Here’s the Edmonton Oilers.
If you’ve just woken up from a slumber mid-season in the NHL, it’s time to check out the NHL standings, especially in the Western Conference. They’re already the weakest in both conferences, and teams like the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights have made crucial strides this season — in part due to injuries — that opened the door for a team to clinch top spot.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize the Dallas Stars, who played great all season and had the third-best goal difference in the NHL (+40). But if you ask me which team would be most afraid of entering the playoff race, it was the team dressed like Conor McDavid and Leon Dristell that quietly shredded the winter schedule.
Edmonton is totally rolling right now. Consider the actual and projected winning margin for the 10 games since the start of the regular season:
The Oilers stepped on the gas pedal through January and currently beat their regular opponent by 1.7 goals per game. That’s an impressive number and indicative of a Stanley Cup-caliber team, but teams can work their way up to a huge goal difference in small samples – usually it just takes a shooting percentage from your top line or a superior performance on goal.
But in the case of Edmonton, consider the evolution of projected targets. The Oilers are starting to dominate games territorially in a way that we would expect them to win most nights – with or without the magic of their big stars.
One of the biggest drivers of Edmonton’s success is their solid play that continues to excel in every respect. Below is a graph of actual goal production versus league averages.
Why insist on all positions here? Partly because Edmonton has proven time and time again that they have the best edge in the NHL. It’s a luxury when you have your best playmakers, but Edmonton has twice the caliber of a team that’s part of an average team in the league:
It’s an embarrassment of riches in the Oilers’ power game, and it comes from their big guns.
Only five Oilers skaters scored points for a man this year, but boy was it effective: McDavid and Dristel alone combined for all 33 marks, with Zack Hyman (13), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (7) and Tyson Barry (3) another addition. 23. Those 56 goals double the total for three different teams: the Anaheim Ducks, New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets.
But especially for Edmonton, I’d like to draw attention to an important factor in their success, which I’ll call range. For years, the Oilers were, at best, a stalwart heavyweight team that went as far as their best players could take them. Any drop in the score in the short term meant that the oil owners were more or less icing on the cake. This is no longer the case.
More than half of Edmonton’s skaters both played during the offseason this season if you measure actual goal difference and expected goal difference, which is as good a sign as any other than at this level of play.
The truth is, most Oilers turnovers these days are played in the offensive zone via the top nine forwards; In addition, the number of skaters who have blown off the ice (over-performers) has fallen to its lowest level in six years. The current season includes only two names: striker Matthias Janmark and defender Brett Colak, both of whom are close to a draw.
If I were the Oilers, I’m looking at a much improved team and a very underpowered Western Conference. If ever there was a year to leverage an asset for an upgrade on the blue line, or even in the net, this would be it.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey