Oilers on the rise in weakened Western Conference
Here come the Edmonton Oilers.
If you are awakening from the NHL’s mid-season slumber, it’s time to check out the NHL standings, particularly in the Western Conference. It’s already the weaker of the two conferences, and teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights taking decisive steps back this season – owing in part to injuries – has further opened the door for a team to grab hold of pole position.
I would be remiss to not acknowledge the Dallas Stars, who have played great all season and carry the NHL’s third-best goal differential (+40). But if you were to ask me which team is to be most feared entering the playoff race, it’s the team dressing Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that has been quietly tearing through the winter schedule.
Edmonton is absolutely rolling right now. Consider their trended real and expected margin of victories on a 10-game average since the start of the regular season:
The Oilers stepped on the gas through January, and are currently beating their average opponent by 1.7 goals per game. That’s a remarkable number and indicative of a Stanley Cup-calibre team, but teams can fluke their way into big goal differentials over small samples – usually it takes just a shooting percentage heater from your top line or goaltending outperformance to do the trick.
In Edmonton’s case, though, consider how expected goals are trending. The Oilers are starting to territorially control games in a way where we expect them to win on most nights – with or without the magic from their top stars.
One of the biggest drivers behind Edmonton’s success is a blistering power play that continues to outperform by every metric. Below shows a plot of their real goal production versus league averages.
Why emphasize all situations here? In part because Edmonton has, time and again, proven it possesses the NHL’s most lethal man advantage. That’s the luxury when you have the top-end playmakers they do, but Edmonton is nearly twice the calibre a team up a man as the league-average team:
It is an embarrassment of riches on the power play for the Oilers, and it’s coming from their big guns.
Only five Oilers skaters have scored up a man this year, but boy have those five been effective: McDavid and Draisaitl have alone combined for 33 markers, with Zach Hyman (13), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (7), and Tyson Barrie (3) adding another 23. Those 56 goals double up the total of three different teams: the Anaheim Ducks, New York Islanders, and Columbus Blue Jackets.
But most notably for Edmonton, I want to draw attention to an important factor to their success, which I’ll call breadth. For years the Oilers were, at best, a top-heavy even-strength team that only went so far as their best players could take them. Any short-term scoring slump meant the Oilers were more or less blown off the ice. That’s no longer the case.
More than half of Edmonton’s skaters are both above break even this season if you measure by both real goal differential and expected goal differential, which is as good a sign as any that this level of play is sustainable.
The reality is most Oilers shifts these days are being played in the offensive zone across their top-nine forwards; moreover, the number of skaters who are getting blown off the ice (outscored) has diminished to a six-year low. This season, it only includes two names: forward Mattias Janmark and defenceman Brett Kulak, and both are close to break even.
If I’m the Oilers, I’m looking at a very-much improved team and a very weakened Western Conference. If there were a year to cash in some assets for an upgrade on the blueline, or even in net, this would be it.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey