Special teams possess the ability to make or break a team’s season when vying for postseason contention. Although the sample size is minimal, the Edmonton Oilers’ special teams have been polar opposites of each other. Therefore, additional analysis is required to answer why the Oilers season may falter at the hands of being unable to kill penalties yet score at will.
Oilers year-over-year power play versus penalty kill results
Below are the Oilers’ historic performances on the power play and penalty kill going back to the 2019–20 season up until this one. Also included are league average numbers for context on where the Oilers finished each season compared to the rest of the league. All numbers in the article are courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and MoneyPuck.com.
|Season||PP Rank||PP%||League Average PP%||Diff||PK Rank||PK%||League Average PK%||Diff|
The Oilers’ power play
Similar to last season, the Oilers power play is again off to a blazing hot start, sitting second only behind last year’s Stanley Cup Champions the Colorado Avalanche. The 2022–23 power play returns almost the identical personnel that has constantly finished as a top three unit and produced well above league average in terms of conversion percentage.
However the Oilers are now dealing with the significant loss of sniper Evander Kane. That said, scoring at such a high rate is still expected when electric playmakers and snipers like Leon Draisatl, Connor McDavid, Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Tyson Barrie consistently touch the puck whenever the opposition becomes shorthanded.
This season, the Oilers have been able to take advantage of receiving the third most powerplay opportunities league-wide and are currently converting at a rate of 13.08 GF/60, good enough for second in the NHL. Additionally, this measure is not representative of a fluke either. Supporting data, such as having the third-ranked xGF/60, furthers the argument that the Oilers’ power play is among the most deadly in the NHL. Although operating at 33% may be an unsustainable pace in an 82-game season, regressing back to the three-year average of 27.68% still places the Oilers’ power play within the upper echelon of all NHL power plays.
Individually, Oilers players are also among league leaders in several statistical categories. Among xG leaders, Draisatl is currently third league-wide maintaining an xG of 3.3, when in reality, he has netted six goals on the power play to date. Several additional oilers place within the top 50 among xG leaders, including McDavid (12th), Hyman (20th), and Nugent-Hopkins (35th).
Comparing the xGF/60 between Oilers, it is in fact not Draisaitl that paces the highest xGF/60, but rather it is Hyman. This is a strong indicator that Hyman may be the individual to step up in Kane’s absence and assume the net front role that Kane has excelled in.
Unlike the Oilers forwards, the defence has not provided the same productivity, although three currently rank within the top 50 for xG among all defenceman, including Barrie (34th), Nurse (43rd), and Bouchard (48th), implying the Bouchard versus Barrie deployment argument is still up for debate.
The Oilers’ penalty kill
Unlike the power play, the Oilers’ penalty kill is not trending in the right direction. Since 2019–20, the Oilers’ penalty killing ability has consistently decreased from second to sit 29th in the league as of Friday, November 11. What has caused the downward spiral of what was once a very successful unit led by Riley Sheahan and Kris Russell? The underlying statistics provide a combination of factors. Here are numbers from 2021–22 versus the numbers so far in 2022–23.
|Cody Ceci||50.3%||7.74||Cody Ceci||53.4%||9.76|
|Darnell Nurse||54.8%||6.46||Darnell Nurse||46.7%||10.73|
|Evan Bouchard||40.3%||5.85||Evan Bouchard||28.2%||7.75|
|Duncan Keith||34.7%||7.38||Brett Kulak||39.6%||6.12|
|Derek Ryan||36.1%||7.43||Ryan McLeod||34.7%||7.57|
|Zach Hyman||35%||6.89||Zach Hyman||30.2%||11.23|
|Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||40.3%||6.84||Ryan Nugent-Hopkins||29.7%||13.83|
|Kailer Yamamoto||26.3%||8.25||Kailer Yamamoto||28.3%||2.43|
Comparing the 2021–22 and 2022–23 penalty killers, the personnel from either season is mainly unchanged, although Kulak has mainly overtaken Bouchard’s previous role, and Ryan has essentially been swapped out for McLeod. Individual roles have also changed, as Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman are playing less on the penalty kill.
This role change for the latter two is possibly due to their success in the top-six and the non-requirement to separate Nugent-Hopkins, McDavid, and Draisaitl due to McLeod’s emergence. Negatively, most of the 2022–23 penalty killers have a drastically increased GA/60 than the previous season, with Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins, Hyman, and McLeod (2021–22 GA/60 was 4.47), posting the worst marks. This may be another possible explanation as to why Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman are seeing less penalty-killing time as well.
Additionally, the penalty kill’s decline can result from statical categories a playoff-contending team should not be at the top of, let alone leading. At even strength, the Oilers are allowing the second most shots against per game and have given up the second most high-danger chances, alongside being shorthanded a league-high 65 times.
Individuals are also quick to blame the penalty killing woes at the foot of the goaltending. Upon further analysis, the Oilers goaltending was middling when shorthanded in the 2021–22 season, with Campbell (0.887% with Toronto), Smith (0.878%), and Skinner (0.867%) posting sub .900 save percentages. Contrasting between seasons, the 2022-23 season results are subpar, with both Skinner (0.857%) and Campbell (0.81%) posting year-to-year declines.
Both goalies also display negative goals saved above expected (GSAx), with Skinner (-1.49) and Campbell (-2.00) ranking 47th and 54th out of 71 qualified goalies. The tandem’s high-danger save percentage (HDSV%) is one main contributing factor requiring discussion. In 2021–22, Skinner ranked 34th (0.556%), Campbell 47th (0.500%), and Smith 49th (0.500%) out of 71 qualified netminders.
However, in 2022-23, Skinner’s HDSV% mark has improved and ranks 25th (0.600%), whereas Campbell’s HDSV% decreased considerably to 0.231%, implying Campbell is stopping less than one out of four shots from high-danger areas when shorthanded. This marked difference between Campbell and Smith’s ability to stop in close shots when the Oilers have shown a propensity to give up high-danger scoring chances is a very concerning point—you can’t rule out that it may be the biggest cause and effect behind the Oilers weakening penalty kill and porous defensive structure.
The solution to Edmonton’s special teams
For the Oilers to continue to contend in the Pacific Division and catch streaking teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings, improving the penalty kill and limiting high-danger chances are necessary. There’s a long list of adjustments that Oilers can make, such as: improving team discipline, minimizing shots per game, returning Derek Ryan to the previous shorthanded role, finding additional playing time for Yamamoto as a penalty killer, or reorganizing the defensive structure to keep opposing players towards the perimeter. Unless some of these issues are addressed, a return to last year’s league-average defence and goaltending may not be attainable.
Although the Oilers power play will likely continue to convert at an NHL-leading rate, it may all be for naught if the Oilers are unsuccessful at keeping the puck out of the net on the penalty kill, if and the special teams battle is lost on a nightly basis.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire