During the second intermission of Sportsnet’s broadcast of the Edmonton Oilers 5-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Las Vegas on Friday (October 22), Sportsnet reporter Gene Princepe caught up with Wayne Gretzky for a quick interview.
Gretzky, who last spring resigned as vice chairman of the Oilers to take a job as a lead studio analyst for the NHL on TNT, talked a bit about his new gig and mentioned how he missed being around his old team. Then the topic turned to the Oilers powerplay, and he dropped a bombshell.
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“I mean this with a great deal of respect, I don’t know if our power play even compares to how good their power play really is,” said the Great One, who played for the Oilers in the NHL from 1979 to 1988. “I know we had a good power play, we had great players, hall-of-fame guys … but when I see these guys get in that five-on-four situation, it’s almost unfair.”
Examining the Gretzky-Era Oilers Power Play
That’s super-duper high praise. As Gretzky mentioned, the Oilers of his era were a team spoiling in Hall of Famers with sublime offensive ability; Gretzky and Mark Messier centering, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson on the wings, and defenseman Paul Coffey at the point. Between them, those five legends combined for 824 power-play goals in their NHL careers.
Edmonton scored at least 70 power-play goals in each of Gretzky’s last eight seasons with the Oilers, 1980-81 through 1987-88. In four of Gretzky’s seasons in Edmonton, 1981-82 through 1983-84 and 1987-88, the Oilers averaged more than one power-play goal per game. For five consecutive seasons, 1981-82 to 1985-86, the Oilers had a power-play success rate better than 25%, and their 29.3% in 1982-83 is the highest power-play percentage in a full-length season over the last 40 years.
Examining the Current Oilers Power Play
Suffice to say, the Oilers of Gretzky’s day possessed a dangerous power play. And yet, No. 99 might be on to something when he says it doesn’t compare to that of today’s Oilers. Granted, the 2021-22 season is all of five games old, but what Edmonton has done with the man-advantage so far this season is mind-blowing: The Oilers have gone 8-for-17 on the power play, for an outstanding success rate of 47.1%. As of the conclusion of Friday’s games, no other team had scored more than five power-play goals.
Head coach Dave Tippett has enough weapons in his arsenal to roll two strong power-play units; seven Oilers (Tyson Barrie, Leon Draisaitl, Zack Hyman, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Jesse Puljujarvi) have been on the ice for at least 31% of the team’s power-play time. Hyman and McDavid have each scored three power-play goals, while Draisaitl and Zack Kassian have both scored once with the man advantage. Nine different Oilers have recorded a point on the power play.
Timing is Everything for the Oilers
During the interview, Gretzky recalled the wisdom of former Oilers coach and power-play guru John Mucker: “Sometimes its not how many goals you get but when you can score and how big a goal you get on the power play.”
On Friday, Edmonton fell behind early. But the Golden Knights barely had time to add to their lead before Vegas winger Reilly Smith was whistled for holding, sending Edmonton to the power play. 22 seconds later, Hyman struck for the equalizer.
“I was watching the first period, 1-0 down, (Reilly) takes a bad penalty in the Oilers’ zone behind the goal and I’m like, that’s not a good penalty, the coach isn’t going to be too happy,” Gretzky chuckled. “And sure enough, Hyman scored, it’s 1-1.
“So it’s very lethal. They deserve a lot of credit because normally they play off each other and they’re unselfish,” Gretzky continued. “They really play with a great deal of passion and work ethic, and they really outwork the other four guys, and you hear coaches harp about it all the time: (on) the power play, you have to outwork the other four guys because those four guys are going to work their tails off.”
The Importance of a Potent Power Play
In their 41 previous NHL seasons, the Oilers have gone on to win five Stanley Cups (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990) and reached the final two other times (1983, 2006). In all seven of the regular seasons proceeding their trip to the championship final, the Oilers scored at least 70 goals on the power play. And in all five of the seasons proceeding their Stanley Cup victory, the Oilers had a power-play percentage better than 20%.
Of course, the Oilers of the last two seasons, with Draisaitl and McDavid leading the way, boasted two of the most efficient power plays in franchise history (59/200 in 2019-20, 48/174 in 2020-21) and both of those teams crashed and burned in the postseason.
So while a great power play doesn’t guarantee the Stanley Cup, it is very difficult to win a championship without a great power play. These Oilers just might have a better power play than the Oilers of the ‘80s. Now Edmonton hopes the Oilers will reach the same heights in 2022 as the team did in Gretzky’s heyday.