Whenever a new coach comes to an NHL team, some of the commentary naturally surrounds what, if any, system changes will occur. Without a doubt that level of commentary is louder after the Kris Knoblauch hiring given that the prior regime had implemented two major system changes this year to improve the defensive play of the team.
Of course, it is well documented that whatever the metrics stated, the sheer volume of goals that were allowed illustrates that the changes failed. With that came the end for Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson as coaches for the Oilers. Whether the changes led to the results or other factors played roles is a debate for another day, what is more important is what, if any changes, will come with the hiring of Kris Knoblauch.
To better answer that question, I’ve spent the last few days reviewing his last couple of years in the AHL to see whether we could gather some clues. While it is doubtful much will change in one practice, what I can say is we are likely to live the old refrain “what is old is new again.”
What Did I See?
To start with, we really will not know what Knoblauch thinks is the best system choices for the Oilers for a few games. In addition, he may hold back changes based on video discussions with the teams until he is confident that what is to be implemented is well understood by the players. Nevertheless, Knoblauch’s time in Hartford does provide some clues as to what tactics could be commonplace for the Edmonton Oilers in the near future.
The Defensive Zone
The first sighting of “what is old is new again” would be the Knoblauch defensive zone. It’s relatively the same system as what Woodcroft and group ran from the start of this year: the box plus one. Here is a pretty standard example of what to expect, which we have seen on display this year. Here the defender immediately attacks the puck as the other players sort out their roles. Now, here is a key piece: watch the weakside forward highlighted in the second freeze frame. It is quite normal for that player to play low in the slot and then rotate out immediately to his point when the puck comes strong side and up the wall. That did not happen frequently enough for the Oilers. This play from the weakside forward needs to be the standard constantly.
Where I expect we will see differences is how aggressive the box plus one is when the puck is loose or when the opposition player is on the wall. Knoblauch’s team is quite aggressive in this area of the defensive zone. In this clip, watch how the Wolfpack defenders move aggressively to the wall when the puck is available. The Wolfpack attack in numbers to try and force a turnover quickly.
When the puck squirts to the weakside wall, watch again how the Wolfpack shrink the area with multiple players to try and force the turnover. There is massive responsibility on the center in these situations, hunting the puck low anytime it is available. This is much more aggressive than how the Oilers had played for the most part, except the Seattle game. I happen to think it is much better suited for McDavid, Draisaitl and McLeod in particular.
Here is another good example of the aggressive nature of the Knoblauch defensive zone on a contested puck. As soon as the opposition player is immobilized, a second Wolfpack player enters the area searching for the puck. On the second freeze frame, notice the great structure the team has to both continue defending, but also exit with possession. This is high-quality play.
So it is quite likely that there will be little change in the defensive zone on defending. This is probably a good thing since too much change will be hard plus the Oilers were really running this tactic pretty well despite the furor from some commentators.
The Neutral Zone
This is likely where we will see change almost immediately. This is for the simple reason that the 1-1-3 neutral zone the Oilers employed had not been working, and the Kris Knoblauch really likes the 1-2-2 neutral zone. This is a system that is familiar to the Oilers as it was run last year exclusively by them. It was criticized rightly so for giving up too many rush chances, but whether that was execution or personnel remains up for debate. In terms of Knoblauch, he runs a very standard 1-2-2 for the most part as this clip shows.
F1 tries to push the puck carrier to skate or pass the puck to the wall. F2 then closes off with D1 stepping up to force a play. F3 patrols the middle for a change of sides attempt. Finally, D2 acts as a the safety valve for a breakdown and also the puck retriever on a dump-in play. This will be a very familiar strategy for the Oiler players and I would be surprised if this was not employed immediately.
Knoblauch’s neutral zone gets interesting because he will run a hybrid style on a line change by his team, or on a quick transition attack by the other team. Here Knoblauch’s team runs almost a 1-4 with the four players being located on the defensive side of the center line. This is very similar to the Vegas Golden Knights style of neutral zone. The idea here is simply to junk up this part of the ice so badly that a dump-in is forced avoiding any type of quick rush attack against. It looks a lot like this clip here.
I will be very curious to see if the Oilers incorporate this tactic into the repertoire because I think it could be very successful. This tactic, by default, helps your defenders by forcing dump-ins, but also giving them a good shot at recovery by outmanning the opposition. This is one tactic I will be looking for over the next few games.
Again, back to the theme of “what is old is new again,” the offensive zone will likely be the same. Knoblauch works the 1-2-2 much as the Oilers do now. Again, here is a clip that looks quite familiar to Oiler fans. Watch the key element on a lost puck, F3, and his effort to get back hard up the ice to help on transition.
Again, it’s a pretty straightforward system for the Oiler players on the roster. It is also one the Oilers execute quite well.
Where Will The Changes Occur?
There are going to be three major changes to how the Oilers play under Knoblauch. The first two are tactical, and the other one is mental. On the tactical side, the Oilers are more than likely to exit their zone through the middle of the ice. Watch these two clips where the puck carrier had other options, and watch what he did with the puck.
I am lucky to be friends with a very smart coach, whose career intersected with Kris Knoblauch. He always told me he never understood why teams didn’t use the middle 40 feet of the ice to exit to the zone. Why bring the walls into play as a defender when the middle is almost always open?
It relies heavily on center play and it is something I think the Oilers can definitely exploit. Watch former Oiler first-rounder Riley Nash here for what you can expect of the Oiler centers.
If you don’t think it is a coached strategy by Knoblauch, watch this play. It is the default play for his teams. Obviously, we would prefer not to see this, but it is an example of how automatic the thinking is for his teams on the exit.
The other major tactic change I expect to see is a lot more reliance on a change of sides attacking. If you want to start a good drinking game once the Oilers get used to Knoblauch, take a shot every time you hear the phrase “Royal Road.” Maybe don’t do that because it is going to happen a lot. Watch a couple of examples here.
I would very much like to see this with the Oilers because if it is combined with the next change I believe will happen, it could be quite lethal. This change, of course, is the mentality change. Knoblauch’s teams move the puck up the ice quickly. Think of how many times the Oilers are stuck behind their net constantly regrouping killing precious time and allowing the other team to firmly establish their defence. Watch how quickly these plays start for the Wolfpack.
Even on a controlled breakout, notice the quick regroup and then immediately move up the ice.
No question in my mind: Knoblauch will want to see this type of tempo. Here is another example. Watch how quickly the puck moves up the ice from the defenseman. When that play is stymied, a royal road play develops for the successful entry instead of a dump-in. Again, this is high-quality stuff from the Wolfpack.
If there is one change that I think has the opportunity to be successful, it is the mentality of moving the puck up ice quickly. This is a highly skilled forward group and the puck getting to them quicker will help lead to more rush chances and also relieve some pressure on a defensive group that was struggling with exits.
What Will It All Look Like?
Well, I think a lot will look the same to most Oiler fans. The neutral zone will be more aggressive. This runs the risk of more rush chances against for certain. However, the current situation was untenable despite its prior success. The overall tempo and level of aggressiveness of the team should be higher for certain. It will lead to some ten-bell chances against them.
However, it will assuredly create more chances for the Oilers on the attack. The question is, will it lead to success for the Oilers on the scoreboard? I think the Oilers were already headed in the right direction despite the record. Improving health will solve some of the trouble as well. However, these systems and their mentality certainly fit these players more. If I were a betting man, I think these systems combined with a more aggressive attitude will help the Oilers and it will lead to results.