Andrej Sekera & the virtues of offensive zone possession

2-Sekera-3

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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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The initial shot is stopped despite the screen from Lauri Korpikoski, but the rebound goes right to Lander:

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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.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    Your article focuses on a key weakness of the Oilers D corps. They are not very good at offensive zone possession. Plays like the one illustrated are key. Not only that but simply keeping the puck in at the blue line.

    It seems the Oilers D routinely fail to keep the puck in the zone when it comes up the boards. Good possession teams on the other hand have D men who routinely stop the puck, get it under control and then make a play back into the corner or make a pass to a team mate.

    Top quality D men like Doughty, Giordano, Brodie, Seabrook do these small things extremely well.

  • Jiff

    Man if Lander can’t put away that 2nd chance then what is he doing here? Ugh.

    Great write-up – I love when shifts/sequences like this are examined in detail.

    • .

      Lander remains here for one reason: FOW% = 54.5

      By comparison with Boyd Gordon, Gordon has 2 assists on the season and a FOW% of 57.3

      Gordon’s averaging 11:56 a game to Lander’s 12:06. Both play about 18 shifts/ game. They both play on the PK. Gordon has 2 assists, playing for a team with the 12th best offence. The Oiler offence is 23rd in small part because of Lander but (in my opinion) largely because of the D.

      Gordon’s cap hit is $3M, while Lander’s is $988K. Not to defend Lander’s lack of scoring, but those are million dollar assists, literally.

      Looking around, there’s a Lander-like comparison on every team in their bottom 6 centres, where a team’s paying $1M for 12 minutes a game to get either 7-15 pts or an FOW% over 50.

      Again, I’m not defending Lander’s lack of production, but he’s not on the team because he scores. If any combination of Drai, Nuge, and McDavid get their FOW% over 51, you’ll never see Lander again in an Oiler uniform.

      • That’s a good breakdown of what Lander brings. He’s a faceoff/PK machine. I’m not happy with his season but given his cap hit it’s hard to get too bent out of shape by the idea of him as a fourth-line/No. 13 forward in a specific role.

        • The frustration with Lander isn’t that he provides good value as a face-off winning, penalty killing low minutes center. It’s that last year he finally looked like he could be so much more, only to sink back to this level, leaving so much unrealized potential.

      • ziyan94

        Agreed. It’s like Letestu and Lander have switched roles. At the start of the year I expected Letestu to be a direct replacement for Gordon, but with Letestu’s recent offensive production we now rely on Lander as the main guy for PK and tough zone-starts.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    I wish Shultz would do the “Sekera” when there’s no real pass or shot on net to take. To many times Jultz makes an errant pass or a shot into the opposing players shins, no fake shot to get the dman off balance, just a hope and a prayer type shot.

    Sekera, imo, has a good hockey iq. Something the Oilers need more of on the pp, or just to sustain pressure in the o-zone.

    • a lg dubl dubl

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a d-man get more nervous when the puck is thrown back to the point than Schultz. He panics, always fumbles the puck, never makes the right play. His shots never get through, his passes are hardly ever on the tape, and he often just loses control and forces the team to leave the zone.

      Maybe he’s just in too deep with his lack of confidence, but there’s no doubt it’s time for him to go.

      • a lg dubl dubl

        Indubitably! He looks like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. If I was PC or T-Mac, I’d send him down for the month leading into the deadline, if he doesn’t get picked up maybe he starts “finding his game” and raises his trade value…maybe.

        I’d be surprised if PC gets more than a 4th for him.

  • .

    All in all, a good example and great observations.

    On the options, there is a third: Sekera initiates a Sek-Yak-Fayne relay that ultimately becomes a Fayne shot on net or Fayne slap pass into Lander or Kassian.

    You rarely see one-touch passes from the Oilers, and this is a perfect opportunity for Yak to one-touch it over to Fayne or fire it into the right corner for Kassian (where the hell is Lander in that first screen cap?).

    Defensive pressure in the o-zone changes completely when the coverage has to react to one-touch passes. Essentially, it has to give the offensive team another step, or risk being an additional two steps away from the ultimate shooter. In the same game, you can see this on the Shark’s possessions, and they gain 30-40 o-zone cycles as a result.

    • That’s a possibility too, though I’d include it as part of the passing to Yakupov option. If I’m Sekera, I don’t know that I trust Yakupov to make that one-touch pass to Fayne under immediate pressure.

      Even if I did have more faith in the recipient, that’s a high-risk/medium-reward kind of play. If it works, Fayne gets a good point shot. If it doesn’t work, Wingels might end up with a breakaway.

      I love what one-touch passes do to defensive coverage. There’s a good example halfway down this article, where Patrice Bergeron and the Boston PP get by no less a defender than Shea Weber using them. I just doubt that you want to try one in this situation.

      • .

        “If I’m Sekera, I don’t know that I trust Yakupov to make that one-touch pass to Fayne under immediate pressure.”

        I agree. I think Draisaitl, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are the only players who would have gained that confidence today–McDavid excepted given he’s been out for a while.

        My only point is that as a defending team you never have to play like the Oilers are going to execute a one-touch pass, so you can play them tighter which only creates fewer options, delayed responses, and a frustrated PP.

        I guess I’d just like them to get to a point where Sekera could have confidence in making that kind of pass.

        The Bleacher Report article, is exactly what I’m thinking, thanks for the link.

  • I tried it at home

    Everyone is screaming trade Schultz, but with Clendenning here maybe its worth sending him down to Bakersfield. Im more then willing to see a trade, but if he’s salvageable at all, maybe just having the chance to hone some skills and get his feet back under him will pay off. And hey, look, Russian women are just waiting for me to write in!!

    • Mike Krushelnyski

      As much as everyone wants to see him out of town, and as little as he will be worth in a trade, there is absolutely no way he clears waivers. This is an NHL dman, not without some flaws, approaching 300 games, he’d be claimed instantly and the Oilers would get nothing for him. And it certainly helps the team making the claim that he is on is final year and is essentially a zero risk pickup.

  • Canoe Ride 27.1

    Great to see what we expected from Sekera. After a tough start he’s been solid. Just wish he could be supporting cast verses the lead role.

    Funny to see FN show some buyers remorse over Dougie Hamilton. It’s funny, they’re comparing his stats to Schultz to make themselves feel better.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    Jonathan, I know that Sekera is playing much better in the last 29 games or so.

    I was wondering who he would be comparable to in the NHL.It was deemed he was the best available D-man post season last year.

  • S cottV

    It’s indicative of why the Oilers need to go bigger and harder to play against.

    That kind of play made initially by Sekera, requires retrieval, cycling, and standing in front of the net. Kassian was a key.

    If you don’t have that skillset, you are forced to work the puck too much, which exposes the team to high risk mid ice turnovers.

    It’s pretty when it connects, but doesn’t happen often enough to justify the risk.

    It’s Kings hockey vs what has been Oilers hockey for far too long.

  • Twitch

    Makes you think, Sekera can makes smart hockey plays and if Nurse is playing like he was at the start of his season and Klefbolm comes back to what he was performing at where does that leave the Oilers D. Consider that the last 5 years or so we have struggled to find anyone who would be considered a #3 D-Man on any teams roster we now have 3 that could fill that position on most rosters(chicago and Anaheim never count in these discussions). 2 of these defenceman have potential to be #2 D-Man on decent teams. If Nurse-Klefbolm-Sekera can get close to the type of 1-2-3 that many teams without elite d-men that still find success employ, then I would be a happy camper and won’t care if we round it out with a Davidson-Fayne-Clendenning-Gryba-Reinhart pick em’ for the bottom 3.

  • .

    I like most of your articles Willis, but I didn’t really like this one. So first of all, Savor that. Secondly TRADE THE MALL! Imagine how bad things would be if we didn’t win the Draft Lottery. Last place plus no hope rather than just last place. Trade them all.

  • @Jonathan Willis

    It would be fun to try something like this for a What Would You Do Wednesday. Set up a play like you did at the top of this article, perhaps with a video of the play up to that point stopped at a still frame. Go through the player’s options and decide on the best play. Then later update the post with the whole video of what the player actually decides to do and what the outcome is.

    You could do 2-3 plays in a single article.

    Would be an interesting change from playing GM and trading Schultz every week.

  • Jonathan, this is the kind of detailed analysis that we all appreciate from you.

    Since Smyth’s departure, the Oilers greatly lack in having traffic in front of the net where most goals happen. Kassian can be that guy on the PP and pressured 5v5 who screens and causes havoc.

    Why Taylor Hall is in front of the net on the PP 1st unit, I just don’t understand.

    1st PP unit should look like this:
    – McDavid behind the net and roving
    – Kassian in front of the net
    – Eberle on left wall
    – Hall on right wall
    – Sekera at point

    2nd PP unit:
    – Nuge behind the net and roving
    – Pouliot in front of the net
    – Purcell on left wall
    – Yakupov on right wall
    – Klefbom or Davidson at point

  • Love it when you do these types of break downs with the pictures. I’d like to see more of them.

    My only criticism is that I’m missing a forward in all the pictures, except 1. Pardon me. I see, I think a right hand stick in to corner of the last picture. Is that maybe Eberle who should probably be closer to the action?

    I don’t know whether or not you have a choice but I like the wider angles.

  • Something’s missing. Where’s Lander in that first photo?

    Likely open. I see all 5 Sharks – there’s always a 4th option.

    Considering the pressure Selera was under, dumping was probably the smartest play, but why are we frequently throwing bad shots to the net and in the corners under no pressure?

    Why are our forwards already moving to reacquire the puck on shots instead of trying to cash rebounds? We’re playing for Corsi more this playing for goals.

    Possession for possession’s sake, especially with the extra man is limiting our offense, and we have skilled players who can move the puck instead of what we do now. I hope McLellan and the staff is pouring over video during the break and making adjustments, since even if these are good, structured systems, we’re not winning more games with them. One more goal a game could make a huge difference.