What to Make of Oilers’ Special Teams Play

For those who watched the preseason contest between the Edmonton Oilers and the Winnipeg Jets, a reoccurring theme stood out. Despite a 5-1 loss to the Jets, Edmonton out-shot Winnipeg by a total of 34-21 and held the majority of the puck possession throughout the game. The Oilers, however, gave the contest away thanks to their repeated inability to score on the power play and their abysmal penalty kill, which allowed four goals against.

Preseason is a time meant to work out the kinks in team play. Wins or losses, while motivating or frustrating, don’t really matter as no points are awarded during these contests. What matters is systems play, chemistry amongst team members and the opportunities for certain players, who may be on the bubble of regular NHL duty, to gain or lose employment. Where Friday’s contest against the Jets means a great deal is that some of the Oilers’ roster may have played themselves off of the team and it’s clear, Edmonton’s special teams play needs a lot of work.

The Penalty Kill

(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)
Nugent-Hopkins played 1:02 short-handed and didn’t allow a goal as part of that time. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

There really isn’t another way to say it, other than to call the short-handed efforts on Friday a disaster. Edmonton’s penalty killers allowed Winnipeg to score on four-of-five power plays and regular roster players, who are expected to be on the ice for much of the Oilers’ penalty kill this season, were chewed alive by the Jets. Players like Adam Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Anton Lander and Iiro Pakarinen — the latter two if they make the opening night roster — were the main culprits and would/should be mainstays on the Oilers penalty kill team. For a defensive-first player like Larsson to be on the ice for all four goals against means the chemistry on the kill and the system play needs to be improved before the regular season begins.

Coach Todd McClellan clearly understands the nature of preseason and the need to work out the system is the focus. He wouldn’t typically deploy his players the way he did on Friday, but McLellan explained the idea was to prove a point and teach a lesson.

We’d be crazy to keep putting the same people out on the penalty kill but you’re giving them another chance to get the job done.

We’ve had guys on for four or five straight penalty kill goals and it can’t happen that way. We spent two days in practice working on it.

Only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who played 1:02 short-handed, didn’t allow a goal. Despite Friday’s results, Nugent-Hopkins, along with the players who were on the ice against the Jets have the makings of an effective penalty kill. The talent is in place, but understanding the coaching philosophy and system require work. That said, short-handed, the Oilers have been poor all preseason and will need to shift priorities, making special teams play a focus for the coaching staff to get the team back on track.

One area where the Oilers can help themselves is by cutting down or eliminating the unnecessary penalties they take each game. Simply limiting opportunities for their opponents, Edmonton can avoid continually putting themselves in a vulnerable position. Benoit Pouliot has been a contributor to this issue over the past two games and his offensive zone infractions have led to goals against.

The Power Play

Drake Caggiula has the lone power play goal for the Oilers in last ten attempts. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Oilers power play went 0-for-4 against Winnipeg. If you go back to Edmonton’s 5-3 loss to the Canucks, where the power play was 1-for-6, that’s a grand total of 1-for-10, or 10% efficiency in the Oilers last two games. Edmonton is getting opportunities and they simply aren’t capitalizing on them. Part of the problem is that the Oilers still lack a threat from the blue line who can and will shoot the puck with both power and accuracy. However, the two biggest concerns are the zone entry and Edmonton’s lack of ability to hit the net.

Edmonton’s ability to get into the zone on the power play has been troubling. It appears as though the Oilers use one play repeatedly. This routine involves a winger dropping the puck at center ice to the center who then enters the zone with the wingers at the same time; it’s a play that opponents have studied and clearly anticipate. It’s rarely working for the power play units and as such the Oilers are failing to set up any sustained attack on the man-advantage.

Kris Versteeg
Kris Versteeg was out of his element at the point for Edmonton on the power play. Photo: Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

When the Oilers do in fact gain the zone, Edmonton has no threat of a shot from the blue line. There inability to use the point-shot as a weapon neither scares the opponents into guarding against the shot, nor can the Oilers routinely hit the target and as such opponents are laying off, essentially covering four players instead of five. Edmonton tried a variety of players in that point position— one example on Friday being Kris Versteeg — and it ended up creating issues defensively as well as not providing a viable offensive threat.

Forward Drake Caggiula has the lone power play marker in two games and his goal came with a 5-on-3 advantage for Edmonton. It’s great to see Caggiula having success, but it’s rare for a rookie who isn’t guaranteed a spot on the team to be among the leaders in power play goals over four preseason games. Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle, Milan Lucic and other regulars haven’t hit the back of the net, and while the regular season hasn’t begun and the issue isn’t cause to hit the panic button, it could be problematic if contributions don’t start coming from regular top-line NHL’ers.

The Oilers struggles on the power play aren’t a new thing. It’s been an area of weakness and ranked 18th in 2015-16, 19th in 2014-15 and 21st in 2013.  Being that Edmonton is a below-average team in the NHL year after year, it’s clearly an area that needs improvement and the preseason is the time to work on perfecting the structure and systems play that goes with it.

It’s Just Preseason

The argument that it’s only preseason is valid to a point. Yes, the Oilers wouldn’t be icing a full roster each game and no, the Oilers aren’t winning or losing a position in the standings. That doesn’t make what happens in preseason any less important from a learning and teaching standpoint.

Preseason is the time to be nailing down the systems and positional play that comes with how the coaches need special teams to be run. Edmonton has a few more games to get it figured out before the successes and failures start to matter. Once the season starts, it’s imperative the Oilers are firing on all cylinders.