a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

Welcome to Oil Acumen. What follows is a blog dedicated to ending the tyranny of Oilers management, and making hockey fun to watch again, dammit.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

09/12/15 Forecasting the Oilers' 2015-16

I know we're almost into training camp already but I wanted to reserve judgement on the Oilers' off season until it seemed that all the moves had been made. Here are some final thoughts and predictions on a number of items.

1) Will The Oilers Make The Playoffs?

There are a wide range of predictions when it comes to the Oilers' finish this year. Connor McDavid changed the perception of the team in a big way, but let's not put the cart before the horse. Of the eight Western Conference playoff teams last year, I could see the Oilers jumping ahead of only Calgary and Vancouver. Unfortunately, they still have to contend with Los Angeles, Dallas, Colorado and San Jose. The Oilers were 27 points behind the worst of those teams last year (SJS), so when the music stops I don't see them having a chair. Put another way, a 30 point improvement to 92 points would still only have been good for tenth place last year. It's a huge leap to get all the way to the post season.

2) How Did Peter Chiarelli Do?

Connor McDavid doesn't count when it comes to evaluating front office performance this off season, because it was a no-brainer pick that the Oilers got for being incompetent. However, Chiarelli did some nice things in my mind. He identified an available goaltender who was probably the best bet to become a starter and didn't overpay for him. He was in on Dougie Hamilton but didn't overpay for him, and those two things somewhat offset his overpayment for Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart is just slightly too young to be what the Oilers really needed, but he fits the age range. Even if he tops out as a #3 it's a good addition, especially because this team will be so top-heavy in salaries up front. Even if you lack a true number one, you can win with a bunch of twos and threes. I like the addition of Sekera too, of course, but he only replaces Petry. That's not a knock on Chiarelli though, because when you take over from incompetent people you need to start by undoing what they have done. Adding Sekera seemed to be the start of that.

3) How Many Points Will McDavid Get?

Here's another one with a wide range of theories. McDavid may be a Crosby-like talent or better, but scoring is down in the NHL and the Oilers haven't exactly set the world on fire offensively of late. There was a pretty large spike in power play opportunities and goals per game across the league in Crosby's rookie reason, due in large part to rule changes. Both numbers have since dropped off. Even more interesting, league average save percentage in 2005-06 was just 0.901 and has gradually risen to 0.915 last year. The Penguins scored 243 goals in Crosby's rookie season, which was 18th in the league. Last year, the highest scoring team was Tampa Bay with 259 goals. The Oilers had just 193.

Crosby was involved in 42% of Penguins goals in 2005-06, but he also played over 200 minutes more than the next-highest forward on his team, and almost 500 more minutes than the fourth-highest forward. We know that the distribution of ice time will be different in Edmonton because of the number of weapons the Oilers have. I'm going to be somewhat generous and assume the Oilers will jump to 220 GF, even though league average scoring has been stable for the last four years. Let's also assume that McDavid will get plenty of opportunity, while acknowledging the other players that will need to get ice time. Could McDavid be involved in as much as 30% of Oilers goals? In this scenario McDavid would finish with around 66 points. I'm guessing that's the range we should expect.

4) How Many Games Will Darnell Nurse Play?

The Edmonton Oilers have been one of the NHL's most injured teams since the 2009-10 season. If that trend continues, and we have no reason to believe that it won't, then it won't be long before the Oilers are forced to use all the best players they have. Even if Nurse doesn't make the team out of camp, I'd say he'll be in the lineup before November ends and there's a good chance he'll stick after that. I'm going to guess that he gets into 60 games and is among the league's top ten rookies.

5) How Many Games Will The Oilers Win?

Last year the Oilers won their tenth game on January 9th, 42 games into the season. They lost 20 of 21 games from November 11th to December 27th. That's a quarter of the season with one win. If they can simply avoid going sideways for an extended period, as they have been prone to since 2009-10, they should be able to eke out a few more wins. The new coaching staff is going to make a big difference here. Even though the players would say otherwise in public, they seemed to tune out Dallas Eakins' tyrannical regime in a hurry. Also, the players aren't fools. They must have known the dysfunctional way that the team was being run. Change and stability will go a long way in not letting a few losses break them down mentally. Much will hinge on the goaltending as well. If everything breaks right, I could see 35-38 wins being realistic. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

05/10/15 Learning To Love Again

Optimism is a foreign feeling for Oilers fans. It's certainly strange for me. It's a bit hard to believe now but this blog started out with a very optimistic view of things in Oilerland, and slowly transitioned to bitter cynicism. I have to admit that emotionally I'm having trouble figuring out where to go from here.

McDavid is heaven sent, of course, but I think getting MacTavish out of the driver's seat will be more important in the long run. I respect Craig MacTavish, just like everybody else, but seeing him removed along with Kevin Lowe felt like... well, it felt like this:

But then we got word that MacTavish is going to be number two under Chiarelli, and we still haven't heard anything about Scott Howson. On one level this makes perfect sense. Being an outsider, Peter Chiarelli is tasked with figuring out the Oilers' entire organization while going into a very important draft and off season. Firing the people who have key information wouldn't make sense.

Oilers fans know all that on an intellectual level, but there's still that nagging bug in our ears that says: MacTavish is still part of the decision-making process, and Lowe wasn't fired, he was shuffled around again.

It's going to take action from Chiarelli to silence the doubt -- actions like seeing Justin Schultz for what he is, getting rid of Ference and Nikitin, and hanging on to good but unpopular players. We won't get all the answers we need right away. However, each move that shows a departure from the old ways will make the entire hockey world feel better.

I wish things hadn't played out this way, because all the very good things that are happening feel just a little tainted. I suppose when the general manager being demoted is a good thing, there are bound to be mixed emotions. Oilers fans were writing open letters that sounded like breakup notes, which is a measure of the commitment we all feel. It's a silly cliche to care this much about a hockey team, but we do. Hunkering down in a warm place to watch an Oilers game instills a strong sense of community, especially when the games matter. If not for hockey, what on earth would you look forward to in November? Or January?

It's been a long time, but I remember freezing my butt off fortyish times a year to watch the Oilers play. I remember the sweet relief of reaching the entrance to the arena and the warmth of the foyer after walking from the car. I remember the couple we sat next to every game. It's as vivid as if it happened yesterday. Canadian hockey fandom is a meme, but it's impossible to overstate the connection it creates. Rememeber how everyone was your best friend in 2006?

And it's precisely that attachment we feel that makes it hard to trust again. Even if it's not Mike Babcock, the Oilers are probably on the verge of getting a great new coach, they have a winning and experienced GM, and Connor-freaking-McDavid. So why don't things feel like they're going to be okay? I want them to be. But we'll see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

04/15/15 The Myth of the Nelson Turnaround & Other Thoughts

Remember 2007-08, when the Oilers brought in the kids of the first rebuild, started 27-30-5, and then finished 14-5-1 in their last twenty games? Ah, the hopes we had then. We Oilers fans have been fooled by late-season improvements more times than I care to remember, and it's happening again.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

02/03/15 Odds & Ends: Six Dead Horses Get A Beating

Here are six more topics you've read about before, but (hopefully) from a different viewpoint.

I have to start with Dallas Eakins because of his recent interview. There's a lot of backlash about the fact that Eakins didn't take any ownership for the complete disaster that was his tenure with the Oilers. Fair enough, I thought the guy was doing a bad enough job to deserve to be fired so he deserves some of the blame in my view. But there's one problem with that: he doesn't have a job anymore, and the people who hired him do.

I'm not going to say Eakins deserved more time - he struck me as a bit of a tyrant and I think that's showing with the body language of the team - but if you were hoping to land another job some day would you appear on the radio and go: "well, I completely screwed up a team that was ready to take the next step"?

Or would you say something like: "I thought I'd have more to work with"?

On Enforcers

I've been thinking about Luke Gazdic lately, and enforcers in general, and something came to mind: if you've built a team that needs Luke Gazdic to defend it, then you've built the team wrong. No offense to Gazdic the person, but if he's got a spot on an NHL team it's because it's a weak team.

On winning NHL rosters, every player serves a purpose; each man has some use in helping the team play better hockey. The idea behind an enforcer is that he allows other players to free-wheel around the ice without fear of getting hurt or intimidated, which is a fundamentally flawed rationale when it comes to team building. If the other eleven forwards can't function properly without an enforcer to protect them, then they can't function properly. That's why the enforcer is going the way of the dinosaur.

An OEL Trade??

I've been reading about Oliver Ekman-Larsson perhaps being available. There's no way that's true, unless all the knocks to the head Don Maloney took as a player are finally coming home to roost. There might have been a time when an aggressive and smart team could have acquired OEL, but that time has passed. If it was somehow possible, I'd throw Eberle and the 2015 first round pick out there. That pick isn't likely to be first overall, but it would give Arizona a chance at two picks in the top five or so. Huge value for a rebuilding organization, plus a proven scorer with term and youth enough to be valuable to a rebuild.

When the Oilers' rebuild began, we all knew that there would be casualties if it meant building a balanced team. That time has come. But Ekman-Larsson isn't going anywhere.

Draft Position and Expectations

Being drafted first overall is a funny thing, because it's relative to the other players that are available. Would Yakupov have gone first overall in a draft that included Taylor Hall? Nathan MacKinnon? John Tavares? There's no way to know for sure, but it brings some interesting perspective to mind. Imagine that Yakupov was drafted third overall relative to his class, like Leon Draisaitl.

Draisaitl played 37 games for the Oilers right out of the draft, and had nine points. No big deal - he was a third overall pick, not ready for the NHL and everyone said so. Back to Junior he goes. Would Yakupov have benefitted from a demotion earlier in his career?

Draft position doesn't say as much about a player as we sometimes think. There was an automatic feeling that Yakupov would be in the NHL right out of the draft because the previous two first overall picks did it. I won't criticize the Oilers too harshly for falling into this trap, because I thought he could play in the NHL right away too. What's more, Yakupov had 9-11-20 in his first 37 games, which is over double Draisaitl's total. But Yakupov was far from a complete player when he was drafted, and unfortunately now he has to learn to be one in the world's best league.

Hidden Asset Value

I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Oilers keep getting the results of a rebuilding team because they keep behaving like a rebuilding team. That's why you don't trade a player like Boyd Gordon, or even David Perron.

Money aside, the bottom line of sports is something called "winning". Asset management doesn't just come down to what you can get for player X. In Perron's case, there's some truth to the notion that the Oilers wouldn't want to re-sign him for more money, but how do you assign value to him helping the team get closer to making the playoffs next year? I'm not suggesting that Perron is the difference between making the playoffs and not making them, but he certainly helps next year. And if the Oilers are still sellers at next year's deadline, could they still get a second round pick for Perron? I think so, especially if the rest of the team were to be improved next year.

Boyd Gordon is similar. There's value for the Oilers in showing the rest of the league that they're not just going to continue a cycle of rebuilding. That's why UFAs and players with NMCs and NTCs won't come here.

When it comes to the Oilers, you have to talk in terms of what they should do and in terms of what you think they will do. They should hang on to good players like Gordon and Perron and Petry for next year, improve the team around them, and push hard for the playoffs. What they will do is maximize the value they can get for these players because they've accepted that they're still not going to be good enough next year. There's a clear divide there, but the latter course of action is why the team keeps failing to improve. Dennis King had a good line on the Monday morning Lowdown with Lowetide, saying (I'm paraphrasing here) that the Oilers don't have enough ingredients to make anything good for dinner, so they might as well throw out the bread too.

Oh, and do you remember when the Oilers decided to trade Kyle Brodziak? They spent the next several years trying to replace him, with more than one failed attempt. Let's not do it again with Gordon.

Roster Whac-A-Mole

Matt Hendricks is another player I would hang on to. It's hard not to like the guy, especially with the season he's having. His situation reminds me of Nick Schultz, though: I like the player but not the cost to acquire him. Devan Dubnyk is reviving his career, both on a poor team in Arizona and a good team in Minnesota. MacTavish's words that "if you have to ask the question, then you know the answer" are now infamous, but I don't see how they're any less true about Scrivens and Fasth than they were about Dubnyk.

I'm borrowing a term from Bruce McCurdy here, but the Oilers continue to play Roster Whac-A-Mole by filling one hole and opening another. That's inevitable when you build a team, but the problem is that the Oilers have traded a center and a goalie for two wingers (Gagner and Dubnyk for Purcell and Hendricks). MacTavish said he doesn't want to fill holes at the expense of opening others (link), and yet that's precisely what he has done.

MacTavish's moves aren't so bad individually, but when it comes to team building they're ugly. He strengthened the wing by weakening the all-important center and goalie positions, and then weakened the wing by trading Perron for a pick.

It goes back further, too. MacTavish strengthened the team's cap position by trading Horcoff, which weakened the center position (I know people will say Gordon replaced Horcoff, but then who replaced Belanger's role?).

The Oilers are strong on the wing and weak everywhere else, which is why they should be trading wingers out, not bringing more in at the expense of other positions.

Friday, 16 January 2015

01/16/15 Don't Trade Taylor Hall

I can't believe we're even talking about this, but it would be insane to trade Taylor Hall.

Admittedly, Hall is having a bad season by his standards, just like everyone else on the team. Half a decade of losing probably hasn't helped in that regard. But let's get down to the nuts and bolts of why you don't trade a player like Hall.

Here are Hall's even strength points per hour since he entered the NHL. His league ranking in brackets is based on all NHL forwards who played at least 30 games.

2014-15: 2.02 (81st)
2013-14: 2.91 (4th)
2012-13: 3.15 (6th)
2011-12: 2.07 (77th)
2010-11: 1.78 (158th)

Something's off this season (maybe a few things), but over the last two years Hall is one of the most elite point-producing forwards in the league. Even at his worst, as a rookie fresh out of the draft on a last place team, he was producing like a very good second line player.

Now let's look at his possession numbers. Corsi needs context, so below I've shown Hall's rank anong Oilers forwards (20 games played) in relative Corsi since he entered the league.

2014-15: 1st
2013-14: 6th
2012-13: 2nd
2011-12: 1st
2010-11: 1st

This is a bit crude, but it certainly shows how it's Hall who is driving the play for the Oilers. He's most often their best forward in terms of possession, except for last year when he led the team in scoring with 80 points in 75 games. 

That offensive total last year is 1.07 points per game. Guess how many times a player has scored at least 1.05 points per game (45 games played) since 2005-06?

127. That's under 13 players per season on average.

I heard Paul Almeida on Lowetide's show today make a hilarious but sadly probable comment. What if the Oilers trade Hall for a top-six forward with some grit and a top-four defenseman? With another couple of pieces that's a good return, right? Except that the Oilers are about to lose Petry (top-four defenseman) and have already traded Perron (forward, grit)!

I hope the Oilers aren't stupid enough to trade Hall, but they keep reaching new levels of stupidity, so who knows.