Six games into the 2022-23 and one early area of obvious weakness is the penalty kill of the Edmonton Oilers.
Compare that to last season — when Edmonton’s penalty kill wasn’t bad, just mediocre — when Edmonton gave up 52 power play goals against in 82 games.
The early trend is bad then, wretched even.
Worse, Edmonton is giving up a high rate of Grade A shots against on the penalty kill.
In 38 PK minutes so far this year, Edmonton has given up 27, an average of 1.42 per two minutes of opposition power play time.
Last year that was just 1.13 per two minutes, and the year before, when Edmonton had the NHL’s ninth best penalty kill, it was just 0.87 per two.
In other words, right now Oilers goes are getting peppered on the PK with the highest rate of lethal shots on net that we’ve seen in several years.
Are there any quick fixes that your average, every day, ordinary hockey blogger could just now easily point out to professional full time NHL coaches?
There is not, in part because it’s not always obvious what’s going right and wrong with NHL penalty kills. It’s easy to see ones that get cut apart by cross-ice passes and set on fire by one-timer shots. It’s easy to see ones that give up high rates of Grade A shots. It’s not hard to notice weak goaltending.
What isn’t so easy is to asses what exactly is going wrong.
Our own Cult of Hockey data for PK work is far from perfect in this regard.
At the Cult, we try to determine through intensive video review and discussion which players are most responsible for Grade A shots for and for mistakes on Grade A shots against.
I have a high level of confidence that we fairly and accurately asses which players make major contributions to Grade A shots for in all game situations, even strength, power play and shorthanded. I’m reasonably confident we’re fair and accurate in assessing which players make mistakes on Grade A shots against at even strength. That work is more difficult but we’ve been doing it more than ten years now and have gained some expertise.
But figuring out which players made mistakes on Grade A power play shots against? I’m only moderately confident we do a good job, as it’s harder to assess players when they’re in a zone and less often playing man-to-man.
In general, I’d cautiously suggest that the Oil miss a few key penalty killers from when the unit was an NHL leader in 2019-20 and 2020-21. Shot blocker and slot defender Kris Russell is missed, as is hard man of hockey, Adam Larsson.
Tyson Barrie and Ryan Murray are struggling in the early going, though the sample size for both is exceedingly small, just five minutes of PK time for Murray, seven minutes for Barrie. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zach Hyman and Leon Draisaitl also appear to be off to iffy starts on the PK, while Evan Bouchard, Kailer Yamamoto and Derek Ryan have so far been sound.
But all these sample sizes are small, and players who appear to be struggling so far could quickly turn it around.
Last season, Russell and Bouchard were the two most effective PK defencemen, with Hyman the best winger, and Ryan McLeod and Ryan the best centres.
On their PK, former Oilers coaches Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair tried to funnel attackers to the outside, to take away the middle of the ice, and that worked very well for two years until it stopped working last season.
Tippett, Playfair and their PK teams were able to greatly reduce the number of cross-seam passes that had been haunting the Oil PK for a few years.
I’m not noticing that Edmonton has been suddenly giving up far more of those kinds of lethal passes and shots. It’s been more a case of players screening their own goalie or failing to take the man.
We’ll see where this goes then. For now, I’m hoping to see a bit more Bouchard, Ryan and Yamamoto on the kill, to ride those seemingly hotter defensive hands if nothing else.