A contradictory storyline to the failures of the Edmonton Oilers in the rebuild era is the special teams. In 2010/11, the Oilers’ power play and penalty kill were both abysmal, ranking 27th and 29th respectfully. That year the special teams were used as a scapegoat for the Oilers’ failures in the wins column and since then the team has taken an invigorated approach to returning the special teams to respectability.
In the past two seasons the Oilers have been excellent both shorthanded and with the man advantage, something the team has taken great pride in, yet they have still failed to translate that into the win column in a meaningful way. In 2011/12, the Oilers were 3rd in the NHL with a 20.6% success rate on the power play and in 2012/13 they dropped to 8th, but maintained a 20.1% rate. This success could simply be attributed to the additions and growth within the Oilers top six group, as each year they added a top six forward with a number 1 overall pick in the NHL draft. The real improvements were on the penalty kill where the Oilers jumped from 29th with a 77% success rate in 2010/11, to 14th with 82.4% in 2011/12 and then to 9th in 2013 where they killed off 83.4% of their man advantages. With a weak group of role players on the team, the Oilers continued to improve their penalty killing despite the fact that they have no true superstar on defence and that they routinely used forwards who had no success in any other facet of their games. Players like Ryan Smyth, Eric Belanger, Jared Smithson, Ryan Jones and Anton Lander each had very weak seasons in the last two years for the Oilers, but managed to contribute to the growth of a special teams system that Edmonton has been proud of.
On Wednesday, Edmonton Oilers training camp hit it’s first on ice session and with it some more information regarding the coaching system set to be in place this fall. Head Coach Dallas Eakins told media that although the team would ultimately be coached by committee, the special teams play would broken into segments for his assistants to manage. Assistant Coach Steve Smith will be running the Oilers penalty kill this season while new to the organization Keith Acton would be controlling the Oilers power play. He also mentioned that veteran assistant coach Kelly Buchberger would be running the Oilers systems play at even strength.
While Steve Smith has been with the organization since the beginning of the rebuild, Associate Coach Keith Acton was hired this year to add experience to the bench, as well as another pair of eyes to help the Oilers group of young centre’s. Although you could say the same of Buchberger, Acton was a journeyman centre in his NHL playing days. The hope is there that adding Acton will help the progression of young first line centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as the continued flourishing of Sam Gagner. Acton’s wealth of experience comes mostly from the Toronto Maple Leaf organization where he spent 10 years as an assistant coach, but also coached with the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets. Acton should have no trouble finding success for the Oilers on the power play with such young talent as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ales Hemsky, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz.
Should there be any issues with the Oilers special teams play this year, it will come on the penalty kill. Longtime leader on the PK Shawn Horcoff departed this summer, leaving a hole in the first unit. Finnish shorthanded specialist Lennart Petrell has also parted ways with the team. Both of these holes could cause issues, but the fact that there was a large number of players used in the system last season and the coach running the system hasn’t changed, an argument could be made that the addition of defensive players Boyd Gordon and Andrew Ference will be enough to handle the void left by Horcoff and Petrell. Regardless of the intricacies of the situation, the Oilers special teams will need to hit the ground running.
Last season, special teams play was the sword that the Oilers lived and died upon. There were many nights when then media members were left scratching their heads, wondering how the Oilers could be so dominant on the power play, so capable on the penalty kill, yet be so feeble in 5-on-5 play. In three seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have seen a lot of turbulence. None more so than with the coaching staff, where they have had three different Head Coaches since the day they drafted Taylor Hall. While the revolving door behind the bench has continued to swing the special teams have remained strong, but it has yet to translate to a playoff berth, something that desperately needs to change in Edmonton.