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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson/USA TODAY Sports

Edmonton Oilers must fix their penalty kill before the postseason

We got our first look at Todd McLellan’s revised penalty kill against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, as the Oilers took their first penalty in the month of March.

The good news is that it’s always a bad idea to draw firm conclusions from a sample of one. The bad news is that the Islanders scored, continuing an awful shorthanded run for Edmonton that stretches back to the start of 2017.

The difference before and after January 1 is remarkable:

  • Prior to January 1: 95 of 115 penalties killed, 82.6% success rate
  • Since January 1: 50 of 68 penalties killed, 73.5% success rate

An 82.6 percent clip is extremely respectable, and would rank 11th in the NHL right now. If the Oilers were performing at that rate, the coaching staff might be looking to fine-tune for the postseason, since eight or nine of the teams going to the playoffs are in the top 10.

That is not what’s happening, though. The worst penalty-killing team in the league this year is Dallas, with the Stars succeeding in killing off just 74 percent of their penalties. Since January 1, Edmonton has underperformed the worst team in the NHL while shorthanded, and that’s a cause for serious concern.

Adding insult to injury is the Oilers’ conservative style. With just three shorthanded goals on the season—and none in 2017—Edmonton not only struggles to keep the puck out of its own net but also gives the opposition no reason to fear a break the other way.

To his credit, Todd McLellan knows the team has been bad lately, and has tried to correct the issue. In his Monday availability, he explained that the time spent on the unit in practice hadn’t been aimed at tweaking for a single opponent (in this case the Detroit Red Wings) but rather at addressing some longer-term deficiencies:

We didn’t alter the penalty kill just for the Detroit game. We reviewed, refined, polished up positioning, timing, situational play as much as we possibly could. We’ll need that regardless of who we play. I’d like to think that the players haven’t lost those lessons from five or six days ago, that they can apply them to the Islanders or Pittsburgh or whoever else is coming. That was something that we needed. We’ve been able to do that with faceoffs, some of our neutral zone play, today some of our d-zone stuff, because we have had more practice time.

In its first look since Edmonton’s return to home ice, though, that penalty kill allowed another goal against. In this case it was Josh Ho-Sang scoring his first career NHL marker:

https://www.nhl.com/video/embed/ho-sangs-first-nhl-goal/t-283410970/c-50131203?autostart=false

As far as power play goals against go, this one isn’t that worrying. Any penalty kill is going to allow some point shots.

It would have been nice if Eric Gryba/Connor McDavid had won the 2-on-2 battle along the boards, but there’s always going to be uncertainty in that kind of battle, and given Edmonton’s structure through the neutral zone Gryba didn’t really have the luxury of playing aggressively at the blue line (he engaged as soon as McDavid got back from forechecking, creating this battle).

It’s also hard not to give Thomas Hickey credit for his work here. The faked shot works so well in large part because Mark Letestu had to get over to the point man quickly; moving at that speed he committed to the block and was pulled out of position. This simultaneously neutralized McDavid, who had to guard the passing lane over to Prince and thus fell away from Ho-Sang.

Basically, we need more time to see if the instituted changes have an effect.

What we can look at now, though, is a breakdown of which players are on the ice when the penalty kill is getting lit up. A good place to start is shots allowed per hour when players are on the ice.

(data via Corsica)

We can start with the absences. Anton Lander and Darnell Nurse were competent penalty killers in the first half of the year, but neither has been on the PK much since January 1 thanks to AHL assignment and injury respectively.

Mark Letestu, the team’s most-used forward, sticks out. I don’t know if he’s overworked or has a nagging injury or what’s happening, but Edmonton has gone from allowing 52 shots per hour with him on the ice to 79 since January 1. Unsurprisingly, the team’s goals-against rate has more than doubled, too. Given his importance to the PK, this is catastrophic, and if he can’t figure things out he’ll need to have his role reduced in the postseason.

The other two potential problems worth noting are Matt Hendricks and Zack Kassian.

Kassian’s numbers have been weak-ish all year, and the shots don’t tell the full story. Scoring chances spike sharply when he’s on the ice. He had the worst scoring chance rate of any skater in the first half of the year, and since January 1 only Letestu is worse.

Hendricks had extremely strong numbers in the early going, but has fallen apart in 2017. I referenced scoring chances earlier; he, Letestu and Kassian are all over 30 against per hour in 2017; all other Edmonton forwards are under 20. Given that Hendricks is 35 and that this is the second time in two years he’s stumbled down the stretch, it may be time to replace him on the PK.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been good all year. Benoit Pouliot, who has been rubbish at five-on-five, has been exceptional on the PK this season; once he’s healthy, he should really get a push here. Connor McDavid has been quite solid, while Leon Draisaitl and Drake Caggiula have both played well in extremely minor roles.

The differences on defence are more subtle than they were up front.

Edmonton runs two main PK pairings: Andrej Sekera/Kris Russell and Oscar Klefbom/Adam Larsson. Benning gets fill-in minutes, while Gryba and Nurse both play regularly when they’re in the lineup, but overall those three account for a relatively small chunk of Edmonton’s total shorthanded ice-time.

Klefbom/Larsson are basically unchanged since the Oilers’ PK imploded. They were fine early on and they’re fine now.

That leaves Sekera/Russell, who have posted ugly numbers in the second half. I’m not really sure that’s their fault, though. We haven’t touched on quality of competition here, but Sekera/Russell have generally been McLellan’s first defence pair choice for the PK, meaning they play tougher minutes and more importantly for our purposes also start a lot of penalty kills with Letestu.

Goaltending is also obviously a major factor, and arguably the decisive one. The Oilers had a 0.897 save percentage leading up to January 1 in 4-on-5 situations; that number has plummeted to 0.835. Presumably Cam Talbot will rebound, though perhaps not all the way to that very impressive 0.897 number. Nevertheless, there isn’t much the head coach can do about goaltending other than to try and reduce the number and quality of the shots against.

I’ll be interested to see how McLellan handles his personnel from here on out. Based on what I’ve looked at today, though, I have some suggestions, all aimed at the forwards:

  • First, and most important: Mark Letestu needs to either a) get back to the player he was at the start of the year or b) see his ice-time slashed.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Benoit Pouliot and Connor McDavid can all take on more work here. Pouliot in particular should be a mainstay once he returns to health; he’s not contributing much elsewhere and his speed matters on the PK.
  • Matt Hendricks and Zack Kassian should not be penalty kill mainstays. Hendricks (despite his impressive hitting game) probably shouldn’t be in the lineup at all.
  • If there’s a need for another regular, Lander is an obvious recall and would also help in the faceoff circle. Failing that, Draisaitl and Caggiula have both been solid as fill-in guys. Iiro Pakarinen might be a fit, too.

Maybe the recent focus on the penalty kill in practice will turn things around, but given where the problems are I’m skeptical. Letestu and Hendricks are both professionals who know what they’re doing shorthanded, and it probably isn’t mind or spirit letting them down so much as body.

We should know soon. McLellan and his staff have a month to get things working for the playoffs. If the tweaks don’t fix the problem, it will definitely be time to make some personnel changes.

RECENT POSTS

  • Keg on Legs

    I’ve noticed how many other teams apply a lot of pressure on the puck carrier, we don’t, we hang back and “try” to intercept the passes. It doesn’t work, for quite some time now.

  • Pangs.

    I’d be on board with calling up Lander. He’s good on the draws and on the PK. And even somehow if his “AHL Hall of Fame” stats could translate even the slightest to the NHL, that would be golden.

    • Druds

      landers needs to stay down with Jesse P …if you call him up you should also recall JP. Jesse’s development is more important long term than whether we have a better PK in the playoffs.

  • OldOilerFan

    I hate our penalty kill. Too passive for me. It’s like we sit back some days and let the other team tee it up. Some other teams are way more aggressive, constantly challenging the guy with the puck to act quickly, that’s the penalty kill I’d like to see. And dangerous for short handed too. We have the talent to be dangerous, but I don’t see we are the way it’s run right now.

  • OriginalPouzar

    PK has been a problem for a while now. Its starts with our PK faceoffs. Some would argue that faceoffs don’t really have a material impact on the game but I saw a chart that refutes that with respect to the PK defensive zone faceoffs.

    I guess, at the end of the day, this post is another request for a possible Lander call-up.

    I’m also noted that Talbot’s 4X5 save percentage is middle of the back (whereas he’s above average at 5X5 save percentage).

    • Nuts Ack

      I think the obvious intent is as a threat to score shorthanded. But you DON’T want them blocking shots, and physically engaging is not the strength of a McDavid/Nuge, etc. I don’t like having that type of player out either. Not to mention that none of our top 6 can win a faceoff to save their life right now.

  • McPucker

    I agree with Keg and Old Oiler. The PK is too passive.
    I’ve got to change my name to I’mnotacoach. TM knows hockey and he knows there is a problem. Perhaps it’s a passive defense because the Oiler’s lose too many races to the puck and battles along the boards. Their clearing has been getting better but it was just terrible.
    As for the Russell/Sekera, they have to key off each other. They have to adjust their depth as a team. When one drops deep, the other must as well. So if one is dropping back early, giving them the zone entry, the other one has to as well or else a 2 on 1 or 3 on 1 will be created. At the same time, the forwards need to pressure high or else the D will have to back off. To me, pressure is the key on the PK but if you don’t have the (smart) wheels, you’re in trouble anyway.

  • Hemmercules

    The only I have liked out of Pouliot is actually his PK. He’s aggressive most of the time. Get him and Lander out there on the first unit and see how it goes.

  • Spydyr

    Your goalie has to be your best penalty killer. Talbot has not been and if you look at many of the Oilers loses his save percentage is bellow .900. It is just not fashionable here to bring up Talbot’s shortcomings.

  • Heschultzhescores

    It’s not Talbot’s fault that he’s way overused. There is a reason goaltenders get rest. As for the penalty kill, we need guys that are willing to pressure the puck with desperation. Letting teams set up is pretty much hoping for the best.

  • O.C.

    The Oil also have to seriously work hard on quick hands / finishing chances. The misses yesterday were awful. A drill needs be developed to well, develop that instinct.

  • Wow, great work on that chart Willis, those figures are pretty eye-opening.

    I’ll go out on a limb here and maybe state these are analytics that many can agree on. My “eye test” wouldn’t have realized this, but looking at these numbers, there are some clear undeniable issues related to who’s on the ice.

  • madjam

    Now they are home for a good portion of month , the team has the opportunity to address and get better at PK situations . It should be expected to get tweaked and better , and probably will over the month with additional practice time . We are in playoff mode now just to get to playoffs .

    • BornInAGretzkyJersey

      The increased amount of practice time during the lead up to playoffs will be crucial.

      The last month and change has seen us beleaguered amidst road trips, a bye-week, the ASG, and league-mandated days off… leaving little time for practice.

      I have faith that the coaches will be able to address the PK, and other issues through practice, or with management in calling up deserving players bubbling under in the minors.

  • Danoilerfanincalgary

    Starts with the faceoff that alone kills 15 seconds everytime you win a faceoff. We seem to win very few faceoffs at crucial times during the game.

  • Poloismz

    the reason Letestu is struggling is because too much icetime. the same thing happened to him last year. If Lander were up he could take on some of his minutes especially on the PK to help with the faceoffs. We aren’t chasing and scrambling in our zone if we win the faceoffs most of the time. Coaching needs to fix this before playoffs or its going to hurt them.

    • That’s what I suspected. He’s still playing pretty good in other situations. But heavy use on the PP (which I understand, he’s a guy who shoots first) and increased 5v5 play may result in a more tired Letestu on the PK. I wonder if there’s any site out there that charts ice time per game, to see if his usage has gone up.

  • S cottV

    McL is not a systems reliant coach. The problem with pk is more lack of systematic pressure pk, used in the right places at the right times. Getting it right – passive mixed with the right pressure isn’t easy. You have to believe in it, know it, be able to teach it, practice it, fine tune it, get a complete buy in from the players and get it implemented rock solid. All pk guys need to know when to pressure and when its time everybody has to go in unison. If the group or an individual is in between (passive and pressure), when it’s time to go – then, you’re probably looking at an ugly looking ga – where fans would say what kind of stupid coaching is that? There are a few areas in the d zone, where if the circumstances are right, you really need to over play and pressure. One of the worst for the Oilers is in front of the net. If the opposition takes the puck to the net – there are usually 3 of them – forwards, with two guys on the point. If your pk forwards collapse to the net fast enough, you can achieve a temp 4 on 3 advantage where it counts – around the net. You play bodies on the 3 attacking forwards and have an extra to play the puck. But – we don’t do that. Our d’s continue to over play to the puck – get over whelmed and it’s in the back of the net.
    Perhaps – part of the problem is lack of practice time because this stuff needs to be practiced. Still – other teams seem to be able to get it done. McL will have to bite the bullet though – because while passive pk is easier, it isn’t gonna be enough to cut it vs most other teams that have built a better mouse trap.
    We need better mouse traps in a number of areas.

  • Letestu had a pile of games where he was 3rd line centre, but he is not one. Guys like him and Hendo are SUPPOSED to get limited minutes so that when they do, they go all out and become an effective energy line. If they go above a limit, their play drops off and that energy is crucial with 10min left. Letestu is also on the 1st PP and PK. Why? Faceoffs and right-handedness. But this causes his minutes to go passed his limit. If Lander were up, he alleviates some of that work from Letestu. I’d like to see the above graph with Letestu and Lander over a series of games.