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Unpacking the Oilers’ resurgence: Behind the penalty kill success

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Photo credit:Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Sunil Agnihotri
15 days ago
One of the biggest strengths for the Edmonton Oilers this season has been their penalty kill, which currently ranks seventh best in the league allowing 6.16 goals against per hour.
Considering how goal-scoring has been increasing every year in the National Hockey League, with powerplay scoring being the main driver, it’s important that the Oilers sustain their penalty kill performance and results to remain competitive. The margins for error are razor thin, and finding any competitive advantage has become increasingly important.
While the Oilers have been performing well and getting good results on the penalty kill all season, it’s really been during this 16-game winning streak that they’ve moved to a different level. They’ve only allowed three goals in 82 minutes shorthanded during this stretch — a rate of 2.18 goals against per hour. Compare that to the first 16 games of the season when they allowed 17 goals against in 92 minutes, a rate of 10.99 goals against per hour  – and you can see that they’ve come a long way when it comes to penalty kill results.
The graph below shows the Oilers’ rate of goals against per hour in rolling-16 game segments. The blue line across represents the league average rate of goals against this season (7.47).
It’s important to highlight that the Oilers skaters have been playing well in front of their goaltending on the penalty kill, doing a pretty good job controlling the shots and chances against almost all season. They currently allow the third lowest rate of unblocked shot attempts against in the league (66.83 per hour) and the sixth lowest rate of shots on goal against (48.58 per hour). And they’ve been fairly consistent all season, playing at or below league-average levels, as indicated in the graph below. Note that the blue line across represents the league average this season (55.22 shots against per hour).
It’s really the goaltending that’s been the difference compared to early on in the season, and the strong play of Stuart Skinner. In the first 16 games of the season, the Oilers’ goaltending was one of the worst in the league stopping only 79.76 percent of the shots against shorthanded. Contrast that to the more recent 16-game stretch, where the goalies have stopped 95.24 percent of the shots against. Over the full season, the Oilers’ goaltending currently ranks 12th in the league with a save percentage of 87.32 percent.
Now, let’s take a quick look at the skaters on the penalty kill, and their on-ice numbers.
The table below includes skaters who have played at least 25 minutes this season and is sorted by their total ice time. For each skater, I’ve included their on-ice rate of unblocked shot attempts (FA/60) and shots against (SA/60) relative to the rate of their team – metrics that skaters have greater control over. This gives us a sense of which players are helping lower the rate of shots against when they’re on the ice – negative numbers indicate that the rate of shots is lower with them on the ice, while positive numbers indicate that the rate of shots is higher with them on the ice. For context, I’ve added each player’s on-ice rate of goals against relative to the team as well as their on-ice save percentage – both metrics measuring the actual results that are more out of the control of skaters.
There are a couple of things worth noting here.
The Mattias Ekholm and Vincent Desharnais tandem on the blue line has been very good together, posting a rate of 33.45 shot attempts against per hour in 65 minutes together this season. Among 34 defence pairings who have played at least an hour together on the penalty kill, they rank first in terms of shots and unblocked shot attempts against. The average rate of shots against among these 34 defence pairings is 56.89 per hour, so they’re well below that level.
It is worth noting, too, that while the Oilers see an increase in shots and chances against Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci on the ice together, their actual rate of shots and chances are still just under league-average levels. That’s pretty solid considering they’re often playing against the other team’s top powerplay units. The tandem has played 101 minutes together on the penalty kill, which ranks 12th highest in the league.
Looking at the forwards, you can tell who’s been playing more often on the second penalty kill unit with the Ekholm/Desharnais tandem based on the green boxes. Connor Brown, for example, has posted excellent numbers and is a big reason why the Oilers have done a nice job suppressing chances. He’s been much maligned this season due to his poor play at even strength, which has led to demotions in the lineup and some time in the press box. But there’s no denying his contributions to the second unit. After his signing last summer, I had looked into his penalty kill numbers which were fine overall, but took a bit of a hit whenever he’d play on the top units in Ottawa and Toronto. Nice to see that the coaching staff recognized his strengths and weaknesses and put him in a position to succeed.
Based on the team’s performance shorthanded in these first 45 games and their ability to limit shots and chances consistently, it’s likely that they will have good results on the penalty kill the rest of the way. The key, of course, is good health for the roster and the goaltending being league-average or above. For now, though, the skaters are doing a very good job in front of their netminding, and the coaching staff seems to have found the right mix of tactics and player deployment strategies.
Data: Natural Stat Trick

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