Armchair GM: We Can Rebuild It (Pt 3 – Edmonton Oilers)

It’s time for the third installment of my Armchair GM: We Can Rebuild It series, looking at probably the most tragic of the four teams: the Edmonton Oilers. Why is their story so sad? Well, because unlike the Sabres, Coyotes and the Maple Leafs, they were actually trying to be better this season.

Click to read Part 1 on the Sabres, or Part 2 on the Coyotes.

Where They Are Now:

Loaded with first-round talent, the Edmonton Oilers should be an offensive force to be reckoned with. No seriously – Merrin detailed their last few picks here, and all but one of them were forwards. “Should be” is the operative term. The Oilers landed 26th in the league for goals for per game, and while their power play is a respectable 19th (ahead of both Chicago and Nashville, even), you have to feel that they’re not meeting expectations.

The real disaster for the Oilers has been their defense this season. They held a league worst goals against per game of 3.37, and were 26th in 5v5 Scoring Chances Against per 60 at 29.3. Part of their issue was the goaltending duo of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, neither of whom could get comfortable in net and posted a league worst team Sv% of .888, but they also faced over 2000 shots on goal this season. Only 5 other teams gave up that many, and not coincidentally, 3 of them were deliberate tank jobs.

And so I present to you the most depressing graph I’ve ever seen:

Edmonton - 3 season (xCF, yGF, sizeZSO, colorPDO)

X axis is their Corsi For % (a measure of Shots on Goal, Missed Shots, and Blocked Shots)

Y axis is their Goals For % (Goals For/Total Goals Scored)

Size is their Offensive Zone Start %

Color is their PDO (Shooting % + Save %, a measure of “puck luck”), with blue being more lucky and red being less lucky

All numbers are 5v5 and Score Adjusted.

That’s right, you can clearly see the effect of having Tyler Dellow, analytics blogger turned Hockey Ops Pro, on the Oilers management squad. There was a real commitment this season to trying to play possession-based hockey, but unfortunately it came at the expense of Goals For %. Does this mean that Edmonton should stop trying to play a possession game? No. Even in their better years, they never cracked 50% GF% (which means that they were still getting scored on at a higher rate than they could put it in the net). It also means that you have a better ability to see who is dragging the team down.

These are all the Forwards and Defensmen who played over 250 minutes on 5v5 for the Oilers this season. A red line under their name means they’re no longer with the organization.


Edmonton FWDs

Edmonton Dmen

X Axis is Offensive Zone Start % Relative (relative to the rest of the team, more negative = more defensive zone time)

Y Axis is Goals For %

Color is Corsi For % Relative (relative to the rest of the team – remember, the team’s average is 47% this season). Blue is higher, red is lower.

Size is Time on Ice

The more I read about the Oilers, the more protective of Taylor Hall I feel. In fact, so that this doesn’t turn into a #freeTaylorHall rant, I will say only this – Taylor Hall is the most productive member of the current team*. His GF% combined over 3 seasons is 50.4%. The next highest? Jordan Eberle at 48.3%. Their real problem is the lack of a possession minded 4th line – the guys like Hendricks and Klinkhammer who play mostly in their own zone, but can’t keep the puck.

Their defense is a similar mess, with only the guys getting offensive zone starts putting up positive CF% Rels. And don’t let the relative measure fool you – not a single Dman cracked 50% CF% this season.

Biggest Assets:

Being the Edmonton Oilers.

No, I’m not kidding. The name, and the history associated with the club (*cough*Gretzky*cough*) means that the team is still one of the most valuable franchises in the league (12th last year, according to Forbes). And despite growing fan restlessness with the club’s losing record, they managed to increase operating income by $15m year-over-year. On top of that, they’ve inked a new deal with the City of Edmonton to build a giant new rink, Rogers Place, complete with a 35 year agreement to keep the team in the town.

The other benefit of having that kind of legacy is that it makes it easier to attract coaches and management, though they’re having a harder time convincing players to make their way up north. While Todd Nelson, their interim head coach, has not been officially let go, Peter Chiarelli, formerly GM of the Boston Bruins, has been hired on as President of Hockey Ops, supplanting Kevin Lowe, and they’re giving him the title of General Manager to boot, pushing out Craig MacTavish from the position.

The other thing they’ve got going for them is the amount of draft picks they’ve accumulated for this year. In addition to winning the draft lottery for the first overall pick, they received a first round pick for the trade of David Perron to the Pens, and another 2nd round pick from the Canadiens for Jeff Petry. Plus they’ll be cashing in on some older trade picks, like a 3rd round pick from the Blues and one from the Sens, and very likely a 3rd or 4th pick from the Canadiens (pick is conditional on the Habs’ success in the playoffs).

What they do with all this wealth at the draft is another story entirely.

The Draft:

If you don’t know by now how we feel about the Oilers winning the draft lottery, well, you can read Merrin’s take on it. Yes, I know I already linked it, but dammit, it is worth reading.

With their #1 pick that MacTavish says they absolutely will not trade, it’s inevitable that the Oilers will select Generational Talent, Connor McDavid.

Now, I did say once that if given the 1st overall pick, there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t pick McDavid…except in this case. And I’m not saying that because it’s heartbreaking to watch the light in McDavid’s eyes already fading, but because the Oilers have a chance to actually right the wrongs in their system.

With their #1 pick, the Oilers should select Noah Hanafin.

Hear me out – other than Darnell Nurse, the Oilers prospects are pretty thin, defensively. On the Oklahoma City Barons, they have 5 defensive prospects in the same age range as the Stars Rookies (~22). Only one of them (Jordan Oesterle) has put up more than 20 points in the AHL this past season (25pts in 65 games). In comparison, Julius Honka on the Texas Stars has 30 points in 67 games, and Jamie Oleksiak, who spent half his time in Dallas, has 17 points in 35 games. Oesterle also played 6 games with the Oilers this season, recording a single assist and having a +/- of -4.  That’s not what you would call depth.

The Oilers are clearly trying to establish an identity for themselves, and Hanafin self describes as a “Duncan Keith-like” player. Can you imagine the Blackhawks without a defenseman like Keith? Their puck movement would be severely hampered, and their possession would drop, especially when trying to move out of the defensive zone. HUH. THAT SITUATION SOUNDS KIND OF FAMILIAR.

Now imagine the top line of Hall-Nugent-Hopkins-Eberle with a D-pair that could feed them pucks and create a cycle game. Yeah. That’s what I’m saying.

More and more, valuable defensemen are being kept off the market by big, long-term contracts. The Oilers aren’t going to be able to pick one up in Free Agency – they need to start drafting them. And with their current situation at center being mostly shored up by the arrival of Derek Roy and Leon Draisaitl’s potential, this is one chance to do it.

Commitment to Change:

To be determined.

Hiring a new President of Hockey Ops and a new GM is a step in the right direction, but both Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish are still with the organization, even if they will be in different capacities. As of right now, Lowe will still be Vice Chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group, while MacTavish’s role is still up in the air.

Potential Stumbling Blocks:

I mean. What else is there left to say?

Rumor has it that with Chiarelli in as GM, they could be looking at hiring a new coach. Interim HC Todd Nelson is in no way to blame for the Oilers lack of wins, and even has the support of Current-Face-of-the-Franchise Taylor Hall, but the team has been reaching out to Todd McLellan, who recently parted ways with the San Jose Sharks. McLellan leaves the Sharks amdist rumors of a fractured locker room with attitude problems. If he takes this job, he’ll be walking into…a fractured locker room with attitude problems. Is he really the guy to look at when trying to bring a group together?

And then you’ve got the other new guy. Chiarelli was let go by Boston for consistently trading away young talent that didn’t fit the Bruins system, and while Tyler Seguin might be the most famous name, he’s certainly not the only one. The straw that broke the camel’s back this year was trading Johnny Boychuk to the Islanders – and then not finding an adequate replacement for him. Here’s an article written this past December that takes a look his history with the Bruins, if you’re not familiar with it.

Is that really the kind of reputation that’s going to be best for a young team like the Oilers?

Add on top of that, the pretty condemning articles about how the Oilers have pushed multiple players to disregard their own health for the sake of a losing team, and you’ve got a management culture that is trapped in a spiral of poor decision making that I can’t see ending well for anyone, least of all, Generational Player Connor McDavid.

Oh, and did you know they’re one of the worst positioned teams in terms of cap space already? For 14/15, the Oilers had a cap hit of $68.5m. With the cap expected to top out at $72m next season, and with only two large contracts (Schultz who goes RFA with a $3.675m cap hit, and Fasth with a $2.9m hit) coming off the books, Edmonton is in another tight spot there. Especially when you consider that those two guys are key positions – defense and goaltending.

Regardless of how those two have played, backfilling both positions with equal or better talent is expensive, and while the owner may be enjoying financial success, the team’s contract situation has been badly mismanaged.

Prediction for Next Season:

With a new GM, anything is possible, but I can’t see anything but bottom of the barrel again for these guys. I’m sorry, I just can’t. Maybe they’ll land at a generous 25th. Maybe the Canes will finally implode, and Columbus will have 90% of its roster injured, instead of just the 50% they had this year, and keep the Oilers from being the worst team in the NHL.

Despite their changes, I’m still left with the prevailing feeling that Oilers management is pretending that their problems will go away once they draft that one magical player, and that’s just not how good teams are built.

Sure, bud. You keep on thinking that.

*Pouliot does have a higher GF% at 50.7%, but only one season of data.


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