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TENCER: Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet

Friday, 11.10.2013 / 11:05 AM / Blogs
By Dan Tencer
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TENCER: Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet
TENCER: Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet
I don't think Tomas Hertl is going to win the Rocket Richard Trophy and I'm pretty sure that his San Jose Sharks aren't going to play an entire season of undefeated hockey. I do think Evgeni Malkin is likely to score a goal this season and would bet that Buffalo won't end the year with 0 wins.

In other words, I suppose I'm banking on a lot of change between games 4 and 82, and don't think it wise to start etching anything in stone.

Or, in Edmonton, engraving any epitaphs in stone.

The team is 1-3, but allow me to suggest that they were definitely good enough to earn a win in the Winnipeg game and close enough against Montreal that a break (or early power play goal) could have tilted it at least enough for a point. So, if they get a save that they'd normally get 999/1000 they're 2-2 and if they get that plus a break they're 3-1. I can understand those of you rolling your eyes and saying this argument is for losers, and I hear you, but I'm only using it to illustrate that I don't quite see the sky falling just yet.

Personally, I've seen enough in the first 4 games to indicate that the direction here is positive enough to project better than the 20-62 record that you'd extrapolate right now.

Like what?

Shot differential. Last season this was an awful statistic for the club. They were outshot routinely and usually by a wide margin. Not all shots are quality shots, but the total is a pretty good indication of where the game is being played. The Oilers were outplayed and outshot badly in Vancouver, but have outshot their opponent in each of the other 3 games.

Face-offs. Another notoriously awful statistic for the Oilers, who have been dead last in the NHL in 3 of the last 4 seasons (they were 27th in the exception). This season, they're out of the gate at close to 57% as a team and comfortably in 3rd place in the NHL. Boyd Gordon has been out of his mind, Mark Arcobello and Will Acton not far behind him and a stronger Ryan Nugent-Hopkins brings up the rear with an outstanding 52.4%. Those numbers will all fall, but I think we've seen enough from the group to anticipate them falling far less than all the way to the bottom.

Aggressive coaching. The skill players on the team are seeing heavy minutes (yes, with Yakupov being the exception) and increased roles. Dallas Eakins has given the top players on the team as many 5-on-5 minutes as we've ever seen them play, kept the power play totals where they obviously should be and added penalty kill duty on top. He's shortened the bench when necessary to further elevate the minutes of these players when necessary, and clearly is coaching to allow them to take control of this team instead of insulating them as we've seen in the past.

I could go on, discussing the dimension that the line of Gazdic-Acton-Brown brings that has been so sorely lacking in past years, or the fact that Devan Dubnyk will certainly improve from the .847 SV% we currently see next to his name. Or, that the team has missed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins for half of its games and Sam Gagner for all of them, with the former having now returned to the lineup on a regular basis and the latter hopefully not far behind.

But, my larger point is just that I see some trends forming that are fairly positive.

I think, with patience, there are some areas where we've seen improvement that will develop even further into outright habits and muscle memory for this club. Take, for example, the shot differential component. It's a net positive for them so far, but they registered only 2 shots on goal in the opening 5 minutes last night when they spent almost all of that time with a man advantage. Given a bit more preaching and practice, I think we're going to see an even greater shoot first mentality with less of the junior hockey highlight reel playbook.

The record is frustrating because this game is all about wins and losses, and the column is lopsided the wrong way after the first handful of games. But, this group of players is better than past rosters and the coaching staff is employing a more aggressive strategy than in past years.

I've seen enough of a glimpse in the first couple of weeks to let go of the bitterness with the record, and believe that patience with this approach will bear sweet fruit.

One more thing before I finish this up.

Dallas Eakins has it bang on with his strategy to get aggressive when trailing late in games by pulling his goaltender sooner than we'd conventionally expect from an NHL head coach. This is an especially preferable tactic when trailing by multiple goals. So far in the pre-season and regular season, we've seen Eakins pull the goalie with more than 8 minutes to play when down by 3, with more than 4 minutes to play when down by 2 and in one instance to make a 5-on-4 power play a 6-on-4. Analytical research indicates that a more aggressive approach will outperform the traditionally conservative approach over the course of a season, especially in situations like the latter example where a power play is awarded to the trailing team.

NHL teams, the Oilers included, have increasingly large holdings of this analytical data, but the best published work that I've seen on this particular issue is a case study done on the 2007-2008 season. If you're interested in the reasoning behind the strategy that Eakins is employing, check out the work by David Beaudoin and Tim Swartz:

http://people.stat.sfu.ca/~tim/papers/goalie.pdf

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