Holding the Blue Line


The Edmonton Oilers weren’t very good against Boston on Thursday night, and a big part of the problem was an inability to hold their own blue line.

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Reilly Smith’s Goal

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Let’s start with the Boston Bruins exiting their own end of the rink. The Oilers have two players trapped deep while the Bruins have three forwards coming out of their own end, making this a three-on-three scenario.


Eberle (14) does kind of a weird thing here, cutting over to the wing through Patrice Bergeron (37) rather than staying at the centre of the ice; this opens up the right side for the Bruins and unsurprisingly they opt to pass in that direction.

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Still, the Oilers are in good shape here. This is essentially a two-on-two rush with Eberle the fifth man; Schultz is playing Bergeron close on one wing so he isn’t a realistic pass option and that leaves Nikitin with the job of handling Reilly Smith (18) one-on-one. He’s already at the blue line while Smith has just crossed centre, so his job is simply to try and force Smith into making a play at the blue line – with Bergeron covered and Eberle trailing the play this shouldn’t be a problem.


Inexplicably, Nikitin doesn’t force the issue at the defensive zone blue line; instead he backs all the way in, playing Bergeron and Smith like this is a two-on-one situation despite the fact that Schultz is in really good shape to cover Bergeron (who realizing what’s up is booking it to the middle of the ice to give Smith an option). Eberle isn’t in a great spot after his weird decision to cut to the wing, but that’s decidedly an auxiliary issue; the real problem here is that Nikitin has rolled out the red carpet for Smith to enter the zone.


Schultz has his guy, Eberle has his guy, and Nikitin finally decides to stop backpedaling. The trouble is that he’s at the top of the circle by the time he decides to try and force the issue.

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Smith, finally forced to make a play, realizes he’s in a good spot so he lets the shot go. Nikitin tries to block it, but instead gets used as a screen. Eberle still has his man, Schultz still has his man, but Nikitin’s decision to back all the way up to the hashmarks before making a play on Smith means that Boston is now guaranteed a shot attempt from a dangerous area.


Smith makes his shot, and it’s a tie game.

I’m picking on Nikitin here, partially because he was wretched against Boston but mostly because this particular play resulted in a goal against. He wasn’t the only guy to do this; Oscar Klefbom in particular was really bad at it, too. A few minutes before Smith scored, he hammered a puck off the goalpost off this zone entry:


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It’s hard to tell from that angle, but this is a three-on-four rush by the Bruins. Brad Marchand has to beat both Teddy Purcell and Klefbom at the blue line just to gain the zone. But even with Purcell there to funnel Marchand right into Klefbom, Klefbom backs all the way up, giving Marchand all kinds of space to gain the zone with possession:


Marchand gains the zone, makes a short pass and Smith hits the post.

This is the kind of mistake that’s really interesting because a) defencemen face this situation all the time and b) it’s the kind of thing that can have a large impact on possession numbers. We know that there’s a massive difference in the number of shots a team gets when it is able to carry the puck into the offensive zone as opposed to being forced to dump and chase, and the defencemen who make these decisions correctly time and again are going to be forced to spend a lot less time defending their own zone against opponents who have the puck.

This is the one area where Martin Marincin really shines. Marincin has some notable weak points to his game, but one of his great strengths is that his gap is generally good when defending an opposition rush and he’s excellent at using his reach to prevent the other team from gaining the zone with possession.

It’s the kind of subtle thing that doesn’t stand out the way physical play in front of the net or a good outlet pass do, but it matters a lot all the same.


  • Serious Gord

    Seldom do I call out a player but Nikitan is on the hook for that game he was brutal. Eakins needs to make him accountable for that effort, it is time for tough love. That tying goal made me sick even a bantam player knows to close the gap and make it hard on the forward not close your eyes and hope for the best.

  • TheBirdOfAnger

    If anyone looks at the last team to pick three #1’s in a row, eventually they were all traded for core pieces on the team. Not saying the Oilers should trade Hall, but I think RNH,Ebs, and Yak should all be on the block for core building pieces. Nordiques got rid of Sundin, Nolan, and Lindros… all becoming part of key trades for the Avalanche to sustain success throughout the late 90’s and early 2000’s

  • Rnr

    Bob Stauffer always uses this analogy when describing the level a player will perform at. “Water always finds its mark”. Have we seen NN best yet? His worse? Is he any better than Belov was last season?

    He compares to CAM Barker IMO. He is overhyped and he under delivers.

    NN is definitely in the running for Oilers Goat of the Year along with Teddy “do nothing” Purcell.

    What is Purcell waiting for when he is on the ice? The descriptors of his game were certainly true. He certainly is an edge player. Have yet to see him approach the net never mind the blue paint.

    Tonight may be the most pivotal game this season. Lose and all confidence and trust in the coaching staff an all good will MacT has tried to glean from the Oilers fans will be gone.

    Thankfully coach’s salary’s don’t count against the cap.

    If I were GM I’d waive Teddy Purcell and bring up Tyler Pitlick and go get B.Shenn or Anisimov.

    • Serious Gord

      It occurs to me that every trade/move that MacT has made thusfar save perhaps one involved players that the opposite team was not reluctant part with.

      The only exception I can think of is Perron.

          • pkam

            Perhaps you can list which players were traded this year that were due to cap problem?

            And even in this case, the teams will trade away their least desired player. Do you think the Blues will trade away Backes and Pietrangelo? They traded Perron because he is the guy they don’t want to keep anymore, whether they have cap problem or not because they need the roster spot.

          • Zarny

            Leddy and Boychuk.

            Players are traded for all sorts of reasons. Leddy and Boychuk were moved due to cap issues. Richards, Carter and Seguin were traded due to concerns with off-ice behavior. Spezza and Kelser were traded because they wanted out. Perron was traded because of cap issues out too. If there was no cap StL wouldn’t have moved him.

            Off course teams prefer to trade players that don’t fit their long term plans. Edm did that with Gagner. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t valuable to another team (ex. Bishop in TB).

            To suggest though that the only players traded are less desirable ones is just silly.

          • Serious Gord

            Perron was traded because he was the player they felt was the most expendable, but they didn’t like doing it – cap pressures drive them to do it.

            The Bruins traded Seguin et al and got some players that the stars had high expectations for – Fraser showed us that last night.

            The Hawks dealt a bunch of players they hated to part with to get below the cap after they won the cup.

            There are teams in cap trouble from time to time – MacT needs to be more predatory in that regard and make sure he has lots of room to take advantage.

            He hasn’t done that and this has left himself trading for/ signing castoffs. The results speak for themselves.

        • Dockstaff

          With this many teams, true difference makers are spread thin. Teams will rarely part with them and only trade marginal players, trying to find the right chemistry. Particularly #1 D-men. A shot at Connor McDavid however might loosen a top line player.

  • Rnr

    Gap control happens 50 times a game, a wrist shot from the top of the circle should be stopped.

    I really don’t like HOW the coach deploys the players available.

    Hunt +20 minutes a game

    Gordon on the PP ( first goal in 40 games!)

    Klefbom paired with Fayne playing Boston top line … Why put 84 in that situation

    Make Ference suspension too complex … Loses 1 player but choses now to shuffle two and take Marincin out

    This is the second year of this weird stuff

    Our coach would have to grade out as one of the bottom 3 coaches in the league.

  • Rnr

    You are right about Marincin he does have good gap control.
    To my eye he is also one of the best at moving the puck out of zone and one of the faster defenders.
    His weakness is that he can be worn down by bigger forwards ..This was why they sat him but he brings more strengths than weakness compared to his replacement.

  • Serious Gord

    Just heard strudwick doing a promo saying that the oil will be playing “the lowly Sabres” tonight.

    Well the oil are one point better than the “lowly” Sabres. I consider the above to be a pots and kettles statement.

    An oil loss tonight and they will officially be the lowest of the low.

    Obligatory – nsfw


      • Serious Gord

        My thoughts exactly.

        Ewan macgregor’s best role ever. The movie closely replicates my youth growing up in newfoundland except for the heroin. (Central canadians were the effeminate wankers…)

  • Serious Gord

    I miss Bobby Clobber from a few years ago when he told it like it was. Just like Dellow, hired to be shut up. And of course Klefbomb is going to back right in and roll out the red carpet because that’s how we do it here. I don’t understand it. But that’s what coach says.

  • hemmertime

    Went to the Rodeo at Rexall last night. Man I loved the Team Roping. Two guys with such precision and timing with a lasoo, and they can lasoo a head and back leg and tie up a calf in under 10 seconds.

    Oilers can’t make a 10 foot pass or figure out how to play team defence for 10 seconds. The Oilers are not built to be a playoff team, but a have enough pieces to be a coheasive unit, but make junior mistakes. Oilers need to simply the game and figure out how to reduce mental mistakes. Eakins has had 90 games now? Will they figure this out in the next 90?

  • hemmertime

    Until the Oilers can improve their gap control, not just the defence, in all three zones, we will be a mediocre team.

    Giving teams a free pass through the neutral zone is mystifying to say the least.

    I get on our D for not pinching more aggressively in on O zone to help the cycle, but when I see what happens when the puck gets out and the forwards have to help on D leads me to think its better they don’t. Just scary.

  • Eberle4MVP

    gee, what a shocker! Our self-proclaimed #1D is nothing more than a glorified Right-Winger, our best defenceman is treated like garbage and on the trade block, and our best young up and comming D is constantly sent down and benched.

    I wonder why we have such problems.

    Maybe its cause the inadequate D in Nikitin and Ferrence getting primo minutes when they can barely play the game anymore. Or maybe its the Norris Trophy candidate in Schultz who cant push a guy off the puck, close the gap, or play any single element of defense.

    Or maybe its the fact that we’ve never had a very good team. Ever!

    At least we can look forward to another 30yr celebration of the Stanley Cup next year.

  • Eberle4MVP

    Show me you care we off to another terrible start.

    Either Eakins is Fired or MacT is fired.

    MacT you decide.

    Both guys understood the rules when they took the

  • I just don’t get how the oilers expect to ice any sort of respectable defence using other teams reject players. Name one defenseman acquired outside of the system over the last 5 years who has actually elevated their game once in Oilers silks

  • HockeyYoda

    I thought the Oilers were playing ok until they took that bad penalty in the 3rd. Then the wheels fell off and they totally lost their composure. Hmm, that last part sounds familiar.

  • HockeyYoda


    You benched MM instead of NN……..you almost got it right, just off by one letter!

    Stupid decisions lead to results that are predictable………and the losses keep piling up.

    If real hockey fans want something to get excited about, look south at Calgary. Every player is playing over their head and consistently. Maybe Eakins should have asked Hartley about what to do?

  • Man… it strikes me as completely ridiculous that a professional hockey team can struggle with something as fundamental as gap control.
    Thats a peewee level concept and skill requirement. If not sooner.

    • S cottV

      Big difference between basic gap control in PeeWee and much more complex gap control in the NHL.

      The higher the level, the more the skill, the more the speed, the quicker the transitions, the greater the offensive tactics to defend against, the greater the individual tactics required to defend, the greater the group tactics that are required to defend.

      Dealing with effective gap control is one of the main reasons it takes d men longer to establish themselves in the NHL, as compared to forwards and in particular wingers.

      Oiler d men are struggling at gap control and backing in on net, partly due to their own learning curves but also – more than people realize, because Oiler forwards are not supporting the process properly.

      If the D stand up without correct forward support, leading up to the attempt, at the point of contact and after the point of contact – it can get pretty ugly.

  • pkam

    Memorial quote in today’s Calgary Herald from Jay Feaster ex GM of the Flames. He is now employed by the Lightning where the Flames played last night….When asked about the Edmonton Oilers finishing ahead of the Flames;

    “I’m tired of this question, How many teams every year fro the last 10 years, 5 years, 8 years, have finished in the bottom 5, bottom 7, bottom 10? They had a pick anywhere from No. 1 to No. 10 year after year after year, and they still wander in the desert. And they’re no closer to getting out than they were 10 years ago. You know what I look forward to the Battle of Alberta for the next X years….”

    Not rubbing it in..I really feel for the fans in Edmonton. They are tired of this act!

  • Julien made a necessary change in third period strategy that led to their victor over Oilers. We never adapted as usual , and another game was frittered away . So the Bruins players said . This happens to our team often during the course of games , and shows the lack of depth of players and perhaps coaching to adjust to those changes . Outshot in third 14-5 .

  • pkam

    We are in the 9th year . Oilers have been the worst team in the NHL in that span. There is something wrong, they tried firing coaches and GM’s and others. Now after 9 years they arguably have 2 players i would not trade.

    You get the fancy stat people out and all they have is their stats which they cling too. The 1 stat they forget is wins and losses.

    I have to believe there is serious problem in philosophy on how to build a team.

    The people running the team are suppose to be professionals and they get paid well. Worst team in the NHL for 9 years. Does not take a genius to figure out Oilers have only 2 centers a 4th line and a 1st line.

    How many times will the fans fall for this rebuild?

  • HockeyYoda

    Nathan McKinnon, the 1 pick overall and one of the best prospects in some time, was eased into the lineup on the WING. Jonathan Drouin, gets sent back to Junior. But Draisitle is expected to be a number 2 centre? With this Defence? Mac T made a few nice moves but its an epic fail to not add depth to the centre position. I get that a true 2 line centre is hard to come by, but he should have been able to get someone with some pro experience off a team loaded with centres. Along the lines of the Canucks picking up Linden Vey from LA.

    • Serious Gord

      Draisailtl is becoming a hot mess – losing confidence by the minute – and he has yet to play against any of the big western teams other than LA once.

      The oil are ruining him and it is 100% MacT/Klowes fault.

  • Serious Gord

    I think this is the last year of this…

    I expect that after a horrible finish…

    Eakins will be let go(hopefully they don’t hire Torts or Carlyle after he is fired from the leafs)

    Kblowe will retire from his position

    Mac-T will move possibly Eberle, Yakupov, or sadly Nurse for something of immediate value

    Oilers will get a gem at this year’s draft

    Hopefully the Oilers move Shultz + something at or before the deadline for a legitimate NHL 2nd pairing (4th defensman)

    Hopefully the Oilers resign Petry

    Hopefully the Oilers buy out Ferrence

    Oilers will cleanse themselves of Purcell somehow

    Hopefully they realize enough with the other teams rejects (that they could acquire through signings for much cheaper) and instead use talent from Oklahoma suh at the finnish player, Lander, and Pitlik….(if your not getting good results.. might as well go cheap)

  • Serious Gord

    Management has this whole thing messed up boyond repair. They trade anyone that will say anything, kind of like Stoll, Souray, Pronger, and Moreau then keep the players who wont say anything bad about the organizaton kind of like Horcoff, Pisani, Gags, and Hemsky.

    Now the kids, key word being kids are not going to say anything because there were coached not to.

    I bet in the locker room kind feels like area 51 where you don’t acknowledge it or talk about it an if you do, well you know what happened to the last guy that talk….. he was held on the farm team.

  • Serious Gord

    I had to laugh at Stauff last night when he was singing the praises of Aulie. In the last 3 minutes of the game Aulie was on the ice and he gave the puck away 3 times in one shift! What the hell was so good about his play?? This team and this management is f’d up!

  • Duchess

    Great post Willis. I love seeing articles like this where plays are dissected. Hopefully we can get Strudwick/Sutherby to start doing more like this.

    I’d also just like to point out that I think the problem begins a couple frames earlier than you identified. The issue here is the size of the gap Nikitin left between himself and Smith, which can be seen in the 3rd and even second screenshots. At the point where you say the Oilers are in “good shape”, Nikitin is already screwed. If he tries to stand Smith up at the blueline, he will be standing still and will likely get burned. Choosing to back in is actually probably the lesser of two evils at this point.

    Also if Eberle was doing his job (backchecking up the middle), I doubt this play happens.

  • Duchess

    Mact Started with:

    Petry; Eberle; Hall; RNH


    VP hockey ops: Yak; Schultz; Arco; Hunt

    GM july 2013: Perron; Ference; Gordon; Jeonsuu; Gazdic

    Jan Feb 2012: Marincin; Scrivens; Hendricks; Klefbom; Fasth

    june 2014: Draisatl; Nikitin; Purcell; Fayne; Pouliot; Aulie

    we have only had our top 5 Scoring Forwards; Scrivens; and Experienced D all playin just 4 games:
    VCR; TMP; WSH; CAR excluding ENG

    3.0GF/gm and 2.0 GA/gm

    The rest of the time we lacked Marincin or Petry; played Hunt ; Nurse; were without; Hall and RNH.

    The experiments are over!

    As many have stated!

    the 13 GM preseason is over!