Since we’re in a lengthy break from Oilers hockey, I was going over my notes from recent games and caught a play I flagged from Edmonton’s 2-1 shootout loss to San Jose two weeks back. It’s a relatively small one, but shows some of the subtlety in Andrej Sekera’s game, so it’s worth looking at.
Let’s start by setting up the play. Sekera has just come on to the ice after Edmonton gained the offensive zone. The puck was passed back to him at the left point and he’s worked his way over to the right side but is under considerable pressure. He doesn’t really have an angle to shoot, but now has two really obvious options:
- Pass back to Nail Yakupov.
- Pass over to Mark Fayne.
Both options are flawed. Yakupov, with the puck, as the last man back isn’t ideal in many circumstances and particularly not with Tommy Wingels right there, ready to try and force a turnover. Fayne has to be where he is in case there’s a change in possession, but a pass to him risks a turnover, again because Wingels is in such good position at the top of the zone.
So Sekera opts for a third route. He throws it to the far corner, letting Yakupov chase it and prompting Zack Kassian to leave the front of the net and go to the corner. Kassian won the initial battle, cycled to Yakupov, and then the puck made it back to the point, creating this situation:
Sekera’s always going to take that shot. Anton Lander has gone to the front of the net and Kassian is also providing traffic; it’s that unique spot where the defenceman has both a pretty clear shooting lane and friendly traffic in front.
The puck ends up hitting Kassian and just sitting in front of the net. Both Kassian and Lander go digging for it as San Jose’s defence collapses. Lander comes close to banging the puck in but ends up putting it just wide of the net, because that’s the kind of season he’s having. Yakupov ends up recovering the puck in the corner and the Oilers go on to enjoy a pretty good 20 seconds cycling it around the offensive zone. Fayne has a shot blocked, Yakupov misses with another from a sharp angle and both Sekera and Lander get into decent positions but can’t pull the trigger, all of which then leads to this shot:
The initial shot is stopped despite the screen from Lauri Korpikoski, but the rebound goes right to Lander:
The puck just misses the heel of his stick, bounces off his skate and is cleared by what at this point is an exhausted five-man unit for the Sharks.
Sekera retrieves San Jose’s dump-out as those exhausted players head to the bench, and passes off to Taylor Hall. The Sharks end up just getting into position when the Oilers next line attacks and starts its shift in the offensive zone.
The thing I like about this little sequence is that there’s so much of what matters in hockey packed into such a short timeframe.
- I’ve probably overemphasized Sekera’s initial decision, but it is the key to the entire sequence and an example of the kind of small decision that a defenceman with the puck needs to make over and over and over again in all three zones. This is the sort of thing that Sekera tends to do really well. It’s also the kind of decision-making that can be hard to evaluate with the eye test (because so many of these little decisions are made in a game and then over a season, it can be hard to differentiate between a guy who gets them right 52 percent of the time and a guy who gets them right 47 percent of the time) but which matters nevertheless.
- Sekera’s point shot is everything a coach wants to see. He gets the puck away quickly, he manages a hard blast and he times it right.
- We talk a lot about being willing to go to the front of the net, and that’s important throughout here. What Kassian brings on this shift, though, isn’t just a willingness to go to the crease. He gets to the boards first when Sekera plays the puck to the corner and then uses his size to shield the puck. It’s one of those qualities the Oilers don’t have in abundance, but which he brings to the rink (Benoit Pouliot is another Oiler who is generally good at this).
- Lander, who is still stuck at zero goals on the year, had two fantastic opportunities here and missed by the smallest of margins. People like me tend to overgeneralize this as “the bounces” while others tend to use the word “confidence”; both apply to a degree and both probably miss capturing the whole picture. There’s an element of chance, an element of skill and a mental aspect as well.
- This is one of those plays that comes to mind when people talk about gaming the system with Corsi. Yes, a player could just shoot the puck from anywhere, and hypothetically I suppose it’s possible an NHL coach would be oblivious to that fact. But as soon as that puck is away, the other team picks it up and launches a counter-attack. The key is sustained pressure, which comes both from the initial shot and from then from retrieving the puck, something which both generates more shots and prevents opposition shots.
- This is also a good example why focusing only on chances against is a bad way to judge defencemen.