92.74 (7th)||91.74 (24th)|
If we combine all three seasons, the team has ranked 26th in the league when it comes to goals against per 60 with 2.42, due in large part to a 26th ranked expected goals against of 2.45. Goaltending has been another issue for the club, with the team save percentage ranking 29th in the league across the previous three seasons, with 91.99%.
Now there’s going to be some optimism around the Oilers bouncing back from their dreadful 2017/18 season, and potentially getting back to the level they were at the season prior. There are new additions to the coaching staff and there are young defencemen who could potentially step into a larger role. And there’s hope that the blueline is healthier than last season, when Klefbom was playing hurt, Sekera was recovering from significant knee surgery and Larsson was out of the lineup.
What might get overlooked is the fact that even when the team had success and the blueline was healthy in 2016/17, they still allowed a sizeable rate of quality chances, and really relied on Talbot to win games. The question now is if the team remains as-is and continues their trend of poor defensive hockey, is the goaltending at least good enough to bail them out?
Based on Talbot’s last three seasons now, I’m not so sure.
When the Oilers acquired Talbot in 2015, the thought was the Oilers were getting a player that would be ready to take on a starter role. And in limited minutes, Talbot had posted some very nice numbers. In 57 games for the Rangers between 2013 and 2015 he had a 93.43% even-strength save percentage. Among all goalies who played at least 2,000 minutes between 2012 and 2015, Talbot ranked third only behind Tuukka Rask and Carey Price. When it came to goals saved above average (GSAA) - the goals a goalie prevented given his save percentage and shots faced compared to the league average save percentage on the same number of shots - he was fourth (+20.12).
Fast forward to three seasons later, and the numbers aren’t so great anymore. Between 2015/16 and 2017/18, Talbot has posted a 92.21% even-strength save percentage, which ranks him 30th among regular netminders (i.e., those who have played at least 4,000 minutes, or close to 100 games). He did have an outstanding 2016/17 season, but that’s sandwiched between a year that he at one point lost the starter’s job, and a season where he was one of the worst starting goalies in the league. Whether it’s because of the workload or the fact that he’s 31 now, Talbot’s numbers have slid. And it’s risky to bank on Talbot playing at an elite level and bail the Oilers out if they continue to struggle defensively.
It’s pretty critical that the coaching staff not only play the backup more frequently this coming season to take the load off Talbot, but also make new tactical adjustments to limit the rate of quality chances against. If things stay as-is, and Talbot plays at the level he’s been at over the last three seasons, we should probably expect another year outside of the playoff picture.