For the Edmonton Oilers, the not-so-proud owners of the league’s 30th-ranked penalty kill, there is some good news: the goaltending is part of the problem, and it’s bound to get better.
No team in the league has saved a lower percentage of the shots it has faced on the penalty kill than the Edmonton Oilers. Starting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has faced 63 shots while the Oilers were down a man, and has allowed 16 goals during that time – resulting in an astonishingly low 0.746 save percentage. For perspective, the worst performance by any goaltender with 25+ games played over the last three years was a 0.788 save percentage (posted by Vesa Toskala in 2009-10) – an average which should only have resulted in 13 goals on the same number of shots.
Khabibulin’s been a fairly average penalty-killing goaltender since the lockout, but his numbers tower over his performance this year – ranging between 0.845 and 0.877 on the penalty kill since 2005-06. Even a performance at the 0.845 level would have saved the team six goals against, or 38% of the power play goals scored against them so far. Even given that Khabibulin’s performance has been affected by age or injury, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that his numbers will improve, and that those improved numbers will greatly benefit the penalty kill.
Unfortunately, a slow start from Khabibulin isn’t the only thing plaguing the Oilers penalty kill – they allow far, far too many shots. Over the last three years, NHL teams have allowed between 40 and 60 shots for every 60 minutes of 4-on-5 ice-time. The teams with the best performance were generally closer to the 40 shot mark, while poor teams were close to 60 (though no team in the last three years has reached a full 60, or a shot per minute, while killing 4-on-5 penalties).
The Oilers performance at shot prevention over the last two seasons has been near the bottom of the league – they allowed a league-worst 59.4 shots against/60 minutes in 2008-09, and were marginally better at 55.9 shots against/60 minutes last season. This season is on pace to be the worst of the three, as they’re currently averaging 60 shots against for every 60 minutes of 4-on-5 penalty-killing. That suggests that even when the goaltending improves, the Oilers will struggle on the penalty kill because they’re allowing too many shots.
As for where the blame lies, I’d suggest a mixture of coaching and personnel. On the coaching side of things, Derek Zona put together a fantastic breakdown of where the penalty kill was going wrong late last month and then some suggestions to improve the unit, and I don’t have much to add to that.
On the personnel side of things, I did want to make a few points. Up front, six players (in order of ice-time: Horcoff, Fraser, Eberle, Cogliano, Hemsky, Jones) have averaged more than a minute per game. On the positive side of the spectrum, Horcoff’s reliable, Fraser’s been a little rough so far but was very strong in this area for Chicago, and Jordan Eberle has been better than we had any right to expect. Andrew Cogliano’s skill-set seems ideally suited to this sort of work and he’s always had decent results in limited action on the PK. Ryan Jones was never really used on the PK in Nashville, and I haven’t been impressed with what I’ve seen in this particular situation so far; maybe he picks it up but I don’t know that he can be counted on yet. I’m also not wild about using Hemsky on the PK; he can only play so many minutes and I think they might be better spent elsewhere, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out to be a pretty effective PK’er. Basically, I think the group could use Cogliano more, perhaps give Jones some more time to find his stride, and would really benefit from the addition of a right-shooting centre – basically the guy they’ve been missing since Jarret Stoll was sent away and not replaced back in the summer of 2008.
On defence, Whitney, Gilbert and Vandermeer all have middling track records on the PK over the last few years, while neither Strudwick nor Peckham are ready for a significant role at this point in their careers. I like most of what I’ve seen from Ladislav Smid in this role, but I think this team misses what Steve Staios and especially Sheldon Souray (when healthy) brought to the table here. It’s arguable whether Souray was more important to the power-play or the penalty kill, but I don’t think it’s arguable that the Oilers don’t currently have someone on the roster who can handle his minutes with the same level of effectiveness.
None of these things need to be fixed immediately: this is a rebuilding year and ultimately a poor performance by this year’s edition of the Oilers should be in the franchise’s long-term interest. If anything, now is the time to break in new personnel: give Smid big minutes and see if he can handle them, and work in Cogliano, Peckham and Jones. On the other hand, I’d feel better about the team’s long-term prospects if Steve Tambellini were to address a long-time problem: third line centre. Until he does, it’s hard to describe the absence of that player as anything other than an organizational blind spot.