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Five ways that the Edmonton Oilers could improve after the Colorado Avalanche take a 2-0 series lead

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Photo credit:© Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
5 months ago
Fueled by three goals in a span of two minutes, and a shutout by Pavel Francouz, the Colorado Avalanche emerged victorious in Game 2 on Thursday night, against the Edmonton Oilers. 
With this loss, Edmonton falls to a two-game deficit in the Western Conference Finals. They head back to Edmonton tonight for Game 3, and hope to achieve their first win in the WCF since 2006.
So far, this series lead is deserved on Colorado’s part; the offside call in Game 1 was quite controversial, but simply put, the Avalanche have played like the superior team.
Edmonton had a fine 1st period in Game 2, but aside from that, their offensive and defensive performance at 5v5 has been quite poor, notably in the neutral zone. Here’s a look at some data regarding rush chances and transitional performance for both squads.
Edmonton’s abilities to generate and prevent shots/chances off the rush has been brutal in this series.
Colorado has generated 52 shot attempts off the rush, while Edmonton has only generated 21. Colorado has doubled Edmonton in scoring chances off controlled entries, and they’re also entering their offensive zone and denying entries into their defensive zone at a superior rate.
For the Avs, it’s a continuation of their results from the first two rounds; prior to Game 1, they ranked first among playoff teams in both Entries with Chances For/60, and Entries with Chances Allowed/60. 
Neutral zone play is one of Colorado’s largest strengths, and Edmonton seems to have few answers to counter it (so far).
Of course, this is a best-of-seven; the series is certainly not finished, and it’s unwise to disregard a squad with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Furthermore, last season, we witnessed Colorado blow their 2-0 series lead against the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round, and subsequently lose that series in six games. It’s definitely not time to throw in the towel.
However, without any changes or adjustments, the possibility of advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals looks quite low and uncertain. In this piece, I’ll dive into five potential ways in which the Edmonton Oilers could improve their current performance, and effectively bounce back.
*All microstats courtesy of Corey Sznajder / AllThreeZones, all other stats courtesy of EvolvingHockey and the NHL unless stated otherwise

Better forward support on breakouts 

As stated previously, Edmonton’s neutral zone play has been awful, but they’ve also experienced significant issues at breaking out of their zone and managing the puck, primarily due to Colorado’s tenacious forecheck. 
Thus far in this series at 5v5, the Oilers had 20 turnovers leading to shots against and 14 failed zone exits. Not good.
To my eye, a notable factor for their inability to efficiently breakout is merely due to the fact that Colorado’s forwards are too strong for Edmonton’s defencemen. However, I also think Edmonton’s forwards need to do a much more adequate job at puck support and assisting the defence in transition. 
In both Games 1 and 2, I felt that their puck support in the defensive zone was abysmal. I noticed forwards blowing the zone too often, and it frequently led to poor net-front coverage, extended time in the defensive zone, and a ton of space for Colorado to generate scoring chances.
There are lots of gaps between the forwards and defence, and I just feel the forwards hang too high in the neutral zone on exit attempts. Their current breakout structure is nearly reminiscent of the Dave Tippett / Jim Playfair era. 
If Edmonton wants to navigate through Colorado’s aggressive forecheck, they simply can’t leave their defence out to dry. More support from the forwards on outlets is crucial.

Run 11 Forwards / 7 Defencemen to take the load off Darnell Nurse

It’s quite evident that Darnell Nurse has been brutal to start this series. Colorado has scored twelve goals thus far, and Nurse has been on-ice for seven of them. He’s been on-ice for a whopping 32 scoring chances in just 35 minutes of 5v5 play, and currently holds a brutal 34 xGF%.
There have been several reports that he’s currently dealing with a core injury that might require surgery in the off-season. I typically attempt to avoid criticizing a player’s performance when they play under an injury, so I won’t place a ton of blame on him in this situation (with that said, Nurse is still making the irresponsible errors that he’s made throughout his entire career).
Consequently, it’s fair to place some blame on Jay Woodcroft, as he just can’t continue playing Nurse for a sizeable amount of minutes, especially against Colorado’s top stars. Deploying an 11F / 7D arrangement is likely Edmonton’s best option to limit and reduce Nurse’s minutes. 
In regards to who the 7th D should be, Edmonton’s options include Kris Russell, Phillip Broberg, and Markus Niemelainen.
In a sheltered role, Russell typically performs well at protecting the slot area. 
With that said, Russell is poor at defending the rush, and typically allows a lot of controlled entries against. Russell’s Controlled Entries Allowed per Entry Target ranks in the 24th percentile in the past two seasons. That will be problematic against this Avalanche team, as the Oilers need to clean up their NZ play (not to imply that Colorado isn’t dangerous at generating in-zone offence, because they certainly are, but a better entry defender would be more ideal).
In a small sample in the NHL, Broberg’s entry defence stats were quite poor, while Niemelainen’s results were excellent. Of course, it’s a limited sample, and I haven’t watched enough of them in the AHL to deduce an accurate conclusion for their entry defending abilities, but Edmonton should at least consider granting one of them an opportunity. 
In the games I have watched of him, I was thoroughly pleased with Broberg’s skating capabilities. That could end up being a very valuable skill against Colorado. 
Edmonton doesn’t have any spectacular options here, so I won’t be exceedingly affected by Woodcroft’s potential choice out of the three (I would presume that he’d choose Russell, or maybe Broberg).
However, even considering their lack of good alternatives, I think running 7D is a superior option as opposed to continuing to play Nurse considerable minutes against Colorado’s stars.

Increase Kulak’s ice time

Here’s a look at Edmonton’s LD, and their results in regards to defending the rush.
Nurse’s entry defence metrics saw a slight improvement in the regular season as opposed to prior seasons, but they’ve collapsed yet again in these playoffs. Keith also continues to struggle at defending the blue-line and preventing possession entries.
However, this is Kulak’s most valuable facet. In both the regular season and playoffs, he’s done an excellent job at denying the entry, forcing dump-ins, and suppressing chances off the rush. Against a team like Colorado, he needs to play more, and both Keith and Nurse must play less.
If Edmonton ran seven defencemen, I’d give Kulak numerous shifts alongside Ceci, and deploy that pair quite frequently against Colorado’s top offensive threats.

Please stop playing Josh Archibald and Zack Kassian

In the past seven games, Josh Archibald has been on-ice for seven goals against. In general, the line of Archibald – Ryan – Kassian have been on-ice for five goals against in the past seven games. This has been an issue for quite some time.
Simply put, your fourth line can’t concede a goal against nearly every single game. There are several reasons and factors for this line’s dreadful results.
For starters, here’s a look at the rate at which each Edmonton forward exits the defensive zone.
One of many reasons why Jesse Puljujarvi and Ryan McLeod have strong underlying numbers is due to their ability to successfully exit the zone, which helps prevent chances and start rush attacks in the other direction. On the contrary, this is one of Archibald and Kassian’s multiple weaknesses. Derek Ryan exits the zone at a solid rate, but it certainly isn’t enough to make up for Archibald and Kassian’s lack of successful exits.
In the past three seasons, Archibald ranks 729th out of 784 players with a minimum of 500 TOI in goal differential, and 711th in expected goal differential. The team is consistently out-scored and out-chanced with Archibald on-ice. Kassian’s unappealing GF% of 48.1% in the past two seasons isn’t satisfactory either, especially upon considering how inconsistent he is.
Against a team such as Colorado, teams require skill and speed to break through their neutral zone forecheck and defence. It’s why a speedier and skilled Dylan Holloway deserves an opportunity. Two dump & chase players who mightily struggle at exiting the zone are simply not as valuable, especially when you consider that they provide little value in any other facet, aside from some inconsequential hits (I wrote in more detail about Archibald, Kassian and Holloway two weeks back).
Multiple rookies have begun their debuts in the playoffs before. Cale Makar is a prime example, but even if you do feel wary of granting Holloway an opportunity, Devin Shore is also an available option for Edmonton. Shore and Ryan have posted a 58 CF%, 55 xGF% and 50 GF% together.
In simpler terms, the duo of Shore and Ryan are dead-even in goals and control most of the possession in a fourth-line role. This is a significant improvement over the current fourth-line, and it’s confusing as to why Shore hasn’t played a single second in the playoffs yet.
Just to clarify, I’m a massive advocate for Jay Woodcroft. 
If the Oilers didn’t fire Dave Tippett, I have major doubts if they’d even qualify for the playoffs in the first place. I firmly believe the Oilers wouldn’t reach the Conference Finals and sit in their current position without Woodcroft and Manson’s excellent coaching.
However, I’ve been disappointed with some of Woodcroft’s recent lineup decisions. Continuing to play Archibald and Kassian in the lineup is costing the team, and what’s especially frustrating is that Woodcroft consistently plays that line subsequent to a goal against.
Simply put, Edmonton is shooting themselves in the foot by consistently playing those two.
Update: At morning skate, it looks like Kassian is on the top line, and I disagree with this move if Kassian isn’t a placeholder, as Kane – McDavid – Kassian would have major defensive issues. When he’s on his game, Kassian can be an effective forechecker and finisher, but as stated previously, he’s extremely inconsistent. Hopefully, he shows up tonight.

Find a way to shutdown Nazem Kadri

Colorado’s best forward in Games 1 and 2? Nazem Kadri.
In this series thus far, Kadri has four points, alongside a magnificent expected goal share of 84%. Both of Edmonton’s top lines have struggled against him, and Edmonton needs to find a way to suppress/neutralize his offensive and defensive abilities as much as possible.
Here’s a glance at Controlled Zone Entries per 60 for Colorado’s players.
Unsurprisingly, Nathan MacKinnon is Colorado’s top threat off the rush, but Kadri doesn’t rank too far behind. In Game 2, Kadri had a total of ten shot assists, with five of them off the rush, and five controlled entries, and four of those entries lead to scoring chances.
Edmonton should continue playing McDavid’s line against MacKinnon’s, but against Kadri, their best option might be to primarily deploy their third line against him.
The trio of Foegele – McLeod – Puljujarvi has been one of Edmonton’s bright spots in this series. Unlike other lines, they’re dead-even in goal differential, and not a liability in that facet.
In this series, shot attempts are 27 – 17 in favour of Edmonton with that line on-ice, and scoring chances are 10 – 5. They have an xGF% of 75%, and have dominated possession and chances. Foegele isn’t a liability in his own end in any sense, while McLeod and Puljujarvi have excellent defensive results.
Both Puljujarvi and McLeod suppress scoring chances at an exceptional rate. Puljujarvi leads the team in defensive zone breakups, and ranks 2nd in successful zone exits, while McLeod also shines at breaking up plays and retrieving pucks in the DZ. Furthermore, all three of them are aggressive forecheckers.
If that line is deployed against Kadri, they need to utilize their forechecking capabilities to hem the puck into the offensive zone for as long as possible. Consistently maintain OZ puck possession to limit potential time in the DZ, and aggressively pressure Colorado from making possession exits and initiating rush attacks. They’ve done a great job at this against Colorado’s bottom-six, and they’re likely Edmonton’s best bet to shutdown the Kadri line.
To conclude, there’s a variety of different options for what Woodcroft and the Oilers could do, but some sort of positive changes are required. I expect Rogers Place to be electric and full of energy, as tonight will likely be Edmonton’s biggest game of the season.
Hopefully, the Oilers head back to Colorado on Wednesday with this series tied.
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