After watching their playoff aspirations gradually slip away and becoming seller’s at the trade deadline, the Oilers had no other option but to begin a period of evaluation to close the 2017/18 season. After trading away forwards Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu, changes were expected to the group up front including an altered distribution of ice-time as well as roles on the team. And based on the transactions that the Oilers made this off-season and some of the early updates coming out of training camp, it appears that the final stretch of the 2017/18 season had an impact on the management team’s approach towards building their roster.
For one, the Oilers seem content on running the top line that produced so well over the final 12 games, and for good reason. The trio of Connor McDavid, Ty Rattie and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played 128 minutes together at even-strength (5v5) during this period outscoring opponents 13-7, a fantastic goal share of 65.0%. Their on-ice possession numbers together were fine (51.34% Corsi For percentage) and their shooting percentage clicked at 18.57%, indicating that they may have been getting a little lucky in terms of actual production. Mind you, McDavid has the superhuman ability to drive up scoring, so we’ll wait and see if this was a one-off or if the line can continue scoring at a rate of 6.0 goals per hour.
It also looks like the Oilers want to keep Ryan Strome as a center with Jesse Puljujarvi as his right winger (Source). Over the final month of the 2017/18 season, the two were deployed often together at even-strength along with Milan Lucic in third a line role, posting some pretty good possession numbers (52.84% Corsi For percentage) over 89 minutes. Unfortunately, they couldn’t translate this into actual goals, finishing the season with a 50% on-ice goal-share (2 GF, 2 GA), and a pretty lousy rate of 1.34 goals for per hour. Early reports from training camps indicate that it’ll be Jujhar Khaira instead of Lucic with Strome and Puljujarvi, which makes sense based on another issue that transpired in 2017/18.
If you recall, Khaira was being tested by the coaching staff as a fourth line center over the final month of the season. But unfortunately for him, the results were dreadful. As a centerman, Khaira’s on-ice goal-share was 20.0%, as the team got outscored 4-1 at even-strength with him on the ice. This was thanks in large part to some poor possession numbers, as his on-ice Corsi For percentage was just barely above 44% over 123 minutes of ice time. His most regular linemates to close the year included the likes of Anton Slepyshev, Zack Kassian, Yohann Auvitu, Pontus Aberg and Iiro Pakarinen.
The Oilers may have taken note of this and (hopefully, finally) come to the realization that Khaira actually has a history of producing quite well when he’s deployed with Strome. There’s an obvious chemistry there with results to back it up. Last season when they played together at even-strength, the Oilers posted a 52.54% Corsi For percentage and a 50.0% goal-share (11 GF-11 GA). And while it’s true that they did get to play (and produced very well) with Leon Draisaitl for a period leading into the Christmas break, their numbers together and away from Draisaitl are still quite good (52.87% Corsi For percentage, 50.0% goal-share, 6 GF-6 GA).
Speaking of Draisaitl, the Oilers made some moves in the off-season that should benefit their young centerman. While McDavid was playing with RNH and Rattie, and Strome played with Puljujarvi and Lucic, the Oilers coaching staff, for whatever reason, felt it was appropriate to deploy Draisaitl with Drake Caggiula. We have enough evidence now over the course of two seasons to demonstrate that Caggiula is an even-strength possession drag on pretty much anyone he plays with, including McDavid. So the results over the final month weren’t shocking at all. Draisaitl and Caggiula played 83 minutes together, and while they posted a 50.0% on-ice goal-share (6 GF, 6 GA), their on-ice possession numbers were dreadful, barely breaking over the 46% mark. That’s a number well below what we would expect from any line especially one that features Draisaitl on it.
Now there are two things that the Oilers did this summer in relation to Draisaitl’s late season output that conflict with one another.
First they went out and were able to sign a skilled and experienced winger in Tobias Rieder to a one year deal. That itself is an improvement over what Draisaitl had in Caggiula, even though it remains to be seen if Lucic stays as the second line left winger or if Caggiula gets another opportunity there. The fact is, the Oilers were dreadful to close the season when that top line featuring McDavid, RNH and Rattie weren’t on the ice. And they made an effort to improve their late season results by letting a group of depth forwards go including Pakarinen, Slepyshev and Auvitu and bringing in Rieder, Brodziak and Upshall and Chiasson on PTO deals.
But this leads to the second decision Oilers made in the off-season, which is sign Caggiula to a generous two year contract extension worth $1.5 million per season. This is definitely an overpay, well above what the market is for replacement level players, and indicates that the team values him quite highly. It also suggests that another chance for him to play in the top six, possibly with Draisaitl, and special teams isn’t out of the question.
Looking at the various transactions that occurred in the off-season as well as some of the reports coming out training camp, it appears that the Oilers put a decent amount of stock into what transpired over the final stretch of games last season. They kept their top line in tact, they overhauled their forward depth to get more production, and they’re pairing players together that had some success in the past.
But focusing so much on the final month of the season may cause the management team to overlook some important things that happened in other parts of the year. For instance, their best results as a club happened over a 10-game stretch leading into the Christmas break, when they posted a +11 goal differential and went 7-3. Their results appeared to be sustainable as they posted strong even-strength possession numbers. Had their special teams been producing at league average levels, it’s likely their results could’ve been even better. And it was during this period that the team ran McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH as centers on their own lines - something that’s been completely forgotten about after the final stretch of games in 2017/18 was deemed the evaluation period.
It’s critical for this organization to be gathering and reviewing as much information as possible to support their decision making process. And if there are plans for building a championship contender, that has to include team and player evaluation over the course of the full season, and even season’s prior, with a focus on the periods that had sustainable success. While it makes some sense to look at the end of the year as an evaluation period, it’s critical that they base their decisions on a much larger set of data than that.
Data: Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz