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How the Oilers’ transitional play has improved under the new coaching staff

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
1 month ago
As the 18th head coach in franchise history, Kris Knoblauch has been the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers for 18 games. So far, the results have been quite strong.
Under previous head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson, the Oilers had an appalling 3-9-1 record, equating to a 0.269 points percentage. Eventually, they were relieved of their duties on November 12.
With Knoblauch behind the bench, alongside assistant coach Paul Coffey, the Oilers own a record of 12-6-0, equating to a 0.667 points percentage, which is a massive improvement.
Edmonton’s rank in the standings is still quite unappealing, as they rank 27th in the league. But they have gained quite a lot of ground under the new coaching staff.
So, exactly how have the Oilers improved under Knoblauch and Coffey?
Under Woodcroft/Manson, the Oilers scored 2.7 goals per hour and allowed 3.9 goals per hour. Under Knoblauch/Coffey, Edmonton has scored at a rate of 4.0 goals per hour, a 48 percent increase, and they have allowed 3.0 goals per hour, a 22 percent decrease. However, I would like to examine these results in much more detail.
I began a tracking project this season to track stats known as microstats for all Oilers games at 5v5 alongside two other wonderful people. This project aims to obtain data typically only accessible to NHL teams and private companies, and is not publicly available.
Our tracking project split goals and shots into four categories: rush, forecheck, cycle, and faceoffs. The purpose of this is to get a closer look at the team’s metrics and see exactly where they may be performing well or where they may be struggling.
Here’s how Edmonton’s goal differential looked under Woodcroft and Manson, split into shot types:
I have mentioned this several times in the past, but I believe the criticism towards Woodcroft and Manson’s decision to change their defensive zone structure from man-to-man to a zone defence was unwarranted. Edmonton’s start to the season was not due to their in-zone defending; if anything, that was one of their only strengths. Their overall in-zone goal differential was +5. CSA Hockey, a proprietary model with much more data than public models, ranked the Oilers 7th in the league in preventing in-zone chances.
Instead, their transitional game was Edmonton’s downfall. While their in-zone goal differential was +5, their rush goal differential was an appalling -14 in just 13 games, dragging them to an overall -9 goal differential. Our tracking data matches CSA Hockey’s results, who ranked the Oilers 32nd in the league (dead last!) in preventing rush chances. 
After 13 games, Woodcroft and Manson were relieved of their duties, and the team’s transitional play was arguably the ultimate factor. In their places, the Oilers hired Knoblauch and Coffey. Here is a look at Edmonton’s goal differential under the new coaching staff:
Interestingly, their cycle goal differential is a net negative. Still, I wouldn’t worry much about it, as Edmonton’s cycle save percentage has decreased, and I believe this is more on the goaltending. Their cycle scoring chance prevention has still ranked well.
I want to focus on the immense improvement in Edmonton’s rush play. There are a couple of things to digest here, so let’s analyze them in detail, part by part.
*All microstats via our tracking project (glossary linked here), all other stats via Natural Stat Trick unless mentioned otherwise

Rush Offence

First, let’s discuss Edmonton’s offence in transition. Here is an even closer look into Edmonton’s rush offence:
Edmonton’s rush goals per 60 has essentially doubled.
Interestingly, there has yet to be a major difference in the rest of these categories. Edmonton’s total rush volume has increased, and they have averaged slightly more odd-man-rushes, but their overall rush chance generation has mostly stayed the same. What did see a massive improvement was their shooting percentage off the rush.
Simply put, the Oilers had a lot of poor luck in their first 13 games. Their PDO (a proxy for puck luck) was 0.948, the lowest of all time. Regardless of who was behind the bench, the offence, especially off the rush, was bound to regress at some point.
Of course, Connor McDavid’s health is a huge factor for their increased rush output. By now, it is clear McDavid played through an injury at the beginning of the season, and for his lofty standards, he was not as dominant as he typically was. In the first 16 games of the season, McDavid averaged 17.3 controlled entries per hour, and 4.3 controlled entries leading to scoring chances per hour. In the past 15 games, McDavid has had 22.1 controlled entries per hour and 5.9 controlled entry scoring chances per hour. 
Still, there have been some changes in terms of moving the puck, as the Oilers are using the middle of the ice more often. Edmonton’s breakouts have marginally improved, going from a 59% controlled exit efficiency under Woodcroft/Manson to 60% under the new coaching staff. The defencemen are also jumping up in the rush much more often, as the defence as a whole were initially averaging 4.4 controlled entries per hour, but are now at 5.7. This is where Paul Coffey has likely had a big impact.
But, overall, I believe that a combination of McDavid at full health and simple regression have been the primary reasons for their improvement in rush offence. I do not think the coaching staff has had an enormous impact here in this specific facet.

Rush Defence

Going to the other end of the spectrum, rush defence is an entirely different story. Here’s a detailed look at Edmonton’s rush defensive metrics:
Edmonton’s rush goals against per 60 have decreased by nearly 40 percent.
Part of that can be attributed to improvement from Stuart Skinner, but the team’s rush SV% still leaves a lot to be desired. Regarding chances allowed, per CSA Hockey, Edmonton ranks 2nd in the league in rush xGA under Knoblauch as of December 21st.
Take a moment to process this. Edmonton’s transitional defending improved from dead last to second-best in the entire league. 
Now, if you compare this graph to the rush offence graph posted above, you may notice the Oilers were still a net positive in rush chance differential under Woodcroft and Manson. This is true, but the issue is that the average rush chance Edmonton had allowed was far more dangerous than the average rush chance they created. Edmonton simply allowed far too many odd-man-rushes.
Under Woodcroft/Manson, the Oilers had an appalling 40 percent odd-man-rush shot differential. Under Knoblauch/Coffey, the Oilers are at a fantastic 58 percent odd-man-rush shot differential. They improved from 2.9 shots off odd-man-rushes against per 60 to just 1.5, nearly a full 50 percent improvement. Overall, Knoblauch’s Oilers have a 61 percent rush chance differential.
So, was this solely a systematic issue? I am not too sure. The Oilers ran a 1-1-3 NZ under Woodcroft and Manson for the first thirteen games. Under Knoblauch, the Oilers have primarily run a 1-2-2 NZ, alongside occasionally running a 1-4 when protecting the lead (very similar to what Vegas ran last season).
I don’t think Edmonton’s awful rush defence to begin the season was solely due to the 1-1-3. It is worth noting Edmonton initially had great success with this system following the previous coaching change in 2021-22. Of course, Edmonton’s execution of this system was still far from good this season, but from my perspective, many of Edmonton’s goals against were simply the result of too many careless and preventable errors, as opposed to systematic breakdowns or some fundamental flaw of the 1-1-3.
Furthermore, Edmonton’s best rush defenders last season were Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm, and Brett Kulak. Ekholm missed all of pre-season with a hip flexor injury, and as a result, he was not at the top of his game in October, while Bouchard and Kulak did not have great defensive starts to the season.
All things considered, I believe there are three primary reasons for Edmonton’s improved transitional defence.
The first reason is simply external factors. Ekholm is now healthy, and both Bouchard and Kulak have been strong at defending the transition as usual. Additionally, it is worth mentioning that Edmonton spent quite a lot of time trailing at the start of the season; perhaps it is reasonable to say Edmonton often attempted to cheat for offence when they were chasing a lead. As their offence regressed to the mean, and as their goaltending improved, perhaps they simply took fewer risks and made fewer errors.
However, I do not think these external factors are the only reason, as Edmonton’s rush defence has still markedly improved when games are tied. 
There is simply no denying that the systematic and structural changes Knoblauch implemented have had an impact, which is the second reason.
“For the defensive zone, we’ve tightened some things up, and addressed some things, [but it] hasn’t changed very much,” said Knoblauch. “We just wanted to put a lot of emphasis on our line rush coverage, on not giving up scoring chances. 45% of goals five-on-five come off the rush.”
“I think that’s been the biggest point of emphasis for me.”
For me, I cannot put into words just how encouraging this quote is from Knoblauch.  As mentioned earlier, Edmonton’s in-zone defence was not the primary issue. Knoblauch seems to have recognized this, and as a result, the defensive zone system has not seen a massive change. Of course, Knoblauch did mention they tightened some things up, but both Woodcroft and Knoblauch have run a zone defence this season.
On the other hand, it seems that Knoblauch was aware Edmonton had struggled to defend the rush, and decided to focus on it. The team reshaped their NZ forecheck. Knoblauch was able to come in and immediately identify the team’s most significant area of weakness, additionally mentioning data to stress why rush play is so important.
From closely watching the team at 5v5, there is a very evident team emphasis on defending the transition. More specifically, the players seem more comfortable with the 1-2-2 NZ, and I have seen a lot more support from the forwards throughout the OZ and NZ. A forward is always in position to cover for the defencemen as they pinch, while forwards are also consistently backchecking to eliminate rushes.

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Here’s a good video example of Edmonton’s NZ defence. Vegas attempts to breakout from their own end, but Ryan and McLeod deny their entry attempt, turning Vegas’ entry attempt into a decent rush chance for Foegele the other way, and nearly 20 seconds in the OZ.

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On this play, Anaheim attempts to enter the zone, but Draisaitl denies the entry, and Nurse successfully clears the puck. As Draisaitl goes off for a line change, Anaheim attempts another entry, but RNH and Hyman deny it once again. Anaheim tries a third time, but McDavid, fresh off the bench, intercepts the pass and sends Hyman in on a breakaway, resulting in his second goal of the night. 3 failed entries against, and a rush goal in just around 20 seconds for Edmonton.

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Here is a fantastic example of Draisaitl rushing back to deny an entry, resulting in an entry the other way for his linemate Brown. There is a very clear overall on-ice commitment to defending the blueline for all five players on the ice.
Finally, the third reason is the performance of Edmonton’s top-line of RNH – McDavid – Hyman, and top defensive pairing of Ekholm – Bouchard. This line and pairing have spent quite a lot of time together, as Knoblauch has often deployed them as a five-man-unit.
When people think of defence, many will primarily think about play in the defensive zone, but while in-zone defence is extremely important, offensive and neutral zone play matters just as much. Think of defence using its definition as the suppression of goals; anything that contributes to preventing goals is good defence. The more time you spend in the OZ, the less time you spend in the DZ, leading to fewer chances and goals. That does not imply that good offence is the best defence; rather, good offensive zone puck possession is the best defence, and this five-man-unit is a prime example.
Under Knoblauch/Coffey, the Ekholm – Bouchard pair has a 63 percent shot attempt differential, and 66 percent scoring chance differential. The RNH-McDavid-Hyman line has a 66 CF%, and 69 SCF%. With all five players on-ice, they have a 69 CF%, 71 SCF%, and an incredible 89 HDCF% (42 high-danger chances for, and merely 5 against)
What makes it even more significant is that this line and pairing is consistently against the opposition’s top players. Not only are they generating offence at an excellent rate, but by spending so much time in the offensive zone, opposition top players are constantly stuck in their own zone, causing them to have less opportunity to move the puck the other way and generate a rush chance. In this manner, the 93/97/18 line has simultaneously acted as a top offensive line and as a defensive shutdown line.
Here are some video examples of this line and pairing’s on-ice dominance:

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Some good defending down low from McDavid, Bouchard, and Ekholm helps force an OZ turnover for Carolina. RNH exits the DZ, and Ekholm enters the OZ. From there, all five players do a fantastic job at forechecking and keeping the puck in the OZ, consistently forcing a turnover when Carolina attempts to clear the puck. In particular, this was an outstanding shift from Evan Bouchard. They nearly spend a full minute in the OZ, until the players begin to line change, and Hyman scores.

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This play begins with an entry from Janmark and Draisaitl, while RNH comes on the ice. RNH forces a turnover, and from there, the players consistently keep it in the OZ. Even when the Devils exit the zone, the Oilers players immediately bring it right back in and generate several chances. Unfortunately, a couple of seconds later, the Devils did score, but it was off a turnover by Adam Erne. It doesn’t take away from the fact that Edmonton still won the game 6-3, and their top line / pairing did their job.
On this shift, the puck was in the OZ for a full minute and 13 seconds. Note that Jack Hughes was on-ice for a considerable portion of the shift. Hughes is one of the best rush creators in the league, and when he attempts to enter the OZ, it can be incredibly difficult for even the best defenders to deny him. The ideal way to limit a player like Hughes is by keeping him stuck in his own zone without the puck, which is precisely what Edmonton did here. Eventually, they forced a tired Hughes to line change.
Of course, credit must be given to Knoblauch here. The RNH – McDavid – Hyman line didn’t spend significant time together under Woodcroft. Knoblauch has done an excellent job at keeping his lines and pairings consistent, allowing them to generate chemistry.

Final Thoughts

With all of that in mind, I still believe Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson were fine coaches. Note that under their previous coaching staff, the Oilers had a 0.780 points percentage in the second half of 2022-23. The rush defence was certainly awful to start the season, but there were factors outside of Woodcroft’s control that hampered the team. If McDavid was healthy to begin the year, and/or if the Oilers did not possess the worst save percentage in the league, perhaps Woodcroft and Manson are still behind the bench today.
However, so far, I have been thoroughly encouraged by the new coaching staff.
Of course, the team was destined to eventually regress at some point regardless of who was behind the bench, but Knoblauch came in, immediately noticed the team’s struggles in transition, and was a major factor in improving it, most notably on the defensive side.
Not only has the team’s 5v5 play improved, but Knoblauch has done a much better job at overall player deployment, and keeping lines consistent. Not to mention, the penalty-kill has also taken a huge step forward.
The team still has a lot of work to do, as they currently sit five points out of a wild card spot. However, with such a massive improvement in the team’s transitional play, this Edmonton Oilers team looks much more dangerous.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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