It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Edmonton Oilers’ power play do damage in a game, and what a perfect time to come to life in the Alberta battle. As we all know, the Oilers are on a downward spiral and are finding ways to lose. It’s largely in part because of the special teams really suffering.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman have missed games, so the blame can’t just be placed on the new faces stepping in and trying to fill those roles. In the win over the Calgary Flames, the Oilers had three players we wouldn’t normally see in the first unit on the power play, all on the power play with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Evan Bouchard was the last addition to the top unit for their past game because Tyson Barrie, who is normally on point, was unavailable. The other two, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto, have been in the top unit longer due to Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman’s statuses.
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Nugent-Hopkins was recently placed on long-term injured reserve and Hyman’s health has always been a question of how he plays the game. With Barrie one of the candidates most likely to move before the end of his contract, we could see some or all of Bouchard, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto promoted to a more permanent role on the power play in the future. This is what makes their comfort and fit to the upper unit so essential.
Oilers power play finally comes to life
The Oilers’ power play was one aspect of their game that suffered during their seven-game, one-for-11 losing streak. Whether it was their disciplined opponents when they faced the Oilers, the players n ‘by not doing enough to take penalties, or the referees not calling enough penalties in the game, just 11 power plays in a seven-game streak isn’t enough to get the unit started, especially when they had no power plays in one game and only one in three others.
Now the third straight game where the Oilers have had three power plays in one game, the new faces can finally take time together in the game action to work through problems and find success. They did just that, scoring two power-play goals in 4:06 of the second period against the Flames to tie the game. This shifted the momentum in favor of the Oilers and allowed them to take the lead and ultimately win the game. But not executing either or both of those power plays at a crucial moment in the game could have deflated the team and not given them a chance to come back in the game.
Distribution of Bouchard, Puljujarvi and Yamamoto in power play
It’s been well noted at this point that every time Bouchard’s ice time and role is increased, he elevates his game. Sure, no one can have a great game every night, but for the most part, he’s more committed and intensifies. He played over 24 minutes in the game against the Flames and scored two goals, both of the Oilers’ power-play goals (“Player Notes: ‘Bouch bombs’ wake up sleeping Oilers power play, ignite win over the Flames”, Edmonton newspaper, January 23, 2022).
This game saw Bouchard break into the top four on defense rather than buried in the third pairing. If you follow the Oilers, you know and can watch how Dave Tippett uses his baselines, his offense and his defense. Bouchard got caught up in this system of playing much less and being put in a position to fail rather than succeed. 22-year-old defenseman who seems to be one of the faces of the blue line for a long time doesn’t need to be buried but has the opportunity to play his game the way he knows how to and provide the Oilers with an overperforming player his contract.
Bouchard’s development and rapid progression to the NHL level has put the thought in the minds of many that Barrie appears to be expendable and the Oilers will be forced to trade him before his contract expires. He signed a three-year contract, mainly because of the offensive value he provides at even strength and more particularly on the power play. This was supposed to cover the time it would take for Bouchard to develop into a hard-hitting player, but it was sped up.
Bouchard was able to produce more than Barrie without a lot of power play time. Give Bouchard a real shot on the power play and look what you get, two goals on the first two power plays. Both shots were from the point and his ability to pass shots was brought up, as well as his booming slap shot when he takes it. If the power play is at full strength, there are already three left-handed players on it. It wouldn’t bother where the top unit players put the puck, because it’s easier to switch from a right-hander in Barrie to a right-hander in Bouchard. Even when Barrie returns, the Oilers should continue to run with Bouchard and move him full-time in that role on the first power-play unit.
Puljujarvi replaced Nugent-Hopkins on the power play, but played in the net-forward role where Hyman plays. It was an adjustment because Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins haven’t missed all the same games and Puljujarvi is the first man to replace either of them on the power play (“Lowetide: Forget the Connor McDavid bump, Jesse Puljujarvi is the real deal after all,” Athleticism, January 12, 2022).
When Hyman is in the lineup, we’ve seen Puljujarvi play on the left side where Nugent-Hopkins plays, dragging to the opponent’s blue line to help with crease entries. It’s almost always smooth with Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid or Draisaitl, but they’ve played together and made this game for years now compared to Puljujarvi who was cast in that role. He has a good shot and as a right-handed player he would have a better angle on the left side for potential point shots, but his size and strength are best utilized in a role in front of the net.
That’s what we saw of him against the Flames. On Bouchard’s two goals, Puljujarvi stood in front of the net and fired a big Jacob Markstrom. Puljujarvi is 6’4 and weighs over 200 pounds, a big frame to obstruct the goalkeeper’s vision and difficult to move. His strength and reach also allow him to win puck battles against the defenseman and get his stick on the rebounds. Although he didn’t assist on any of the power-play goals on the scoresheet, if he wasn’t in the perfect position in front of the net, Markstrom could have seen the shots. Puljujarvi has found his place on the power play, and once Hyman returns, which will be sooner than Nugent-Hopkins, Tippett should continue to use Puljujarvi in that position in front of the net.
The smaller body in the power play and the Oilers, Yamamoto was used on the top unit in a different way. Instead of inserting himself on the left side of the ice in the offensive zone, he was in the high slot, creating an initial screen and causing interference with the defending high man.
On Bouchard’s two power-play goals from the point, Yamamoto was in the high slot, which caused more traffic from the direction the puck was coming from as well as an option with his stick still on the ice for a possible deflection if someone wants to throw a rough pass to their stick. When McDavid and Draisaitl work the wall and close in on the net, Yamamoto comes in and creates that second out in front of the net, bringing in more body for possible bank shots, confusion and for the point to open up.
It’s a different look than the Oilers and their star performers have grown accustomed to, but with the success of the last game, it’s something the newly added players are becoming more comfortable with and McDavid and Draisaitl s adapt now. With the Oilers’ power play starting the night below first place in the NHL, they recovered above 30% with that effort and are quickly atop the league again. A lot of their offense comes from the power play, so they’ll need it to keep shooting and succeeding with or without the regulars.
Rob Couch is a freelance writer for THW primarily covering the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. It covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. It will also keep you up to date with the NHL stats corner and trade talks around the NHL.
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