Over the two seasons with Todd McLellan and his coaching staff behind the bench, the Oilers penalty kill remains pretty average. In the 2016/17 regular season, the Oilers finished 16th overall when it came to goals against/60 with 6.38, a slight improvement from the year prior when they finished 19th in the league with 6.53 goals against/60.
Looking at the rate of unblocked shot attempts against (i.e., Fenwick), which can tell us if a team’s penalty kill success is sustainable or not, the Oilers finished 15th in the league with 74.0 events against per hour in 2016/17. A lot of the Oilers success shorthanded has been thanks in large part to their goaltending, which for two years in a row now has been just above league average.
Something that stands out when you dig into the most recent season is how poorly Ryan Nugent-Hopkins performed when the team was shorthanded. After six NHL seasons, and 395 regular season games, he’s developed a reputation as being a responsible centerman and capable of taking on tougher match-ups. He’s a smart, skilled player, skates well and does a great job of stripping the puck away from opponents, all of which should make him an ideal option when the team is shorthanded. So it’s surprising to see that when Nugent-Hopkins was on the ice this season on the penalty kill, the rate of unblocked shots actually increased considerably.
Below are the Oiler forwards who played at least 40 minutes shorthanded (4v5) this past season and their rate of unblocked shot attempts relative to the team average.
Here we see that when Nugent-Hopkins was on the ice, the rate of unblocked shot attempts was 82.19 per hour, and 13.42 higher than the team average. To put things into perspective, the worst team at suppressing shots against when shorthanded was Buffalo (90.4 per hour), followed by Arizona (81.9 per hour). And among the 101 NHL forwards who played at least 100 minutes shorthanded (4v5) this past season, Nugent-Hopkins had one of the worst rates of shot attempts against, relative to team average (97th out of 101).
What’s worth noting here is that heading into the 2016/17 season, Nugent-Hopkins had some decent success shorthanded. He didn’t get tasked with killing penalties until his third season, as the Oilers had experienced centermen like Shawn Horcoff, Eric Belaner and Boyd Gordon as regular options. But over the three seasons prior to 2016/17, he’d been pretty reliable when it came to suppressing unblocked shot attempts against.
Last season, Nugent-Hopkins unfortunately had his season cut short because of a hand injury sustained when blocking a shot on the penalty kill. Up until then he wasn’t a regular option when the team was shorthanded, but filled in admirably, posting one of the lowest rates of unblocked shot attempts against on the team. It makes sense as to why the team relied on him so heavily this past season, as there was enough evidence in the three seasons prior to suggest that he could be a reliable option. Unfortunately for the team, the numbers were pretty poor when Nugent-Hopkins was on the ice.
One issue that could’ve been a factor in driving up the shots against is Nugent-Hopkins’ faceoff struggles. In 2016/17, Nugent-Hopkins won only 33% of his draws, which is a stark drop off from the past two seasons, where he had a 61.1% efficiency in 2015/16 and 53.8% in 2014/15. There isn’t a direct correlation between faceoff success and penalty kill success, but it’d definitely help if your regular penalty killer could win more draws on a regular basis. And perhaps it was the way the injury happened in 2016, but Nugent-Hopkins blocked far fewer shots this past season. In 132 minutes this past season, he only blocked seven shots, which is around the same total he had in 51 minutes in the 2015/16 season. Attempting to block more shots doesn’t guarantee that you’ll allow fewer shots and goals, but it’s another stat that’s stands out when digging into Nugent-Hopkin’s poor penalty killing numbers.
There’s plenty of things to like about Nugent-Hopkins skill-set, and he should remain a valuable part of the Oilers roster going forward. The number’s he posted this past season on the penalty kill indicate an underlying issue, and it’ll be up to the coaching staff to determine if it’s the player or perhaps tactical factors at play here.