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Digging into the Oilers special teams

The problems on the penalty kill and powerplay were preventable had Ken Holland and his management group done their jobs.

NHL: FEB 23 Oilers at Lightning Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Edmonton Oiler’s special teams has become a drag this season, something I don’t think fans were expecting considering how much of a positive impact it has had on the overall results over the previous two seasons.

When you combine the goals for and against on the powerplay and the penalty kill this season, the Oilers special teams has posted a -1 goal differential, which is right around league average. That’s a significant drop from last season when the Oilers special teams posted a +19 goal differential, the highest in the league. The year before that, their special teams was +21 and tied for first in the league. Without a doubt, the Oilers special teams is the reason why they finished second in their division in 2019/20 and 2021, considering how poor their even-strength (5v5) goal-differential was in both of those seasons (-16 in 2019/20 and -1 in 2020/21). Since the Oilers full-season goal differential at even-strength (while improving under Woodcroft) is still poor sitting at -5, they desperately need their special teams to be better than league average if they have any hopes of clinching a playoff spot.

Penalty kill

The Oilers are currently allowing the sixth highest rate of goals against in the league on the penalty kill (8.91 per hour) and only ahead of Detroit, Montreal, Arizona, Seattle and Vancouver. And this is largely due to their goaltending which has posted a 84.53% save percentage that ranks 26th overall.

The Oilers have actually done a decent job in front of their goaltending, allowing a near-average rate of shot attempts and shots on goal against. And these numbers have gradually been improving. Under Dave Tippett, the Oilers allowed 58.47 shots against per hour, slightly higher than the league average rate of 54.67. Under Woodcroft, the Oilers are now allowing 55.38 per hour.

The problem is the goaltending has consistently been poor this season. Koskinen has an 84.50% save percentage, ranking 47th among 62 goalies who have played at least 50 minutes, while Smith ranks 56th with an 82.1% save percenatge. While both goalies did post solid penalty kill save percentages over the previous two seasons, Oilers management should have expected an eventual drop-off considering the age of both netminders and the increased potential for injuries and the extended recovery times necessary. Unfortunately, this is what happens when managers lack an understanding of player-aging-curves and fail to address key issues in the off-season.

Powerplay

Over the full season, the Oilers powerplay has scored at a rate of 9.44 goals per hour, ranking fifth in the league and just slightly below the rate of goals they scored over the previous two seasons, leading the league with 10.60 per hour. The Oilers had a great start to the season but have since been in a steady decline with the Oilers generating only 6.41 goals per hour since Woodcroft was hired - one of the lowest rates in the league. The graph below breaks out the Oilers season into rolling 25-game segments and shows the rate of powerplay goals per hour, with the vertical line indicating when the coaching change occurred.

A big reason why the Oilers powerplay has dropped off is their declining rate of shots and scoring chances. Prior to the coaching change, the Oilers were generating over 69 shots per hour - the highest in the league and well above the league average rate of 54.66 per hour. But since Woodcroft’s arrival, the rate of shots has dropped down by 29.5% falling to 48.64 per hour.

The issue here is that the Oilers are really missing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The Oilers have historically seen their rate of shots on the powerplay drop whenever Nugent-Hopkins isn’t on the ice, and that’s even with McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice. Over the previous two seasons, McDavid and Draisaitl have played 52 minutes without Nugent-Hopkins with them and saw their on-ice rate of shots-for drop by 23.8% - going from 64 shots per hour when the trio is together to 49 shots per hour without Nugent-Hopkins.

The same drop-off has occurred this year with the rate of powerplay shots dropping by 16.3% when McDavid and Draisaitl haven’t had Nugent-Hopkins with them, going from 71 shots per hour down to 60. Nugent-Hopkins has missed 11 games this year, and in the 100 powerplay minutes the Oilers have played without him the team has seen a major drop in productivity scoring at a rate of 6.54 goals per hour - a stark decline from the 11.28 goals per hour the Oilers have scored when he’s been on the ice.

While the Oilers can’t predict when injuries will hit, they should be aware of the fact that Nugent-Hopkins is starting to creep into the tail end of his career, having played 701 NHL games now and becoming more susceptible to injuries. And they should also be aware of the positive impact he’s historically had on the powerplay and planned on what to do if they’re ever without their powerplay witch. Again this comes down to management’s ability to regularly analyze their on-ice results, conduct sound player evaluation and intergrate as much information as possible into their decision-making process. The powerplay can still be fixed, but Ken Holland and his staff are once again taking a reactive approach instead of proactively trying to get ahead of issues before they come up and derail a season.

If the special teams is what costs the Oilers a playoff spot, management will have only themselves to blame.

Data: Natural Stat Trick