Mysteries of Edmonton Oilers revealed: Why the team is keen about Slater Koekkoek?

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Not everyone loves the Edmonton Oilers handing Slater Koekkoek a two-year deal at $925,000 per season, at least not if the signing was based on his play this past season.

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For example, upon Koekkoek’s signing, shot metrics stats analysts Andy and Rono at Hockey Stats CZ, frowned on Koekkoek’s 2020-21 performance. “Koekkoek was great in Chicago and we hyped him before 2021 season, but he was awful in Edmonton this year. Whatever he has a potential to be good and solid depth defenseman again.”

At Copper & Blue blog, writer Jeff Chapman noted: “Koekkoek is an OK bet for the third pair, though I’m unsure as to why you’d extend this kind of player a second year. The Oilers now have a glut of defencemen at this position.”

Some saw the deal in a more positive light, including my Cult colleague Kurt Leavins, who said, “Slater Koekkoek and Kris Russell form a very serviceable 3-4LD on this club. To my eye, Koekkoek’s game in 2020-21 ran into trouble when he had to play too high up in the batting order. A 6-7, 12-15 minute/night guy.”

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Another shot metric analyst was also more positive. Said JFresh @JFreshHockey: “Slater Koekkoek, signed 2x$0.9M by EDM, is a solid depth defenceman.”

I was glad to see Slater Koekkoek signed. He did very well in softer minutes. He’s a steady passer and OK defender, a smart player. Not only that, if he doesn’t make it there’s no cap penalty in just burying his contract in the AHL.

The fact that Edmonton gave Koekkoek two years surprised some, but I generally approve. I can see why the Oilers organization might like Koekkoek more than some observers, even those who watch the team day in, day out.

We know that Oilers coach Dave Tippett and his staff dig into video of each game and go over scoring chances. They do at an expert level while we at the Cult of Hockey do at an amateur level, but we’ve been doing it now for ten years, we have a system to control for bias (with me making the first assessment, then Bruce McCurdy going over my work and having the deciding vote), and we publish our results so others can check our work.

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We dig into which players make major contributions to Grade A chances for and which players make major mistakes on Grade A chances against.

By that metric, Koekkoek showed up well. He played against softer competition, not the difficult attackers that players like Adam Larsson or Darnell Nurse regularly faced, but he held his own on defence and chipped in consistently on the attack.

We don’t know if our scoring chance data mirrors what Dave Tippett and his staff collected, but based on Edmonton rushing back Koekkoek to play in the playoffs ahead of Caleb Jones — who struggled immensely on defence according to our review of scoring chances — it’s no stretch to think the Oilers were seeing the same thing in Koekkoek, a steady, reliable puck-moving defender able to do well against weaker competition. Little wonder they were so keen to have him back in the playoff line-up.

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One mark held against Koekkoek is that when he was on the ice at even strength, the Oilers scored just four goals for and gave up 12 goals against. But Koekkoek is just one of five Oilers on the ice in those even strength situations. If you dig into how many major mistakes he made on those 12 even strength goals against, that number is jus six, just 50 per cent of the goals against. That was the lowest rate on the team for a d-man other than shut-down stalwart Larsson, who was on the ice for 32 even strength goals against but made major mistakes on just 13 of them, just 40.6 per cent.

Compare that to Ethan Bear, who was on the ice for 29 even strength goals against but made major mistakes on 24 of them, 82.8 per cent, or Tyson Barrie, on the ice for 51 goals against with major mistakes on 34 of them, 66.7 per cent.

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This is why you have to be careful when you use an on-ice plus-minus number like official NHL goals plus-minus to rate a player. They can be out on the ice for plenty of goals against, which might give you a bad impression of the player and certainly makes him look bad if all you’re looking at is a plus-minus number. But that same player might be at fault himself on a relatively low percentage of those goals against.

Individual scoring chance analysis is a better way to judge players than goals plus-minus, and I’ll close here by noting the Oilers have kept Koekkoek, who did well by this metric, but moved on from Jones, who struggled, and from Bear, who struggled at the start of the year before coming on very strong as the year went on.

For that reason, I’m good with the Oilers holding tight to Koekkoek, am accepting of the decision to move on from Jones, and am somewhat leery of Edmonton trading away Bear. They gave up a valuable player in Bear, so much is riding on how well forward Warren Foegele plays.

At the Cult

McCURDY: On Koekkoek’s new deal

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