Monday, September 12, 2011

The Power Play

The Edmonton Oilers have not had a decent power play for so long that I can’t even remember when this wasn't the case. After some quick stat diving, I found that back in 1997-98 the Oilers ended the season ranked 12th in the league at 15.9%. Doesn’t seem like a lethal PP but when you consider that the Dallas Stars led the league at 20.0%, it shows it wasn't too bad at all and how much the game has changed. Outside of the 1997-98 campaign the only other time they finished in the top 15 was the 2005-06 season at 18.1%. That was good enough for 14th spot and not surprisingly that was the last time the club made the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Below are Edmonton’s power play ranking and success ratio since the 2005-06 season:
2010-201127th (14.5%)
2009-201018th (17.3%)
2008-2009 22nd (17.0%)
2007-200820th (16.6%)
2006-200727th (14.2%)

Those numbers are simply awful!!! For this team to be ranked that poorly year after year is simply unacceptable. While the Oilers have not had the most skilled lineup during that time period they have always had a handful of good to decent power play players. Look no further then the two recently departed defencemen Sheldon Souray and Kurtis Foster. While Souray wasn’t awful in his time as an Oiler on the powerplay, he was nothing like the weapon he was in Montreal. As for Foster, he was down right brutal last season and that is one season removed from part of what was a top ten unit in Tampa Bay.

Obviously, there is an issue with the approach the Oilers take when they have the man advantage. The mindset of just get it back to the point and hammer it is foolish and should never be option number one. In all honesty, I have not seen a team in recent memory look so lost on the power play as this team has in the last five seasons. While there are many factors for their struggles, the two main reasons are the lack movement, puck and player, and the personal used.

When the Oilers have the man advantage they look like they are in quicksand. The flat out unwillingness that many of the players show towards moving around on the man advantage is alarming. Without a doubt, the major reason why this continually occurs is Ales Hemsky and his ability to grind the power play to an absolute halt on most nights. The fact that he will just sit on the boards with the puck and do nothing with it is problem enough but to compound the issue the rest of his teammates stand around and look at him when he does it. This staff must hammer the point into the heads of the players that movement is must or you will not see time on the 5 on 4. Watch any successful power play unit and they all have two things in common, quick puck movement and the players are moving and rotating at all times on the ice. In order to take advantage of a team down a man, you most stretch them out and punish them in tight or wherever space is created. The Oilers are unable to do this to teams when they have the advantage because they all stand around the perimeter stationary. I am not sure if it is a coaching issue as far as the system they decide to use but I’m starting to think that isn't the case. There have been three different staffs in this time frame and everyone has had the same problem. Coaching plays into it but it really does seem to be more of a personnel issue.

While their skill set as a club has improved upfront in recent years, we still haven’t seen any signs of improvement on the PP. In my mind, this is where the coaching staff have to take a larger chunk of the blame. Some of the players they put on the power play are simply not good options in that situation. Shawn Horcoff is a great example of a guy who should be used sparingly on the man advantage...if at all. I understand that the teams issues in the circle hurt the start of the 5 on 4’s but having Horcoff out there for half the power play isn’t the solution. Adding another high end skill player in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and bringing back Ryan Smyth should help drastically in this area. They have many more options now then anytime in recent memory and the staff must use players in situations that they will be successful in, not struggle.

The obvious candidates to see regularly power play time this season are: Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Hemsky, Nugent-Hopkins, Smyth, Linus Omark, Sam Gagner, Ryan Whitney, Cam Barker and Tom Gilbert. The groupings I would like too see:

Omark, Whitney, Hall, Gagner, Hemsky
Gilbert, Barker, Smyth, Nugent Hopkins, Eberle

Between those two units, there is enough skill, imagination, grit and power for the Oilers to easily be a top 15 if not a top 10 power play this coming season. During the 2008-09 season Barker put up 29 power play pts with Chicago and Whitney has always been a very good option at the back. Edmonton keeps bringing in guys to man the point and none of them produce at the level they did before or after, see Lubomir Visnovsky for exhibit A. Ever think the problem lays elsewhere?

This season, the coaching staff must put a plan in place that forces these players to use their creativity and minds on the ice and not always just have the mindset of “we have to simplify things”. Looking for the big shot at the point isn’t a bad thing, especially when things aren’t clicking...but it should be an option not the only option. Unfortunately, this has been the clubs "ace in the hole" for many years and it has to change.

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