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Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Oilers will tweak their Power Play

The Edmonton Oilers’ power play has been the best in the NHL over the past three seasons. In that span, their PP has scored on 27.6% of their man advantages. St. Louis is second at 25.1%, Toronto third at 23.9% and Tampa Bay is fourth at 23.2%. The Oilers are well ahead of every team, but teams have started adjusting to what the Oilers do and assistant coach Glen Gulutzan plans to counter those adjustments next season.

The Oilers PP has been very consistent over their previous 209 games (three seasons).
In 2020 their power play was 29.5% scoring 59 goals on 200 opportunities (PPO). They averaged 2.82 PPO/game.
In 2021 they scored 48 goals on 174 chances for a 27.6. efficiency and averaged 3.11 PPO/game.
In 2022 Edmonton clicked at 26% scoring 61 goals on 235 chances. They averaged 2.87 PPO/game.

Gulutzan did notice some teams altered how they kill against the Oilers.

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“We have added a few wrinkles every year right, from year one to year two to year three,” started Gulutzan. “It’s kind of like we built on what we did in year one, and then in year two and this year we saw, and I’ll tell you this Jason if you wanted to take a look, or if people wanted to take a look, and see how St. Louis killed or even how Colorado killed for most of the year, there have been some penalty kills that have switched styles. And I believe, and many people believe, that they switched styles to take away some of the strength of, we call ours the downhill power play, our style of power play. Other teams also have a downhill power play.

“The penalty kill has changed to hinder the downhill power play over the last year or two. And so the wrinkles this summer are going to be to take a look at the seven or eight teams who have changed the way that they kill, especially against us, and counter it. You’re always playing a game of cat and mouse. If they are changing, we’re going to change too. So we’re going to be less predictable and you’re going to have to change your PK to deal with us. We’re going to develop or look at a way to change our personnel, maybe their positions in different spots to alleviate some of the roadblocks that those PKs are giving us,” Gulutzan said.

Even with teams adjusting their penalty kills, the Oilers still scored on 26% of their opportunities. The challenge for any PK facing the Oilers is when a shot hits a leg, or ricochets to an unexpected area and now the Oilers are ad-libbing. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are so good at reading off one another, but Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Tyson Barrie are also very good power play players. Nugent-Hopkins reads the play very well, while Barrie is excellent laterally moving across the blue line and then making precision passes to McDavid or Draisaitl.

But it isn’t just as simple as saying put McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice and the power play will succeed. In 2018 the Oilers had the worst power play in the NHL, dead last at 14.8%. McDavid averaged 2:58/game and Draisaitl was at 2:50.

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Gulutzan arrived in the summer of 2018, and after watching film on the Oilers he implemented one change.

“When I first got here, I said we have the most dynamic player in the world. I don’t want him to be standing on the half wall feeding a point man,” said Gulutzan. It is important to have a bomb from the point, but quite frankly I don’t want the power play to run through a point man when #97 is on the ice. I would like the power play to run through him. And that was the biggest thing that was changed. We’re not running this power play through a defenceman. So basically when [Oscar Klefbom] Klef ran it the defenceman took a lot of shots.”

In 2018 Klefbom led the Oilers PP with 51 shots. He played 181 on the PP (16.81 shots/60) and missed 16 games. He had one goal. McDavid played 243 minutes on the PP with 36 shots (8.89 SH/60), while Draisaitl skated 221 minutes and had 42 shots (11.38 SH/60). Nugent-Hopkins averaged 12.38 SH/60.

Gulutzan changed where the shots came from and who was shooting.

In the last two seasons with McDavid, Draisaitl, Barrie and RNH as the main four players, Draisaitl has 172 shots in 543 minutes (19 shots/60), McDavid has 137 shots (15.46 SH/60), RNH has 85 (11.67 SH/60) and Barrie has 59 (8.78).

“It is hard to emulate our power play and we’ve got great players, but the one thing, the narrative that I found here, and this now includes critics of Tyson Barrie, is we need a right shot bomb from the point,” said Gulutzan. “Tyson gives us a great shot at the point, but the defenceman’s job is to put the puck into 97 or 29’s hands or 93’s hands in a good spot. He’s a distributor, he’s a facilitator of the power play and it’s probably the most important job because if he doesn’t get it to them at the right spots, you’ll see a lot of stalls and slow downs on the power play.

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“Tyson is underrated in that capacity. He can shoot the puck, he’s dynamic, he can move the puck. And his decision making when he’s giving it to Leon, or Connor or Nuge, he’s making it in the right spot. He’s done a really good job over the last couple of years so he’s underrated certainly in that capacity.”

Gulutzan added what he believes makes their current power play so effective.

“The ability with this power play is that we have three lefties who each have their own strengths. Obviously Leo you see him shooting the one timer off of the dot, you see Nuge on his forehand come side downhill as good as anyone in the league and snaps pucks. Leon has a great sniff for when he should play in the middle and Connor can play anywhere and be dangerous. So when you move them around you are less predictable and they each have their own strengths. So I think that that’s what makes it hard for other teams to deal with our power play,” said Gulutzan.

But as he alluded to earlier, expect them to counter what the Blues and Avs PKs has done recently.

DISCUSSING WOODCROFT

Nov 24, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan watches his team take on the Dallas Stars during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeated the Flames 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Gulutzan was hired in 2019 as Todd McLellan’s assistant. He essentially replaced Jay Woodcroft, who went to Bakersfield to be a head coach. Fast forward three years and when Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair were fired, Gulutzan remained on the staff and Woodcroft became the head coach.

Gulutzan, a former NHL head coach, has lots of experience and Woodcroft wanted to tap into it, but Woodcroft clearly was ready to be an NHL head coach. The Oilers had the second best points% in the NHL in the final 38 games of the season under Woodcroft. Why did they have success right away?

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“The one advantage we had here was that, there were a few things, but certainly the one thing is that Woody was in the organization in Bakersfield, and previously here as an assistant coach so he knew all of the players” said Gulutzan.

“He knew the players, he knew their strengths, and he knew their weaknesses. He had been assisting the young players and their strengths in the American League and then have these guys come up here. And then for him and I as far as coaching staff, I’ve known Woody for a long time too. We were friends before I came to Edmonton, when he was in San Jose and I was in Dallas. The transition was pretty easy and I think  the reason that Woody had a good handle on the players, the systems and everything here, so when he came in he could make the changes he felt would push the team forward.”

There aren’t many different systems in the NHL, but Woodcroft made a few subtle tweaks and it made a significant difference.

“Yeah, there’s not (many different systems),” said Gulutzan. “You could take the two most opposite coaches in the National Hockey League, two guys at the opposite ends of the technical spectrum. They are still 80% the same. So there is not much changes, a 1-1-3, or 1-3-1, a 1-2-2, you can change forechecks and tweaks here and there, but I thought Woody did a great job was, what he really did, and this is my opinion, is he changed our track transition game. And I thought this made us hard to play against. It fit the group a little bit and it created some offense for us. And it helped us defensively.”

I asked Gulutzan to expand on track transition.

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“Basically, you go back to when you and I started playing minor hockey and it was called backchecking,” explained Gulutzan. He changed our backchecking scheme and who was retrieving pucks and who was putting pressure where. And he kind of put a different system in place.

It’s a system that other teams play, but he had great success in it in Bakersfield and with the defence core there. And when he came up if you can remember here, we had some injuries on defence. We had [Markus] Niemelainen we had [Philip] Broberg and those guys fit into that system real well and our guys that were here, our old guys they adapted very well. It changed the back checking system, which tried to put more pressure on people which eliminated a little more time in the D zone and maybe added in some layers of who was going to retrieve pucks, when they did dump pucks and who was going to go and get them. Also how we were going to break out off of this transition, off of this back checking transition. So really he just changed that part and our team really gravitated towards it and it helped us.”

The Oilers have a lot of speed. I asked Gulutzan if this systematic change allowed their players to use their speed more effectively.

“Yeah, you have to skate more in that type of system,” Gulutzan said. “It’s less of a contained, more of a pressure game. It puts everyone on alert to skate and it does speed up your team.

It is almost counterintuitive, but playing away from the puck or playing defensively faster made your team offensively faster is ultimately what happened. And that’s kind of your track transition, it sped us up a little bit.”

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Gulutzan runs the forwards and the power play, but he’s been a head coach before and understands all facets of the game. I asked him about Dave Manson’s impact on the team. The biggest difference was he switched up the D pairs. He put Darnell Nurse with Cody Ceci and those two played a whopping 50% of their ice time against Elite players (most top pair guys are playing 37-41%). And Manson put Bouchard with Duncan Keith. Both switches worked.

“If you look at Duncan [Keith], a Hall of Famer and a great player, but Dunc played quick. Some of the track transition we were just talking about, Duncan Keith was doing that back when they were winning the cups in 2010, 2012, 2013, and in those days.

Putting Bouch (Evan Bouchard) with him gave Bouch a real veteran’s presence. And one thing with Dunc in his game is he’s not afraid to share the puck with his partner and he had a partner who was a righty and a big puck mover in [Brent] Seabrook for many years, and I think that pair (Bouchard and Keith) just instantly found some chemistry. Duncan likes to use his partner a lot, Bouchard is a great puck mover, and Dunc is the kind of a skater, worker, and a closer. So the two filled in for each other as a good pair and then when you put Cec (Cody Ceci) and Nurse together it gave you a pair that could just shut down, and credit to Darnell, he was just put on the ice against tough opponents to create a stalemate or a push, just to keep the game moving along,” said Gulutzan.

QUICK THOUGHT ON HOLLOWAY

Oilers fans only saw Dylan Holloway for three minutes in one playoff game v. Colorado. Unless you streamed Bakersfield games on the Internet, you likely haven’t seen him play much.

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I asked Gulutzan: What part of his game is most transferable to the NHL?

“First of all, we got to see him a lot here as he was rehabbing,” said Gulutzan. “I can tell you just from a pro standpoint he has impeccable work ethic. Our guys rave about him, not only in the gym when he was up here rehabbing himself, but also the hours he spent on the ice and for a young guy, just his professionalism. So, that certainly jumps out as.

“What jumps out at me about a player is his skating ability. He’s just one of those guys that is a great skater. He looks like an NHL body when he’s on the ice, and the way that he moves and the power that he possesses. I think that’s what really jumped out at me most.

“But you know Jason, like every other young player, it is tough to make this jump. So when he comes in expectations need to be realistic. We have a good team. We’re one of the final four that were there. You want to build this player up. The last thing that you want to do is put too much expectation on a young player and have him take a step back.

“I think that the biggest thing for him is I think there is an NHL player there, an NHL body, maturity and I think if we just bring him along the right way here, he’s going to have a heck of a career.”

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EXTRA SHOTS…

You can listen to the entire Gulutzan interview here from when he was a guest on my TSN 1260 radio show.

Jay Woodcroft is currently interviewing coaches for the vacant spot on his staff. Woodcroft expects to announce the third assistant coach before the end of the month. Woodcroft wants a coach who views the game differently at times, has the ability to address the team as a group and help out with skills on the ice during practice. The candidate doesn’t have to have previous NHL experience, but Woodcroft wants someone with a solid coaching resume at other levels.

And if you and three friends want to golf with Woodcroft between August 18th to 24th, we are auctioning off a foursome today on my radio show on TSN 1260 to tee it up with the head coach. All the proceeds will go towards Sports Central. They are a wonderful charity who are dedicated to making sporting resources available to kids in need across Edmonton, central and northern Alberta. You can bid on the foursome between 2-6 p.m. today by texting 101260 or calling 780.444.1260.

GET YOUR TICKETS TO THE WORLD JUNIORS

Want to watch the next generation of hockey stars before they make the show? The World Junior Championship is coming to Edmonton and this is your call to grab tickets! Get your tickets here.

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