Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Oilers Best Players Need to be Better

It is clear from my seat that the Oilers management’s handling of assets during the past many seasons is reason number one, two, three (and four and five…) why the Oilers have not been able to ice a competitive team.

Do not confuse that with what I’m about to write. Management has done a terrible job. From the GM to pro scouts to player personnel. Anyone in the organization who was involved in some of the horrific trades of the past four years is guilty, even by association, with the Reinhart, Hall, Eberle, Strome and Caggiula deals. Pretending otherwise is foolish.

But there is one area of the Oilers on-ice play that must improve next season, and right now their best players are the ones struggling in this facet of the game.

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The Edmonton Oilers penalty kill has been a disaster for three seasons. Even when they made the playoffs in 2017 the PK struggled.

Over the past 234 games, the Oilers have the second worst PK in the NHL at 77.5%. They had a good first 20 game in 2016/2017, but since December 1st, 2016 (210 games) their PK is dead last at 76.3%.

In those three years, the Oilers have been shorthanded 681 times, 20th most in the NHL. Taking too many penalties isn’t their issue. Allowing too many PP goals is the problem.

Despite being on the PK less often that most teams, Edmonton has allowed the sixth most PP goals — a whopping 153.

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Compare that to the Colorado Avalanche who have allowed the most. The Avs have allowed 164 goals, but they’ve been shorthanded 786 times. Colorado has allowed only 11 more goals than the Oilers despite being on the PK 105 more times.

They haven’t found a way to consistently kill off penalties.

One of their major weaknesses is the ability to get the puck out of the zone when they have possession. Last night was a perfect example. Edmonton is leading 2-1 late in the first period. Oscar Klefbom has the puck in the corner, but he doesn’t get it out. The Devils keep it in and seconds later they tie it with only 19 seconds remaining in the period. Momentum shifts to the New Jersey Devils and they dominate the second period and then win the game.

Klefbom isn’t the only culprit. Far from it, but the reality is the Oilers top players are the ones who have killed the most penalties the past three seasons. They’ve had two different head coaches and two different defence coaches. I don’t believe this is a lack of coaching.

They haven’t been consistent enough. They will go four or five games without giving up a PP goal, but then they will allow two or more. It seems to snowball and they can’t recover.

“I don’t think it is a lack of consistency,” said Ken Hitchcock when I asked him about it.

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“Since I’ve been here it is the same issues. We don’t win the faceoff and we don’t clear to kill time on the clock. We don’t get the puck 200 feet. When we are killing as much as we are in the zone, Jason, you are going to get burnt. You look at the opportunities with 55 seconds left. That is the sixth time that has happened this year, where we’ve had, at the end of the period, a chance to kill a penalty off and we never got the puck out four times. We never got it down the ice four times and we paid for it again. That has been typical of what’s gone on. When we’ve been good we’ve done it, and when we haven’t we’ve paid an awful price for it. Tonight we paid for it big time.

“That goal was a momentum changer. It hurt us a lot. We had done a lot of good things (up until then), and then got burnt big time on that.”

I would argue when Hitchcock says when they are good they get it out, and when they aren’t in hurts them. I see that as inconsistency in the small details to win games. It has been a problem for three years. If the Oilers clear the zone, the Devils wouldn’t have had time, most likely, to regroup and score. The Oilers aren’t deep enough to overcome giving teams more chances.

It has to change moving forward, and the change and increased commitment to clear has to come from the Oilers big-minute eaters. They are the ones who have played the most on the PK the past three seasons. Obviously the goaltending needs to be better as well. They are key on the PK, but they can’t improve faceoffs or clears.

You can’t blame just one of the players below. They are all equally accountable.

Player                            PK-TOI         GA
Kris Russell                    436:31         66
Adam Larsson               421:33         55
Darnell Nurse                387:00         54
Oscar Klefbom              374:12         50
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins  359:48         55
Mark Letestu                 282:12         44
Zack Kassian                 282:08         37
Andrej Sekera               220:48         23
Leon Draisaitl               193:22         28
Connor McDavid          188:43         25
Jujhar Khaira                 171:46        17
Matt Benning                153:02        24
Kyle Brodziak                115:18        15

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Sekera has the best GA/60 rate among the defenders, while Khaira has the best among the forwards. I will need to look over every goal to dig deeper on who erred. Some times the penalty killers do nothing wrong, the opposing PP just takes advantage of having an extra skater, but as Hitchcock alluded to, the inability for this team to get pucks out when they have a chance has crushed them.

It must improve next season and it has to come from within. Winning more faceoffs will help.

Nugent-Hopkins is 37.4% on the PK (116-194).
McDavid is 39.7% with a 29-44 ratio.
Brodziak is 45.6% at 52-62
Draisaitl is a respectable 49.5% at 111-113.

To be fair to McDavid he only played 33 min on PK, so when I mention best players much of it is focused on the defenders and RNH, who plays the most minutes among forwards.

Draisaitl has the 20th best FO%  on the PK over the past three years among players taking at least 200 faceoffs. Very few players are even at 50%, which makes sense considering you have one less skater on the ice.

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Faceoffs aren’t just on the centreman of course. The other three need to be involved in puck battles as well. But RNH needs to be closer to at least 45% on the draws when down a man.

Yes, the group can make better reads at times, but improving their faceoffs and their clearing attempts will go a long way for them to become respectable. Their PK doesn’t have to be the best, but they need to hover around the league average next season.

Three years is more than enough of a sample size to prove there are areas that need to improve. Yes, goaltending is one as well, your goalie has to be great, but ensuring you get the puck out of the zone has to become a top priority for this group.

I don’t see the new GM re-vamping his entire D corps or his penalty killing forwards, so the onus will be on the Oilers main players to challenge one another to be better on the PK.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Gravis82

    really? Their best players are both top 10 in scoring. And Nuge is having the best year of his career. What they need is more “best” players. Its not the fault of the players you named, they are simply playing their best. The problem is we need many new players, each slightly better than who they replaced. Those small incremental improvements in the ratio of salary to production in every single position (with exception of the superstars) are what take a team over the top.

    • Jason Gregor

      Did you read the article? So they are going to replace the entire D corps. You know the ones who have been on PK the most. They are replacing all four of them. Also RNH on PK hasn’t been good. Are you saying take him off the PK. This article wasn’t about offence. Offence from the best players isn’t an issue. Unsure why you try to connect the two.

      • Towers-of-dub

        is it possible that despite all the good attributes guys like RNH or klefbom have, they just aren’t good penalty killers? Multiple coaches have tried to improve the PK, but the same players are out there not getting the job done. After 3 years of this maybe their confidence is totally shot. They struggle to win a faceoff. On the 30% of the time when they do, they handle the puck like a grenade, and need 4 or 5 attempts to clear it, and eventually get outmanned, turn the puck over and there’s someone wide open in the slot for an easy goal. Have you ever asked the players why they can’t win a draw at a critical moment, or confidently get the puck out when they’re killing a penalty?

      • Gravis82

        If RNH has not been good on the PK, then he is not good on the PK and we should find a player who is good on the PK and play RNH more offensive minutes which is what he is good at, and less on the PK. Simple. Oilers are not going to be better by expecting their players to be better. The players are going to play they way they play, and we have to manage and build the team around the expected inconsistency and weaknesses of each player, both within and across years.

        Same for the D. Yes, they need 4 different defensemen. If they didnt need that, we would be a playoff team.

        We cant magically hope for players to be different. And they are all inconsistent year to year. If they were not they would be more expensive. We need players who are inconsistent year to year at a higher level for less money.

        And yes I read your article, but your title is the message you want your readers to take home with them. And I don’t agree with your title.

        This is simple risk and asset management, based on a decision making framework that prioritizes probability and prediction, which is how every organization and company makes decisions…except for the Oilers. Each player is an asset, with package of data behind them which can help us understand what the likely future is for that player. If we are going to start expecting them to be better, we need to base that on some data which suggests being better is a likely future outcome at a rate that is higher than chance. Otherwise its just HOPE and we continue to lose the game and not understand why. Which is exactly where we are now.

  • Total Points

    The problem is not the best players – ie McDavid and Drai. The problem is the Oilers don’t have specialists like players who are great at penalty killing.

    They bring in players like Brodziak who was suppose to help with this, win faceoffs and be a great a defensive player. He is past his prime.

    This is on the management of the Oilers, not recognizing talent and when a player is done. And the type of player to develop or sign as a free agent

    • Jason Gregor

      So one C instead of Brodziak would cure all the PK woes? I agree depth guys could be better, but to me all the top minutes guys were D men and RNH. I’m not sure a C replacing Brodziak will impact those players. Could help a bit, sure, but I’d still argue the overall group needs to be better.

  • juno

    I wish the POS management could be on the ice every night to be constantly criticised like the players are.

    This year this team has been cut apart by useless trades that hurt chemisty, injuries, 2 coaches and 2 GMs. Both coaches have ripped the players constantly in the media, fans have crapped on them constantly and the Edmonton Media does what it always does and that is deflect the garbage on the ice from the management to the players. That fact that we have the numbers of wins that we do is an absolute miracle.

    I will never criticize any player until we have a proper management, proper scouts and proper coaches put in place.

    • NickL89

      Pretty sure every coach out there worth a damn will speak up when a player isn’t pulling his weight. This is the NHL. No participation trophies here, no room for feelings and what matters is winning.

  • Viperx

    You cant win without goaltending! Last night the Oilers were all over them when it was 2 to 1, couldnt score but were dominating. Then kostkinen let’s in some week ones and the team fell apart! 10 and 2. Believe!

    • Gravis82

      every goalie lets in weak ones occasionally and has bad games. Good teams score more, have better defense, and lose less games so this effect is not as noticeable. As a result, they don’t rush to judgement and trade good players for below market value. Essentially the opposite of the Oiler’s since 1991.

      • Keg on Legs

        The problem is Miko gets beat the same way every game, over the shoulder as he’s going down or already down. He’s 6’7″ but plays like he’s Darren Pangs size

    • toprightcorner

      Koskinen had a couple weak ones, but he has picked the team up a lot over the past 10-15 games. The defense was horrendous and he got absolutley no support. Sometimes the players have to pick up the goalie and the Oilers don’t seem to be able to do that. That is what separates the good teams from the bad

  • Kool-Aid Man

    For the Oilers management to consist of very same people whom built the great legacy it once was, are the very same group of people that tore it down. Ironic…

  • Ass Eatn Szn 69

    the problem is the oilers ideal defencemen isnt one who can play hockey its one who fights and crosschecks.

    Nurse and Larsson are two of the most overrated Dmen in the league. They both bring things to the table and are capable NHL dmen, but what people arent getting is that these guys are number 4 on a good team. Has anyone ever seen nurse keep the puck in at the blue line. Nope, because it has never happened. And the majority of his offensive numbers are from touching the puck before leaving it at the red line for McDavid or Drai to go in and score.

    Sell high on Nurse, and get rid of Russel, lets get some modern day defensemen in who use position and puck movement to defend and transition and dont take 1 or 2 stupid penalties a game.

    • nijames

      Bingo, you hit the nil on the head. Our best defenders are other teams 4th and 5th best defenders. We do not have one d-man who could play in the top two pairings in San Jose or even the hated Flames on a regular basis.

  • Heschultzhescores

    When the Oilers are on the PP, they get zero time to make plays. Either we don’t have the same speed and tenacity on the PK as other teams, or we are don’t have the work ethic for it. As for clearing, it’s like they hppe it gets out just by blindly throwing it to the point. It’s the same reason we get hemmed in our zone for long periods of time. Guys need to realize there are no good plays in good hockey. Bear down and think. A lot of this is low hockey IQ stuff, mixed with panic. We need more Sekera type D-men, calm under fire.

  • ed from edmonton

    As Gregor points out the PK has been week for a long time, but who is the solution? Week on faceoffs has been a characteristic of the Oil for a while, in no small part due to relatively inexperienced centers and not so good vets. Playing guys like Drai and McD on the PK very often is not the solution as you need to keep their minutes focussed on the offensive side of things. A guy like Reider should have helped the PK (or was he just a good PK guy vs the Oil?) but its hard to make a case for him helping much. Certainly the goaltender is often your best penalty killer and that has been part of the problem and was last night as well. Maybe acquiring a PK specialist forward? But who would that be and how would he be had? Can they bring back Horcoff?

  • Jon123

    Russell’s numbers are interesting. I know a lot of those goals may not be his fault, but I’ve seen him fail to clear a puck on the PK many a time. The defensive side of the game, PK, blocking shots etc are supposed to be his forte. It’s another one of Chiarelli’s blunders, I like Russell more than a lot of fans, but when you pay 4 mill long term for a defensive specialist, there’s no room for average performance on the PK.

    • ed from edmonton

      Lack of commitment or lack of attention to detail to use coach speak was obvious last night. That and having the 2nd and 3rd best goaltenders. KInd of like the CBJ game in reverse where CBJ won all the stats but were never really in the game.

  • Heschultzhescores

    Oiler’s worst players need to be better, and there are a whole lot of those guys contributing nothing or next to nothing. And how is Rieder stillin the NHL? Is just having a little speed all you need to be in the NHL now?

  • Oiler Al

    The same defficencies exist on the 5X5 play, they are only more exposed because of a shortage of a player[s] when on a PK. Most top teams have strong stats in all areas of the game.Oilers are mid on the PP , but their GA are not very good.

  • _Bubba

    Opportunity looks a lot like hard work. They need to stick to the plan. If they were 100% focused on hard work last night and out working the Devils, they could have won, even by falling into that “Globe trotter B.S.” skill game they tend to think that they possess sometimes.

  • Jason, who was on the Oilers when their PK wasn’t too shabby? Is this a matter of the current squad being young and not having enough PK experience to know what to do instinctively in certain scenarios?

    They say defensemen hit their prime at about 27 years old. Klefbom, Nurse, and Larsson obviously have time to hit that, but what’s Russell’s and Sekera’s excuse?

    • camdog

      2015-2017 Letestu/Hendricks were the top penalty kill forwards they were middle pack. Smart players, good players until they lost that step. Talbot was good those years as well. There’s nobody in this forward group that can play the way those 2 played when they could skate half decent. They just don’t have that type of talent on this team.

  • Free Bird

    I don’t think the article’s title is a fair assessment of the PK’s problems. This team has a glaring lack of bottom 6 forwards who are capable of killing penalties. It’s on management to bring in some forwards that can take care of their own end and kill penalties instead of littering lines 3 and 4 with slumping scorers, face punchers and minor leaguers.

    Top 6 forwards should be sitting on the bench for the first 1:40 of a penalty to get some rest and then play the last 20 seconds to try and catch the opponents off-guard when the penalty ends. Good penalty killing requires PK forwards to stand in the shooting lane to take the shot option away from the point man. Whether the PK forward rushes the point man to force a pass or stands back to maintain a tight box is a function of the coach’s system, but either way his first job is to stand in the shooting lane and take away a clear shot. This also means taking some hard one-timers in the shins. I wouldn’t want my star players blocking teed-up slapshots when a bottom 6 forward could do that. Right now, this team has too many forwards just standing there watching the other team tee up any shot they want.

  • Derkus the circus

    Why does this organization have such a hard time finding penalty killing forwards. It baffles me. That should be one of the easier things to develop/acquire. We have 2 top players any team would die for…yet seem inept to fit the right pcs into the puzzle.

  • Rufio Barcoli

    Oilers need to sell high on Nurse and send him packing this off-season.
    He is not as good as most in the media and their groupies will want you to believe.
    They will avoid his simple every game mistakes, and then praise him for his charity ice-time and secondary assists.
    I’m almost certain that if Benning was treated with the same privilege as Nurse he would be twice the defenseman Nurse is.

  • hockeyartist

    Then a good PK specialist should be on the Oilers bucket list. If the same players are not getting it done under several different coaches system then its time to get some other players out there or you can expect the same players to give the same results.