Canadian institution Pat Quinn made the headlines this week, drawing a $10,000 fine with a moralizingand seemingly hypocriticalresponse to a relatively innocent looking collision between division foe Jarome Iginla and key Oilers’ defenseman Sheldon Souray. It’s par for the course, as intimidation is the Big Irishman’s strong suit.
No one can argue that the high-and-mighty Quinn wrote the book on strong arm tactics. More important to fans in Western Canada is whether the new Oilers’ head coach will press the right strategic and tactical buttons to elevate Edmonton into the postseason. Unfortunately, there is already reason for doubt. Case in point: in two shootouts this season, Quinn has followed former coach Craig MacTavish’s flawed pecking order in the shooters that he has chosen, not a trivial matter for a middle-of-the-pack team.
Optimizing shootout performance is critical for teams that are likely to be on the playoff bubble, as were last season’s 38-35-9 Oilers (85 points), who missed the playoffs by a mere 6 points. For 2009-10, Edmonton is similarly projected for 87 points in our VUKOTA preview, likely putting them on the outside looking in again once late April rolls around – unless they pull all the right strings. In 2008-09, the Oilers were 6-4 in the shootout despite MacTavish. They definitely could have fared even better with .800 goaltending by Dwayne Roloson and a deep and talented group of shooters at their disposal. On the surface, one would think that offseason losses of shootout wiz Ales Kotalik to the Rangers and Roloson to the Islanders would knock Edmonton down a notch, but this team still has plenty of talent to make shootouts a distinct strength towards that playoff push.
The Oilers (1-1) are one of four teams to have already competed in multiple shootouts this season, in addition to the Blackhawks (1-1), Islanders (0-2) and Stars (0-3). In fact, Edmonton had the unique pleasure of competing in shootouts on back-to-back nights, beating Dallas on October 7th (saved by a James Neal goalpost), but then losing to Calgary on October 8th.
October 7, 2009 - Edmonton 5, Dallas 4
# Team Shooter Goaltender Result Score
1 EDM Sam Gagner Marty Turco Save 0-0
2 DAL Brad Richards Nikolai Khabibulin Save 0-0
3 EDM Patrick O'Sullivan Marty Turco Save 0-0
4 DAL Mike Ribeiro Nikolai Khabibulin Missed 0-0
5 EDM Ales Hemsky Marty Turco Goal 0-1
6 DAL James Neal Nikolai Khabibulin Missed 0-1
October 8, 2009 - Calgary 4, Edmonton 3
# Team Shooter Goaltender Result Score
1 EDM Sam Gagner Miikka Kiprusoff Save 0-0
2 CGY Nigel Dawes Nikolai Khabibulin Goal 1-0
3 EDM Patrick O'Sullivan Miikka Kiprusoff Goal 1-1
4 CGY Olli Jokinen Nikolai Khabibulin Goal 2-1
5 EDM Ales Hemsky Miikka Kiprusoff Missed 2-1
What could Quinn have done to improve his chances? Based on the very small sample provided by shootout attempts––especially for shooters, and to a lesser extent, for goaltenders––it’s prudent to draw conclusions from career shootout numbers, not seasonal stats. Keep in mind that the advent of the shootout was 4 short years ago in 2005-06, so the use of the larger sample size far outweighs some of the data being a few years old (Except maybe in the case of Marty Turco).
By not using their best career shooters, the Oilers’ chances of winning last week’s games were greatly diminished.
Edmonton Oilers' shooters - Career shooting percentage
Name Pos Goals Attempts Shooting %
Shawn Horcoff C 5 9 55.6%
Robert Nilsson C 7 14 50.0%
Fernando Pisani RW 6 13 46.2%
Patrick O'Sullivan C 8 18 44.4%
Mike Comrie C 6 17 35.3%
Ales Hemsky RW 14 42 33.3%
Sam Gagner C 8 25 32.0%
You don’t need to hire a stats guru––though I’m available for a nominal fee––to tell you that rolling out C Shawn Horcoff, C Robert Nilsson and RW Fernando Pisani (or C Patrick O’Sullivan, since Pisani is currently on Injured Reserve) would give the Oilers a dynamite chance of winning every shootout, given decent goaltending by new number one Nikolai Khabibulin (.628 career save percentage). So why on God’s green earth would Quinn go with his 4th, 6th and 7th best shooters? While RW Ales Hemsky and C Sam Gagner might crack the top 3 shooters on a few teams, Quinn effectively went from a distinct advantage––what is on paper the NHL’s 3rd best set of shooters––to a slight disadvantage (23rd best). That’s going from an average of 1.5 goals for the first three shooters to an average of 1.1 goals for the first three shooters. Think about it: in most shootouts, 2 goals will win it for you outright, while 1 goal should be good enough to force extra frames. With Edmonton’s deep group of fine shooters, even forcing extra frames would probably also result in a shootout win. The Oilers are a team that should rarely lose in the shootout, especially given that many of the better shootout teams are in the Eastern Conference.
So why not go with Nilsson? The son of “Magic Man” Kent Nilsson has spent extended time in the Edmonton fans’ doghouse since coming over from the Islanders in the Ryan Smyth trade. This season, Nilsson hasn’t impressed his old school coach any more than MacTavish, dressing only for the Dallas game so far this season. Yet, the 15th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft is better than conventional stats would dictate, no matter what the Oilers faithful would tell you, posting a +0.48 ESTR in 2008-09 – indicating that he’s a better than average NHL player who’s been limited in playing time and limited by his teammates. To be giving Nilsson’s ice time to the likes of Jean-Francois Jacques and Ryan Stone––tabbed as third line players at best ––speaks to Quinn’s predilection for players who are willing to mix it up with their opponents once in a while. Whatever the case, there’s no good reason why Nilsson should not have gotten a shootout attempt against Dallas, since he was dressed for that game.
What is truly unfathomable is that 1st line center Shawn Horcoff––a 55.6% scorer over 9 career attempts––has been shut out by Coach Quinn, as he was by MacTavish last season. Ales Hemsky and fan fave Sam Gagner have already proven to be no better than an average shooters under MacT’s watch, while Horcoff has given indications of being a superior shootout performer.
It’s true that we may not exactly know the true shootout ability of Horcoff, Nilsson and Pisani based on 9, 14 and 13 career attempts, but it’s not like we’re talking about guys that are 50% based on 1 for 2 in career attempts either. Why not keep rolling them out, to ascertain if they’re really 30%, 40% or 50% over the long haul? The fact is that, at worst, their downsides will be the same as Hemsky’s and Gagner’s actual ability, which is well known after 42 and 25 career attempts.
Teams with different expectations should take different approaches to the shootout. For teams expected to make the postseason––the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins––improved shootout performance can maximize playoff seeding. For poor teams without a realistic chance of making the playoffs––the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Colorado Avalanche––various players should be given a chance to perform in the shootout, so that the best performers can be ascertained for when the shootouts will really matter, down the road. Finally, for the sizeable group of teams on the playoff bubble––like Pat Quinn’s Edmonton Oilers––it is critical to squeeze every point you can get out of the shootout by properly utilizing your best shooters.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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