While the Oilers are satisfied with their start, it is way too early to think they are out of the woods and on the road to a division title. Now that they are past the hardest part of their schedule, it will be a mental challenge not to let down over the next eleven games, which include six more on the road.
Their consistency needs to be improved, but right now the most pressing need is to improve their penalty killing. The Oilers are a woeful 77.6% on the kill, which puts them 26th in the league. The past three seasons the Oilers finished 5th, 8th and 8th on the PK.
So what has been the difference this season?
They haven’t changed their system, but they don’t have Reasoner and Stoll. Hands up Oiler fans who thought the Oilers would miss Marty Sakic and soon-to-be-married Stoll. I’m guessing it isn’t many; yours truly included. Those two logged the 2nd and 3rd most PK minutes last season, but they weren’t dominant in the faceoff dot; which many think is the main culprit for the Oilers lack of PK success this season.
Stoll won 133 and lost 128 shorthanded faceoffs, while Reasoner won 100 and lost 125. Surprisingly as a team the Oilers won 314 but lost 347 PK faceoffs last season when they finished 5th on the PK. So clearly draws aren’t the main reason for the Oilers’ woes when down a man this season.
They are a factor though. Kyle Brodziak leads the team with a 51.2% in the draw, but he is awful on PK faceoffs. He has only won 13 out of 43 for just over 30%. Five-on-five he is 70-49 good for 58%. It is hard to fathom that much of a difference, so I asked Brodziak what has been the difference.
It was no coincidence then that Brodziak spent a lot of time working on draws today, but more on his forehand.
It is a small factor when you consider the opposition has an extra man. If a centreman wins the draw to the boards, but the opposing team gets possession then the guy who actually lost the draw gets credit for the win. Any draw that turns into a possession battle will favour the team with the extra skater.
Faceoffs are a factor in the slow start to the PK, but shot blocking from the forwards is also down. Stoll and Reasoner blocked the most shots of any forwards last year, and most of those came on the PK. It is a skill that Brodziak admitted they need to improve on.
“Obviously the guys are willing to do it, but we have let too many get through from the point. It becomes too much of a crap shoot when shots get through, because we are out-manned down low. We have to be better at blocking the shots from the middle of the ice. If we let one by from the side, you deal with it, but blocking the shots from the middle needs to improve.”
Shawn Horcoff, who has been a regular on the PK for years, says tendencies play a huge part for a successful PK unit. “A good PK has a lot to do with knowing who you are out there with and knowing what they will do. Some guys like to be more aggressive, some like to be really aggressive down ice, so you have to be aware. Now I know that I’m out with either Brodziak or Chopper (Ethan Moreau). They are both different, but it makes it easier knowing exactly who I’m out with.”
The chemistry between the forwards and D-men isn’t as important according to Horcoff. “It is different with them, because you work moreso with the other forward. You do get to know who is really good at getting the puck in the corner, or which guy will hard rim it around the boards no matter what. Knowing that allows the forward to meet the puck at the blueline, and then it is up to us to win that battle against their D and get it out.”
The biggest problem with the Oilers PK has been the two games v. Philadelphia and Vancouver . The Oilers surrendered 7 PP goals in those two games. They killed off 45 of 51, or 88%, in their other 13 games, but were a woeful 6 of 13, or 46%, against the Flyers and Canucks.
You can live with giving up a goal here and there, but three or four in a game is devastating for the %. Like most parts of their game, if the Oilers can avoid a huge collapse they should be okay.
In order for the Oilers to get back to a top-ten PK unit, they need to kill off 20 straight penalties, and only then would they be 83%, which is currently where the 10th ranked Flames sit. The bad start means it will take a good three weeks before they find themselves in the upper half of the league once again.
– Listen to Jason Gregor weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m on the TEAM 1260 or online at www.justagame.ca