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FEATURE: Punishing opposition with the power play

After owning the fifth-best power play in 2016-17, the Oilers believe they can foster the top man-advantage crews in 2017-18

by Paul Gazzola /

EDMONTON, AB - Not a day passes where the Oilers don't exercise their power play.

Regardless if it's pre-game or practice, the reps are apparent. At some point during a skate, the players will change jerseys and assemble into their respective power play or penalty kill groupings.

Video: PRACTICE | Kailer Still Kickin'

Half the squad sits on the bench and watches intently, while those on the ice run the gamut, beginning with the offensive zone entry and subsequent man-advantage schemes. The lineups aren't always fixed; Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan - known to shuffle his mix any time at the sight of stagnation - routinely swaps players in and out of the second group but keeps the top unit of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Mark Letestu, Milan Lucic and Oscar Klefbom together generally.

The second unit, typically featuring Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Patrick Maroon, Matt Benning (in the absence of the injured Andrej Sekera) and Drake Caggiula has seen some different looks with the addition of offensive weapons Ryan Strome, Jussi Jokinen and Kailer Yamamoto.

As a whole, it's a well-balanced attack: two or more players able to take faceoffs, triggers on both sides of the ice, registered quarterbacks to coordinate strategies, an imposing net presence and capable defencemen who can get pucks through.

In 2016-17, the Oilers scored on 56 of their 245 power play opportunities, converting at a 22.9 percent clip. They were marginally better on the road, improving to 25.2 percent as opposed to at home, where the team clicked just over 20 percent of the time. The squad knows what they're capable of - having set the precedent last year - and while they are cautious in terms of expectations, instill a belief that they can supersede their former numbers.

Video: PRACTICE RAW | Todd McLellan

"There better be because fifth isn't good enough," said McLellan. "Anything that we're doing, we're trying to get to that number one hole."

Additives Jokinen, Strome and Yamamoto could help the team push for first. Jokinen has played on the man-advantage for almost his whole career, compiling 194 power-play points since 2005-06. Of those 194 points, 63 were goals. 

Strome, meanwhile, is looking to break out while a man up. The forward has never tallied more than eight power-play points in a season, which could change with more opportunity.

For Lucic - who tallied 12 power-play strikes and 25 points last season - Edmonton's man-advantage makeup is similar to Boston's in 2008-09. The Bruins finished fifth that season but wielded threats from all angles - providing some certainty to the players who are tapped on the shoulder and doled out on the ice.

"We had two lethal power plays with more than enough faceoff guys on either side," said Lucic of his Boston days. 

"It's a confidence thing when you're hopping over the boards with the man-advantage having that confidence knowing you're going to win the draw and you're going to - if not score - create momentum. It's just an uplifting thing for yourself personally and for the team."

The veteran, after years of power-play minutes, stressed the need to be advantageous when chances arise.

"We worked hard and it wasn't easy to earn that fifth-ranked power play last year," he said. "To get back to being number five is just as hard or even harder and we know it will be even harder to improve off of the numbers we created last year. It's just about bearing down on our opportunities, creating opportunities - not over-passing and stuff like that - and using the next couple days to sharpen up that power play so that when the real games start, it's a weapon for us."

The anticipated increase in penalties this season can favour or fault the Oilers. McLellan is aware of that and maintained his team will certainly be looking for the former rather than the latter.

"You may win a lot or lose a lot of games a lot more often based on special teams," the coach said.

"We should be pushing to become a better unit."

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