This time last season, the hope might have been that the Oilers would find a way to become a positive possession team, anything above 50% in chances for and against and xGF% at even strength. The thought was that the Oilers star power and strong special teams would be enough to push them from “up and comers” to a legitimate Cup contender.
Under the coaching of Dave Tippett, the special teams were strong, at least historically, in large part thanks to the Oilers all-world power play. When the coaching change to Jay Woodcroft took place, not only did the 5 on 5 flow of play metrics reach a level beyond the middling aspirations that might have been sufficient to get the Oilers back in the playoff running, but the special teams remained strong. In fact, particularly as it pertains to the penalty kill, the Oilers found improved play on their special teams as a whole.
The expectations of excellence in these areas are present and that they should continue. The importance of special teams is critical to overall team success and the Oilers are well positioned to rise to the challenge. With that said, let’s take a look at what we might expect from each unit this season.
Oilers bringing the heat on the power plays
Although it might seem as simple as throwing as much talent as possible over the boards, an area where Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl certainly help, there is more to power play excellence than personnel. The Oilers are in line to continue icing a strong unit that should be among the best in the league, under the same system that has brought them success over the years.
The salient things from these heat charts are that the Oilers are generating shots at a high rate relative to league averages and that many of these chances come from high danger areas. The right side circle, the slot, the net front, and the centre of the blueline are clear hotspots that the Oilers work into.
On this chart, from but a small portion of the 2021–22 season (but still informed on the present), we can see who contributes to shots from these areas. Naturally, everything starts with McDavid and Draisaitl. Draisaitl is famous for his work on the right side circle, using his canoe paddle of a stick, deft touch, and accurate shot to be a dangerous option from even the sharpest angles. The passing talents of McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ensure that Draisaitl will see ample opportunities off lateral puck movement. Of course, a terrific passer in his own right, Draisaitl will often move the puck into the slot or back around the perimeter as well.
Many of McDavid’s shots from the last season came from that same spot on the right circle. Though McDavid has continued to leverage his shot more often, the fact that his hot spots correlate so closely to Draisaitl’s speaks to the key of this unit’s success: movement. The Oilers as a whole show a lot of chemistry in using movement on the perimeter, getting to loose pucks quickly, changing spots, rotating around, and finding the open man. Of course McDavid and Draisaitl are on another level altogether; almost Sedin twin-like in their ability to read off of each other, but the rest of the unit has done well in following suit.
The shots from the point are debated, often classified as a low percentage option, yet is an option that makes sense for the Oilers to utilise heavily. In the past we have seen both Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie operate with effectiveness here, but this season should be the start of a long regime for Evan Bouchard on the top power play. Although Barrie and Nurse are both quality offensive talents, Bouchard is a cut above in this area and should prove to be among the league’s best in shooting from here. In other words, Bouch bombs away.
Nugent-Hopkins has been a staple on this unit for years now, and his smarts and passing abilities make him a strong contributor as a playmaker in the bumper position. This role can often be overlooked, yet to have any notable success, it is a role that requires attention to detail, quick decision making and processing skills, as well as the touch to excite under pressure. With the Oilers movement along the perimeter, RNH can be a good passing option all around the zone and certainly adds to the swarming hive mind the Oilers embody at their best.
Finally we see Zach Hyman as a net front presence on this chart. We shall see if it’s a role he holds onto for this season. Under Tippett we saw Jesse Puljujarvi cast in this same role, perhaps a big reason for the 30 goal pace he flashed early last season. In the playoffs, Kailer Yamamoto was able to contribute here thanks to his tenacity and willingness to get to these contested confines, despite his stature.
Most likely Evander Kane will factor into this spot quite heavily, perhaps most of all, as he definitely possesses the strength and skills to play at the net front. On top of this, Kane offers the added dimension of being another viable shooting threat from a distance in a way that the trio of Hyman, Yamamoto, and Puljujarvi cannot. Now well acquainted with his teammates, Kane should add another wrinkle to this already great power play.
The wildcard in this spot might be Dylan Holloway, as the strong and fast forward has been a top offensive option for his teams on his way to the NHL.
Often both McDavid and Draisaitl will remain out for the duration of the power play, while the rest of the group changes. The Oilers are well equipped to put together a strong second unit, led by Barrie at the point and featuring some of the younger talent already mentioned: Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Holloway, perhaps even Ryan McLeod.
Can the Oilers penalty kill become any deadlier?
The most notable improvement to the Oilers special teams post-coaching change came on the penalty kill. Although players complimented the new coaching staff’s attention to detail and effective communication, essentially being provided with game specific information and strategies in all phases of the game, there were distinct personnel evolutions that brought success on the penalty kill. The season long performance does not look too strong (shown in the chart below), but under a full season of Woodcroft we should expect charts like these coming across much more favourably.
Nurse became free of his power play role and as Woodcroft trusted his depth much more than Tippett did, Nurse’s minutes decreased from the absurd totals that he and the Oilers stars were formerly logging. Nurse instead was deployed in a more concentrated or intentional manner. Alongside Cody Ceci, the pair was still relied upon heavily in high leverage defensive situations at even strength against top talents on the opposition, but also as the top pair on the penalty kill.
As Bouchard takes over the top power play role, his spot on the penalty kill was lessened. It is good for Bouchard to continue to push himself in rounding out his defensive game and it is promising he showed some strength on the penalty kill.
The addition of Kulak, as well as his pairing with Barrie, allowed the duo to fill in as a good secondary option behind the Nurse and Ceci. It will certainly be interesting to see how much Barrie can be pushed for this role, as Kulak might well find himself paired with Bouchard. Philip Broberg has been trying out on his weak (right) sides and might be decent options worth exploring in this role. Regardless, all six Oiler defencemen could find themselves in a penalty killing role, if only briefly, during a given game.
Defensive coach Dave Manson gets credited with a lot of the defensive improvements. Between the increased attention to detail all around and the usage of a solid top penalty killing pair, the Oilers saw a stronger foundation to their PK.
The other significant personnel change on the penalty kill was relying heavily on Ryan McLeod. With a reputation, or at least a profile, as a capable checker, it is a wonder that Tippett did not opt to use McLeod in such a role at all in retrospect.
Nugent-Hopkins is a capable checker in his own right, but his chemistry with Hyman makes for a strong duo on the penalty kill. Warren Foegele has a viable skill set in this regard as well, as together with McLeod the quartet of forwards is a great place to start.
The fourth line, or the bottom of the roster as a whole, might be hand in hand with the rounding out of the personnel on the penalty kill. Derek Ryan and Mattias Janmark will likely have to be contributing here to maintain their roles in the lineup.
The Oilers could rely on some top nine forwards looking for a bit more ice time as well. Both Holloway and Puljujarvi were not options on the PK last season, but have skill sets that might see them have success in this area. Yamamoto did log time as a penalty-killing regular last season and might well reprise his role.
We can see these personnel changes fairly clearly in the following chart, with the coaching change coming around game 45.
Overall expectations for the upcoming season
To be the elite team the Oilers see themselves as, they must be strong at both even strength and special teams, as a poor performance in either will make sustained winning near impossible. The current barometer of good special teams is that the sum of a team’s power play and penalty kill percentages should add up to about 105% – anything beyond that would be considered elite.
Last season the Oilers clocked in at a power play efficiency of 26%, third best in the league, and there should be confidence that they can replicate such a performance. The target, then, would be for the penalty kill to operate closer to the 82%, more than the 79% they finished with on the season. Approaching 85%, still a ways behind last season’s leader of 88% (Carolina Hurricanes), would see the Oilers all but guaranteed to be in contention for the President’s Trophy.
Data visualisation from hockeyviz.com
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire