Prior to the 2015-16 season, the Edmonton Oilers’ offense was a hard one to pin down. The club has long boasted a plethora of talented young forwards — a stock that was vastly improved this offseason — but finding a consistent offensive rhythm without sacrificing defensive reliability has proved to be difficult for the young Albertan squad. The team’s powerplay has suffered a similar fate in the past.
Edmonton ranked 22nd in the league last season in terms of total powerplay goals scored, and 19th overall in terms of their powerplay percentage, which clocked in at only 17.7%. Even more troubling was the fact that the Oilers allowed seven shorthanded goals against them last season, which tied for the seventh-highest total among all NHL clubs.
However, Edmonton’s powerplay has started rounding into form with the addition of head coach Todd McLellan and longtime assistant Jay Woodcroft, who ran the powerplay for McLellan’s San Jose Sharks clubs, and has continued in that role in Edmonton.
The Oilers currently sit 12th in the league with a success rate of 21.1% on the man-advantage, with their 12 total powerplay goals tied for the 10th-best sum as well. If they were to keep up their current pace for the rest of the 2015-16 campaign, Edmonton would finish with roughly 55 powerplay tallies — a mark that would’ve put them in the top five in the league last season.
Key in assessing Edmonton’s powerplay success is the fact that they’re drawing more penalties in 2015-16. The Oilers were one of the worst in the league last year in terms of earning powerplay opportunites, finishing the season with the fifth-worst total. They’ve improved in that department through the first handful of games this season — the club has earned 57 powerplay opportunities through 18 games. Should that rate continue, they would rack up roughly 260 man-advantage chances by the season’s end – a mark that would similarly put them in the top 10 in the league when compared to last season’s numbers.
The Oilers surely have the skill to make those powerplay opportunities into game-changing chances, especially with generational phenom Connor McDavid returning to the club early in the new year. The recent return of Jordan Eberle further bolsters the team’s powerplay firepower, joining a group that includes mainstays like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, alongside rising stars in Nail Yakupov and Leon Draisaitl.
However, the change in coaching staff has played an equally key role in improving the team’s play in this regard.
Woodcroft was in charge of powerplay duties at the 2015 IIHF World Championship — the tournament that saw the first meeting of Hall, Eberle, and McLellan when the trio united to win a gold medal for Team Canada. His players have praised his offensive understanding of the game numerous times, both in San Jose and during the World Championship tournament.
The Sharks’ powerplay numbers from the last season certainly back up this claim, as Woodcroft’s man-advantage schemes led to San Jose finishing with the sixth-best unit in 2014-15 in terms of overall percentage (21.7%) and the fifth-best in terms of total powerplay goals (55).
Woodcroft undoubtedly has the tools to make Edmonton’s powerplay thrive. The team has most recently been sending out a top unit of Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Purcell and defender Oscar Klefbom. Past that group, there is still Draisaitl, Yakupov, and McDavid to consider, alongside veteran scorer Benoit Pouliot.
The veteran assistant bench boss’ philosophy on the man-advantage makes clear the reason for his new team’s success. Working with a group of dynamic young offensive talents, Woodcroft has given them multiple specific avenues in which to work, while keeping the plan open enough to allow them to rely on their own natural instincts.
He said the following to Jason Greger of OilersNation in October:
“Everything for us coming up the ice is based off of some sort of structure, speed and timing … We pride ourselves on giving our players multiple plans to come up the ice with their speed and their timing … In the offensive zone, I wouldn’t consider us to be a set play power play by any means. As a staff we talk a lot about shooting the puck which mirrors our team game philosophy as well. We believe that the shot breaks down defences whether that’s five on five or teams’ penalty kills.”
However, Woodcroft said the team also has clear plans in place for retrieving the puck after those shots are fired deep into the zone.
“Everything for us comes off of the shot so we want to encourage our team to shoot the puck and we have clear retrieval points of how to get the puck back once the shot is taken. Teams in the NHL are very good on the kill – they bring a lot of pressure, so it’s very important that everyone is on the same page, but again, no set plays. We have principle and structure rather than set plays.”
Suffice to say, the club is not short on lethal options when they get the extra man onto the ice, and with an experienced strategist running their unit, it seems as though their success in this regard should only continue as the season progresses.