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The Oilers Early Season Penalty Kill Success

By posting a 6-2-2 record to start the season, a record good enough to currently have the team sitting atop the Northwest Division, the Oilers have turned a few heads. I didn't think the Oilers would be a much improved team over the squad we watched last year, and while I'm not ready to completely abandon that stance since it is still very early in the season, I am willing to say that there are areas of their game where they have been much better than I had expected. The penalty kill would be one of those areas.

After finishing fifth overall in the league on the penalty kill in 2007/08 the Oilers have turned their penalty kill standing on its head finishing fourth, fifth, and second last in the last three seasons. To say that the penalty kill has been a problem would be an understatement. But this season the Oilers find themselves once again near the top of the penalty kill charts, currently sitting fourth with a 90.7% success rate. This ten game stretch has been the Oilers most successful since January of 2008 when the Oilers penalty kill was successful 91.3% of the time between January 7 and 29.

The turnaround has had a big impact on the Oilers early season success. If the Oilers were killing penalties with the same success as last season they would have allowed an additional six powerplay goals already. For a team struggling offensively it's fair to say that those extra goals would be showing up in the Oilers record and that 6-2-2 would look a little less rosy. So why the change?

Probably the biggest reason for the early season transformation is a change in the penalty killing personnel up front. Here is a quick look at the Oilers penalty kill ice time leaders from from this season compared to last season (this season is on the left).

Player SH TOI/G Player SH TOI/G
Shawn Horcoff 3:18 Liam Reddox 2:58
Eric Belanger 2:58 Andrew Cogliano 2:43
Ryan Jones 2:50 Colin Fraser 2:39
Ryan Smyth 1:53 Ryan Jones 2:07

Three of the four guys who led the way on the penalty kill last year are no longer with the club. When something is broken, and the penalty kill most certainly was, it needs to be fixed, and the Oilers addressed it in the offseason by bringing in Smyth and Belanger. While I liked Reddox and Cogliano, I was happy to see the addition of players who have a history of killing penalties and being successful at it and can also play a prominent even strength role on the team's top lines. I thought that they would, without a doubt, improve the penalty kill, but I didn't think the improvement would be quite so drastic.

But the change hasn't only been with the players up front; there has also been a change in the Oilers net. Not literally of course as both Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin are still there but their play while the Oilers are shorthanded has been much improved, to the point where it almost seems as if new players are there. Looking at the numbers from Behind the Net shows just how improved the play between the pipes has been.

2011 Rank 2010 Rank Difference
SA/60 42.0 5 56.2 27 -14.2
SV % 0.920 7 0.849 28 0.071

What I like the most about those numbers is that not only are the Oilers giving up fewer shots, but the goalies are making more saves. That is a combination that can only have good results and provides a buffer should one of the categories slide back towards the average a bit. Right now both Dubnyk and Khabibulin are playing at levels that, while fun to watch, simply won't be sustained over the course of a full season. But even as their numbers regress, the penalty kill should still be relatively successful as long as they can limit the number of shots against. And of course anything north of the terrible numbers posted last season will instantly be an upgrade.

It's still very early and the Oilers likely aren't as good as their record might make you think, but make no mistake, they are improved. And if they can keep doing things like killing penalties they might just make a few people's predictions look a little silly come the end of the year.