There are always areas that contending teams will look to improve, potential flaws that might hold them back, perhaps even more so in the case of the boom-or-bust Edmonton Oilers. Surrounding the team are questions, though there is lots of good it seems as though the Oilers are not a finished product yet.
Most would point to the team defence in general, with much of the Oilers blueline having an offensive lean, to put it lightly. To be more specific would be to say, the Oilers would really benefit from finding a good penalty killer, or at least some kind of help in a reliable part of the solution.
Penalty killing defencemen
Right now Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci have been doing all of the heavy lifting on the penalty kill, with Brett Kulak mixing and matching with Evan Bouchard, and more so recently, Tyson Barrie. Three of the four spots are spoken for, at least.
If the Oilers are able to turn their putrid 72.3% penalty kill efficiency, they will need to find Kulak a penalty kill partner, so that the pair might push the Nurse-Ceci duo for minutes. Being able to scale back on the top pair’s minutes will help them, as both are playing equal to the icetime averages of several legitimate Norris candidates.
Nurse and Ceci are overtaxed, and their best results would come with some additional support. Their results have not been overwhelmingly positive so far, but given the circumstances that culminate in that fact, the result is not at all surprising.
New faces to turn to
Neither Philip Broberg nor Markus Niemelainen have been able to get time on the penalty kill when dressed. Both are left shots, like Kulak, which does not help their cause. Both are unproven commodities as penalty killers at the NHL level, but there should be no time like the present to take a look.
This is not to suggest negligent coaching, but rather the fact that neither are PK options on the right side, and by extension neither is Kulak, is telling us exactly how the coaches feel.
While adding a player of Jakob Chychrun’s quality would be fantastic regardless of handedness, it seems the best way to address the issue would be to find a low-cap option. Someone who could be labelled a specialist right-handed defender who might push for recognition as the Oilers’ top PK option in earnest.
Acquire someone for the role
Throw away the even strength possession stats and acquire a shot blocking veteran player who prides themselves on old school defence. Kris Russell, Adam Larsson, where art thou? In all seriousness though, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Oilers look for a depth option of this profile on the right side.
This can make sense if the Oilers elect to go with their unconventional 11 forwards/7 defencemen split that we saw them use down the stretch last regular season. Although irregular, it should be noted that the Oilers best stretch of the decade was during the time that this lineup was used.
Penalty killing forwards
As far as the PK forwards go, there have been some interesting trends across the deployment through the season. Mattias Janmark has quickly made himself indispensable—often leading the group in minutes. Kailer Yamamoto has been crucial since his return from injury as well, together they are currently the only part of the Oilers penalty kill unit that we should expect to remain unchanged.
Current usage trends
Historically, both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Derek Ryan have played a part in this area, but for one reason or another both have seen their usage decrease. Perhaps with both playing key roles at 5v5, as well as heavy power play time for RNH, their best minutes are better leveraged elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Connor McDavid has been burning the proverbial midnight oil, moonlighting as a penalty killer. Do the rules even apply? Already making the 50-goal plateau look like a tepid prediction, why not add being a top penalty killer to the mix?
Whether or not either happens this season, the fact that McDavid is taking on this responsibility should lead us to assume that he will continue to improve here over the course of his career, as with everything else. If any forward in the league could play half of each game it might be the Oilers captain, but regardless having the option to deploy McDavid on the penalty kill, and ultimately defensively in general, is invaluable.
Hyman is pitching in less and less often on the penalty kill, perhaps a main target for ice time reduction amidst the poor team performance. This is perfectly fine, as Hyman might well have been miscast in such a prominent PK role. Playing on a line with McDavid and Draisaitl, as well as top power play minutes, Hyman is better cast in these situations and getting more than enough ice time. He has a commendable and infectious work ethic, but that alone does not make a great defensive player. Hyman’s doggedness is more effective at creating goals than preventing them.
The thing that speaks volumes is Puljujarvi’s lack of time on the penalty kill. There is a lot to like about Puljujarvi’s game, and his results have backed that up at times over the years. There is no looking around the fact that his not getting any time here is concerning.
He is known for his defensive impact, and outclassed by several options for the Oilers’ one and a half power play units his ice time has dwindled to fourth line levels. Without so much as an attempt at giving him PK responsibilities, it’s no wonder the mercurial winger is feeling lost in his place on this team.
Given his cap hit it seems impossible for any of us to ignore that a change of scenery might be best for both. As it stands the penalty kill has not been good enough to keep stagnant, changes are happening and needed, if now is not the time to help give Puljujarvi a chance at purpose then when will it be? As a reach, Puljujarvi’s history with McDavid might make them an worthwhile PK duo, and any of Puljujarvi’s agility concerns would be well insulated.
In recent games, with McDavid and Draisaitl on separate lines, Puljujarvi is back at his optimal spot on McDavid’s wing. On the top line, getting lots of even strength minutes, Puljujarvi’s spot in the lineup justifies his cap hit. Without PK time, this is likely the only spot that truly makes sense for Puljujarvi on the Oilers.
Targetting more help
The penalty kill is in flux and struggling, but would targeting a penalty killing forward make sense? The Oilers have had to take a long look at their forward depth early this season, and host enough options in the area, as deep as Devin Shore or Brad Malone, who can take faceoffs and kill penalties if needed.
The good news is that Ryan McLeod will be returning from injury soon, likely bound to jump back into his role as the team’s primary defensive centre at 5v5 and on the penalty kill. It might be a bit much to assume McLeod’s presence alone will stabilise the rotation, but he might well be the Oilers best hope at doing such.
There have been ponderings about adding a checking forward like Noel Acciari, which does have some theoretical merit. Given the Oilers’ tight cap situation, it might be a bit much to think that a player that greatly exceeds the abilities of some of the Oilers in house options is available and affordable.
The bottom line for Edmonton’s PK
In all, getting the penalty kill sorted out is crucial to the Oilers success. The biggest area of need would be a defenceman who can play the right side on the PK. Power play efficiency is up across the league, including the Oilers’ legendary current unit, with 80% efficiency being the line of demarcation for strength, roughly the top third of the league.
The Oilers’ PK currently sit 26th in the league at 72.3%—simply not good enough for a team looking to contend. With a significant amount of the season already played, it might be too late for the Oilers to achieve this 80% goal. Playing at a pace close to that might see the Oilers work their way up the league rankings, though the Oilers have a long way to go to catch even just the Montreal Canadiens at 77.2%, or 20th in the league.
A better penalty kill will only help the Oilers goalies succeed as well, as the tandem of a rookie and struggling veteran are hardly ideal to throw to the wolves with a bottom feeding PK unit.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire