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Eyes on the prize

Can we finally start referring to the Edmonton Oilers as cup contenders?

NHL: MAR 09 Oilers at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Oilers are currently sitting fourth in the Pacific division, having secured 80 points in 66 games – a points percentage of 0.606 that ranks in sixth in the western conference. They’re currently the highest scoring team in the league, average 3.82 goals per game – driven largely by their powerplay scoring which ranks first in the league and their even-strength (5v5) scoring rate which ranks sixth. And it was their inability to prevent shots, scoring chances and goals early on in the season (about the first 19 games as we’ll get to in a minute) that’s prevented them from being higher up in the standings. Over the full season, they’ve allowed the 12th highest rate of goals against, ranking 22nd at even-strength and 27th on the powerplay.

Now when we look at the team’s progression over the season, we see that the Oilers have greatly improved at even-strength - and actually turned things around much earlier in the season than I think most people realize. Their performance metrics, which includes shots and scoring chances, all steadily increased after an embarrassing loss on November 21st in New Jersey. The Devils dominated the Oilers that night, posting a 60% share of the shots and scoring chances and scored four even-strength goals. After this loss, the Oilers sat 18th in the league in terms of points percentage, having allowed the sixth highest rate of shots against at even-strength in the league, the third highest rate of scoring chances and the seventh highest rate of goals against. It was looking dire.

But since that loss on November 21st, the Oilers have arguably been one of the best even-strength teams in the league, with the results to prove it. Their goal differential of +17 in this time range ranks second in the western conference, and it’s been supported by strong shot-share numbers – indicating that the results have been real and sustainable. Their 54% Corsi For percentage, a proxy for puck possession, is second in their conference and third in the league. And their expected goal-share, which factors in shot quality and serves as a proxy for scoring chances, is second highest in the league only behind Carolina. Below is a summary of their results since late November (the last 47 games), including their ranking in the league and the western conference.

Since Nov 21, 2022 (47 games) 5v5 League rank (of 32) Western conference rank (of 16)
Points% 0.625 10th 4th
Corsi For% 54.33 3rd 2nd
Fenwick For% 53.63 4th 2nd
Expected Goals For% 56.6 2nd 1st
Goal differential +17 5th 2nd
Goals For% 53.92 8th 2nd
Shooting% 9.33 7th 3rd
Save% 91.03 23rd 9th

What’s played a major role in the Oilers turnaround this season is the team’s depth players who have managed to outshoot and outscore opponents without their top stars on the ice. Up until that loss in New Jersey earlier in the season, it was looking like the Oilers were going to have the same issue as almost every other year - where the team would generate goals with McDavid on the ice, but give everything back when he wasn’t on the ice. The team was posting Corsi For and Expected Goals For percentages below 45% without McDavid on the ice, and posted a -9 goal differential early on in the season. McDavid himself wasn’t breaking even, which sank the Oilers team goal-share to one of the worst levels in the league. But since that loss in New Jersey, it’s been a different story with the Oilers posting shot-share numbers above 53% and a goal differential of +15 without McDavid on the ice. That’s a massive lift for the team and should be an area of strength heading into the playoffs when depth scoring becomes critical for success.

The one concern for the Oilers remains goaltending, which has ranked 23rd in the league in this time period. And we know it’s been Jack Campbell who has struggled the most. Among 57 goalies who have played at least 500 minutes, Stuart Skinner ranks 16th with a 0.921 save percentage and a +3.87 GSAA. Campbell on the other hand ranks 51st in this group with an 0.895 save percentage and 49th with a -8.85 goals saved above average (GSAA).

Edmonton Oilers v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Put another way - had Campbell provided league average goaltending in the 22 games he played since November 21st, the team would have allowed eight fewer goals. That would have had them at a 56% goal-share, and likely higher up in the standings with an additional win or two. Again, this was in a time period of the season where the skaters (with and without McDavid) did a masterful job controlling the flow of play, allowing the ninth lowest rate of shots against in the league, and the fourth lowest rate of expected goals against. If the Oilers can even get league average goaltending the rest of the way, they should remain competitive in the western conference.

Heading into this final stretch of the season, it’s fair to expect the Oilers to finish strongly, especially when you consider how well the team has performed at even-strength since November, the addition of Mattias Ekholm to the defence core, the general health of the roster and the career season some of the top forwards are having. Combine that with strong performance and results from the depth players and good goaltending from Skinner, I think it’s fair to label the Oilers as a legitimate contender heading towards the playoffs.

Data: Natural Stat Trick