Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Who's Next Permanently?

It's been a while since all the Whos in Whoville have been happy and dancing joyously. Oilers fans have known heartbreak and disappointment for way too long, and they'll have to be buoyed by the fact that Todd Nelson might be able to squeeze out the remaining life in this Oilers squad. But where hope fails, disappointment lives. It's for this reason that a new coach who employs a new system that maximizes the talents of the Oilers could bring back some hope to the Alberta capital. Hope springs eternal, and if the Oilers show life under a new coach, there may be just enough of a heartbeat to rescue this franchise from the cellar of the NHL where they seemed to be trapped.

Of course, the question of who will lead them into light is a massive one. Today, HBIC is proud to welcome back Neal L. with his thoughts on how the Oilers can make a turn-around with a new man behind the bench. This new coach will require some criteria that will be laid out by Neal, but I think he may be onto something here. I'll discuss below, but here's who Oilers GM Neal is looking for in his search for the next head coach of the Oilers!
So by now, unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard that the Edmonton Oilers have axed coach Dallas Eakins. It was a move that many pundits have been discussing should have happened for some time. While people have speculated who should replace Eakins behind the bench, I'm here to tell you that the perfect solution may have landed right into the Oilers laps.

Before I get to who the Oilers should hire, I'd like to explain some of my reasoning on who the club should get. Most people seem to think that the Oilers need a defensive coach who will plug up some of their holes in their defense and give the goalies a better chance at stopping the puck. You can simply hear the collective voices of all the experts: if the Oilers could just shut people down their superior talent should win them many games. That's the missing link a coach that will teach them how to play team defense and that winning will follow.

My response is that all of those opinions are simply poppycock. For me there are several reasons why this is the case. My first reason is that you need to tailor a system to the players on your roster. While you may think that Nail Yakupov is a waste of space and you would like to have him off your roster, you should make the most of his abilities while he is on your roster. I don't think Yakupov will ever be an effective defender, so put him in position for what he does best: scoring goals on the offensive side of the ice. That goes for several of the other talented forwards out there as well. I don't want Taylor Hall locking down a winger; I want Hall causing a rush for the Oilers.

I don't want to make it seem like I feel like defense isn't important because it most certainly is. My opinion is that players work best when they are asked to do roles that favors them the best. The Oilers could cause havoc with an aggressive forecheck using what should be their superior skill to hem opposing teams in their own zone. With youth on their side, they could wear teams down over the course of the game. It is a battle they can win.

On the flip side, playing defense is a battle I don't see the team winning. Other than guys like Benoit Pouliot, their roster isn't equipped to play a shut down type of game. In some ways, it is just a losing proposition. Part of coaching is putting your players in a position to succeed. The most effective coaches throughout history don't necessarily stray from their system, but tweak it so their players can succeed. Putting a defense-first coach behind the bench goes against that in my opinion. Another one of my reasons is that the Oilers defense isn't that bad to begin with!

The Oilers defense has been a punch-line over the course of several seasons. Multiple highlights show blown or just lazy coverage leading to a slam dunk goal for the other team. The Oilers are second-to-last in goals-against-per-game giving up well over three goals a game. The solution for a defensive coach seems so easy. How can I possibly defend this unit? As I am about to tell you, the stats seem to indicate the Oilers are about an average NHL defensive team.

The first stat is the Oilers are almost exactly mid-pack in terms of shots-against-per-game. Some people may counter that this stat is deceiving. First, they will point that those shots the other team are getting are higher quality which isn't captured in the stat. In addition, the other argument is that teams with the lead may stop pressuring as much opting instead just to get pucks deep and keep it away from their own end. There are stats that dispute these counters.

According to advanced stats, the Oilers are tenth-best in Corsi against in five-on-five situations. In other words, they are better-than-average in keeping the other team from possessing the puck. For those who think this stat is padded by blowouts, they are actually only 19th in five-on-five situations when down two or more goals. In terms of Fenwick percentage, they are 15th in Fenwick-against. Nothing spectacular, but a sign of at least a competent unit.

The real problem is goaltending. Scrivens and Fasth have proven to be quite a screen door when it comes to stopping the puck. Both sport save percentage in the .800-range when the NHL average is about .915. Some of these goals could be caused by bad defense, but a lot of them are not. I would argue most teams have lapses in coverage during games, but good NHL goaltenders make the save. Replacing them with a statistical average goalie would have already yielded almost 30 fewer goals. Even replacing them with a .900 save percentage yields 25 fewer goals. The goaltending is the main problem, not the defense. This leads me to who I think should be coach. There was an interesting turn of events last week across the country that could answer Edmonton's prayers.

Last week the Ottawa Senators made their own coaching move, they fired Paul MacLean - a coach with a measure of some success the past few years. This is exactly the coach that Edmonton needs. Paul MacLean brings an up-tempo style that would mesh well with this roster. A lot of Edmonton's problems lie with their surprisingly anemic offense. They rank near the bottom in Fenwick and Corsi for the season. What should be the mighty Edmonton Oilers offense is scoring under two goals per game. During the past three seasons. Maclean’s Senators were top-three in Corsi for all three seasons, and were top-three in Fenwick over the past two. Ottawa's defense also hovered just outside the top-ten in Corsi- and Fenwick-against, suggesting that his defenses didn't struggle because of the increased tempo.

MacLean also eased out every ounce of talent in some pretty underwhelming teams. While no one is going to suggest guys like Jason Spezza and an aging Daniel Alfredsson were stiffs, but, in comparison, the Oilers skilled players would represent a world of riches. The offense could cover up for a defense while guys like Darnell Nurse are developing and until maybe a key free agent or two comes into the organization to round out the team. More importantly, it would give the team a distinct identity and make them one of the best watches in the whole league. "The Walrus" is just a gift from the heavens to the Oilers - one they would be foolish to pass up. This guy led a team who perennially rank near the bottom of the NHL in salary to the playoffs during his time there.

Yet despite this, Edmonton will fumble this away like they do everything else. The ownership group is clueless and the popular PR route would be to hire the defensive coach. While I'm sure my argument will never be the popular conception of the situation, I feel that it is the right one and, honestly, it isn't even close. So I beg you Craig MacTavish, for the overall betterment of your team, hire Paul MacLean. It will be a move you will not regret.
There you go, MacT - a passionate plea to buck the trend and go with an offensively-minded coach. I'm not sure what the analytics have to say about that, but Neal worked in some solid statistical numbers that help support his plea as well. He identifies the horrific goaltending that Edmonton is getting, but I'm going to go against Neal on this one based on some history, some player information, and a couple of key statistics.

First, Ottawa has this pretty solid offensive defenceman in Erik Karlsson that is responsible for a lot of that Ottawa offence. He controls the game for the Senators much like Paul Coffey did for the Oilers of the 1980s. He's an excellent first-pass defenceman as well, and this led to many opportunities for the Ottawa offence. Edmonton doesn't have a player like this. Justin Schultz would be the closest, but there's a wide distance between his skill level and Karlsson's skill level. You could make a case for there being some similarities between Jeff Petry and Patrick Wiercioch, but the Oilers have no answer for players like Cody Cici and Jared Cowen. At least Andrew Ference and Chris Phillips kind of cancel one another out. The defence, in this case, is heavily-stacked in favour of the Senators.

Goaltending has been the Achilles' heel for both of these franchises. Ottawa's Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner turn in some spectacular performances, but they are too few and too far between starts to give Ottawa a legitimate shot at being a playoff threat. If you're an Oilers fan, that sounds pretty familiar when it comes to Scrivens and Fasth. Both goalies have the ability to play at an incredibly high-level, but they rarely get an opportunity to steal a game because they're already down a goal or two. That's not entirely their fault as team defence has never been a priority in Edmonton when you look at the personnel they've employed year after year.

Speaking of personnel, Neal wanted to see an offensive coach behind the Edmonton bench. The problem is that they had one, and he failed. Pat Quinn, a man who was opposed to any sort of neutral zone trap or outright defensive system, went 27-47-8 in 2009-10 with the Oilers, and they finished a mile from the playoff race. Paul MacLean, for all the offensive talent that the Senators boasted at one point, never saw any improvement in the standings after his first full season behind the bench in Ottawa. The Senators won 41, 43 (pro-rated), and 37 games in his three full seasons, and was on-track to win just 33 games this season. In fact, that 43-win season was the lock-out shortened season, so there's no guarantee the Senators would have been two games better than they were in the previous season. The team had virtually similar records through 48 games, so there was no discernible improvement in Ottawa at any time under MacLean!

Neal speaks of MacLean as the next innovator in offensive hockey, but the numbers for the Senators show an entirely different story. In MacLean's first season in 2011-12, the Senators scored 249 goals-for and surrendered 240 against. Those 249 goals-for would stand as the highest total the Senators scored under MacLean in any of his seasons, pro-rated or not. If we use 82 games for all seasons, Ottawa would have scored 240, 198, 236, and 213 goals-for versus 240, 178, 265, and 225 goals-against, respectively. Again, if we take out the 48-game shortened season, the differentials in the two full seasons he coached 82 games would be +9 and -29. Sure, there's offence, but aren't we looking at the same problem that Edmonton has now - they can score, but the puck's always in their zone and/or net?

No, offence isn't Edmonton's problem. Like Ottawa, they are in the same boat where they can't seem to keep the puck out of their zone or net. This year, it's been magnified in Edmonton because of the myriad of problems the team seems to have both on and off the ice, but the projected 172 goals-for and 280 goals-against won't solve the last-place finish they're destined for by adding more offence. No team has given up more goals than the Oilers this season, and that's where the hemorrhaging needs to be stopped.

After all, if you're always fishing the puck out of your own net, it's hard to score on your opposition. Neal makes an appealing case for Paul MacLean, but the numbers simply don't back up the claim that the best defence is a good offence for the Oilers.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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