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Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

PK and the Bottom Six

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.

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.

WRAP UP

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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  • Ty Guy

    If the refs would call half the penalties Mcdavid draws any given night instead of 25% of them (we get it, its not fair to the rest of the league who don’t have bottled lightning) then we would be in better shape on the PP…i know. rose glasses but nobody can tell me that he shouldn’t be drawing at least double the calls he is getting.

  • Super Nintendo Chalmers

    Hey Jason, what role do you see Josh Archibald playing? Another 3rd line winger, penalty killer, I only ask cause I haven’t heard is name much and thought it was a sound signing, your take….

    • Super Nintendo Chalmers

      Think we can expect 20-25 goals from Granlund and Archibald combined? The D I’m not as worried about, I like Nurse and Larsson as a group, Klefbom and Benning may be okay, and then Russell with Legasson, Persson, Jones or Bear. It makes you wish J Schultz had worked out so you could pair him with Klefbom, would be a decent top 4.

      • slats-west

        agreed – I think if you take care of the Secondary scoring – pressure is less on PK which will relax, be more aggressive and it will be win/win. But goaltending could be a HUGE factor.

  • TKB2677

    If the Oilers PK is ever going to get better, at some point the players on it need to look in the mirror a bit and decide they want to be better. It’s been brutal for years. They have had multiple head coaches and multiple assistant coaches trying to fix it and it hasn’t worked. So what’s left? The players. Personally as much as I like him, I wouldn’t have Nuge on the PK. He’s been a mainstay for years and it’s sucked. I am not pinning the blame on him but some guys are good at it and some guys aren’t. The margin for error in the NHL is razor thin and if you have a guy who’s off by just a tiny bit or hesitates that split second, often that’s all it takes.

  • KootenayDan

    Having depth is so under rated and it only makes sense they would have a lot of influence on the PK. Why did past Oiler teams refuse to have lots of depth in the bottom six? it is obviously the easiest fix for any team. Pro scouting did this team no favours so hopefully that has improved.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    One of the biggest things with the Oilers PK was they had major issue winning draws in their end on the PK and they got caught puck watching way way to much, there was also the fact that when the PK wasnt working they seemed loathe to change the guys up that werent getting it done. The the issue was getting the puck out, there were times the Oilers couldnt get a puck out of their own end for the life of them and some of it was guys just not looking around and trying to ring it around the boards or just blindly passing it into no mans land

    There were times the PK was really good and the Oilers were effective but something changed and its like they switched the system it just went south. but there was a lot of time were guys were just plain out puck watching and just not aware of where the opposition was and coverage getting blown and then boom in the back of the net.

    I sure hope things get a lot better but hopefully with some new coaches and new guys they can fix the issues that having been plaguing the PK the last two years

    • Fireball

      I noticed the D liked to blindly dump Out the right side often when slightly pressured. It seemed to be a go to. It more often then not turned it over causing even more pressure. I noticed this at even strength as well. Was it a systems thing or mental mistakes ?

    • The Swarm

      The PK will improve immeasurably without Talbot. I have never seen so many first time shots over his glove on the PP. I am sure it was so demoralizing for the team. You barely get going and bomb, it’s in your net.

  • Fireball

    I’m concerned about having the 3c face off guy to head the PK. We have lots of options with the wings but no real face off guy. It’s a key to a good PK. Win the draw and dump/ control 55% of the time would be nice. I read Wings as possible trade partners for Jesse. Luke Glendening was 55 and 58% the last two years. He’s double digits in scoring, he’s somewhat physical, plays 15 mins a night and has 2 years left at 1.8 mill per. He’s also somewhat of a veteran presence. Would you like to see a deal for Jesse that addressees that spot or would you rather see some other talent similar to Jesse with a possible high upside ?

    • Jason Gregor

      No. He ran the PP. But running a PP means he scouts opposing PKs…He sees what works and what doesn’t. Plus he has coached for years so he knows about PK.

  • Mark_82

    Good article, Jason. Watching Oil, seems the lack of a pure face-off man also causes problems. On PK, instead of winning the draw, icing it, and saving 15 seconds, the puck (more often than not) is controlled in ozone by the PP. Opposition gets full 2 minutes, rather than abbreviated time. Outside of Brian Boyle who has his flaws, no one out there who can dominate. Hope Drai or one of the young guys develops their face-off %, otherwise tough to go deep in today’s NHL puck possession game. And yes, at times winning draws is a team concept, not just one Bergeron type. Is that something you ever ask about?

    • Jason Gregor

      We have discussed it. I’ve outlined the major flaw in RNH game is lack of improvement in faceoff dot. Drai is their best one, but he won’t be on PK. Cave, in very limited draws was good, and if I was him I’d have spent all summer working on draws and watching film to be good PK guy. Huge opportunity there. It is an area of weakness, and they will have to win draws “as a team” on some occasions no doubt.

  • OriginalPouzar

    Thanks Jason – as always.

    Its interesting to note that Gully speaks about Khaira as a winger and Tippett spoke about him in competition for the 3C spot with Haas (and said he spoke with JJ a number of times this off-season about give the middle a shot).

    I don’t anticipate will see Khaira start the season at center (maybe 4C) and am hopeful that Marody can win a job there on merit, skilled merit.

    • Jason Gregor

      Tippett told me he wants to hear all the input from coaches and others on players, but then he will make up his mind when he sees them and gets to know them. Khaira has produced better when he plays wing, but he likes C. Whatever position Tippett wants him to play Khaira will have to accept it. IF it is wing, he can’t think he should be a centre. I remember Cogliano telling me after a few years in Anaheim that him believing he was a centre hurt him. Once he got to ANA and was put on wing, and then accepted it, he realized how much better wing was for him. Accepting a role is part of being a pro, but it isn’t easy and many players struggle with accepting a role, especially if it is one they didn’t envision.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    Right defense is what worries me.
    If Matt Benning is lined up at 2RD on opening night we are in huge trouble. None of this is Holland’s fault due to it not being his mess, but I worry that will in turn make the goaltending exposed.