The penalty-kill is the biggest reason that this team has underachieved to date. Consider the last ten games as an example – here are the goals for and against on special teams and at even-strength:
- Even Strength: 27 goals for, 19 goals against (+8)
- Special Teams: 4 goals for, 9 goals against (-5)
- Oilers Record: 3-2-5
Despite the lousy record, this team has been very good at even strength; they score three goals for every two they give up. It’s been a very good run in that respect. Unfortunately, the Oilers can also expect to have a powerplay goal against almost every game. That’s even worse than their season average, an average that places them 28th in the league in penalty-kill efficiency. The powerplay isn’t helping much either, having scored just four goals in the last ten games. Here are the numbers on the season (discounting empty-net goals):
- Even Strength: 129 goals for, 125 goals against (+4)
- Special Teams: 52 goals for, 76 goals against (-24)
- Oilers Record: 32-27-9
The powerplay is league-average. The even-strength record is slightly better than that. Where the team falls down is on the penalty kill, where they’ve averaged more than 1 powerplay goal against per game this season. This is an obvious weak spot. It has been since the start of the year.
On January 27th, I did a team review that imitated one that Doug Risebrough, G.M. of the Minnesota Wild, did for his team. Here’s an excerpt from that article:
I would suggest that the Oilers would be well-advised to make improving the penalty-kill their chief priority. The trade of Garon would seem to imply that they felt he was a big part of the problem, but even if they’re right about that, they can’t afford to stand pat.
I suggested four changes that might help turn around the penalty-kill:
- Trade for an elite penalty-killing forward
- Reduce Steve Staios’ role on the PK
- Make Erik Cole an integral part of the unit
- Re-emphasize shot-blocking
Both the second and third point were used, although not to the extent I would like. Unfortunately, the first point went unaddressed (O’Sullivan kills penalties, but if you send out Erik Cole to get him you aren’t improving the unit as a whole). The fourth point is rather difficult to measure, but most of the players on the penalty-kill are recording fewer blocks than they did back in January, so it seems to have gone by the wayside as well.
In fact, I think the greatest criticism I have of Steve Tambellini’s trade deadline is that he didn’t address the penalty-kill. He added a great young player in O’Sullivan for an unrestricted free agent, and he overpaid to try and shore up a league-average powerplay, but he did nothing to fix the thing that has cost this team games all season: the penalty-kill.
I was just a little baffled by the idea that the Oilers big, gaping hole going into the deadline was a top-six left-winger. All season I’ve complained, Brownlee’s complained, and Gregor’s complained about the horrible penalty-killing numbers. It is what has cost the Edmonton Oilers wins this season.
Ultimately, I’ve been very critical of Craig MacTavish this season, but I think this one rests squarely on the shoulders of Kevin Lowe (for his work over the summer) and Steve Tambellini (for his work this season). Last year, Craig MacTavish had six forwards who he regularly ran out and trusted to kill penalties. This season he has four – and the two guys who departed were not only elite penalty-killers, but two of the best faceoff men in the NHL.
Failing to address that hole, more than anything else, has led to poor results this season.
And as a side point, it would be nice if the print media (at least some of who recognized earlier in the year that the penalty-killing was the biggest issue) had spent a little more time recognizing the holes in the unit, rather than staring at the giant (~soft, lazy, unmotivated, etc.~) red herring who often plays with Horcoff and Hemsky. Unfortunately, they seem to have spent most of the last month ignoring it (by the way, if you’ve seen a trade deadline article I missed respecting this moribund PK, please point it out – I’d like to thank whoever wrote it).