Two areas that must improve for the Edmonton Oilers to be in the playoff hunt in March are the penalty kill and production from the bottom six. There are other areas, but today let’s look at those two specifically, as they are connected.
The majority of the penalty killing forwards, excluding Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, will come from the bottom six this season. The Oilers PK has been a disaster for almost three full seasons. It must improve.
“Special teams wasn’t good enough. We gave up two and needed to score at least one score more on the power play.” Chiasson.
The PK has been a debacle for two years hovering around 76%. Something has to change next year. Can’t just blame coaching.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) March 14, 2019
Over the past three seasons their PK ranks 30th at 77.3%. Only the Chicago Blackhawks at 76.5% is worse. However, the Oilers PK has been on a steady decline from the middle of November, 2016.
They finished the 2017 season ranked 17th at 80.7%, but that is a bit misleading. For the first month of that season their PK was excellent, clicking at 90.2%, but in the final 68 games they were 78.6%.
In 2018 their PK was 76.7%, and last year it was even worse at 74.8%. I wouldn’t expect their PK to be top-ten, but their goal should be middle of pack. If they can be average on the PK, then their efficiency down a man will need to be around 80.8%. The San Jose Sharks finished 15th on the PK last year at 80.8%.
The Oilers were shorthanded 246 times last season, 10th most in the NHL, so cutting down on penalties will help a bit, but more importantly the group has to find a way to eliminate goals against.
For an easy calculation, let’s assume they are shorthanded 246 times this season. In order to be 80.8%, they need to kill off 15 more penalties than they did last year. They allowed 62 goals on 246 kills, and this year they’d have to allow 47 to be at 80.8%.
Dave Tippett already said he’d like to reduce Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s time on the PK. I like that strategy — rest them for the PP and even strength — but also he is letting the PK players know the PK is theirs. Own it. Your most skilled forwards won’t be on it. Their job will be to produce on the PP, so you guys own the PK. Of course RNH is the exception as he will be on both, but I like the messaging.
It’s not like there is some magical new system Tippett can implement. There will be subtle changes, but often it comes down to ensuring you are in the right lane, or getting a puck out when you have the chance and eliminating time spent in the D zone.
Markus Granlund, Zack Kassian, Jujhar Khaira, Colby Cave, Kyle Brodziak, Josh Archibald and Gaetan Haas will have the responsibility of helping to improve the PK. I’m interested to see how they handle the challenge and who excels in that role.
Last week I asked Glen Gulutzan about the PK, as he is the only returning coach. Of course the goalie needs to make some saves, but what has to change in front of him?
“I think that with goaltending we’ve got to have a little bit more alignment with the penalty killers and how we want things done,” said Gulutzan. “But you know what, with penalty kills you have to be confident and you have to be aggressive and the two work hand in hand.
“I felt last year we lost a little confidence and it took away some of our aggression on the PK, and then we got picked apart a little bit. We’re going to change the scheme, I know talking with Jimmy (Playfair) that we’re going to change the scheme slightly here to add a little bit more of that up ice pressure. And then even with Tipps (Tippett) alluding to less time for Connor and Leon on there.
“So then what you do is you’re creating a value system for the other guys. You’re creating a value system for the players and that’s their job, they know that there are going to be four, six penalty killing forwards and they’ve got to get a job done. So they’ve got some ownership. But by doing that you’ve got to apply more pressure. You’re going to see more pressure up ice and more disruption events so we’re not spending the time that we spent in the zone last year,” said Gulutzan.
Zone time was a big problem for the Oilers. We’ve addressed it often, from not getting pucks out to losing faceoffs cleanly and allowing teams to set up right away. A few extra clears will go a long way in improving the PK.
BOTTOM SIX PRODUCTION…
The Oilers set an NHL record for the worst production from scorers #6-12 last year. It was the worst in the past 44 years of the NHL. Those forwards produced a meager 43 goals. It was putrid. To put it into context in 2017, when the Oilers made the playoffs those spots generated 79 goals. In 2018, when they missed the dance, they had 80 goals from those roster spots.
Last year the league average was 81. So they were well off. Buffalo was 30th in this department and they had 66 goals. So the Oilers were so bad, it will be impossible to repeat that this season.
But who will score? For me the battle for jobs in the bottom six is the most intriguing battle of training camp. There are endless possibilities of which six players will be there opening night, and who will be the productive mainstays all season.
I spoke to Gulutzan about the bottom six as well.
Gregor: As an assistant coach who kind of runs the forwards, how much input will you have on those spots and how intrigued are you regarding the bottom six?
Gulutzan: I think with the bottom six one of the biggest things is knowing what your identity is and doing it every night. It sounds easy, as you think, ‘this is what I do’, but it’s not easy. The players always want more, but finding what you’re really good at and doing that every night is going to be interesting.
The thing I’m excited about is, and I know this from other teams that I’ve been on, is that whether it was Jamie Benn in Dallas when he first came in as a rookie, or you know the villain, Matthew Tkachuk — with all of these new faces with us in Edmonton, and even on defense, you’re just waiting for someone to surprise you. I think one of these players we brought in is going to be a real pleasant surprise, and that’s going to be really good for us.
Gregor: I want to ask about two specific players: Sam Gagner and Jujhar Khaira. Having coached them and coached against them, at this stage of his career is Gagner better suited as a winger than a centre?
Gulutzan: Yeah I think Gags is a winger, and the best part is he is a right shot winger who can take faceoffs for your left shot centreman. I think he has value in that regard. He’s got high hockey IQ and Gags isn’t moving as fast as he used to when he was a young guy, but his hockey IQ is through the roof. And I always like the (laughs)…I’m just going to be blunt: I like the two-fast-one-slow combos. But the slower (skater) has to be smart, and that’s Gags. So you put some speed around him and players who can do work on the forecheck and the line succeeds. I think he’s a winger.
Gregor: Two years ago Jujhar Khaira scored eleven goals, and a lot of those goals came when he was playing wing. He’s played both centre and wing, he’s a big body, somebody you want to use on the penalty kill. Is he better as a centre or a winger?
Gulutzan: It’s good to have these players who can play centre, but for me JJ is a winger. He’s a big body, he’s so strong along the walls, and he’s got the reach. I just like him as a winger. I’d like him to be set free a little bit and be in on the forecheck. This is an intimidating guy out there, I know from coaching against him, it’s somebody you’re aware of. He’s a big, heavy guy and when he hits you, he hits through you so I think he’s a winger.
But then again it’s so valuable to have those guys that can pitch you innings at centre ice and take some draws if things aren’t going well. I also think JJ is just scratching the surface, and there is going to be a big step ahead for him.
Gregor: And two young guys who lit it up last year in the American League are going to come to camp and compete for jobs in Cooper Marody and Tyler Benson. Benson is definitely a winger and Marody is a centreman, and some wonder if he is quick enough to play centre. You talk about surprise guys — in conversations with Jay Woodcroft, what’s your expectations for those two, specifically Marody and the third line centre spot?
Gulutzan: We’re going to have some competition. We have Haas and I know Coop from last year. It was his first year, and I thought that he did a hell of a job for his first year coming out of college and I think that his footspeed was an issue for him. But having a year in the American League, and there’s a high pace in the American League as well, that helped him a lot. He’s got great hockey sense, he’s real strong on his stick. I think he’s going to be better prepared for this year.
I think that he’s in a legitimate fight for these spots and again, Tyler Benson, I guess that the best part of it for me, and I’m not playing GM here, but time is kind of on our side with those two guys. I think both are going to make it very hard for us at training camp. With the success they had in the American League, in my experience in the league, it’s very important coming into year two, you can see the growth in those guys just for having put in that year in the American League.
We know the PK has to improve, and so too does the production from the bottom six. I’m just not sure which players will succeed in those roles.
I can’t recall the last time the Oilers had this many jobs up from grabs among forward positions. General Manager Ken Holland wanted to create competition and he has done that.
Who do you like in those roles? Which area concerns you?
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