Resurgent Oilers, Flames leading charge in Pacific division
Yes, the Edmonton Oilers are scorching hot and deserve their roses. Since the Oilers made a coaching change in mid-November, they look every bit the part of the Stanley Cup contender we envisioned amidst an impressive 10-game win streak.
How much you credit new head coach Kris Knoblauch for this surge may vary. But the team has responded in stunning fashion since the change, and the Pacific division feels awfully different as a result.
But then there are the Calgary Flames!
If Edmonton’s season was on the fringe in November, Calgary’s was in blinking-red-lights territory. At the same time as the Oilers overhauled their coaching staff, the Flames were in a extraordinarily similar boat in the standings — a horrifying 4-8-2 start to the year and with all due respect to the Flames' top-end talent, missing the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl types that you might bet on to pull a team out of the abyss.
But it started clicking for the Flames, too. As it stands today, each team is back in the playoff picture. The Oilers are just a point behind the Los Angeles Kings, sporting a +21 goal differential with nearly 90 per cent odds to qualify for the postseason. Ryan Huska’s Flames have some work to do, but their 20-18-5 record has them back in the fray, with a goal differential (-1) directly comparable to the Tampa Bay Lightning, New Jersey Devils and Seattle Kraken. Calgary’s playoff odds now sit around 33 per cent:
With respect first to the Edmonton Oilers, what changed?
Much of the early season focus in Edmonton concerned horrendous goaltending performance, and for good reason – Oilers netminders were stopping just 87 per cent of shots, which is the type of production that would sink any team in the league. Notably, it’s also been a core area of improvement. Since the coaching change, Edmonton’s goaltending has rebounded in dramatic fashion. Stuart Skinner in particular has been a key reason why the Oilers are white-hot. Since the change, Skinner has stopped 92 per cent of shots in 20 games, erasing more than 10-goals versus expected.
But don’t mistake how important the turnaround in conversion rates have been for the Oilers, too. Edmonton’s been able to create heaps of scoring chances all season long, but in the first six weeks of the season, were scoring on just eight per cent of shots – comfortably in the bottom-third of the league and a far cry from what we have grown accustomed to from this Oilers attack. The Oilers are humming once again though, and their 3.3 goals per-60 minutes at even-strength is right back near the top of the league.
Now let’s look at the Flames under those same pre/post mid-November splits:
Much like Edmonton, a turnaround in shooting luck has paid real dividends – the Flames are converting on just under 11 per cent of their shots across all situations, and much of that is coming at even-strength. Calgary’s improvement at even-strength explains nearly all of their turnaround, since the power play remains one of the league’s least effective units, and the penalty kill one of the more robust.
The common theme between the two is a big jump in offensive production. To that end, I pulled every skater’s scoring rates since the middle of November. And while McDavid is unsurprisingly without comparable, I was left impressed with a number of other skaters. Zach Hyman’s 19 goals and Blake Coleman’s mid-year breakout seem just as notable:
What I think is most remarkable about Alberta’s renaissance is how it has reinforced how strong the Pacific division may be. Vancouver has had a bit of puck luck, sure, but they’re also playing quite well and you cannot erase a 29-11-3 record in half of a season. Couple that with an injury-riddled Vegas Golden Knights team still looking game and a resurgent Kings franchise, and you have no less than five quality playoff contenders within the group. And that ignores a Kraken team that’s still holding 49 per cent odds to snatch a berth of their own.
A wild, wild finish is setting up out West.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference