The Edmonton Oilers allowed the fifth most goals at 5×5 last season, but they scored the 11th most at 5×5. Scoring goals wasn’t their downfall, preventing them was. Their team defence and goaltending has to improve this season, but they really need an upgrade in play from their defencemen if they want to compete for the playoffs.
The Oilers didn’t add any big-name free agent blueliners in the summer, instead they lost one of their top-five defenders, Andrej Sekera, to an achilles injury. Jason Garrison, Kevin Gravel and rookie Evan Bouchard are the new faces on the ice, but the most important addition the Oilers made to their blueline was hiring Trent Yawney.
Yawney was drafted 45th overall in 1984 by the Chicago Blackhawks. He played 12 NHL seasons with the Blackhawks, Calgary Flames and St.Louis Blues before retiring in the spring of 1999. He started his coaching career in the fall of 1999 as an assistant with the Blackhawks and is now eleven games into his 19th season as a coach.
Yawney was a head coach in the AHL for eight years, was the Blackhawks head coach in 2005 and 2006, and he’s been an assistant coach with San Jose and Anaheim. He came to Edmonton with a strong reputation of helping young defenders improve. The Oilers have four D-men dressed tonight who are 25 years and younger, and Bouchard in the press box, and they have really enjoyed their first month with Yawney.
“I coach players how I liked to be coached,” said Yawney. He challenges his players, but he focuses more on what they do well, rather than when they make a mistake.
So far we have seen a major improvement in limiting 5×5 goals. The Oilers allowed 176 last year, but through 11 games this season they’ve only allowed 18, tied for seventh fewest in the NHL. Edmonton has only surrendered two 5×5 goals over the past four games. If they can figure out their PK they’d make life much easier on themselves.
“One thing that stands out about him is his positivity,” said Adam Larsson. “If you’re happy, you’re playing better, that’s just how simple this game is sometimes. It’s a confidence sport and I think he’s very good at building up players. He doesn’t show you ten negative clips if you have a bad game. He tries to build you up again and I think that’s a really good strength for a coach to have. It’s not easy some days, you’re going to have bad nights, but you want that support to bounce back and I think that’s one of the big keys I felt this year.”
I asked Matt Benning about his first impressions of Yawney.
“There’s a lot of positivity there, he trusts us, he goes to bat for us and I think that’s an important thing for confidence. He’s been around a long time; he’s played and coached, and done a really good job with younger D-core’s. We’ve got five D-men under 25 years old, so there is a lot of learning still for us. He’s done a great job in maintaining our confidence,” said Benning.
Can you give me an example of how he does this?
“In the first period against Minnesota I made a bad pass in our own zone. I came to the bench after my shift and I was still upset. He calmly leans over and says, ‘Let it go. You made good passes earlier and you’ll make more next shift.’ The next day he doesn’t show that clip on video. He doesn’t even focus on it,” explained Benning.
Larsson shared a similar story.
“I’m really hard on myself. I know when I make a bad play and I don’t like it. Earlier in the year I came back to the bench and slammed the door. I was mad from making a bad play. He let me be frustrated for about 30 seconds then came over and said calmly, ‘Don’t take it with you on your next shift. It’s over.’ He rarely yells or is negative and I’ve found it has really helped me,” said Larsson.
I’ve noticed a big improvement in the passing from the Oilers defenders this year. Larsson is looking for more tape-to-tape passes rather than just getting the puck out of the zone. Is this part of the Yawney effect?
“He discusses it often,” said Larsson. “And it’s obviously helped the whole team play with confidence. You have more outlet passes that click, more breakout passes that click. It’s more a team thing I think; you can see everyone bringing their pieces to the puzzle, and it all comes down to confidence. I feel good; I have a partner who is healthy and probably at the top of his game. He’s playing extremely good, and that also helps me.”
The partner he is referring to is Oscar Klefbom, who has had a very strong start to the season. I asked Klefbom the difference Yawney has brought to the blueline.
“Just the way he approaches the game,” said Klefbom. “How short the meetings are, and how he approaches the players to be there and show video if you need it, or talk to somebody if we’re not sure. It’s been really different, but really different in a good way. I really like how the communication between him and the players has been so far, and I want to see that develop and be even better.
“We’re off to a really good start and everybody is happy when we’re winning games so it’s very easy to stand here and say everything is great when we’re winning some games, but I think even if we were playing bad hockey and losing games we would still be on the same course and not be panicking. We know we’re capable of playing good hockey and we’ve shown the fans and ourselves. We have all the tools in the tool box we just need to stay on the course and not panic. Our PK has not been good enough at all, but we’re still very calm, and know what to do to fix it. It is small details we need to fix and how we have our meetings and communication I’m confident we will fix our PK,” said Klefbom.
Yawney isn’t a magician, so he couldn’t fix all of last season’s issues in eleven games. The 5×5 defence was a major concern and so far it has been much better, and arguably the strength of the team thus far.
Quick passing is the key. Yawney discusses different things with different players, and with Benning he has focused on moving the puck quickly. He calls it the three second rule. He encouraged the same rule with Josh Manson in Anaheim and last year Manson told me that helped him a lot. Just thinking 1-2-3, move the puck.
“Yeah, it sounds harsh but it makes sense,” said Benning.” Get the puck and get it off your stick, and I think he’s totally right. You see the play, you make the play. In this league everything is so fast that if you see a play, and are hoping to make a better play, then the first play is closed. I think that has helped me in moving my feet and moving pucks quicker and then let the forwards do work.”
Darnell Nurse spent his summer working with skills coach Adam Oates on improving his puckhandling and building his confidence on making plays in the offensive zone. Nurse has had a good start and he feels Yawney’s approach to coaching works well with his personality.
“You can always clean things up, but he doesn’t try to overcorrect things,” said Nurse. “Bad reads are going to be made, and you can learn from them, and anyone who plays in this league knows when they make a bad play and when they don’t. It’s trying to limit those, and not trying to over-correct everyone’s game and that’s been huge for us. He’s been great for us as a D-core so far, we need to continue to grow and I believe he’s a great guy to show us the ropes,” Nurse said.
The Oilers defensive position has been much better early this season, and the defenders are moving the puck quicker and more accurately. It helps that the forwards are in better positions, and are giving the D-men better outlets to move the puck, but from my seat the passing from the blueline has improved significantly.
The blueline combined to produce 1.57 points-per-game last season, and so far this year they are averaging 1.72 points/game as a D corps. It is slight improvement, and only over eleven games, but if it continues it means they will have 15 more points and they’d be back at the offensive level they were in 2017 when they produced 1.70 points/game.
Mikko Koskinen gets his first home start after defeating Nashville on Saturday. He will play one of the back-to-back games v. Washington or Tampa Bay next week as well and could get in a rhythm and give Talbot some rest. If he keeps winning he will likely play more frequently.
I don’t really understand all those upset because Drake Caggiula is skating on the top line for one game. Ty Rattie skated hard again today and is very close to returning. He is hopeful he will be ready Saturday in Detroit, so Caggiula is just holding his spot for a game. I see no issue with this.
Jesse Puljujarvi hasn’t played very well this year, even the most staunch Puljujarvi fan would begrudgingly agree to this, and like all the other forwards who were a healthy scratch this season he will return to the lineup in the bottom six. He should be. He needs to get comfortable doing the small things: reading the play, making good passes and when he is going for the puck, taking an extra stride instead of fishing and reaching.
I see him having a much better chance of playing better against Brandon Manning and Brandon Davidson than going up against Duncan Keith, which happens when you play with McDavid. Caggiula has played better this season than Puljujarvi. Period. One bad defensive decision v. Minnesota doesn’t change that. Caggiula isn’t a regular top-six forward, no debate there, but Puljujarvi hasn’t shown he is either and this season Caggiula has played better. The players know how is playing well and who isn’t.
It wouldn’t make much sense to me to play Puljujarvi on the top line for one game, and then put him on the third line when Rattie returns. Even if Puljujarvi has an okay or good game, it would feel like a demotion.
The Blackhawks have allowed 3.62 goals/game (7th worst in NHL) thus far. They lost last night in Vancouver and Patrick Kane, if he plays, is battling an illness. The Oilers need to take advantage of a tired opponent playing their backup. They had a great start v. Minnesota, and despite firing 21 shots in the first period they only scored once. They need another good start and have to exploit and the Hawks second and third D pairings.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING…
All eyes will be on Jonathan Toews, as the captain is one goal away from tallying his 300th career NHL goal. Toews has not scored in Edmonton since 2014, but that just means he’s due for a big night. He has seven goals in 13 games this season.
Cam Ward will likely start in net for the Hawks (6-4-3) after Corey Crawford made 24 saves against the Canucks. Ward has looked ordinary in his last few starts, averaging a little more than 35 saves a game with a 4.2 goals-against average. His last appearance was admirable though, as Ward made 24 saves Sunday against Edmonton in Chicago.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Oilers continue to play well at 5×5 and win 4-2.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: McDavid sets a new career high with a goal in his sixth consecutive game.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Seven Oilers have played 10+ games this year and don’t have a goal. Klefbom, Larsson, Russell, Jujhar Khaira, Kyle Brodziak, Tobias Rieder and Ryan Strome. They have a fun bet between them with all throwing in $200 in the pot. First guy to score wins the pot. Russell scores and on the bench he flashes the Johnny Manziel “money” sign when looking at his teammates.
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