Discover more from Oil In Goal
Finding The Oilers Best PP QB
Who is the best option to man the point?
The Oilers have had an elite powerplay since Glen Gulutzan joined the coaching staff. Despite their elite personnel, the team sported an abysmal powerplay while (ironically) Jay Woodcroft ran the unit, finishing last in 17-18. Gulutzan joined the team, and the powerplay ranking subsequently rose from last to 7th in his first year and has ranked as the top unit ever since (currently slightly lower but rising as the season reaches an end).
Oscar Klefbom was the powerplay quarterback for the first two seasons in the Gulutzan era, with the unit achieving its best results in the 19-20 season. By my eye, Klefbom excelled in keeping the puck in the zone, opening pass lanes for McDavid and Draisaitl on his flanks, and got the puck off his stick extremely quickly, with the puck-moving to generally more offensively talented players in higher danger areas.
When Jay Woodcroft led the unit, the Oilers’ powerplay was a lot more static compared to Gulutzan’s current iteration, which meant that it was a struggle to open up passing and shooting lanes. As a result, the theory was that a right-handed defenceman at the top would be beneficial as it would open a one-timer option for McDavid to feed on the right half boards. However, with the play positions in the zone being more dynamic, the left-handed dmen opened just as many, if not more passing lanes, particularly making an easier transition across the ice to feed Leon Draisaitl one-timers.
One caveat that I wanted to include with my analysis is that evaluating powerplays is inherently harder with public models. Those expected goals models that don’t include pre-shot puck movement nor traffic context generally do a good job at estimating shot quality at 5v5, where systems are more uniform. However, the goal of a power-play structured like the Oilers is to generate shots off of passes to get the goalie out of position and/or generate looks with traffic in front. As this isn’t captured in the expected goal metrics I used from Natural Stat Trick, I generally place a higher emphasis on actual goals compared to expected metrics. Additionally, I placed zero emphases on goals or points, as the unit’s entire performance with each defenceman is vastly more important than if each player had one of the last 3 touches prior to a goal.
The Incumbent and Candidates
With Klefbom acting as the benchmark, I’ll be comparing Barrie, Bouchard, and Nurse as potential candidates. As an overview, here are their EvolvingHockey Isolated Impacts on the powerplay. I also didn’t include 18-19, as the team worked through kinks as it incorporated Gulutzan’s powerplay tactics.
From a glance, Klefbom has the highest impact on actual goals, while Barrie appears to have the best impact on the current roster. Let’s look at the raw on-ice rates.
Things that stand out are Nurse’s low Corsi rate and that Bouchard’s high rates of shots and chances haven’t translated to actual goals. However, this isn’t necessarily a fair comparison, as a large part of Bouchard’s and Nurse’s powerplay time has come with the second unit. To isolate for the first unit powerplay, I used powerplay time with both McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice. The on-ice results are as follows.
Bouchard stands out again for his high expected goals production, but actually produces goals at the lowest rate. On the first unit, Nurse’s numbers jump from middling to the best goal production among the group, in numbers that very closely mirror Klefbom’s from the 19-20 season. Meanwhile, Barrie’s unit posts excellent numbers across the board with slightly lower goal production.
I wanted to dig deeper into Bouchard’s numbers, as his oiSH% was substantially lower than the field. The first thing I wanted to look at is if usage with and without Nugent-Hopkins made a difference, considering a substantial part of Bouchard’s PP1 TOI came with 93 on the IR.
Ironically, his actual results actually got worse. Meanwhile, Nurse’s numbers improved on his sample leading production when isolating to the big 3 forwards. The next part I wanted to look at was the individual vs teammate production for the 4 defencemen.
Evan Bouchard stands out as the best individual contributor to his powerplay units, leading the group across the board. His teammates generate a lot with him on the ice as well. Particularly of note is the fact he generates far more rebounds than his counterparts, indicating a heavier shot that should be a weapon moving forward. It seems Klefbom was mostly acting as a true point man, as he had little quality himself but was able to distribute the puck enough so that his teammates could still attack. Meanwhile, Tyson Barrie’s on-ice teammates have amazing metrics, while individually he is about average, showing he is willing to move the puck. The most worrisome entry in this analysis is Nurse, whose teammates scored the lowest in all 4 metrics, meaning that he is the player controlling the play despite being on the ice with players in more dangerous locations. A large part of this might be his PP2 time, as Klefbom and Barrie have carried the line share of the PP1 ice time, but it is concerning nonetheless.
So What Do We Know?
Klefbom seemed to be the ideal powerplay point guy when considering the Oilers’ personnel, but when his shoulder health failed him, the Oilers have had to look at other options. For better or worse, Ken Holland’s roster features 3 offense-first defencemen, each with different attributes that they can bring to one of the best powerplay units in the league.
Darnell Nurse’s unit nearly matches Klefbom’s goal-scoring rate, although he dominates more of the play compared to his teammates which may not be a great indicator for future success. Evan Bouchard has great individual metrics and his unit has created a ton of scoring opportunities, but a combination of a higher quantity of static shots, more shooting luck, and a lack of chemistry with the first unit leave goal production to be desired. Meanwhile, Tyson Barrie’s unit has posted consistently good numbers across the board since he’s joined the Oilers, despite his tendency to hang onto the puck for too long and occasionally give up the zone easier than his counterparts.
In reality, there aren’t any truly bad options when deciding between players with these puck skills to play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the powerplay. However, I’d personally choose to run Tyson Barrie as the first option on the first powerplay unit., while also mixing in Darnell Nurse in the later parts of the powerplay As Woodguy mentioned, Dave Manson is running a true top pair, featuring Nurse and Cody Ceci. Therefore, I’d try to optimize Nurse’s minutes to those high leverage 5 on 5 minutes when there are other good options. However, by mixing him in, Gulutzan would be able to take advantage of the highest goal production rate among the active options while mixing up powerplay looks, making the Oilers harder to prepare for in video preparation. While Evan Bouchard continues to display elite 5 on 5 production and has great individual metrics on the powerplay, he hasn’t meshed with the first powerplay unit through a combination of static looks and poor shooting luck (which are related), and the Oilers overall may be better served to have him focus on his 5 on 5 minutes. Having said that, I would lean towards giving Bouchard the first look at the point come the fall, when increasing practice time and another summer of training could help Bouchard’s unmatched tools fit in with the existing unit. At this point of the Oilers’ playoff push, they need proven options that work, and both Nurse and Barrie have shown that their units will produce goals at elite levels.