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Tencer's Blog: One Up, One Down

Dan Tencer takes a closer look at the Oilers' enigmatic special teams play

Friday, 07.01.2011 / 5:57 PM / Blogs
By Dan Tencer
The Oilers defence, including the likes of Theo Peckham, have stepped up their game to improve to the team's PK. (Photo by Dylan Lynch / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.)
There's an old saying that special teams win and lose hockey games. Tonight's game features a couple of opponents that support that statement very well. The Vancouver Canucks, on one hand, feature the league's second best PP and fourth best PK; they win a lot of hockey games, more than anyone else in fact, as the top team in the NHL.

The Oilers, on the flip side, operate the 30th ranked PK and the 27th ranked PP; they lose a lot of hockey games, sitting 28th in the NHL. The Canucks are blessed from a personnel standpoint, certainly, with a top five goaltender, a top three face off winning centerman, a top three second line centerman and two top five wingers. The Oilers, as we know, are in the early stages of assembling what they hope will be a similar package one day.

Therefore, it's not at all reasonable to expect that Edmonton would be able to match Vancouver in terms of success virtually anywhere across the board, but it is reasonable to expect to see some positive progress as the season continues.

We've talked a lot about this here in the last year, mostly relating to individuals like Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi, Peckham, Dubnyk etc. I'd like to talk about it today from a team standpoint, and particularly the special teams. While we should expect to see progress and development in the play of the younger players on the team, we should also expect the same from the group on the power play and penalty kill.

ONE UP

The penalty kill has recently shifted from being an absolute killer for the Oilers to being one of their shining strengths. In a remarkable turnaround, the Oilers PK units are functioning at a staggering 88.5% in their last 15 games. Contrast that with 67.4% in the first 24 games and you've got a greater than 20% improvement. For reference, the top penalty kill in the league belongs to the Pittsburgh Penguins at 87.6%, and while the Oilers success has only spanned 15 games, they've elevated themselves to an elite level during this time.

The curious thing about this statistic, and a reason to question the sustainability of the success, is that the success has come with Shawn Horcoff absent in 12 of those 15 games and Ryan Whitney absent in 4. Horcoff is, amongst those that kill penalties on a routine basis, the top face off man on the team and he's also their most experienced penalty killer. Whitney, of course, is the top defenseman on the team and their minutes played leader. So, the question becomes, why the turnaround?

Well, you could chalk it up to a fluke. I'm not going to do that, because they haven't exactly just been shutting out the weaker teams in the league. Detroit and Vancouver have both been stymied recently by the improved Oilers penalty kill. After so much talk earlier in the year about the importance of face off wins to puck possession, particularly on special teams, it might be tempting to look there for the reason for improvement. Nope. The team is still, to be blunt, awful as a group at winning draws.

The reason for the spark, then, has to come down to coaching and execution. Without getting too technical, the Oilers have changed their system of play on the penalty kill. Obviously identifying that the status quo wasn't working for them, the coaching staff went back to the drawing board. The players have clearly responded to the alterations and are less often found out of position and more often finding their aggression well timed. The goaltending has improved as well, with Devan Dubnyk earning more starts with a high level of performance and Nikolai Khabibulin kicking it up a notch by steadily improving his SV% since the 15 game mark of the year. Whatever the ingredients, the new recipe is working. It's a positive indicator of progress and development from a team standpoint.

ONE DOWN

The Oilers haven't allowed a goal on their penalty kill in the last six games. Unfortunately, they also haven't scored a goal on a power play of their own in the same span. In the last 10 games, the Oilers power play has converted the opportunity into a goal just 6.8% of the time. Overall, a power play that started in the upper middle of the pack in the NHL rankings early in the year has fallen steadily to 27th in the NHL with an efficiency of 14.6%. The top team in the league in this discipline, the Chicago Blackhawks, are more than 10% higher with a 24.8% efficiency.

With plenty of offensive talent to be spread around, even with injuries sporadically taking hold, the Oilers power play should be better. Perhaps not elite, but definitely not bottom of the barrel type stuff. For starters, I question the ability of this team to pay the price in order to get to the greasy areas where a lot of goals get scored. Pretty is fantastic to watch, but not always productive.

Try this on for size. Kurtis Foster, with the booming shot from the point, was brought in to score goals, right? Sort of. With an elite shot, goals are definitely a possibility for Foster, but as importantly, he does a great job at using his weapon just to get pucks through to the net. His career high in goals is only 10, but last year he had 42 points and 26 of those were on the power play.

He's not an elite passer or a brilliant setup man, those points came more often from watching a teammate bang in the rebound from his shot than they did from the solo shot itself. And hard as it might be to believe, Foster is actually shooting the puck more this year than he was last year. So, what does that all tell you? It tells me that there aren't enough players on this Oilers team doing a good enough job at getting a screen on the goaltender and/or getting in position to pick up the trash.

That's just one of many reasons for the power outage, to be sure. We'd all love to see a bigger threat to shoot from the half boards, as an example. Face off's, chemistry and on and on and on. The team has succeeded in elevating the level of the penalty kill and there's no reason they can't do the same on their power play whether it's by changing the system or the chemistry of the units.

For now, the elite level of the PK is helping to mask the deficiencies of the PP. And, unless the power play unit turns things around, they better pray that the penalty kill doesn't drop off. If it does, the scores could start getting ugly.
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