This morning, one adventurous writer from the Edmonton Sun (nicknamed Ice T) broke down tonight’s matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Edmonton Oilers category-by-category. He gave the edge to the Oilers.
— Alan May (@MayHockeyCSN) October 26, 2016
Needless to say, having the hot-takish opinion that the Oilers were a stronger team than the Capitals in almost every regard raised some eyebrows on Twitter and Hockey Reddit. But when we break it down using statistical analysis and logic, could last year’s 29th place team actually be the genuine on-paper favorite over the first place team, after only moderate offseason changes?
Spoiler: the answer is no.
The Washington Capitals were probably the best team in the league last season (at least top-three), while the Oilers finished one point ahead of the last-place Toronto Maple Leafs, with a 50-point gulf between them and the Caps.
That said, Edmonton did make some changes in the offseason and they have a healthy Connor McDavid. They have also started the season by going 5-1-0 (with that sole loss being a blowout by the Buffalo Sabres). Let’s take a quick look at each of the categories from the Sun’s article, with numbers from Corsica.
Have the Oilers been a better offensive team than the Caps to date? Well, sort of. In terms of raw-shot attempt generation at 5v5, the Caps are currently seventh in the league (with 58.1 shot attempts-for per 60) while the Oilers are 17th. But the Oilers do lead the Caps in goals scored per 60 at 5v5, where they are ranked fifth in the league at 3.0 while the Caps are 13th at 2.8. This early in the season goal scoring is a highly variable statistic, so we still give the edge to the Caps here who are systematically producing offense at a higher rate.
This category isn’t really up for debate – we agree that the ice severely tilts towards the Caps here. Washington currently allows the fewest shot attempts against at 5v5 in the entire league, while Edmonton allows the seventh most. The Caps also allow shots against from the second furthest distance out at 36 feet, while the Oilers are middle of the pack. The Caps lead the league in minimizing defensive zone starts so far, with only 22.6 percent of their starts coming in their own end. The Capitals are quietly a defensive juggernaut, while the Oilers are… not.
This one you’d think would be a no-brainer in favor of the Caps, with their Vezina winning starter Braden Holtby and more-than-competent backup in Philipp Grubauer. But some do say Cam Talbot is criminally underrated, and Sportsnet did rank him as the fourth best goalie in the league, ahead of Holtby at number nine (!!!). The numbers in the short season to date agree with your intuition and give the edge to the Caps, with the second-best 5v5 save percentage at .952. The Oilers are 11th at .923, an improvement over last year when they were 29th in the league (with the same starting netminder). And starter-to-starter Holtby is currently sporting a .952 save percentage at 5v5 as opposed to Talbot’s .922. The Caps
edge out the Oilers here win this one by a mile.
Okay here is a category where we can throw the Oilers a bone if we went to look just at the small sample of this season. There is no denying that to-date the Caps’ power play has been less than elite. By pure percentage they are 24th in PP effectiveness with a 12.5 percent conversion rate, while the Oilers are 16th at 16.7 percent. While you can make the case that the PP is better than it has shown so far, it is certainly struggling and the Oilers do have stronger numbers when skating 5v4. Washington is generating 89.5 shot attempts per 60 when up a man (ninth in the league), while the Oilers are generating the second most at 97.5 per 60. The Oilers are also fifth in generating scoring chances at 5v4, while the Caps are currently bottom-ten. Despite the fact that percentages are highly variable this early in the year (does anyone think the Blue Jackets will finish the season with a 50 percent powerplay?), the Oilers do have good underlying numbers and we’ll give them the edge here.
This category is one that could be a bit more up for debate, given that the Capitals’ penalty kill has only been 71.4 percent effective to-date, good for 27th in the league. The Oilers’ PK is clicking at 87.0 percent of the time. But our own Pat Holden wrote about how the PK process is still sound, and in fact the underlying numbers are much stronger than those of the Oilers’ PK. We could let small sample sizes tempt us, but the Capitals have only given up four shortanded goals so far, one more than the Oilers, so overall percentages do not mean much. Couple that with the fact that the Caps are allowing the sixth fewest shot attempts against when down a man, while the Oilers are giving up the 17th fewest… and you have yourself an advantage Capitals.
The Edmonton Sun seems to define this as their head-to-head record last year, which the Capitals did have the better of by winning both matchups (the first one being a fun score-fest with an Evgeny Kuznetsov hat trick). If forced to define “intangibles” I’d say it is the more experienced team, and, yeah… that’s the Capitals. A total of 13 Edmonton Oilers have a birthdate that ends in “1990-something,” while 9 Capitals do. The Caps also have five players born in 1985 or earlier, while the Oilers only have one. Being older is not necessarily better of course, but it goes without saying that the Oilers are a very young group indeed and will need some seasoning before they break into contender territory.
So are the Capitals a sure-thing to win tonight? Absolutely not. The game could go either way. But if we are going to break-down the foundation each team has laid so far, as the Edmonton Sun’s Robert Tychkowski did, then there is no doubt that the Washington Capitals hold the edge on paper.
Here’s how the list should have looked.
So let’s pump the brakes before declaring last year’s 29th best team the favorites over the team that finished first by a mile.
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