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Oilers Big Guns Shooting Blanks

Entering the season, the main area of concern was: can the Oilers reduce their goals against at 5×5? In two of the four games, they did, allowing two in game two versus Vancouver and one last night against Montreal. The issue was in games one and three they allowed a combined eight 5×5 goals. Through four games they’ve allowed 2.75 goals against/game at 5×5. Not a recipe for success.

While many expected the team to possibly struggle defensively, I don’t believe anyone felt the Oilers offensive stars would struggle. But in three of the four games, the powerplay has combined to go 0-for-14 and the Oilers PP is only 2-for-18 (11.1%) through four games.

You can make a strong case the powerplay cost them last night’s game. The Oilers had 5:28 of consecutive PP time, including one 25 second stint of 5-on-3 and another brief seven seconds of 5-on3. They had a total of two shots. McDavid fired from 35 feet and Nugent-Hopkins from 41. That’s is in 5:28 of powerplay time to end the first period.

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The Oilers stars are paid to score, and when the other team gives you 12:07 of PP time, but you don’t score and you allow a shorthanded goal against, it’s inexcusable. Edmonton didn’t give up much 5×5 last night. Mikko Koskinen needs to stop the Alexander Romanov goal, no question, but the powerplay was a momentum killer late in the first period.

So what is wrong with the powerplay? James Neal and Oscar Klefbom aren’t here. That plays a factor, but for different reasons. Let’s look at the Oilers powerplay goals through four games last season. The PP was 6-for-15 (40%) in their first four games last season. They went 0-for-2 on opening night against Vancouver, but went 2-for-5, 2-for-5 and 2-for3 in their next three games. Neal scored the Oilers first five PP goals.

Saying they don’t miss him is a very odd stance to take. The Oilers PP gained confidence early in the season, and carried it through all year. Even in December, when they struggled mightily at 5×5, the PP kept producing. I think Neal’s early season success was a huge catalyst to their PP becoming dominant all season. The PP runs through McDavid, Draisaitl and McDavid, but Neal and Klefbom were factors and since plays closer to the net are vital in the PP, I believe his absence is hurting them when they want to make simple plays around the net. The PP doesn’t always need to be pretty, and last night the powerplay was trying to pass the puck into the net. Even when the big three had a good look, they were passing off.

Confidence plays a role, even for the best players in the game, but it is important to see how simple their PP was early in the season last year. They scored one really nice tic-tac-toe goal, but the rest were quite basic plays,  get the puck down low to Neal, and he’d score from in close, bang home a rebound or score on a deflection. Here are their PP goals through four games last year.

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Neal scored in the first period against LA. Nothing fancy. Klefbom moves it to McDavid, who shoots and Neal bangs home a rebound.

Again, they get puck down to Neal. He doesn’t score the first time, but shovels home the rebound for the game winner.

Again, Neal at the side of the net. He shows quick hands and buries it.

This is the prettiest goal. It starts on the left wall as McDavid passes through the seam to Draisaitl, and he makes a nice slap pass down low to Neal. Neal slides over from his usual right side of the net, to the left, adjusts his body to redirect the pass home. It helps having someone with goal scorers hands close to the net.

Neal is in front, and gets a slight piece of the RNH shot. Again, this play starts from the left boards, into the slot for RNH who rips a quick snapper than Neal redirects for his fifth PP goal in three games.

Again, nothing fancy and a goal from in close. McDavid is around the net and finds the loose puck to slam it home before the whistle. This was a 6-on-4 goal as the Oilers had their goalie pulled while trailing late in the third period.

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The powerplay wasn’t fancy to start the season. It was quite basic but effective. A simple pass from Klefbom to McDavid on either right wall for the first three goals, then the final three goals started from the right side. But all of them were scored close to the net on either rebounds, redirections or deflections.

We haven’t seen enough of that this season from the Oilers. Early in the game when they got it down low and Draisaitl had Chiasson open twice, but he was unable to finish. Against Montreal, Edmonton did get some good looks. Carey Price made a nice stop on Draisaitl on a one-timer from the right side, and last night Jake Allen made a great save on Draisaitl in close. They have had a few chances, but aren’t burying them.

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But the 5:28 of consecutive PP time was dreadful for the Oilers. And it cost them momentum. After outshooting Montreal 12-6 in the first period, the Oilers were outshot 16-1 in the first 15 minutes of the second. If Edmonton scores on the PP they head to the dressing room feeling much better about themselves.

DIFFERENCES…

Outside of the obvious — they aren’t scoring as much — let’s look at their shots and TOI through four games from last year to this season.

2020 2021
Player TOI G-A-PTS Shots Player TOI G-A-PTS Shots
Neal 16:01 5-0-5 9 McDavid 26:28 1–1-2 5
McDavid 19:06 1-5-6 4 Draisaitl 25:57 0-2-2 8
Draisaitl 18:57 0-1-1 6 RNH 25:57 1-0-1 7
RNH 18:52 0-2-2 2 Barrie 25:22 0-1-1 3
Klefbom 16:49 0-3-3 2 Chiasson 21:15 3
Nurse 6:01 0-1-1 Puljujaravi 7:21 3
Nygard 5:10 Nurse 6:04 1
Kassian 4:13 1 Turris 4:51
Bear 3:21 Kahun 2:58
Haas 3:13 Russell 2:58 1
Chiasson 2:57 1 Bear 2:28
Persson 1:00 Yamamoto 2:16 1
Kassian 1:15
23:17 6-12-18 25 31:26 2-4-6 32

Last year I felt the Oilers got the put the puck to the crease, or took a shot and made plays from that. Now they are trying to make plays before shooting and the killers are never out of position. Teams score goals when the killers have to face the goalie and look for the puck. That hasn’t happened enough yet this year.

Last year Neal (pucks close to net) had nine shots in 16 minutes of PP time, a pace of 33.71 shots/60, and he wasn’t more than five feet from the net. Their PP focused a lot on plays around the net. It started simple, gained confidence and then became much more fluid. Watching the tape reminded me that the early success wasn’t from lots of motion. That came more as they gained confidence. It is amazing how much success can make a unit try new things. But you need to start simple.

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Draisaitl is shooting virtually the same amount through four games with 19 shots/60 last year and 18.5 this season. He wasn’t a trigger man early. He became that later in the year. This is key. More on this later.

McDavid has five shots in 26:28 compared to four in 19 minutes last year so slightly down from 12.5 S/60 to 11.3 this year, but that could change in one game.

RNH is shooting way more this year than last, and hasn’t been able to finish. He is at 16.33 shots/60 now compared to 6.33 last season.

Barrie (7.13 S/60) and Klefbom (7.09 S/60) are firing shots at a very similar rate. Barrie has been in on half the PP goals, similar to what Klefbom was last year. Edmonton simply scored more from in close last season, and it was off of Neal’s stick.

Neal is close to returning. He will join the Oilers on the road trip, and when he does I suspect he will be on the first unit PP. But I don’t expect him to suddenly score five consecutive PP goals, unless the Oilers revert back to the simple plays that made their PP successful early last season. I believe he gives them a better options down low as he has a proven track record of having quick hands to score in tight. Once the unit gains confidence from some ugly, simple success down close, they will then move away from the net as the PKers have to respect in tight. Neal’s early success set up the PP for season-long success as teams tried to take that away and then Draisaitl started filling the net from further out.

The fact that the Oilers scored three goals starting from the right wall, and then their next three from the left wall makes me think Barrie should be able to make similar passes to Klefbom. Outside of Klefbom hammering a point shot when the Oilers were on a 6-on-4, he made simple easy passes to McDavid on either wall.

Last night he made those passes down to McDavid on the wall, but he and Draisaitl tried to force too many passes. That is usually a sign of guys pressing, and you could see the frustration mounting.

The good news is McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins have a long track record of being good on the powerplay, but they need to avoid falling into the same trap they did in 2018. They got frustrated early and the PP never got out of their funk. In 2017 the PP was 22.9%, in 2018 it was a league-worst 14.8%, then back to 21.9% in 2019 and 29.5% in 2020.

I believe the Oilers miss Neal down low. He is better at finishing than Chiasson. The proof is in the goal totals. They might miss some continuity of Klefbom, but in 2018 when they PP dipped he played the third most minutes on the PP unit. I don’t believe he is the missing link either.

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I think it is combination of two things. They need a good net front scorer, which teams have to respect, and when they do, it opens up Draisaitl. He is the most productive goal scorer of the big three over the past four seasons.

2017: PP scored 56 goals on 245 (22.9%)
McDavid: 3-24-27 (249 TOI)
Draisaitl: 10-17-27 (238 TOI)
Lucic: 12-13-25 (224 TOI)
Klefbom: 3-13-16 (206 TOI)
Letestu: 11-3-14 (184 TOI)

The Oilers had two units, with Jordan Eberle (4-10-14) with RNH (5-6-11) on the second unit. Letestu played 151 min with the top unit and Eberle 86 minutes. McDavid and RNH only played 23 minutes together on the PP.

2018: PP scored 31 goals on 210 chances (14.2%)
McDavid: 5-15-20 (243 TOI)
Draisaitl: 6-5-11 (221 TOI)
Lucic: 3-4-7 (174 TOI)
Klefbom: 1-5-6 (182 TOI)
Letestu: 3-3-6 (137 TOI)

Ryan Strome played 80 minutes on the top unit, while RNH played 50. Lucic’s 2017 season was a major outlier for PP success, and they couldn’t score from in close, but Draisaitl only scoring 11 points was the major reason the PP dipped.

2019: PP scored 47 goals on 222 chances (21.2%)
Draisaitl: 16-13-29 (274 TOI)
McDavid: 9-24-33 (267 TOI)
RNH: 8-18-26 (265 TOI)
Chiasson: 8-7-15 (191 TOI)
Klefbom: 1-10-11 (162 TOI)
Nurse: 1-8-9 (151 TOI)
Lucic: 2-2-4 (106 TOI)

The Oilers went almost exclusively with one unit in 2019. Lucic started on the PP, but was replaced by Chiasson, while Nurse filled in when Klefbom missed 21 games. There wasn’t much difference in their point totals, while the PP did score slightly more with Nurse on the ice. The Oilers got 10 goals from the net front guy, which opened up room for Draisaitl to be a shooter again and he led the team with 16.

2020: PP scored 59 goals on 200 chances (29.5%) in 71 games.
Draisaitl: 16-28-44 (271 TOI)
McDavid: 11-32-43 (248 TOI)
RNH: 7-17-24 (243 TOI)
Klefbom: 2-16-18 (162 TOI)
Neal: 12-5-17 (158 TOI)
Chiasson: 6-7-13 (143 TOI)

Neal’s early season success got the PP some confidence, and it forced teams to start respecting the Oilers net play, which opened up spots for Draisaitl. Last October, in their first 14 games the Oilers scored 12 goals on 41 chances (29.3%). RNH and Draisaitl had one goal, McDavid had two and Neal had eight. Draisaitl scored 15 PP goals in the final 57 games. He became the trigger man, while the net front still contributed with 10 goals between Neal and Chiasson.

I believe the Oilers PP success starts with simple plays and consistent net-front scoring, and then it allows more space for Draisaitl to become the shooter. He isn’t a high volume shooter either. He scored 16 PP goals on 62 shots last year. In 2019 he had 16 goals on 69 shots. In 2018 when the PP struggled he only had 42 shots, but also only six goals. Klefbom led their PP in shots that season, which is never a recipe for PP success when your most active shooter is a D-man.

In 2017 Draisaitl led them in shots with 52 and had 10 goals.

There are many factors to a successful powerplay. In 2017 McDavid was fifth in PP shots, 2018 he was third, 2019 and the past two seasons he was second behind Draisaitl. Draisaitl is the main shooter for the PP to have success, and so far he has been their main shooter this year with eight shots in four games.

He was stoned twice. If those go in, the PP success is a lot different, but when this PP is running well, he isn’t shooting a lot, because they are getting shots from closer to the net.

I believe the addition of Neal will help kickstart the PP, but also they just need more time to get used to Barrie, and when it gets humming it will be off of passes from McDavid to Draisaitl.

And they should be able to click along better than 11.1% without Neal or Klefbom. Those two are solid complementary pieces, but the guts of this powerplay are #97 and #29.

History tells us they should be able to figure it out, and I believe they will. They are just too good. In two weeks I won’t be surprised if their powerplay is back around 25%.

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