A deep dive into the areas where Kris Knoblauch can improve the Oilers, and the areas where management must address

7 months ago
Last Sunday, the Edmonton Oilers made a coaching change. Again.
Edmonton relieved head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson of their duties. Hartford Wolf Pack coach Kris Knoblauch, Connor McDavid’s former junior coach, was hired as the team’s head coach, alongside Paul Coffey as assistant coach.
Knoblauch will be McDavid’s 5th NHL coach, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ 10th (!) coach, if you count interim coaches.
I’m not sure if this decision will solve all, or even most of Edmonton’s issues. That said, I have been quite critical of Woodcroft before, as there were a couple of flaws in his coaching and decision-making. Knoblauch will have an opportunity to fix some of those flaws, and he’s off to a good start thus far, as the Oilers have won their first two games with Knoblauch behind the bench.
Here is an analysis of some specific areas where Knoblauch can improve the Oilers.
*All microstats via our tracking project, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

The neutral zone play

There was quite a bit of criticism directed towards Woodcroft and his decision to change his defensive zone system this season. In 2022-23, the Oilers primarily ran a man-to-man system in the DZ and then switched to a more passive box-plus-one system in 2023-24. However, this has not been a major issue for the Oilers this season, contrary to what many may have said.
As part of our tracking project, we split goals and shots into four different shot types; rush, forecheck, cycle, and faceoff (thoroughly explained in the glossary linked above). Here’s a look at Edmonton’s goal differential in Woodcroft’s final 13 games when split into these different shot types:
Regarding in-zone offence and defence, Edmonton’s in-zone goal differential under Woodcroft was actually a net positive (+5).
Of course, their defensive-zone play has not been perfect by any means, but it has not been the primary problem either. In fact, per CSA Hockey, Edmonton has actually been one of the best teams in the league at defending in-zone chances. It’s unlikely Edmonton sees much of a difference in their in-zone defending, as Knoblauch will also run with a zone defence in the DZ, and this is a good thing in my eyes.
However, the area where Edmonton significantly struggled is in transition. In Woodcroft’s final 13 games, the Oilers allowed 31 goals at 5v5, and 20 of them were off the rush. 
It is worth mentioning that Edmonton was still a net positive in rush-scoring chances. But, the problem is that the average rush chance Edmonton allowed was far more dangerous than the average rush chance they created. Simply put, the Oilers were allowing too many odd-man-rushes and too many transitional chances off dangerous passes.
Regarding overall rush chances, Edmonton had 96 chances for and 82 against. But, Edmonton had 20 unblocked shot attempts off an odd-man-rush, while opponents had 30. Additionally, Edmonton had six rush scoring chances off a royal-road pass, while opponents had 14. Not good.
With that said, Edmonton’s rush offence is bound to regress at some point, regardless of who’s behind the bench. Per SportLogIQ, the Oilers ranked second in the NHL in rush goals in 2022-23 with 79, nearly averaging a rush goal per game. 
Connor McDavid is the best transitional player in the world, so McDavid playing through potential injuries is a significant factor for their lack of rush offence thus far. Once McDavid is healthy, and their shooting percentage regresses upwards, Edmonton’s rush offence will significantly improve.
But, it is the rush defence that I am predominantly concerned about. 
When Woodcroft and Manson initially arrived, the Oilers ran a 1-1-3 in the NZ, and they had great success with it. Last season, they ran a 1-2-2 NZ, and their results were somewhat mixed. They switched back to a 1-1-3 this season, but as seen above, this switch has not been successful. 
In fairness, their poor rush defence is not entirely on the system. Many of Edmonton’s rush goals against have simply been the result of careless and preventable individual errors by their players, as opposed to systematic breakdowns or inherent flaws with the 1-1-3 NZ system. Furthermore, there is a very valid argument that Edmonton’s defensive core is not built to defend the rush. Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci have both been substandard rush defenders throughout their entire NHL careers, and Vincent Desharnais’ foot speed is often exposed in transition.
Here is an excellent article outlining Knoblauch and Edmonton’s potential systematic changes by Bruce Curlock. It seems that Knoblauch will primarily run with a 1-2-2 NZ, while Edmonton may also occasionally run with a 1-4 NZ following line changes. This seems similar to what the Vegas Golden Knights ran in the 2023 playoffs.
So, can Knoblauch’s systems fix Edmonton’s transitional game? Or is this issue primarily due to personnel? Only time will tell.

Line-matching in the playoffs

While it is certainly arguable that Edmonton’s poor neutral zone play is not entirely on the coaching, line-matching is an area where Woodcroft and his coaching staff had complete control over. This may be my most significant criticism of Woodcroft.
When you look back at Edmonton’s loss to Vegas in the 2023 Playoffs, you can point fingers at a variety of different factors for their defeat. But there is a very simple way to explain why Vegas emerged victorious. The Oilers had a positive goal differential on special teams but were out-scored at a pretty significant ratio of 15 to 9 at 5v5 in 6 games. Without Jack Eichel’s line on-ice, Edmonton managed to out-score Vegas 8 to 7, but Edmonton was out-scored at a massive ratio of 8 to 1 with Eichel’s line on-ice.
Simply put, Edmonton’s inability to defend against Eichel cost them the potential series and perhaps even an opportunity at the Stanley Cup.
Nick Bjugstad played more against Eichel than McDavid’s line in that series, and no defenders played more against Eichel than Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. Ceci in particular, was on-ice for over half of the goals scored by Eichel’s line. This issue was pointed out at the time, and there was plenty of data to suggest that Woodcroft’s line-matching was not working. 
Either Woodcroft was fully aware of this data, and deliberately decided to ignore it, or Woodcroft was not aware of this data at all. Either way, this was concerning.
The best solution was likely to match Ryan McLeod’s line against Eichel. Now, McLeod has had an awful start to the 2023-24 season, but he missed all of pre-season with an injury, so I suspect that plays a role. In the past two seasons when healthy, McLeod had the lowest (i.e. best) 5v5 goals against per 60 rate among all of Edmonton’s current forwards. Furthermore, Edmonton out-scored elite opposition 15 to 7 with McLeod on-ice, per PuckIQ. McLeod may never be an impactful offensive player in the NHL, but when healthy, he is a genuinely strong defensive player and has the potential to develop into an effective shutdown center.
Moving forward, Knoblauch must be much smarter than Woodcroft with his line-matching decisions. Knoblauch should be much more willing to pay attention to the data (hopefully provided to him).

The penalty kill

Edmonton’s PK was quite inconsistent throughout Woodcroft’s tenure as Oilers coach.
When Woodcroft and Manson were hired in the second half of 2021-22, the Oilers had previously ranked 27th in the league in SH GA/60 (short-handed goals against per 60) under Dave Tippett and Jim Playfair that season. Following the coaching change, Edmonton ranked 9th in the league. A considerable improvement.
In the first 41 games of 2022-23, the Oilers PK struggled once again, as they ranked 25th in the league in SH GA/60, but in the final 41 games, they improved to 17th, just around league average. It is worth mentioning that the 2022-23 Oilers were just one of two teams in the past fifteen years to score 18 short-handed goals in a season.
So far, Edmonton’s PK ranks 25th in the league once again this season.
Interestingly, Edmonton’s PK was originally one of the team’s strengths under Tippett and Playfair. From 2019-20 through 2020-21, Edmonton ranked 4th (!) in the league in SH GA/60. It was the first half of the 2021-22 season when Tippett and Playfair’s PK structure fell apart.
Moving forward, running a consistently effective penalty-kill should be one of the primary objectives of Knoblauch and his coaching staff.

TOI distribution

Overall TOI deployment is another aspect of Woodcroft’s deployment that I was not fond of. Very often, Woodcroft would underplay his bottom-six, and a couple of Edmonton’s forwards, most notably their younger ones, would end up playing just around 6-8 minutes in several games. 
Woodcroft would often put his lines in a “blender,” and revert back to McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line when the going got tough, just like the three coaches before him.
In the team’s press conference following the coaching change, Knoblauch mentioned that “players like consistency.” In his post-game interview following Edmonton’s victory against the Islanders, Knoblauch additionally stated it was important for players to have stability and generate chemistry with their linemates.
To be fair, Woodcroft did say similar things when he initially arrived. Hopefully, Knoblauch can follow through with his statements, and Edmonton deploys four consistent forward lines.

But, a coaching change will not fix all their issues

There certainly are areas where Edmonton’s new coaching staff can improve the team. But, I still believe Woodcroft and Manson don’t deserve the majority of the blame for Edmonton’s poor start.
Perhaps a change in their neutral zone structure can benefit the team, but as mentioned previously, Edmonton’s personnel may play a significant role in their poor rush defence. The same could be true for their penalty-kill.
Yes, line-matching and TOI deployment were entirely in Woodcroft’s control. Again, Woodcroft’s inability to counter the Eichel line may have cost Edmonton a shot at the Stanley Cup. But, while matching Bjugstad against Eichel was highly unideal, did he have many great options with his defencemen? 
Darnell Nurse is being paid $9.25M, and Cody Ceci is being paid $3.25M. If a defensive pairing combines to make the same amount of money as Connor McDavid, and cannot help your team shut down opposition top lines, can you place all the blame on the coach, and ignore the general manager paying them that money?
Additionally, while I heavily disliked Woodcroft’s deployment with his bottom-six, the simple fact is that Edmonton’s bottom-six was quite strong under Woodcroft for the most part.
For the longest time, Edmonton was flat-out awful without McDavid and Draisaitl on-ice, most notably under Tippett. Following Woodcroft’s arrival in 2021-22, Edmonton’s bottom-six immediately saw an improvement. In Woodcroft’s first (and only) full season with Edmonton, the team out-scored opponents at an excellent ratio of 74 to 60 without McDavid and Draisaitl on-ice. While the team’s depth has struggled again this season, it cannot be ignored that Edmonton’s best bottom-six results in the McDavid and Draisaitl era came with Woodcroft behind the bench. 
Can Knoblauch’s bottom-six play at or above the same level as they did under Woodcroft last season? We’ll see.
Furthermore, there were factors outside of Woodcroft’s control that hampered the Oilers this season. Under Woodcroft, the Oilers were at an unsustainably low 0.944 PDO (proxy for puck luck), and some regression, at least offensively, was bound to happen. 
A hot streak was likely inevitable at some point, regardless of who was behind the bench, and it’s quite arguable that Woodcroft deserved a chance for that to occur. Recall that the Oilers had a 0.780 points percentage in the second half of 2022-23, and ended the season with an outstanding 17-0-1 record.
The Oilers also struggled with some of their key players playing through injuries, which includes McDavid, Ekholm, and McLeod. Thanks to Edmonton’s incompetent cap management and a 21-man roster, Woodcroft was put into a situation where he couldn’t hold players accountable, and was forced to run short with players on several nights due to injuries.
Finally, a big reason for Edmonton’s record is their goaltending, as they rank near the bottom of the league in goals saved above expected. The coaching staff has no control over how their goaltenders perform.
Fortunately, Stuart Skinner has had three strong games in a row, but will it sustain? Edmonton does not have a reliable backup behind him. Jack Campbell was placed on waivers, and is even struggling in the AHL, with a 0.819 save percentage in 3 games. To say that he has been awful is a massive understatement.
Jay Woodcroft was not the one who signed Campbell to a five-year, $25M contract. It was Ken Holland.
Currently, Edmonton’s roster has several flaws, as they could need a right-shot scoring winger, a top-four defensive partner for Nurse, and potentially a starting goaltender. These were essentially the exact same needs from when Holland was initially hired. Ahead of a “cup or bust” season, when Edmonton had major problems keeping the puck out of their net in the playoffs, the only addition Holland made in the off-season was Connor Brown. 
I like Kris Knoblauch. He was likely one of their best available coaching candidates, and from what I’ve seen and heard so far, I believe he can be a fine coach for this team. I think Knoblauch can improve on some of the issues that Woodcroft couldn’t properly address, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the team performs under him for the remainder of the season.
However, I am not confident that a coaching change is enough to fix many of this team’s issues. Edmonton’s management still has various problems to address, and with two years left on Leon Draisaitl’s contract, they have limited time to do so. 
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