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A tactical preview of the Oilers first-round series against the Kings

Edmonton Oilers Los Angeles Kings
Photo credit:Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
13 days ago
This time last year, I declared two things in an article at Oilersnation. The first was that I was going to do regular articles previewing the Edmonton Oilers playoff series with a focus on the tactics that would be deployed. The second thing I declared once it was determined who the Oilers would play in the round was, “We start with who is fast becoming a serious rival: the Los Angeles Kings”.
Well, if last year was the start of the rivalry, it is now a fully matured mutual hatred. The season series was full of chippy play and chirping players. Furthermore, these teams know each other well. They know the other’s strengths and weaknesses and the tactics each deploys. That’s where we come into the picture.
This article will preview what the Oilers and Kings series will look like tactically at 5v5. Why 5v5? It is the most dominant state of play in each game. 5v5 play is almost always about 80 percent of a game with more games trending towards 90 percent. While powerplays or penalty kills can have an outsized impact in spots of a series, 5v5 will almost always rule the day and crown a victor. So, without further adieu, let’s dive into the first series preview article focused on the 5v5 tactics of another Oilers-Kings playoff match-up.

Los Angeles Kings Tactical Playbook

The Los Angeles Kings are a funny team. They have very good overall team speed. They have very good team skill. Yet, under Todd McLellan, and now, Jim Hiller, it is a team that plays a very passive style of game that relies on defending well (3rd best in 5v5 goals against this year) and a high volume shooting offence (3rd best at 5v5) that seeks to overwhelm other teams with shot quantity as opposed to shot quality. Now, this is no criticism. This team has won 91 games in the last two seasons. They are good and it is effective. What does this style look like? Let’s break down all three zones to see.

Kings Offensive Zone Forecheck

The Kings utilize a standard 1-2-2 forecheck in the offensive zone. The principle is to have F1 drive the puck carrier in one direction allowing F2 to react to that direction and either engage the puck carrier or who the puck carrier distributes the puck to. F3 for the Kings stays wide on the weak side waiting for the reverse.
When the puck is moved on the strong side, F3 then fills the middle of the ice over the top of the puck to prevent a mid-lane exit. Here is a very successful example against the Oilers. F1 hard charges the dump-in with F2 trying to read what happens. He sees a loose puck and jumps into the play to recover the puck. F3 moves off the weak side into the slot for a quick chance on the net.

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To counter this forecheck, the Oilers need to focus on making quick plays and trying to get out through the middle of the ice before the F2 and F3 can set up on their assignments. Here is an example.
The puck is dumped in, and Darnell Nurse makes a quick decision to reverse it to the far side. Ceci beats F2 to the puck, and then Draisaitl sets up well down low, available for a short pass to the middle of the ice, beating F3 out of the zone. Again, quick decisions and middle exits are a great way to counter the 1-2-2 offensive zone attack.

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Kings Neutral Zone Forecheck

Nothing seems to drive NHL players more crazy than the Los Angeles Kings’ 1-3-1 neutral zone tactics. Even during the regular season, opposition players made a number of comments criticizing the Kings’ style. It is passive, and it can lead to very slow, mundane play. However, it is also very, very effective.
The simple principle is to force the opponent to come up out of the zone into a highly congested area with limited options to pass or skate. F1 starts by moving the puck carrier to the side where D1 resides. D1 immediately jumps up to attack the puck. F2 remains in the middle to protect seam passes. F3 turns and heads back into the zone to assist D2 in winning possession or acting as an outlet. D2 is the safety valve who is tasked with puck retrieval. Take a look at this clip.

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F1 moves the Oilers to the strong side where D1 resides. The pressure on the puck carrier forces a dump-in. Immediately, all of the Kings head back to retrieve the puck, with D1, F2 and F3 overwhelming the Oilers’ forecheck. Voila, the puck sneaks up the boards and the Kings exit the zone. You can see how this would be incredibly frustrating for opponents since there is no pressure up ice. Instead, the entire neutral zone is clogged up and the attacking team is forced to give up the puck.
Saying all this doesn’t mean it is unbeatable. There are two major ways to beat the Kings 1-3-1. The first is to concede the dump-in and then get on the puck hard for a retrieval. In a seven-game series, it will be critical for the Oilers to wear the King’s defence down with physical play. This should be done on every dump in where the Oilers don’t change. It can and will lead to puck possession in the offensive zone. Watch this clip from this season against the Kings. A very simple dump-in by McDavid leads to retrieval because Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins get on the puck quickly.

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Here is another very slick version. This is more of an area pass behind the three Kings players instead of a dump-in. Here, McDavid picks up the puck with speed and sees Draisaitl ahead of him. Watch this little chip by McDavid that leads to a Draisaitl possession. It’s a very clever play.

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The second and better way to beat the 1-3-1 is to attack it before it is set. The 1-3-1 is a tough tactic to employ for teams. It requires forwards to work very quickly to get back into the shape of the tactic. So, when in doubt, beat it before it starts. Here is a really simple clip from Mattias Ekholm.

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Notice here how the Oilers do not allow the shape of the 1-3-1 to form with a quick pass and a forward in space with speed.
Here is another example of that same concept except using skating instead of passing. Watch Kulak receive the puck and immediately get moving. The 1-3-1 does get some shape but does so too close to its own blueline and in a very small area. Kulak does make a high-skill play moving through the middle, but it started with his quick decision to move up the ice.

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Personally, I am not convinced this is the best system for this group. There is a great deal of speed and skill on this team that would allow for a 1-2-2. In addition, the Oilers seemed to have figured out how to pace their play against it this season and in last year’s playoffs. Regardless though, it will be a prominent feature in the series and one that may play a key role in who is the series winner.

Kings Defensive Zone Tactics

The Kings employ a pretty simple defensive zone when the puck is down low. They have D1 on the puck. D2 net-front on the strong side and F1 playing off D1 covering the middle of the ice. F2 and F3 hold their positions on a line marking the opposition defensemen. When the puck is available, the Kings will try and outman the other team and create a turnover.  When the puck comes up top, the Kings mark the points hard, but the low forward stays low, playing the middle of the ice, looking to take a shot and pass lanes away. Here is a clip of the basics of the Kings’ defensive zone split into two segments.
After the Oilers enter the zone, the Kings collapse low with the F2 and F3 marking space at the dots. Fiala misses a chance to outman the Oilers, and consequently, the puck goes up top. Notice how Fiala stays low to protect the slot area while the other two forwards play the points hard. The shot taken is one the Kings will give up every day and twice on Sundays.
The second segment is after Rittich makes the save and the puck goes to the corner where Kane retrieves it. Watch the aggressive tone of the Kings here trying to outman the Oilers and win the puck. In this instance, the Kings are successful and the puck is moved out of the zone.

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The Oilers can defeat this defensive zone tactic in two different ways. The first is to penetrate the space between the forwards up top and their three teammates below. This penetration will allow the attacker an opportunity to get to the net or to send a pass cross-ice to a teammate.

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The other way to do it is to employ a 2-3 offensive zone attack where the Oilers bring a forward up top, either with or without the puck. This allows for the player to attack down the middle of the ice if the low forward doesn’t come with him or it will allow the option of the Oilers defenseman to come low on a switch and create chaos. Here is a great example by McDavid, Draisaitl and Bouchard.

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This play led to a goal from the point, but most often what it will lead to is the Oilers having a lot of space to operate in the slot without many defenders. It will also allow their skill players to attack downhill towards the net against defenders who are standing still.
I firmly believe that one way we will determine the Oilers’ success in this series is by how many shots are taken from the point. Too many point shots will likely indicate an Oilers’ inability to defeat the Kings’ defensive zone tactics. This will be a key analytical point to monitor in this series.

What About the Oilers?

While the article is focused on the Kings, I would be remiss not to discuss the Oilers’ tactics a little bit. The reason for this is that the Oilers are certainly going to give up some opportunities. Whether these opportunities turn into high-danger chances is difficult to say, but the Oilers will give up chances nonetheless.

Oilers Offensive Zone Forecheck

The Oilers also run a similar 1-2-2 style of forecheck as the Kings do. The only modest change is that the Oilers F3 tends to play “narrow” or more into the middle of the nice instead of wide. Where the Oilers’ offensive zone forecheck has a tendency to break down is when F3 fails to stay over the top and in the middle of the ice. Here is a perfect example of what can happen.

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A critical element to the Oilers’ success in this round will be to limit these quick counterattacks.  The Oilers are not always disciplined in their structure and it can lead to these types of counters. The Kings have enough speed and skill to take advantage of these breakdowns. This needs to be a point of emphasis.

Oilers Neutral Zone Forecheck

The Oilers’ neutral zone structure has been a wild ride for the last two years. When Jay Woodcroft was hired, he moved the team from a 1-2-2 to a 1-1-3, the premise being to slow down the number of odd-man rushes against by having a forward back to assist. Then, the team went back to the 1-2-2 last season only to return to the 1-1-3 at the start of this season. When Woodcroft was replaced by Knoblauch, he immediately put a 1-2-2 back in place.
The basic premise of the 1-2-2 in the neutral zone is to force a turnover higher up the ice so that your team can attack more quickly. F1 is to drive the play to one side of the ice. F2 is then to step up on the potential outlet pass and F3 moves into the middle to defend that area of the ice. D1 also steps up hard on the strong side to congest the passing and skating options. D2 remains as the safety valve should the opponent break the forecheck. Here is a brilliant example of the forward group working in cohesion allowing for a turnover that creates an excellent opportunity for three Oiler forwards to attack quickly.

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Here is another excellent example of the Oilers forcing a dump-in. Notice how Nugent-Hopkins gets low, and on a retrieval, he is in an excellent mid-lane position to break the puck out of the zone.

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Now, the risk with this type of tactic is it can lead to odd-man rushes against if the structure is not disciplined. The Oilers do not always have the best discipline in their neutral zone. Indeed, it is likely their biggest weakness at 5v5. One stat to track will be the odd man rushes the Kings get in the series. If the numbers are suppressed, the Oilers are likely doing a very good job at 5v5 in the neutral zone.

Oilers Defensive Zone

The Oilers have run mostly a zone style of defence this season under Kris Knoblauch. It morphs a bit depending on where the puck is in the zone. If it is low, the Oilers set up in a box that is compressed below circles with one player on the puck. When the puck goes up higher, the forwards press more while the low forward stays inside the middle of a box, marking the third player for the opposition. If he goes high, the center follows. If he stays low, the center stays low.
The key in this set-up is the low forward, who mostly is the center. The player has to be incredibly disciplined.  The whole system is designed to elicit shots from a distance and from poor lanes with lots of congestion. Its secondary goal is to attack loose or 50/50 pucks on the wall to create turnovers. Here is a very basic example with McDavid in the center role here.
The play starts wobbly as the Oilers try to get sorted out in the zone. Nevertheless, they do get organized after defending the first attack. Again, watch McDavid sit in the middle of the box all over the ice. When the Kings settle for an outside shot, watch the entire team collapse low to look for rebounds and mark players in the slot.

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Here is another example of the structure ultimately failing. Again, the focus is the center. In this clip, it is Draisaitl. For most of this sequence, Draisaitl is okay. He’s a little slow and takes some bigger turns, but he does manage to get into position. That is until the shot comes in from the point. He loses his mark, who ends up pouncing on a rebound and putting it into the net.

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This is a much different defensive zone structure then years past. It is far more passive. It looks for loose pucks on the wall but will settle for outside shots that are either gathered by their goalie or directed into spots where the Oilers can recover. The net front area is also incredibly hard for teams to navigate now because the Oilers collapse hard to the net front on shots or down-low plays. This should lead to improvement on 5v5 goals against in-zone plays.

The Players Inside The Tactics

It goes without saying that the players are the key to all of these tactical discussions. Within these structures, the coaches will deploy players in situations they believe favour their team. This series will be very interesting from this perspective. On the Oilers’ side, the interesting question will be how McDavid and Draisaitl are deployed. Do they play as a pair or as centers on separate lines? This season against the Kings, they did both with separate lines have a bigger share. If they go this route expect McDavid to see Danault’s line most often with the Anderson and Doughty pairing. This was the trend this year. Draisaitl has always seemed to play against Kopitar, and that doesn’t change much regardless of who has last changed.
The other key piece for the Oilers will be Evander Kane. Where does this player play? He had a good start to the season but faded badly to the end, likely in part due to a sports hernia injury he disclosed Sunday. His normal role would be on Draisaitl’s wing. However, with the trade for Adam Henrique and the stellar play of Warren Foegele, Kane may be relegated to a third-line role with Ryan McLeod and Corey Perry or even to the fourth line, where he skated Sunday. That trio formed an interesting line, but I worry about the speed of the group as a whole against a likely match-up with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kevin Fiala.
Speaking of Dubois, he must be a player of great frustration for the Kings. Given the ability of Kopitar and Danault to take major minutes against top competition, Dubois should have thrived in a 3rd line role. Instead, he had his poorest point totals in a few years and was actually -4 in goals for at 5v5. His underlying numbers are good, so that should be a ray of sunshine for Kings’ fans. However, his play against the Oilers has been indifferent. That match-up of third lines is an area where the Kings should have some opportunities, however, that is not a certainty given Dubois’ uneven play this season.
That is all for the tactical preview of the Oilers versus the Kings.
See you after game one.
As always, please send feedback right here or to @bcurlock on the Elon Musk machine.

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