With the Oilers play at even-strength (5v5) being so poor, it’s become more and more imperative that the club gets as much out of their special teams as possible. The Oilers currently have a 43.90% goal-share at even-strength, a -20 goal differential – fourth worst in the league only ahead of New Jersey, San Jose and Detroit. What’s especially alarming is that their underlying shot-share metrics (47.30% Corsi For%, 48.17% Fenwick For%) are poor and continuing to decline, indicating that they’re spending more time defending and less time in the offensive zone at 5v5.
Now our expectations of the Oilers special teams should be higher considering the high-end offensive talent on the roster for the powerplay and the amount of work and resources management put towards fixing the penalty kill this past off-season. In my mind, the powerplay should be elite, while the penalty kill should at least be somewhere above league average rates (which would be a significant improvement from last season).
So far things have gone well for the most part as the Oilers rank second in the league scoring 10.69 goals per hour on the powerplay. And their penalty kill sits fourth in the league allowing 5.39 goals per hour on the penalty kill. To put things into context, the average rate of goals on special teams over the last three seasons is about 7.10 per hour.
|Special Teams (2019/20)||Rate||League rank|
|Powerplay – Goals for/60||10.69||2nd|
|Powerplay – Fenwick for/60||78.12||8th|
|Powerplay – Shooting%||18.95%||1st|
|Penalty Kill – Goals against/60||5.39||4th|
|Penalty Kill – Fenwick against/60||74.11||21st|
|Penalty Kill – Save%||89.90%||3rd|
Note: I do use rate stats (i.e., goals, shots per hour) for special teams as it factors in the time a team takes to achieve their objectives. Powerplay units are up against the clock when they’re deployed, so team’s that can get results faster should be considered more efficient. I also use unblocked shot attempts (i.e., Fenwick) to assess a team’s ability to score or prevent goals on special teams. Blocking shots and keeping pucks to the outside is a big part of killing penalties, so Fenwick gives us a sense of well the skaters are doing their jobs and helping out their goaltenders.
The Oilers powerplay is looking good for the most part, getting results and appearing to have the right tactics in place as reflected by their rate of unblocked shot attempts. Couple concerns however, the first of which is the team shooting percentage which could dip down if individual players get into slumps or if they run into a few hot goaltenders. The second concern is around their declining rate of shot attempts, which was at one point one of the best in the league. Below is a graph showing the Oilers rate of unblocked shot attempts per hour over rolling 25 game segments. They’re still around the league average rates, but it’s a little odd that a team with that much elite talent has seen such a drop.
The other concern with the Oilers powerplay is that they’re allowing the highest rate of shorthanded goals against this season (2.08 per hour!), so far giving up seven. This one is on the goaltending as it’s not like the Oilers are allowing a ton of chances against on the powerplay – they allow the sixth lowest rate of shot attempts against, while the team save percentage is second worst in the league with 78.79% . This has to be a spot of bother for the coaching staff that is doing everything they can to improve their overall goal differential of -11.
While the powerplay is good and has some underlying issues that need to be addressed, the penalty kill is good and is actually showing signs of progress. Over the full season, the Oilers have allowed 74.11 unblocked shot attempts per hour, slightly worse than league average and ranking 21st in the league. However, that rate has gradually been been declining over the course of the season, with the Oilers posting a rate of 67.71 unblocked shot attempts against per hour over their last twenty-five games – a rate that would have them in the top ten league-wide. Slight uptick happening recently, so it’s worth monitoring as the season progresses.
Something that I think the coaching staff might overlook is the rate of shot attempts against when certain players are on the ice. Below are the regular penalty killing forwards this season (minimum 30 minutes of ice time), sorted by their on-ice rates of unblocked shot attempts against (FA/60).
The team does a lot better keeping pucks to the outside when Nugent-Hopkins and/or Khaira are on the ice, with the actual rate of goals against being in a reasonable range. Where the team does see a spike is when the likes of Sheahan, Archibald or Granlund (who was demoted because of his poor penalty kill numbers) have been on the ice. What’s especially interesting to me is that Archibald’s on-ice rate of shots against isn’t that much better than Granlund’s. The only difference being that Granlund had a higher rate of goals against when he was on the ice – which we know can often be goalie performance driven. Just compare Granlund’s on-ice save percentage (84.09) to Archibald’s (94.74). More on this in a second.
For those interested, here’s how the Oilers defencemen have done on the penalty kill so far this season, again sorted by their on-ice rate of unblocked shot attempts against. Interesting to me at least is that Nurse is not leading the team in ice time and looks more to be on the second penalty kill unit; the rate of shots against also increase when he’s on the ice. He’s also not a regular option on the powerplay, which should factor in to his next NHL contract.
The big question mark is the team save percentage (89.90%) on the penalty kill, which sits third in the league and can be expected to drop considering the talent-level between the pipes. Both goaltenders have been very good so far this season shorthanded. Among 41 goalies who have played at least 80 minutes on the penalty kill, Mikko Koskinen ranks ninth with a save percentage of 0.894 (115 minutes), while Mike Smith ranks third with 0.917 (92 minutes). The issue is that both goalies are posting save percentages above their NHL career norms. Over the last three seasons prior to 2019/20, Mike Smith has played 152 games (752 minutes) and posted a save percentage of 0.865. Koskinen has only played 55 games (243 minutes) but posted a save percentage of 0.854 shorthanded. Worth noting that both of their historical penalty kill save percentages are slightly below the league average team save percentages from the last three seasons (0.867). I’d expect the Oilers to finish the year with a team save percentage closer to league averages.
One last note about the penalty kill. The Oilers do very little to squeeze out shorthanded goals while killing penalties. While they’ve allowed seven shorthanded goals, tied for most in the league, they’ve only scored once shorthanded themselves – the lowest rate of goals scoring in the league. They’re also generating the lowest rate of unblocked shot attempts in the league on the penalty kill, indicating that the coaching staff doesn’t really care to play more aggressively while shorthanded. Considering the the team is desperate for goals, it might be an area worth looking into.
To sum up how well the entire special teams are doing, I look to combine the rates of goals for and against on the powerplay and the penalty kill. Below is how the Oilers have done over the course of the season.
To put things into context, teams with great special teams post a combined goal rate above +1.50 (Source). Last season, Tampa Bay was over 6.00 as their powerplay was ranked first and only allowed three shorthanded goals. And their penalty kill was first and also scored the fifth highest rate of shorthanded goals. Five other teams posted a combined goal rate above +1.50.
The Oilers got some outstanding contributions from the special teams early on, which helped bank those points but also masked their major issues at even-strength. Now we’re seeing the special teams come back down to earth a bit, but should still expect them to finish well considering the talent up front on the powerplay and the amount of resources put towards addressing the penalty kill this past off-season. With the Pacific division being wide open this season, it’s critical that the Oilers correct their underlying issues and adjust their roster and deployment tactics as necessary.
Data: Natural Stat Trick