The Nations Network sent some Jets Nation writers to the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton, BC. They’re judging your team and bringing you the view from the Press Box.
The Oilers played their final game of the tournament against a stripped-down Canucks team that put Hunter Shinkaruk, Bo Horvat, and Jordan Subban in the seats next to me. Though losing every game of the tournament by a combined score of 17-6, a few players had statement games to distance themselves from the train wreck. The team also made their intended system much more clear in this game, returning to a two-man forecheck, tight gaps in transition, and centre playing below the defencemen in the defensive end.
With Eakins talking about an aggressive system to get the puck back at the NHL level, we can speculate about whether the young prospects were being taught a stripped-down version. Khaira did much better with the system this game, chasing less across the zone and staying in the middle, while Roy and Schaber continued to excel in the defensive aspects of the game. So long as Ewanyk doesn’t make the NHL squad, the system might even work. Let’s dig into the game.
Team and System Play
In game one, the Oilers’ centre was chasing all over the defensive end and Calgary burned them in the middle lane. Game two, the Oilers went to a collapsing zone defence and got taken apart in transition because of soft gaps. Finally, in game three, the Oilers showed a structured pressure system with the centre playing below the goal line, the wingers playing inside-out, and the defencemen controlling the low slot to corners. When the defenceman has to attack the corner, the centre shifts up to in front of the net. The Oilers’ centre discipline in doing that was a major difference with game one, when they often also chased the puck in the corner, creating huge gaps of open space and lots of short 2-on-1s.
The system relies on the defencemen boxing out opposing forwards to prevent the pass into space from below the goal line or dangerous shots into traffic from the point. When the game started to slip away from the Oilers it was due to ineffective box outs. It’s a very challenging skill in high level hockey in which you still have a read on the puck to make, but also it was game three in four days against the biggest forward group the Oilers’ faced. I think it’s possible some of the Oilers’ defencemen grew physically tired in a system that asked them to wrestle often. Just not David Musil, who flourished in a more structured, melee-focused defensive role.
For some reason, the Oilers also abandoned the very effective funnel PP from game two. Perhaps they wanted to see more individual creativity. Certainly Marco Roy provided that. They did maintain up-ice pressure on the penalty kill as in game two, but were more aggressive along the perimeter in the set-zone.
For their part, the Canucks maintained their system from previous games, playing a defenceman overload in the defensive end (kind of shown above, though the RW is out of defensive position trying to anticipate one of two breakout plays). In the offensive end, they play a simple triangle, with F3 high and a two-man cycle down low. The points are used to escape pressure and generally the defencemen put the puck back into play quickly, especially without Subban. Vancouver’s strength in the tournament has been their transition game, where their big-bodied, fast forward group executes zone entries with speed. In this game, the Canucks had to play more dump and chase than they are used to, partly because of their lesser skilled lineup, and partly because of the Oilers’ tighter gaps. Mallet, Mychon, Myron, Cassels, and others took the opportunity to lay the body on Oiler defencemen who were already tasked with fatiguing assignments.
#50 Frank Palazzese: Plays deep in his net for a smaller goalie. Tracks the play through traffic very well, which was required often. Both Guimond goals he read through bodies, but was too deep in his net to do much about (though the 1st was a 5-on-3 powerplay). Needs to improve his skating to track the play as well up and down as he does back and forth. The Cassels goal was actually a terrific stretching leg save on a puck that bounced around the back of the net for what should have been a quick tap-in. Nurse was at the blue line attacking the person who fired it off the back boards, Bilke was covering for him and didn’t box out anyone as the Canucks just started jamming at Palazzese who was too stretched out to hold the line. Oilers’ fault. Scoresheet claims 38 shots on, scoreboard read 44. In either case, a better performance than 4 goals against would suggest.
#74 Darnell Nurse: A mixed bag. Again showed his puck skills and skating to be in the plus to elite range for this tournament. I keep hearing people say Nurse looked more comfortable, but I didn’t see that. High-event and as things started to get away from him, pressed harder and tried to do everyone’s jobs. An individualistic effort. On the Canucks’ 4th goal, chased Myron all the way from the corner to the point and was standing next to Chase when the Guimond let the shot go. By then we’d seen Nurse follow the puck a number of times trying to force a play. Great range, large frame, and carried well throughout. Supported Marco Roy through neutral zone on a rush in the 2nd before slicing ahead into the zone as lead attacker. Looked like a defenceman when he arrived at the net – no planned move for that moment. Wants to make everything happen immediately, and shows visceral decision making at times. His anticipation and pattern recognition are strong, as shown by his purposeful rushes and good rotation in the offensive end. I think he just lost patience without the puck. He’s 18 and has a lot of tools to choose from.
#78 Martin Gernat: Posterized a couple times. The Canucks’ first goal had him split on a high-low 2-on-1 between Gaunce and Maillet with no back pressure from the forwards. The empty net goal was a tough bounce. However did have a play in the second in which he played lane rather than puck or body and got left in the show. Returned to the extremely impressive blue line play of game one, getting shots through and using his strong lateral skating to freeze defending forwards. His partner Betker was static in the defensive end again this game, and like Marincin had to do in game one, Gernat was working both corners in the defensive end. Clearly became fatigued from battling, lost containment with increasing regularity as the game wore on. Strong transition passing. Didn’t notice a knocked down transition pass, though did put one through Ewanyk’s stick.
#82 Joey Leach: Leach had a strong game, building on his final two periods from game two. A bit loose with the puck, had two giveaways in his own zone that Musil covered for, added to the few from the Winnipeg game. His skating is fast in straight lines but he’s heavy footed in transition strides. In fact, performs many fewer pivots in a game than other defencemen and avoids lateral movement. So while he rushed the puck well and with enough speed to open the Canucks’ neutral zone defence, he remains a below-average skater at this level and struggles to fill lanes during opposing forward movements/rotations. The Platzer goal was off a poor rebound and collection of a Leach shot around a blocker. It was the same play we saw in game one on the Khaira goal – forward with puck drives corner, turns away from pressure, passes up to defender (this time Musil with a sweeping pass to Leach) for a shot while the second forward drives through the shooting lane.
#87 David Musil: I could gush for hours on Musil’s third game. I think he was reading my game comments because he responded to every one of my concerns to turn in a very complete and impressive performance. He used much closer gaps out of the offensive end so that he didn’t have to slow down in neutral zone and didn’t give up his own blue line as often. His lateral skating looked better – enough to keep in front of people. He made strong outlet passes and supported up ice. He used his feet to get his shot around blockers. We knew he was strong, but this game got his hands on a fast, strong Canuck forward group often and was seen throwing people around and even straight armed 6’2” Jesse Mychan into the glass. His shift with Nurse in the second in which he registered a shot, made three outlet/transition passes, won two 1-on-1 battles in transition through the neutral zone, cleared Mallet (#78) from the front, and raced (that’s right) to lift a stick on a 2-on-1 was his best of the tournament (though ended with a flubbed pass). I don’t often write down whole shifts for a player, but I have three written for Musil. How about when he tackled Gaunce, recovered after Leach’s give away to block a shot, and then cleared and boxed out the front of the net? Always did his job with incredible strength and self-sacrifice, and carried the load for the Oilers often. A remarkable +1 when the team was -2.
#88 Brandon Davidson: A tougher game for Davidson who struggled with his new assignment of boxing out constantly. Just wasn’t effective at wrestling flat-footed, and things got worse as the game wore on. His size is pro level, so I’m not sure if it was a technical mistake or a strength problem or something I just didn’t or couldn’t see. Showed great stick placement in an early shift, making two break ups on horizontal passes. Given one shot in the game sheet, but I think did a little better. Looked a little less dynamic by way of covering for Nurse often. Was less often in a puck support position with his partner over-committing to offence, so saw the puck less and had fewer opportunities to show off his impressive puck skills and decision making with the puck. Still, had one shift in which he, Nurse, and Roy ran a transition and two offensive plays around Kessey and Fyten.
#95 Ben Betker: I really liked Betker’s second game of the tournament. He skating was still an issue, and Gernat did yeoman’s work on their pairing. But his passing was very impressive, showing very strong awareness of flow and movement. Three times made passes into space in transition, including two he set up by drawing defenders out of a forward’s transition lane and then putting the puck into said lane. Took hits to make plays. Didn’t get involved in the constant war of words/face washing after every shift and remained patient, calm, and decisive in a frustrating game. Very strong, boxed out well, played the front admirably. Skates standing up, which can sometimes be adjusted with greater muscle development in the back and legs. Very young, so lots of time to add power to his stride. Look forward to seeing him again when he turns pro in a couple years.
#39 Brandon Baddock: Continues to take the wrong attack angle often, and mostly plays a vertical game up and down his wing. Adequate straight ahead speed. Missed almost a full two periods with some sort of injury, returning with four minutes left in the 2nd.
#42 Marco Roy: Got better with every game, and showed himself to be among the tournament’s top 12 or 15 forwards with this game. They gave him 5 shots for a conservative estimate of 13 on the tournament. Had a nice tip on a Nurse shot. His goal featured great passing by Betker to move the puck into the offensive zone, but also a terrific play by Roy to cut open the Canucks’ defence and attack the net before attacking a second time from behind the net. Constantly a threat with the puck in this game, his best skill is actually his puck support. Finds space extremely well, threatens from all over the offensive zone, and his two-way play is the best among Oiler forwards if you ignore his first game. He and Musil the best neutral zone players in the game.
#47 Ty Bilke: Through three games, I would say Bilke is the best player on his line. It’s damning with faint praise to some extent, but started to read Nurse’s jumping and at least be around to cover for him. Made a strong move in first to put the puck behind a defender to turn him, but then made a no-look, bad-angle shot. Played his defensive position with discipline this game. Still threw some big hits, including one on his first shift that grabbed the crowd’s attention.
#49 Kale Kessey: Fought Mallet, who is a bit of a pest. In the first tried to check Franson straight on and was behind the play instantly. In the third he covered Corrado’s passing lane in his approach and got to hit him to start a puck battle as a result. Over rotated on the PK to the point that even Ewanyk tried to adjust his positioning. Seen a couple times in a row with his linemates along a single board. Looked out of sorts in limited time with Roy. Collided with Ewanyk while head hunting with just seconds left in a friendly tournament. A win for the hockey gods on that play.
#52 Austin Fyten: A let-down game after a very visible two previous efforts. Officially -3 with 1 shot. Some nice transition work, but a bit of a chucker in the offensive end. Got demoted briefly after floating in play with Roy – something he did in game two also when Roy started creating.
#54 Jujhar Khaira: His best game of the tournament, much more controlled and patient at both ends. Still showed his outrageous strength, forcing Andersson into the glass and then elbowing down another Canuck while carrying the puck on one shift late in the first. Quick release shot, could be harder. Needs to add explosiveness to his skating and work on his technical control. Made a heads-up play along the boards to open a lane for Miller to collect a dump-in by shielding the lane with his body. A stand-out in every Oiler game.
#58 Andrew Miller: I think looked better at centre in game one than he does on the wing, but does create more with the space along the half-boards than he does in traffic. Given an assist on the Platzer goal, but Musil put it to Leach. Given two shots on, but had the sort of game that makes me think ‘was it that many?’ A handful of solid if unspectacular plays away from the puck, but a mostly quiet game for a player we hoped was a game changer.
#67 Travis Ewanyk: I don’t know what more to say about this player. Didn’t grow during the rookie camp. Rarely found his assignment in the defensive end. Had one shift in which he skated the puck right into the Canucks line change and in the set-zone defence that followed from his turnover, chased a puck outside and then over top of his winger at the point. He was much softer on the puck in this game than the other two, getting bumped off a few times. Not a lack of strength, but just not making a decision and being caught unprepared for a puck battle. Had jump on the first shift and was seen trying to set a tone for the Oilers to play an up-tempo game. In the first had a moment in which he, Bilke, and Kessey were all standing on one side board after attempting to finish checks along the same board in the offensive zone, trapping just a single Canuck player with them and giving up a 3-on-2 that could/should have been a 4-on-2 had the Canuck defender read it. On a play in the second, threw a hit on the end boards when both his wingers were already below the goal line. It’s at the point that I have to wonder what the coaches are saying to Ewanyk about his game that he doesn’t adjust to a more patient defensive game.
#71 Kyle Platzer: Won some board battles this game, but confirmed average to below average skating for the tournament. A smart hockey player with a sense for opportunity. Showed some of why he only had 22 points for London last year despite leading the Oilers in goals in the tournament. Doesn’t generate his own offence for the most part and is challenged to make a play off the boards in transition offence. A positive difference maker, no doubt, and not a passenger on his line. But lacks that plus skill that might give us a projectable role at higher levels. Feels like a tweener.
#73 Cameron Abney: Barely saw a shift after a dumb penalty early in the game. Tried to find a fight, got turned down by Mychan. The Oilers seemed to want to win this game, and even in a prospect tournament Abney was an impediment to that goal and sat on the bench like an enforcer.
#76 Chase Schaber: Offence fell off again in this game, but Schaber still went about a third effective effort at both ends. Played his position well in the defensive zone and in transition both ways. Threw some hits in the offensive zone, but I didn’t see anything to distinguish him as a skill player.
#96 Gregory Chase: This was Chase’s worst game by quite a margin. He looked sluggish from his very first shift and I wonder if he sustained a minor injury or just wore down through three games. A real pest again. Clipped Mallet while Mallet was trying to goad another Oiler between plays and feigned ignorance. Continued a team-first attitude, drawing the instigator when he had to know he was out-matched against the liberty-taking Kyle Hope, who managed to top the PIMs century mark last year. He was caught floating in the offensive zone a few times. Slow in transition, often out of position to offer his usual puck support. After an icing kept his line on while tired, he made a soft flip right to a Canuck 10ft from the uncontested red line when his linemates badly needed to change. Led to a possession against. In third, was knocked down 5 ft from own blue line and chose to make a blind pass into the middle instead of pushing it out. A confusing game for Chase and maybe one we should just forget.