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Penalty Kill Struggles

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Checking in the Oilers penalty kill.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

When I last checked in on the OIlers penalty kill in early November, things were humming along just fine. They had the 4th best penalty kill percentage with 90.2% efficiency, and they allowed the fourth fewest goals against per hour with 3.01. One issue the team was having at the time was that they were allowing a higher than average rate of unblocked shot attempts against per hour. And this issue was being masked by some outstanding goaltending, which was mostly Cam Talbot, as the Oilers had one of the best team save percentages in the league, with 93.55%.

Fast forward to today, and it looks like things are starting to catch up to the Oilers. The club is now ranked 10th in the league with an efficiency of 83.5%. They now sit at a goals against per hour rate of 4.87, 8th best in the league, with the league average being 5.80. The rate of unblocked shot attempts against is now at 67.47, now only slightly higher than the league average of 67.12. And the club's team save percentage on the penalty kill has come back down to earth, down to 89.86%, but is still ranked 7th in the league, with league average being 87.77%.

We can also break out the Oilers performance on the penalty kill into rolling 10-game stretches, to get a sense of the overall trend. Below is the goals against per hour rate over the first 32 games. The first dot in the graph represents the rate of goals against per hour between games 1 and 10. The second dot represents the rate of goals against per hour between games 2-11, then 3-12, and so on. What we see here is that the Oilers were pretty darn good early on, well below league average, but things have been getting progressively worse. It looks like things may stabilize for the Oilers around the 5.0 goals against per hour mark, right around the league average, but the most recent stretch of 10 games have been pretty bad. We also have to consider here that the Oilers have had a pretty grueling schedule over the past couple of weeks, so fatigue may be a factor.

The other driver of the poor results has been the steady decline of the team's goaltending performance short handed. Below we see that early on in the season, Talbot was pretty outstanding on the penalty kill, posting one of the best save percentages in the league. As mentioned in the last post, Talbot's save percentage shorthanded coming into the 2016/17 season was 90.52%, so his numbers from early in the season were expected to eventually regress to his career numbers. The other take away from this graph is that the Oilers need to give Talbot a break, as his workload is one of the highest in the league. The backup position, as written here and elsewhere, was not addressed properly this off-season, with the coaching staff appearing to have very little confidence in Gustavsson. And to really maximize Talbot's performance, the coaching staff must manage his minutes and be able to have a reliable back-up that can take on some of the work load.

The good news is that the Oilers have been getting better at limiting the rate of unblocked shot attempts against, especially over the last 10 games. At points early on in the season, the Oilers ranked as one of the worst when it came to this metric. Over the last 10 games however, the Oilers have allowed 57.36 unblocked shot attempts against per hour, which would have them as one of the best team's in the league if they had sustained that all season.

It's hard to say for certain what the Oilers have done differently between the first 22 games and the most recent 10 when it comes to on-ice tactics. What we can do is break out each player’s proportion of total 4v5 time and see if there were any significant changes between the two time ranges. Please note that in the first 22 games, the OIlers had 118.14 minutes of 4v5 time, and in the last 10, they have had 54.39 minutes.

Player Games 1-22 - TOI% Games 23-32 - TOI% Change
ANDREJ.SEKERA 35.9% 54.8% 19.0%
KRIS.RUSSELL 32.4% 45.1% 12.6%
RYAN.NUGENT-HOPKINS 36.1% 41.6% 5.5%
MARK.LETESTU 41.3% 40.1% -1.1%
OSCAR.KLEFBOM 33.5% 36.8% 3.4%
ADAM.LARSSON 34.5% 34.7% 0.2%
BENOIT.POULIOT 24.5% 26.0% 1.5%
ZACK.KASSIAN 17.3% 22.2% 5.0%
MATT.HENDRICKS 3.9% 21.8% 17.9%
CONNOR.MCDAVID 20.2% 18.8% -1.4%
LEON.DRAISAITL 10.7% 17.9% 7.2%
MATTHEW.BENNING 6.3% 15.7% 9.4%
DARNELL.NURSE 32.6% 10.4% -22.2%
DRAKE.CAGGIULA 5.1% 9.6% 4.5%
MILAN.LUCIC 5.0% 5.8% 0.8%
BRANDON.DAVIDSON 0.6% 1.4% 0.8%
JESSE.PULJUJARVI 1.5% 1.3% -0.1%
PATRICK.MAROON 2.1% 0.8% -1.3%
JORDAN.EBERLE 4.1% 0.6% -3.5%
TYLER.PITLICK 5.4% 0.2% -5.2%
ANTON.LANDER 32.1% 0.0% -32.1%
ERIC.GRYBA 24.4% 0.0% -24.4%

Here were see a few players, namely Sekera, Russell and RNH getting a higher proportion of the 4v5 time, with others such as Nurse and Gryba (due to injury) and Lander (demotion to AHL) getting less. I really can’t say for certain if it’s one or two players that have improved the rate of unblocked shots against, as way more context is needed, but it’ll be worth keeping an eye on going forward.

Takeaway

The Oilers were very fortunate to have strong goaltending on the penalty kill early in the season, around the time the Oilers were having issues limiting the shots against. As expected, the team save percentage has regressed, and the rate of goals against has steadily increased at 4v5. The good news is that the overall rate of unblocked shot attempts against, which is a good predictor of future success on the penalty kill, has decreased over the recent stretch of games. The key will be to maintain this success and hope that Talbot can continue providing above-league-average goaltending.

Data source: Corsica Hockey