The Edmonton Oilers penalty kill comes out of last night’s tilt with the Red Wings a mere .7% up on the 30th-ranked New Jersey Devils, good for 27th in the league. This is a rarity in a Craig MacTavish-coached club; his team has ranked 5th, 8th and 8th in the NHL in penalty-killing percentage since the lockout. Why, then, are things so brutal?
A quick look at the penalty-killers numbers (courtesy of Behind the Net), both this year and last year, is instructive. The number used is GAON/60, which is simply the average number of goals scored for every sixty minutes of ice-time 4-on-5. Skaters are ranked by average ice-time, and only skaters averaging more than 1 minute per game are used.
What does it mean? A few things:
– The personnel no longer with the team (Reasoner, Stoll, Greene, Pitkanen) are probably not the reason for the decline. Greene had the worst numbers of any Oilers defenseman, and Stoll had the same distinction among the forwards. Additionally, Joni Pitkanen was the number six option among defenseman on the penalty kill. The loss of Marty Reasoner is non-trivial, but he is the only player who the Oilers are really missing short-handed.
– Fernando Pisani’s injury is bad news, if that wasn’t already obvious. Alone among the forwards, he was exceeding last year’s numbers and experiencing some success.
– Denis Grebeshkov shouldn’t be on the penalty kill, ever. (Wanye note: BAAAAAAAAAAAA)
Virtually every single veteran player (Pisani as the sole exception) has seen his numbers drop off. We could pin the blame on Horcoff, Moreau and Staios, who’ve posted the worst numbers, or we could acknowledge the fact that it is unlikely that every veteran on the team dropped off the edge of a cliff over the off-season. To me, the answer is obvious: the coaching is at fault here.
The only problem with that premise is Craig MacTavish’s track record. Why would he suddenly lose his ability to coach the penalty-kill? One possible answer is in this early-October Joanne Ireland article on Kelly Buchberger. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
Buchberger has had input in a number of areas, including the penalty kill…
It’s probably wrong to pin the blame for the lack-luster penalty-kill solely on Buchberger. However, given that he’s the only change in the coaching staff, and penalty-killing is something he could be expected to have an impact on, it’s extremely tempting.
Even if Buchberger has some of the blame, the final assignment must go back to Craig MacTavish. After all, not only does MacTavish have the final say behind the bench, but he’s the one who decides what coaches take care of which assignments. The decision not to use Andrew Cogliano (phenomenal in limited use both this season and last) in this role is an obvious call to question, although there are others, including the experimentation with both Penner and Gagner up front, the use of Grebeshkov and neglecting to use other obvious candidates like Smid or Marc-Antoine Pouliot. The silver lining here is that, if history is any indication, this team can turn it around.
– Professor Willis can be seen at Harvard University, where he was recently given tenure.