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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

GDB -6.0: Changes on Defence Look Good (8pm MT, SN1)

It is difficult to evaluate individual players in the first preseason game, especially when the opposition barely plays any of their top NHL players. We’ll get to who grabbed my attention last night (please add who you liked in the comment section) in a bit, but the main thing I noticed last night was puck movement, specifically the breakout plan from the defencemen.

I’m curious to see how it looks tonight against a Vancouver Canucks lineup with more NHL players.

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The Oilers defencemen moved the puck quickly, and often to the middle of the ice last night and that led to mean easy zone exits. It was the first game, and teams will watch film and adjust accordingly, but many teams try to take away the boards in the offensive zone. It is riskier using the middle of the ice, but Oilers new assistant coach Jim Playfair told Jason Strudwick and me during an interview on TSN 1260 at the 2019 NHL entry draft in Vancouver he wanted his D-men to go up the gut more often.

Playfair outlined what his approach with the D-men would be.

“I think the big thing is when they go back (for the puck) you have a structured system that you work with your centre down low, or your wingers down low in the corners. Those little pop passes, those little short little plays down low, they’re not always going to work and when they don’t work, the opposition is going to get a great scoring chance. But you stick with it.

“When those things break down, and the opposition has a scoring chance and the guy comes back to the bench you have to tell him that pass was right, we want to keep doing that. That’s not something you have to get scared and come away from. That’s our structure, that’s our system, it’s not going to work 100% of the time.

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“I didn’t really understand the value of that until we had a year end meeting with a group a couple of years ago in Phoenix and we were going through the defensemen and Ekman-Larsson said, ‘You know when you tell us it’s okay when those things happen, it gives our whole bench confidence to try it again’. Naturally, you want to shy away from it because it’s a turnover, it’s a dangerous play, and my theory is that you have a goaltender, so you have to be able to trust that down low play and I think that offense is created going side to side, low to high.

“Defense is a defender containing them (opposition) in a certain area of the rink. So I’ve watched a bunch of the Oilers previous games and a bunch of games all across the NHL as a matter of fact, so I’ve got a bunch of clips prepared. Look at the Stanley Cup playoffs when Boston goes back, or St Louis goes back they make a four-foot pass to a centre iceman and they’re out of trouble. That’s what bringing pucks up to the centre of the ice is about and that’s a dangerous area to play in.

“We’ve been brought up in minor hockey to never pass to the middle of the ice and now were seeing the change in the game, that’s a really viable option in the game to get them out. So you have to support them, you have to encourage them to do it and then when they’re having a bad game, they don’t want to do it. They want to shy away from that. So it’s a process, but it’s a trust process.”

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His last line really stood out to me last night. I saw more short, quick passes from a D-man in the corner or to the side of the net, to a player in front of the net. The forecheckers often tried to take away the “safe” lane on the outside, so the D-men went up the middle.

I saw it work often last night, but there were also a few situations where the centre wasn’t expecting the pass. It is still a work in progress and as you watch tonight’s game on TV, look at which outlet the defenders use. It isn’t just the D-men though. The centre has to be in the right spot and give the defenders and outlet. We even saw the winger go to the middle the odd time. Of course the centre and both wingers aren’t collapsing to the middle at the same time, but there was more motion in the D-zone last night.

Adam Larsson discussed the new approach.

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“It is good for the D to know we have a guy there (in the middle) and that is a key to getting up the ice faster,” said Larsson. “Just looking at the game yesterday, a lot of the guys tried it and we better try it now and get used to it in the preseason instead of not knowing where we should be and trusting where they forwards are. Just getting comfortable with it should be our focus. We probably will fail at it a few times, but that is what makes you successful. You learn from it. A lot of structured teams take away the boards and the middle is open. I like that we will try and use it more this season.”

I’m intrigued to see how well the Oilers use it when the face more NHL laden lineups.

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LINEUP…

Oilers

Granlund-Cave-P.Russell
Jurco-Marody-Currie
Benson-McLeod-Hebig
Gambardella-Malone-Peluso

Nurse-Larsson
Manning-Bear
Samorukov-Bouchard

Starrett

Tippett liked the entire Benson-Cave-Russell line last night, and they are all in the mix of the ten players he feels he needs to see a lot of in preseason to determine if they will make the 23-man roster. He spoke glowingly about Russell’s game.

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“You have to look at what he does in the American League,” said Tippet. “He helps them win games. He plays in the same role as he would in the NHL, which is a good bottom six guy, even though he probably gets higher ice time than that down there (Bakersfield). He plays a real conscience game. He does little things that allows teams to win and not just putting points on the boards. Stuff like penalty killing, board work, playing really smart when you have the lead. He does things that really smart role players so to allow them to play on a team and help you win.”

Canucks…

Ferland-Pettersson-Boucher
Goldobin-Gaudette-Ferraro
Pearson-Sutter-MacEwan
Arseneau-Graovac-Virtanen

Edler-Myers
Hughes-Biega
Sautner-Chatfield/Rafferty

Demko

Many Canucks regulars are dressed and this will be a much tougher test for the Oilers. It is a great opportunity for players battling for jobs to show they belong. Ethan Bear has looked very good in training camp and I’m curious to see how he looks against some NHL forwards.

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QUICK HITS…

1. Mike Smith was in yesterday, but he hasn’t been around his teammates for a few days. He’s been quite sick with the flu. Tippett expects him back around the group very soon. That means there is a very good chance Mikko Koskinen will play his first game Thursday. Smith might play Friday, but it will depend how strong he feels after a nasty bout with the flu.

2. Zack Kassian is skating, but he has “a very minor” groin strain according to Tippett and he’d rather be cautious with Kassian and won’t put him in a bad situation. Tippett was hoping to play Kassian tonight, but said he decided to not to.

3. The Oilers didn’t have a powerplay chance last night. Over the past three seasons only Columbus (2.67) averages fewer PP chances per game than the Oilers (2.75). I asked Tippett what they need to do to force the opposition to take more penalties?

“Play faster. Play faster on the rush and make sure you are going to the net a lot more. Be around the net more. If you are going to the net with the puck someone has to defend you, and if you have an advantage on them, for them to defend you they will take some penalties. Playing faster through the neutral, a little more puck play through the neutral zone will help. You have to work to draw penalties, that’s just the reality of it.”

4. After listening to Tippett since the start of training camp I get the sense the following spots are filled: eleven forward spots with McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Neal, Kassian, Gagner, Granlund, Sheahan, Chiasson, Khaira and Archibald. That leaves three forward spots to be filled between Cave, P. Russell, Nygard, Haas, Benson, Marody and Jurco.

On the backend, Nurse, Klefbom and Russell on the left side with Larsson and Benning. I think Benning will begin with Russell and preseason will determine who plays with Klefbom. It will be between Persson, Bouchard, Bear, Jones and Lagesson to fill that spot and the #7 spot. Bouchard, Bear and Jones won’t be the #7. They will either be in the lineup on opening night or in Bakersfield.

5. The Oilers still have 52 players on the roster, although that includes Kyle Brodziak, but his career is likely over due to a back injury, so they have 51 bodies. Edmonton plays tonight, Thursday and Friday and then they fly to Kelowna after Friday’s game for a team-bonding weekend. Expect them to take between 28-33 players. Tippett will trim the roster by Friday post-game at the latest. And you can expect many of the players battling for jobs to play Thursday and Friday. You might not see Leon Draisaitl until next week.

TONIGHT…

GAME DAY PREDICTION: Canucks win 4-2.

OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The broadcast will discuss the Brock Boeser signing a lot, and how the Canucks are ready to push for a playoff spot.

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Bear scores a goal and the battle for the #2 RD gets even more interesting.

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