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Edmonton Oilers vs. Vancouver Canucks: A Tactical Preview

Ryan McLeod Edmonton Oilers
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
1 month ago
The Vancouver Canucks swept the regular season series against the Edmonton Oilers this year. The Canucks outscored the Oilers 21-7 in those four games and 13-3 at 5v5. Even the vaunted Oilers powerplay was outscored 7-4 by the Canucks.
Yet, as the Oilers and Canucks prepare for their series opener, the Vegas oddsmakers have the Oilers favourites in the series, and some of those are quite heavy in favour of Edmonton. So, what is it that Vegas knows that others do not?
For certain, three of those four regular season games were during the ill-fated last days of Jay Woodcroft’s term in Edmonton. Yes, the last game did not have Connor McDavid dressed. Still, this is a very, very good Canucks team. Just ask their fans, they’ll tell you. I kid. I kid. Well sorta. Perhaps the answers lie in an evaluation of the teams from a tactical perspective and what might develop if both teams execute their systems. By coincidence, I wrote some words below related to this topic. Let’s dig in, shall we?

What Did I See?

As a precursor, most of this emphasis is on the 5v5 play of the teams. While I talk a bit about specialty teams and matchups, the focus is on what each team will try to do at 5v5.
5v5 is the most common state of play during an NHL game, and the events that occur in that state usually impact the result of the game more heavily than other situations, but that’s not always the case. Let’s take a quick look at some key 5v5 metrics of the regular season series between the Oilers and the Canucks. This data is represented from the Oilers’ perspective and provided by Natural Stat Trick. Above 50% is good and below is bad.
CF%FF%SF%GF%xGF%SCF%HDCF%HDSF%
Game 154.7953.5750.000.0048.6654.0552.9450.00
Game 272.5071.1563.8925.0073.3171.4380.9569.23
Game 359.8157.6957.6325.0056.9157.1454.5556.25
Game 455.4350.7552.0033.3360.2853.3363.6457.14
With the exception of one xGF metric, the Oilers led in all of the games and all of the key fancy statistics. The one problem was the scoreboard where the Oilers had no answer for the Canucks. Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell were atrocious in three of the four games while Edmonton couldn’t score at all. A team that averaged 3.56 goals per game was able to score seven times in four games.
Consequently, the Canucks routed the Oilers in the regular season and should have confidence coming into the series. The question is whether the regular season results will carry forward to the post-season or do the Vegas insiders know a little something about hockey. Let’s have a look at the potential tactics of this series to see if they yield any answers.

The Canucks Defensive Zone

The Canucks deploy a very similar system to the Oilers. It is mostly a box plus one where one play pressures the puck until there is a chance at a 50/50 puck and then further players will support the play. Here is a pretty standard example of the Canucks defensive zone.
Vancouver maintains a very tight formation and clogs the net front, with the centre being counted on to play the middle spot in the box heavily. The idea again is to protect against creating open lanes for pucks to go cross ice. When the puck jumps out to the points, the wingers will press, but the centre will stay low.

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The only caveat on the Canucks defensive zone is when Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek are on the ice. Whether this is by design or Hughes/Hronek calling audibles, they are more aggressive. Each player often steps outside of his area of responsibility if they see a chance to make a play. Watch this clip and notice how aggressive the two are and how well they work to recover when needed. This pairing will be key to this series.

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The Canucks also do a very good job of transitioning out of the zone off of their defensive work. Watch this clip that starts with nice work on the box plus one. Then when the Canucks recover the puck on the wall, watch O’Reilly (#90) leave the F3 spot in the middle of the ice. When he does that, Pettersson makes a very sneaky pass to allow the Canucks to exit. This is a key to the Canucks game and it’s something the Oilers will need to be very wary of.
So, what can the Oilers do here to counter? One way to protect against this transition and exploit this box plus one is to work more 2-3 attacks in the offensive zone. Essentially, this means having a forward come up to the top half of the zone with the two defensemen. The idea here is to pull defenders up the zone, which will open some lanes to attack the net.
The Oilers have run this play more frequently this year with both McDavid and Draisaitl are very good at taking advantage of these situations. Here is a good example with Draisaitl, who brings the Kings’ checker up top, thereby creating more space net front for the Oilers to operate and fewer defenders to block the shot.

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Another option for this play is to allow the forward to skate downhill, attacking players who are either standing still or going backward. Here is a clip from McDavid in the Vegas series. He draws all three players up top, makes a move, and finds Drasaitl on clean ice to make a play.

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The added advantage of this play is that it does allow the Oilers to have a good F3 in the zone in case of a transition play. As we saw with the Canucks clip against Nashville, the middle transition exit is an important play for the Canucks. If the Oilers run this play, the F3 should be in a strong position to defend against quick transitions.

The Canucks Neutral Zone

The Canucks neutral zone is very similar to the Oilers running a standard 1-2-2 played most above centre ice. One modest twist is the 1-2 are constantly switching to stay in motion in the neutral zone. Here is a great example where you can see the switching and constant motion of the Canucks forwards on the forecheck.
The Canucks will take a few gambles in the neutral zone like this play, but it works. The Predators defender would have been better to make a wing outlet and live to fight another day. Instead, he got suckered into a mid-lane stretch pass that led to some chaos for him in his own zone.

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Here is another example where you can see the Canucks start in a good 1-2-2 and then break down a little to try and make a play.
It leaves the Predators with a natural 2v1 on the forecheck when the puck is dumped in. In this case, Tyler Myers does a great job using his body to shield the attacker and making a play to his partner below the net. Now, in a theme that you have seen already and will see more of, watch the Canucks transition play. Notice Pettersson is nice and low in the zone as an outlet option. Then, when the puck swings to the side to him and all the Predators flow to his side, watch Meyers activate on the weak side. This gives Pettersson two passing outlets to beat the forecheck. The Canucks make a wonderful play at the blue line and are immediately on the attack led by none other than Myers.

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The Canucks neutral zone is likely to yield some high-event hockey. As we have noted here, the Canucks take some gambles that can pay dividends. It also could lead to some major high-danger chances against a superior-skill team like the Oilers. Ironically, it also might cost the Oilers some chances against when certain defensive pairings are on the ice. It will be an area to watch very closely as this series progresses.

The Canucks Offensive Zone Forecheck

As with the neutral zone, the Canucks run a very similar system in the offensive zone to the Oilers. It is the 1-2-2 where F1 creates chaos down low. F2 reads and reacts to the play. F3 takes up a position over top of the puck waiting for a pass or to react to a lost possession. The strong side defender hard pinches on the wall and clears, and the second defenseman sits in the middle as a safety valve. Here is a good clip of what the Canucks try to do.

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Again, the caveat on the clip is the Hughes and Hronek pairing is more aggressive than the other two pairings. They will take more chances on pinches where the forward support isn’t as strong coming back. Nevertheless, since Hughes and Hronek will almost assuredly play 18-20 minutes at 5v5, it will be important.
Here is another example where you can literally see F2 slow up and read the play to be in a more cautionary position because he was unsure what would happen with the puck. It turns out he had nothing to worry about, but it gives you a sense of how cognizant this team is of their roles and responsibilities.

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This is not a system that is overly unfamiliar to the Oilers. If the Canucks play the 1-2-2 passively then it should not cause a lot of trouble. If the Oilers bring their first forward low as an outlet option upon puck recovery, they will manage the system well.

Yeah, But The Transition Game

So, by now, you’re thinking the Oilers should manage the series well tactically. Familiar systems from a team that has good skill, but not great skill. Normally, yes I would say I agree.
However, this Canucks team does one thing very well. Very, very well. The problem is that this thing Vancouver does well also gives the Oilers’ defence group trouble: the transition game.
One of the early season narrative battles, thanks in large part to the Canucks, was whether the Oilers goaltending was the issue or whether the goaltending was being subjected to high-danger chances of a quantity and quality that simply were too tough to stop. To be honest, it was a bunch of both. The Oilers were giving up a lot of transition chances of very high quality while also getting very poor goaltending. Both areas have been cleaned up, but each will be tested in seven games against the Canucks.
The Canucks transition is creative and it comes from all areas. Watch this clip from the last regular season game between the Oilers and the Canucks.
Watch J.T. Miller read the play that his defenceman will gain possession of the puck. He immediately bolts up the ice, expecting Hronek to fire an intentional full-ice pass that he can skate onto. Desharnais sees the play, but he’s too late and his transition skating isn’t good enough to recover.

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The Canucks ran this play three times in this game. Once against each right-shot defenceman on the Oilers. All had success in creating an offensive zone possession against the Oilers. I would expect to see this exact play repeated in this series.
The Canucks are also very dangerous off retrievals. They will often move the puck up the ice very quickly instead of a re-group. Here is a good example of this type of play.
Zadorov sends the puck to Hronek who immediately sends the puck up ice to Boeser and suddenly, the Canucks have a short 3v2.

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Here is another example with Quinn Hughes. Hughes, instead of retreating behind the net, turns up into the 1-2-2 and makes a little chip pass on the wall. Garland now has two passing options because three Predators decided to focus on him. He makes a short pass up ice which both Predators defenders react to leaving the weakside Canucks forward open. That creates a great scoring chance.

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This is a play that will give the Oilers defenders challenges. The ability of the Canucks to turn the puck north off a puck recovery needs to be a focus for the Oilers. The Oilers will need to have strong forward support coming back up the ice, and the defence group will need to be in good positions to block the transition play. While I think Vinny Desharnais had a nice playoff series against L.A., the competition and how it played, was tailor-made for him. This line-up is quicker and plays quicker.
Cody Ceci is also going to be challenged in this series as well. Darnell Nurse and Brett Kulak, along with the Oilers forward group, will need to play key roles in these situations.

Match-Up Equations

This is the part of the series that will be most fascinating. The Canucks ran the Suter-Miller-Boeser line against the Forsberg line hard. When that match-up wasn’t available, it was the Lindholm line with Joshua and Garland. Should the Oilers keep Draisaitl and McDavid apart, the Canucks will be challenged here.
It will also be interesting to see what Vancouver does with the Elias Pettersson line. The line struggled mightily in the first round against Nashville and its checking line featuring Colton Sissons. Would the Oilers want to chase a match-up of Ryan McLeod against this line? If so, does Dylan Holloway play on this line or is there a reset for Warren Foegele?
The other interesting element is Quinn Hughes. The Hughes and Hronek pairing didn’t match up against the O’Reilly line. Instead, it was the pairing of Soucy-Meyers. That pairing was caved in all metrics, but the important one of goals for where it sawed off 1-1. Should the Oilers keep McDavid and Draisaitl apart, I would expect Hughes to play a lot against Draisaitl line who has bled chances against.

What Does It All Mean?

I’ve seen all the prognosticators calling the Oilers’ number this series. Certainly, some of the data above supports that idea. However, I am far more cautious on this series. The Canucks transition game is very strong. It can, and did this season, lead to opportunistic scoring. If the Canucks continue to get top-flight goaltending, this will be a long series that could go either way.
See you all after Game 1.

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