Everyone in Edmonton wants answers. Such is life when you have the best player in the world, perhaps two of the five best players in the world, and just two wins since Dec. 1.
The problems with the Oilers are multi-faceted. There is the now decade-long issue of the team’s depth players failing the top half of the roster. The goaltending, with all due respect from the yeoman work put in by 23-year-old Stuart Skinner, has been ineffective. The blueline the team spent crucial cap space on in the off-season isn’t any better. Connor McDavid is doing deer-in-headlights post-game interviews. It’s going badly.
We knew the Oilers were top-heavy this season, and that their path to the playoffs could be boiled down to the star players going supernova while the rest of the roster managed to not get crushed in limited minutes. The team could ill afford new cracks to form.
But a new crack has formed, this one on the penalty kill.
The last time we talked about Edmonton’s special teams, it was about their lethal power play – one without parallel in recent history, and something they could rely on to supplement middling even-strength numbers.
But through this swoon, the calling card for Oilers’ futility hasn’t been their power play delivering goals. It’s been a penalty kill that can’t get off the ice without the goal light going off.
Consider for a moment the net advantage the Oilers have created through special teams since the start of the season. When the team was pushing towards the top of the Pacific Division, it was off an unstoppable power play and an above-average penalty-killing unit.
At the start of December, that trend flipped meaningfully:
Some of the degradation seen since the start of December is from a power play that, understandably, could not keep scoring at a record-breaking pace. Considering the firepower at the top of the lineup and what Edmonton has been able to show on the man advantage for years now, the power play’s struggles should be fleeting.
Now, the penalty kill. Early this season, I thought Oilers’ goaltenders were doing a good job of bailing out their skater group in front. Head coach Dave Tippett has stuck with three common forward groups and two defensive pairings to carry the lion’s share of the work. I think it’s noteworthy how many new faces are on this penalty kill from a season ago – none of Zach Hyman, Derek Ryan, Kailer Yamamoto, Colton Sceviour, Evan Bouchard, or Cody Ceci killed penalties for Edmonton a season ago.
It’s not as if Edmonton was returning a juggernaut penalty-kill unit from last season, but the Oilers did finish 12th in the league (6.8 goals per 60 minutes conceded). Although this newer-look group did get off to a decent start in October, those results appear to have been goaltending-driven in retrospect.
Elite goaltenders (of which the Oilers have none) can change the face of a penalty kill; absent one, you want units that vigorously defend the neutral zone, push shooters to the perimeter when defending the run of play, and avoid those high-pressure, multi-shot shifts against that generally lead to goals.
If we trend out the results of this year’s penalty kill, you notice two things: how quickly the team’s goals-against rates regressed towards expectations, and how ineffective this group has been over the past two months:
That is a hideous trend. And notably all year, the Oilers have been giving up more expected goals – a measure blind to goaltending performance, and one that considers both shot volumes against and the quality of those shots – than the league average.
What does that look like in practice? HockeyViz’s shot profiles corroborate what we see when watching these games – too many uncovered shooters applying pressure on Edmonton’s goaltender from the low slot and between the circles, where shooting percentages skyrocket.
I’ve juxtaposed Edmonton’s penalty kill, which has slid to 23rd in the league, against the NHL’s best in Carolina. Consider the differences:
Carolina has been so dominant down a man it’s almost fair to call them an outlier, but I think the overarching point here is that the Hurricanes aren’t getting those results by fluke. Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta aren’t bailing the team out with 10-bell saves. Rather, they appear bored.
Special teams performance is always volatile, but this is the risk with not having a dominant even-strength team – you have to rely on one or more of great goaltending, a lethal power play, or stingy penalty kill to create an advantage in the standings.
Edmonton is running out of bullets quickly here, and now opposition power plays are dominating the Oilers in the same way the Oilers’ power play dominated opponents for years.
These are scary times in Alberta.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey