Monday, November 03, 2008

A year ago in Oilerville

Well, not exactly a year ago, but after 11 games of the 07/08 season.

The Oilers had won four games and racked up eight points, and had played 5 of the games on home ice. The goaltending had been shaky, or the pucks weren't hitting them as much, or some combination of the two. In any case the team EVsave% (even strength save percentage) was .887. When you consider that the league average ended up around .920, well that's just not good.

The 5 on 4 powerplay had been rotten, only scoring three goals. On the other hand the PK had been terrific, surrendering only five 5v4 PP goals.

At even strength the Oilers had been dominated territorially. Their shifts had ended in their own end a cracking 23 more times than they had ended in the offensive zone. The rookies in general, and Gagner and Cogliano in particular, were eating up a lot of good offensive ice time and getting destroyed by this metric, and obviously by the shots+/- and Corsi +/- as well.

So the team was three points below .500 in a league where .500 is a lot less than average. And the underlying numbers were all pointing decisively in the wrong direction. It wasn't a good time to be an Oiler fan, even if you were a prospophile.

Contrast that with this year (click on the image to enlarge it):

And this with a much tougher schedule this fall. And they got out of the gate poorly in terms of play, and lucked into a better result on the standings page (4W, 0L) than they deserved. But since the debacle in Chicago this team has played pretty well in some tough buildings, with two back to back sets, and always against opponents with at least a game's rest.

At this point Horcoff and Hemsky are eating up a big chunk of the ice time against the other team's best players, and are now leading the field with shots+/- levels of +31 and +19 respectively. That's not quite the levels of the Hossa (+39) and Thornton (+41), but it's the same neighbourhood and the gap has been narrowing. And while they are both probably going to become better hockey players yet, they have been good in previous seasons too.

The real swing comes from the kid line. They never did manage a stretch with positive underlying numbers until the tail end of last season. But they've carried that forward to this season, and these are obviously guys that still have a lot of room to get better. Taking Gagner as being representative of that line, he has an EV+/- of 0, shots+/- of +6, Fenwick+/- of +10 and Corsi+/- of +16. And they've had some good opposition run at them on the road at times as well. Now they aren't playing a whole lot against the other teams best, and they are starting in the good end more than the bad. But it's a dramatic swing from last fall.

The real difference is that they are keeping it the good end a lot more this year. Some games are better than others of course, that's just the way it goes. On the whole Gagner has started in the offensive zone a team leading 23 more times than in the defensive zone. And on the whole Gagner's shifts have ended in the offensive zone a team leading 19 times. That's good for anyone, and damn impressive for young players. And life for the guys playing the shift after the kids is now a hell of a lot easier. When the guys who were responsible for much of your team's territorial asskicking become players who start driving possession the good way for you ... well the swing in fortunes is going to be significant.

I've never checked Kovalchuk's numbers at this, but I've seen him play enough to know that he may never have had an 11 game stretch this good in his career.

The kid line players are going to start finishing more of their chances soon, probably at close to twice the rate that they are now, and they are going to become better at winning battles and avoiding turn overs at the blue lines. It probably won't happen overnight, or even steadily, but it will happen. All the arrows are pointing in the right direction here, methinks.

The fourth line guys are just fine I think. When Brodziak played with Glencross in the winter of '08, he was barely taking an own zone draw, and starting a bunch in the offensive zone from faceoffs and coming onto the ice with the puck going the right direction. And often with the other team's depth on the ice. This season he's taken an absurd number of own zone draws, and damn few in the good end. 29 more of the bad than the good kind. Pouliot with 16 more, then Stortini with 6 more, MacIntyre (seriously) with 4 more, and Horcoff with 2 more. All other Oiler players have started more shifts in the offensive zone than in their own end.

There may be a planet where this makes sense, but it's not this one. And it's not fair on any level to compare last winter's 4th line to this fall's 4th line, not when the context of the ice time has changed so dramatically.

The reason for that shift in responsibility, of course, is because the 3rd line can't be trusted. I love Pisani, but he shouldn't be playing centre, and it's not just the face offs, it's everything.

It's hard to imagine a problem that's easier for a coach to fix, and surely he will eventually. I can't get to worried about the PK either, they have a strong history at that. And with the players they have now you'd think that the PP will come around, but even if it doesn't they should be fine.

Lots of reasons for optimism, folks.


Blogroll update: Gospel of Hockey is back in business, and is terrific. And After The Green Light is highly recommended as well.


Blogger Bank Shot said...

Has Pisani's Corsi's and such increased at all since the season began, or has he just been a flat line of suck?

It doesn't appear that Mactavish is yet to put any confidence in that line regarding own zone draws because they had less then a handful against Philly, and Carolina.

11/03/2008 6:22 pm  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

Bank Shot:

You can check at

The individual game numbers will scroll along before the table comes up. Then you can change the game numbers in the url to capture just one game, or two or three at a time.

Personally, I don't think MacTavish has ever shown faith it that line with Pisani at centre, not beyond the first period anyways.

Funny thing, though, with the delay to review Roloson's late save in carolina, Mactavish basically has a completely rested bench and is looking at an important own zone draw.

He sends out Moreau-Horcoff-Pisani, and Lubo and Souray on D.

I couldn't tell for sure that it was Souray, he was lined up on the LH hashmark, but the play by play and shift chart both say it was him.

Shows who he has faith in, because we could see he was really sweating that losing streak. And he trusts Pisani. Just not in the middle.

11/03/2008 7:43 pm  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

Also, I remember looking at the stats after the CHI game, and it looked like the Pisani line had been run at Havlat and gotten owned. That would be a 'tough matchup' night for sure.

It was a good fit in theory. Havlat is their best player, but Kane and Toews are going to get the O-zone draws. So it should have gone well. The Pisani line didn't do well though.

In fairness Pisani was out with a back injury for the next one, so maybe he was hurting in that one too. Didn't see him much in the third iirc.

11/03/2008 7:46 pm  
Blogger Black Dog said...

Good stuff Vic. I have liked what Pouliot and Brodziak have brought thus far but wonder how they would look with a veteran on the flank, a McAmmond type maybe. Interesting point about what they have been doing certainly.

What are your thoughts on the whole MacIntyre experiment? Has there been a benefit in terms of protecting guys like Hemsky, making guys play braver, all that intangible stuff? He only plays a few shifts a game really and if you're getting a guy like Cole another shift or two at ES I think that's a good thing.

Another side of me thinks its pointless but I guess the Oilers are firm believers in his worth.

Fun story.

11/03/2008 8:14 pm  
Blogger RiversQ said...

Just my two cents, but I think MacIntyre's near useless. He's even money to hit the deck while skating by himself on any given shift. Stortini's clearly a better player, but I think Tyler has a point when he says 3-5min of MacIntyre seems to be better than 9-10min of Stortini, because those minutes are almost assuredly filled by a legit top 9 forward.

Vic, what's your take on Pisani's other issues at centre outside of the faceoffs? I have to admit I haven't thought he has looked bad, but I'm a sucker for players that win puck battles and he still does that even at centre. I definitely concede that he sure seems to be battling a lot in his own end. Any idea what his problem seems to be that is generating these numbers? Defending the neutral zone on the breakout?

11/03/2008 10:22 pm  
Blogger mc79hockey said...

Any thoughts on whether the kid line is likely to keep it up this year? Last year, their ratio of shots for/shots against was about .82. This year they (just using Gagner as my rep here) are at 1.09. Sure, small sample and all that but Gagner's line didn't have a lot of time last year that approached that. I'll confess to some surprise that things swung that quickly for them.

Gagner's line figuring it out would go a long way to convincing me that this team is legit. Still not sold on the PP though - they need to figure out a way to get some shots. MacT might not be the guy for that.

11/04/2008 7:54 am  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...


Yeah, but it was always trending the right way for those guys, especially Gagner. By the end of year they were decent I think, plus they didn't have the shelter and resulting possession that the addition of Horcoff to the lineup provides.

And as well, down that final stretch the 4th line was getting even cherrier icetime than the kids (the 4th line had earned that opportunity and were making hay with it, so that was fair enough).

So we shouldn't be too surprised. Hopefully they can maintain this play, the real thing that you worry about is guys changing their game a bit just because they aren't getting the breaks around the net. And they're going through a patch of that right now, and they haven't changed their game yet, so it all bodes well I think.

11/04/2008 8:44 am  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...


I'm with Rivers, Dennis, etc. If it means that he's playing 2 or 3 minutes a night and other wingers are double shifted onto the fourth line the rest of the time ... I'm all for it.

Can't have Stortini and MacIntyre on the same lineup card though imo. That's just all kinds of bad.

I think that MacIntyre has been a bit fortunate as well. I mean Stortini doesn't get into the shooting lane off the draw against NSH and Weber's shot goes in. He's barely played since.

One thing that's going to happen is that the scoring chances are going to catch up with the territorial numbers. Seeing Dennis' stuff, it's surprising how quickly it happens.

And the Oilers are being outshot by a whack when MacIntyre is on the ice, but he's only +3/-3 in terms of scoring chances so far.

That's going to catch up to him for sure, being outplayed doesn't necessarily mean being outchanced on any given night. But it's looking like it doesn't take long to catch up, he just hasn't played enough for it to happen yet methinks.

It's been a perfect storm for this guy. He gets into the preseason vs Calgary and Vandermeer sets the table for him in a way that MacIntyre couldn't have scripted better. Good for him though, it's a good story.

11/04/2008 8:56 am  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...

The faceoffs are the obvious thing, mostly it's just that when he's at centre, they just can't get the puck into the other end and keep it there. It's not like there are a bunch of egregious errors or anything, but night at night, it just hasn't gone well.

I think that Pisani's real strengths as a player, beyond not making mistakes, are his abilities at winning puck battles and keeping the play alive in the offensive end. And a good wrist shot, and surprisingly good hands in close. As a centre he's just not playing to his strengths.

OTOH, maybe MacTavish's patience will pay dividends. Maybe that line with 34 in the middle will start to roll. It just doesn't look likely to me right now.

11/04/2008 9:20 am  
Blogger namflashback said...

Great analysis Vic. Between MacT's strategies of: giving the kids big heaping helpings of "It's Not Butter"(TM); Pisani at C; and the absurdity of the list of guys who should play PK and the guys who should not play PK, it's really hard to get a read on what the hell he is doing -- right in the midst of a gruelling road trip. And Dennis and Jonathon's analysis of the line matching showed that he didn't even really try to save the kids when he had home ice.

My only reasonably rational guess is thusly, MacT has a history of spending the first 20 GP running "development school." He is doing so again, with the following intents and purposes:

- Cogliano to get proficient on the dot, and learn his reads against some tougher opp.
- Brodziak to get proficient on his d-zone starts.
- Pouliot to be reliably low event against in virtually any position they ask him to play in.
- Pisani to get some game experience at C should they need him to play that role at points in the future.
- to give some PK time to a variety of players who may, at some point, need to cover some ice there given the 11 skater bench.

If 3 of those 5 learning objectives get met by the players at hand -- when he "hardens" his game plan, things should be stronger throughout the lineup.

I'm stretching here, and I think MacT is really playing with fire when he "knows better."

ESTOI rank

PKTOI rank

Just seems more bulletproof across the lines. Sam's putrid f/o ability excepted.

11/05/2008 12:23 pm  
Blogger Showerhead said...

Regarding Gagner - do you Vic or anyone for that matter have any context for the rate at which underlying numbers have improved for other young/budding stars in the NHL? IIRC a guy like Nash just got killed for a few years but I doubt there are many who were allowed to cheat for offense like he was when he started. Basically, it seems remarkable to me that Samwise is already swimming forward against the soft opp but then you look at guys like Toews or Kane who flirt with 1 pt/game as well as + ratings already - I'd love to have a sense of where Gagner may fit in to the league's young elite.

11/05/2008 5:00 pm  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...


I don't know on the Pisani argument. My gut feel is that on a team with only a few long term veterans, MacTavish doesn't want to alienate any of them, so he just won't put any on the 4th line.

If I was to guess, his plan B was to move Pisani to the wing at the first injury to a top-9 forward if he was struggling at centre. And that happens to most teams before Halloween I'm sure. Not for the Oilers this year though.

It's a strange one in any case.

11/06/2008 2:49 pm  
Blogger Vic Ferrari said...


You could check using the playershots thing and David Johnson's EV icetime and results page, to see who they were playing with and against.

CHI is the abbreviation for Chicago. If you haven't seen many Hawks games, I think it would be a lot of work to really appreciate the context of the icetime of Kane and Toews.

Kane had impressive shots+/- stuff last season and it's carried forward. Much better than Toews, so they must have played apart quite a bit. I didn't check how it changed through the year, though.

11/06/2008 2:53 pm  
Blogger Scott said...


A belated thank you for adding me to the blogroll.

11/10/2008 11:19 am  

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