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G14 Game Notes: Another “New Era” for the Edmonton Oilers

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Jason Gregor
3 months ago
Tonight is the 14th game in the 13th season of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ NHL career. He will play for his ninth NHL coach later this evening.
Kris Knoblauch will be the sixth head coach for Leon Draisaitl and the fifth for Connor McDavid and Darnell Nurse. They are in their 10th, ninth and ninth seasons respectively.
The Oilers made the playoffs in the previous four seasons, but 14 games into season five, Kris Knoblauch is the third different head coach. The players need to get the message that it isn’t just the head coach who is the problem.
— Knoblauch shouldn’t be expected or looked upon as the saviour for this group. Their 3-9-1 start is solely on the players’ shoulders. They have underperformed. In games v. Winnipeg, Calgary and Seattle, they proved they can play solid, smart, sound defensive hockey, but in their other 10 games they gave up way too much defensively, and didn’t score enough offensively, except in Nashville.
— Knoblauch is lucky in the sense he inherits a team that has underachieved. They can and will play better. They rank 26th in goals/game at 2.73. They are 30th in goals against/game at 3.92. Their power play ranks 9th at 23.9%. The penalty kill is 30th at 70%. Over their next 13 games, the Oilers will be better in all categories, and it won’t solely be due to a new head coach. That is unfair to Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson. They paid the price for a poor record but were far from the only culprits.  I’m not taking anything away from Knoblauch, I think he’s a good coach, but the Oilers have played so poorly through the first 13 games it is virtually impossible they will match that poor play in the next 13 games.
— Yesterday, Knoblauch gave us some insight into how he will want the Oilers to play. I asked him about his defensive plan.
“We’re going to look at exactly what the Oilers were doing in these past few games,” said Knoblauch. “Personally, I feel much more comfortable with more of a zone structure defence. I think with the personnel we have here, it’s going to be very similar to where a lot of the teams in the NHL are kind of going to that kind of system where defencemen stay in their quadrants, closer around to the net. You have the forwards, low forward expand a little bit more. Certainly, I want to be more aggressive in the defensive zone. The less time you spend in the d-zone, the less time there is opportunities to make mistakes, take penalties, and ultimately, give up goals. I want to encourage our players to play fast and strong in the defensive zone, but I also want to be in the offensive zone where we can take advantage of them [opposition] not being prepared, not being in their structure. Ultimately, that’s where goals happen; they come off mistakes. The slower you play, the less opportunities you have to take advantage of those mistakes.”
Zone defence isn’t difficult, but the Oiler players struggled with it early this season, and before the Heritage Classic game, Woodcroft went back to man-to-man. It didn’t work because zone is too difficult — it didn’t work because the players didn’t execute. Knoblauch prefers a zone structure, so the players better be prepared to execute it this time.
— Knoblauch also spoke about the neutral zone, an area where the Oilers have struggled. They’ve given up far too many chances off the rush, which stems from the play high in the offensive and neutral zones.
“In the neutral zone, I think you hear NHL coaches talk about what’s successful, and it’s playing fast,” said Knoblauch. “Moving the puck up, immediately, getting the puck to the forwards to make plays. The longer we hold the puck and dust it off and slow the game down, all it allows is the opposition to get into position, get into their structure, which makes it more difficult to generate any offence.
“One of the things Paul (Coffey) and I have been talking quite a bit about, and one of the things our team is going to hear about, is playing fast. Most of that comes from our defencemen moving the puck up. We do have some defencemen who are very capable of skating the puck up, and there’s going to be times where that’s necessary. Ultimately, it’s getting the puck up the ice as quick as possible into the forwards’ hands to make plays. Simpler is often the best play.”
I was impressed by Knoblauch’s first press conference. He was open, honest and not shy to share who he wants the team to play. You need to be confident in your system and not worried that if you say something to the media and, ultimately the fans, that the opposition will gain an advantage. There is so much video nowadays that teams know what to expect. Mentioning your outlook in a scrum won’t change that.
— The biggest advantage Knoblauch has is that Connor McDavid will not remain at a 0.91 points/game pace. McDavid begins play tonight tied for 130th in NHL scoring with 2-8-10 in 11 games. He leads NHL forwards in TOI/game at 22:01/game. McDavid likely isn’t 100%, but he isn’t as injured as some claim. He spent 15 minutes after practice the other day battling with Dylan Holloway. McDavid did it because he needs to work out of his slump. If a player is banged up, they aren’t spending extra time after practice in battle drills. Even the best player in the world can get frustrated. It is clear he and Leon Draisaitl are frustrated and lacking their usual offensive mojo. We’ve seen both miss passes, usually routine passes for them. Both are in funks, and when they break out, the Oilers’ odds of winning will increase significantly.
— Knoblauch coached McDavid for three years in Erie. He mentioned, “We’ve stayed in touch a little bit, but just with the odd text, not in great detail.” But he does have a relationship with McDavid, and McDavid respects him. Sometimes, hearing a different viewpoint from someone you respect will resonate more. Knoblauch was asked what he sees from McDavid and a group struggling to score.
“What is see out of him is what I see out of a lot of the team — a team that’s trying very hard, very passionate, want to win, want to do what’s right, but ultimately, right now, are very frustrated,” said Knoblauch. “As a player whose played any kind of sport, if you’re frustrated, or you are feeling down, it is tough to perform at the highest level. As Ken said earlier, this is a very difficult league and certainly, you need all of your players playing their best.
“Right now, I want Connor, and everyone, to just take a breath, relax, just play hockey, and find some joy in it, and play the way they can. Right now, I think there’s just too much pressure on them, and they’re feeling it. That’s my take on what I’ve seen from afar, watching some video, but when I talk to those guys, maybe I’ll get a different perspective.”
— The Oilers enter tonight looking for their first winning streak of the season. Chicago and Edmonton are the only teams yet to win consecutive games. The San Jose Sharks have only won two games all season, but they came back-to-back. (It is too soon to discuss what their second victory meant). Edmonton needs to build off its solid performance in Seattle. They jumped out to a 4-0 lead and then played smart, defensive hockey. The Oilers outshot Seattle 9-4 in the second period and didn’t give up much in the third period either. Yes, they didn’t generate a shot, but they focused on not giving up much, as they had a three-goal lead. They didn’t need to take risks.
— The Oilers have scored first eight times this season which is seventh most in the NHL. They have started well in most games, but too often they’ve been unable to maintain their poise. They are 28th in winning percentage when scoring first at an ugly .375. They are 3-4-1 when scoring first. Last season they scored first 44 times (eighth most in the NHL) and won 32 games, also eighth most. They were much better playing with the lead last season than they have been this year. Their inability to avoid the glaring mistake or try a risky play has cost them. That is on the players. They make the on-ice decisions.
— Paul Coffey wasn’t asked many questions at the press conference yesterday, but his one response grabbed my attention.
“My approach is going to be getting them as consistent as possible,” said Coffey. “Not try to get them outside of themselves. Play their game and play the odds. Know where you are on the ice at all times, stay off your backhand, but I like our defense. I think we have a really good defense. But defense isn’t one or two players, it’s a group. I always said as a defenseman, you always need to know what your partner is doing before he does. I’d like us to communicate a little more, but I like our defense and we’re only going to get better.”
His mention of playing the odds was a perfect depiction of the overall team defence. Too often they make high risk decisions. Limit them, like they did v. Winnipeg, Calgary and Seattle, and success often follows.
— The Islanders skate into Edmonton tonight on a four-game losing streak (0-3-1). They’ve been outscored 17-8. They are 30th in the NHL in GF/GP at 2.46. The offence has been an issue in New York for years and continues this season. Usually, they win because of great goaltending, but Ilya Sorokin has been average, for his standards, sitting with a .907Sv% and 3.24 GAA in eight starts. Semyon Varlamov has been great in his first starts posting a .940Sv% and 2.04 GAA. They’ve rotated the past eight starts, and if that continues then Sorokin will get the start tonight after Varlamov lost in Washington on Saturday.

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