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Ten games into their season, the Edmonton Oilers are off to a torrid 9-1 start and sit atop the Western Conference. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can be given much of the credit for that as they top the league in scoring with Draisaitl leading McDavid by one point, while McDavid is four points clear of third-place Alexander Ovechkin.
More specifically, the Oilers' success can largely be attributed to their special teams. They have an unstoppable power play which leads the league with 15 goals and has given up no shorthanded goals, while their penalty kill has surrendered just four goals while scoring one shorthanded themselves.
Their +12 goal differential on special teams makes up most of their total of +17, as their +2 at 5-on-5 has been passable, but decidedly average. As it turns out, scoring on literally 50 percent of your power-play opportunities is a winning strategy.
The top-three power-play scorers in the league as of Sunday are Oilers forwards in McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl, in that order. McDavid and Draisaitl have been on the ice for 13 of the Oilers 15 power-play goals and have each been on the ice for over 36 of the team’s 40 total power-play minutes.
As outrageous as all of those production numbers are, the underlying numbers may paint the Oilers' power play in an even brighter light. The Oilers lead the league by a mile in expected-goals rate at 14.5 per 60 minutes, with the Toronto Maple Leafs rating second way back at 9.5 per 60. The best team over a full season by this metric since it started being tracked in 2007 is the 2010-11 San Jose Sharks, who created a relatively minuscule 9.72 expected goals per 60.
Put simply, the Oilers' power play has been performing better than any we’ve ever seen in the modern era.
The Oilers have scored at least one power-play goal in each of their 10 games to start the season and they scored two in five of those games. One of those in which they scored two was against the Arizona Coyotes during which they played less than one minute on the power play.
If you give them even the slightest window, they are going to make you pay.
Obviously, McDavid and Draisaitl are the major reasons the power play can’t be contained as they sit number one and two in player-advantage points since 2018 and it’s not particularly close. McDavid has 121 power-play points in that time while Draisaitl has 110, leading third-place Nathan MacKinnon by 17 points. Nugent-Hopkins ranks 11th with 76 points and while he’s a good player in his own right, he’s been riding shotgun in what’s likely the cushiest situation in the NHL over that time.
There really isn’t anything this power play can’t do, as McDavid and Draisaitl are among the best passers in the world, while Nugent-Hopkins is a very good passer himself. Meanwhile, Draisaitl has a 50-goal season to his name and leads the entire NHL in goals since 2018 while converting on over 20 percent of his shots in all-situations, which also leads the league in that time among the 487 players to play at least 2000 minutes. McDavid himself ranks fourth in goals over that period, behind only Draisaitl, Oveckhin and Auston Matthews.
When you have a duo like that who can pass and score better than almost anybody on Earth, it’s just not fair to the unfortunate souls tasked with killing penalties against them.
McDavid is the best and likely the fastest player in the world and he loves to use his speed on the power play. Where some power plays get caught stagnant and allow penalty killers not to have to stray too far from their positions, McDavid wheels around the zone and gets the opposition chasing. This opens up new passing lanes and allows his teammates to get into position to expose the new spacing afforded to them that wouldn’t be there otherwise.
The result is that the Oilers create a lot of cross-ice passes and different looks, which makes it very difficult for the goaltender to keep up with, especially when one of the most efficient snipers in the game is on the receiving end of those passes.
As mentioned earlier, that sniper is also one of the best passers in the game, so there really is no sustainable way to defend this unit in-zone. They just have too many different layers, which creates so many unique looks, and they have two good net front options in Jesse Puljujarvi and Zach Hyman.
McDavid shows up everywhere in the zone too, making himself and the power play as a whole completely unpredictable. He goes to where there’s space and his teammates get it to him knowing he’s almost definitely about to create some grade-A chances for them.
The only way to consistently stop any decent power play is to prevent it from getting set up in the offensive zone in the first place. Unfortunately for opposing penalty killers, Draisaitl, who has taken almost all of the Oilers' power-play faceoffs, has won over 64 percent of the draws with the man advantage. That means the Oilers have been starting a majority of their power plays with control of the puck in the zone.
For the penalty killers who have been fortunate enough to survive the initial attack, it doesn’t get any easier stopping them from getting back into the zone for another quick attack as McDavid is the king of 5-on-4 zone entries. Again, this comes as a surprise to absolutely nobody.
McDavid is always set up as the last attacker on the breakout and the receiver of the drop pass after the puck carrier forces the defence into the neutral zone. When McDavid is able to pick up the puck in full stride with space, it’s an automatic entry. All the penalty killers can do is back up in a frenzy and attempt to protect the net front.
It’s equally exciting and hilarious to watch McDavid pick up speed through the neutral zone while looking like he’s not even trying as the defenders scramble to back up onto their net as quickly as possible. If you concede the space, he’ll take it, but as soon as you commit to him and leave a teammate space, he’ll get it to them. He’s a cheat code.
If you overcommit to shadowing him on the breakout, you have to follow him deep into the zone, opening up a four on three chance with the entire ice surface to play with, which the other weapons on the power play are more than capable of exposing.
Of course, the Oilers won’t continue to score on 50 percent of their power-play opportunities over a full season, even though it’s difficult to see why not at the moment when you watch them. Last season they led the league, converting on 27.6 percent of their opportunities, a full two percentage points ahead of the second-place Carolina Hurricanes. That conversion rate was the third best since 2000, behind only the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning (28.2 percent) and…. the 2019-20 Edmonton Oilers (29.5 percent).
At this rate, they have a real chance of being the best power-play unit ever to grace the NHL.
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