When a general manager decides it’s time for a new coach to lead the team it usually results in a positive response from the players over a short period of time. For whatever reason, players seem to elevate their game when a new sheriff comes to town. Maybe they are simply trying to prove their worth to the new coach. Or maybe they are slotted in a better position in the lineup and given more of an opportunity to show they are capable of positive results.
After the dust settles and the new coach has established himself with the team, however, they tend to settle back into a more realistic version of themselves.
On Wednesday, the Edmonton Oilers will host the Carolina Hurricanes in what will be Kris Knoblauch’s 10th game behind th ebench since taking over for Jay Woodcroft. Through the first nine games the Oilers are 6-3-0 and are currently riding a four-game winning streak.
So what’s gone differently for the team since that change? Here are come of my observations:
Edmonton had an historically elite power play last season, converting on 32.4 per cent of their opportunities with the man advantage.
It was only a matter of time before the Oilers returned to form with the man advantage. A recent run of success produced a 30 per cent conversion rate with the extra attacker and now the Oilers own the sixth-best power play in the league on the season (26.6 per cent).
More concerning was their lack of success on the penalty kill. Under Woodcroft, the Oilers struggled and killed just 71 per cent of their penalties.
Since the coaching change, Edmonton has been getting more saves and more “buy in” from their penalty killers. The Oilers have killed off 33 of 37 penalties. That conversion rate of 89 per cent has elevated their overall ranking to 20th in the league at 78 per cent.
When scouting the Oilers, the comfort level players have with each other on the penalty kill has become noticeable.
The same defencemen are being utilized — Darnell Nurse with Cody Ceci and Mattias Ekholm with Vincent Desharnais — but the Oilers now have dedicated forward pairings as well. It appears Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark have some continuity working together and the same goes for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins with Derek Ryan and Ryan McLeod with Warren Foegele.
Here’s an example of the Oilers’ penalty kill being more aligned with each other. Everyone on the ice recognize their responsibilities and read/react as the play moves below their goal line. Eventually Ryan makes a small area outlet to Nugent-Hopkins that leads to a zone exit on the penalty kill.
Winning the special teams battle is immensely important. Teams that have their penalty kill and power play percentage add up to 100 per cent, or more, usually find themselves at the top of the standings throughout the league.
The Los Angeles Kings, for example, have a combined rating of 110 per cent (90 per cent PK, 20 per cent PP) and lead the Western Conference by points percentage. The New York Rangers, who lead the Eastern Conference, have an incredible combined rating of 114 per cent (84 per cent PK, 30 per cent PP).
The NHL is a “what have you done for me lately” kind of league. Negative runs of play will be dissected and debated.
So if people are quick to judge the Oilers’ goaltending when things aren’t going well, it’s only fair to point out the positives when they occur.
Stuart Skinner is a big reason why the Oilers are riding a four-game winning streak. His goals-against average is 1.72 and his save percentage is .931 during the streak. He’s making more timely stops.
Here’s an example of a “bounce back” stop early in the Oilers’ game versus Vegas last Tuesday. In the sequence, Skinner allows a poor rebound on a low danger shot from distance. Instead of having the second shot beat him from close range, he digs in to swallow the chance and gain a whistle in his zone. It’s a second chance puck that was beating him earlier in the season.
Stopping pucks has almost nothing to do with the head coach, but the Oilers are more committed defensively since Knoblauch took over. The entire group is competing harder, on and off the puck and Skinner is doing his part between the posts.
STARS BEING STARS
It’s no secret the Oilers have some of the most elite skill players in the NHL. When forwards Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane and Nugent-Hopkins are producing at high levels the team wins way more games than they lose.
At the beginning of the year, McDavid was fighting through injury. He didn’t look like himself. Fast forward to today, and McDavid has been on an absolute heater offensively, with two goals and 12 assists in his past five games.
For the rest of them, Hyman has scored four goals and four assists, Nugent-Hopkins two goals and three assists, Kane three goals and one assist, and Draisaitl four goals and three assists over the same five-game segment.
Sometimes plays happen in a game that catch my eye. The creativity that players like McDavid display is fun to watch.
Here’s an example of a set play off an offensive zone face-off. I’m not sure the coach implemented this strategy in a video session, but the execution is perfectly timed. The result speaks for itself:
I really like Knoblauch’s demeanour behind the Oilers’ bench. Going back to his days as the head coach of the Erie Otters I’ve had an appreciation for how he keeps his group in the game with his composure. He’s not a coach who’s easily rattled or emotional.
I’ve recognized some structural improvements in Edmonton’s team game and the group is more in tune with each other in all three zones. This is a team that will always cheat for offence, as elite offensive teams generally do. All I require is for the entire group to be committed in whatever role they are asked to contribute.
It will be interesting to see how the Oilers come out of their next five-game segment versus Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Chicago and Tampa Bay (then Florida, to boot). There’s a real chance they can continue to make up some of the ground they lost early in the season by running out another 4-1 segment in this stretch of games.