Moving forward, should the Edmonton Oilers run an alignment of 11F/7D or 12F/6D?

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
The Edmonton Oilers are coming off a huge win against the league’s best team in the Boston Bruins against the league’s best team in the Boston Bruins.
Ever since January, the team ranks 7th in the league in 5v5 goal differential, and 2nd in 5v5 expected goal differential. Ever since January, the team ranks 7th in the league in 5v5 goal differential, and 2nd in 5v5 expected goal differential. After an inconsistent start to the season, Edmonton continues to perform well. Since the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm, they’re 4-1.
With the playoffs approaching, several questions will still need to be answered. For me, one of those questions regards Edmonton’s deployment strategy; should the Oilers run with an alignment of 12 forwards and 6 defencemen, or 11 forwards and 7 defencemen?
For the general majority of the first three months, they ran 12F/6D. Ever since the team recalled Vincent Desharnais, they’ve largely used 11F/7D, but in their two most recent games, they’re back to 12F/6D.
In this piece, I’ll dive into what either alignment could mean for Edmonton’s roster deployment.
*All microstats manually tracked by me, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Desharnais vs Broberg (or both?)

The addition of Ekholm changed several things. With him at 2LD, Brett Kulak has been shifted down to 3LD, and Philip Broberg has been healthy-scratched a couple of times. The Oilers have played 12F/6D a couple of times recently, in comparison to their usual 11F/7D for most of January/February. With the subtraction of Tyson Barrie, this means that in a 6D lineup, either one of their LD shifts to RD (most likely Kulak or Broberg), or Desharnais is the 3RD full-time.
Running 12/6 full-time means one of Broberg or Desharnais will likely be out of the lineup. 
This season, I began a manual tracking project for Oilers games, tracking statistics known as microstats. Here’s a look at some of Desharnais and Broberg’s microstats for this season, compared to the team average:
Currently, zone exits are not an area of strength in Broberg’s game at the NHL level. Broberg isn’t bad at skating the puck out, but in my tracking, he often tends to miss outlet passes. Broberg has most commonly been paired with Evan Bouchard, and Bouchard has been the one doing the heavy lifting with defensive-zone breakouts on that pairing.
In January, Desharnais was superb with zone exits, as 72% of his zone exits were controlled, and he had a lower amount of failed exits (turnovers when making an exit attempt + icings) than any other defenceman. Now, to be fair, a 72% controlled exit rate was never sustainable to begin with unless your name is Cale Makar. Since the start of February, his controlled exit rate has declined to 45%, and his failed exits per 60 doubled.
Desharnais’ overall exit results are superior to Broberg’s, but in regards to pure ability, I’m not sure if either player is fantastic in this facet.
Broberg and Desharnais have been pretty similar with retrievals in sheltered roles, but Broberg has the edge, and Desharnais has also declined in this area since an excellent January. Both Broberg and Desharnais have a major advantage in certain areas, though.
In my tracking, defensive-zone breakups are assessed when a player disrupts the opposing team’s possession, which helps their team regain possession so they can attempt a zone exit. Breakups are also tracked when they clearly prevent an opposing player from a high-danger opportunity (e.g. blocking a 2-on-1 pass). Desharnais has shown up well in this area, as he’s been quite good at using his size and physicality to his benefit by forcing opposing offensive players to turn the puck over. Desharnais also has a long stick/reach that often disrupts opposing possession in the DZ. 
To evaluate rush defence, I track entry targets against a defender. I track if an opposing player carried the puck into the zone against the defender, if they dumped the puck in, or if they failed to enter at all (these plays are tracked as entry denials). The objective of entry defence is to prevent controlled entries/carry-ins as much as possible, as a carry-in results is typically three times more likely to result in a scoring chance than a dump-in, and the average shot off the rush (i.e. a shot off a controlled entry) is more dangerous than the average shot off the forecheck or the cycle. Broberg has the major edge in defending entries.
The average defender will allow a carry-in roughly ~57 percent of the time. Broberg allows a carry-in merely 45 percent of the time. The average entry denial rate is around ~10.5 percent, while Broberg is at 13 percent.
One of Broberg’s primary strengths is his gap control. He’s strong at using his size and reach to his benefit by limiting space for oncoming forwards that attempt to enter the zone past Broberg, causing them to either turn it over or dump it in most of the time.
In January, Desharnais allowed a carry-in 53 percent of the time. Initially, he was off to a fine start, but as the sample got larger, and as the team began facing tougher opponents, his metrics declined in this area.
In the month of February, alongside the games in March thus far, Desharnais has allowed a controlled entry 62 percent of the time. In that time span on average, Edmonton’s defencemen allowed 13.8 carry-ins per hour, but Desharnais was nearly at 17 carry-ins against per hour. A concern I have with Desharnais is his foot speed and skating. Against faster teams that tend to attack off the rush, he can struggle, which could be an issue in the playoffs.
Overall, Broberg’s underlying on-ice numbers are superior. Out of all NHL defencemen with at least 400 TOI, Broberg ranks fifth (!) in the league in expected goal share. Of course, raw xG% doesn’t account for quality of competition, and Broberg has been sheltered, but this is worth mentioning, as Broberg has excelled at helping the team tilt possession and scoring chances with him on-ice. Desharnais’ goal differential is higher, but both of them are on opposite ends of the PDO (proxy for puck luck) spectrum, and I expect both to regress.
The remaining games are a good opportunity to get a clear answer.
If the Oilers plan to run 12F/6D, the team should grant Broberg a chance on the right side. The Oilers could play more against faster teams that attack off the rush in the playoffs, namely Los Angeles and Colorado, so at glance, I’d prefer Broberg in the lineup. Broberg is the better player right now, and I’d like to see how well he’d fare on his off-side in the NHL. That said, Desharnais is still quite useful.
With all of that in mind, the benefit of an 11F/7D is a strong strategy as it allows Edmonton the option of playing both, instead of having to pick and choose. For me, that’s one of the major advantages.

The competition in the bottom-six

It would be an understatement to say that Edmonton’s bottom six has improved this year.
The Oilers have out-scored the opposition at a ratio of 64 to 51 with McDavid and Draisaitl off-ice at 5v5, equating to a 56 percent goal differential, by far the best it’s ever been in the McDavid and Draisaitl era. That goal differential is actually higher than the differentials of most cup-winning teams without their top-two players in the past couple of years. 
Safe to say, depth scoring is now a strength of Edmonton’s, and this was evident in their most recent win against the Bruins, when Edmonton won without a single point recorded from Connor McDavid. 
One of the major reasons for this improvement is that Edmonton’s bottom six doesn’t really consist of any bad players, and there’s genuine competition. With everyone healthy, the Oilers could have thirteen NHL-calibre forwards. If the Oilers run 11F/7D, two forwards have to come out, so who should it be? Considering that Edmonton’s top six will consist of McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Hyman, Kane, and Yamamoto, let’s go through the options.
For me, Ryan McLeod, Derek Ryan, and Warren Foegele are all fixtures as bottom-six players on the current roster. McLeod is an incredibly useful two-way player and excels in transition. Ryan is Edmonton’s best forechecker, ranking first among the forwards in exit disruptions per 60, and ranks 4th on the team in 5v5 goals, just one behind Zach Hyman. Foegele has also played well. He has excellent on-ice metrics with a 54 CF% and a 56% xGF%, and he’s begun producing more offence.
Nick Bjugstad is a fine bottom-six forward. With a total of 12 5v5 goals, he’s just one behind Leon Drasaitl, alongside solid underlying defensive numbers. He hasn’t been eye-popping since his arrival (although he’s excelled at faceoffs), but I think I’d keep him in the lineup.
That leaves Mattias Janmark, Klim Kostin, and Devin Shore.
For a bottom-six forward, Devin Shore has been exceptional as of recently. In his last nine games, he carries a 66% expected goal differential, and five points. Against Boston, he led the entire team in game score.
Klim Kostin has (predictably) cooled down from his shooting-percentage heater, but hasn’t played poorly by any means. I think an area of improvement for the Oilers is finishing their chances, so even though Kostin’s stretch of goal-scoring is likely unsustainable, it could be a good idea to keep him in the lineup for that reason.
I’m not the biggest fan of Janmark. That said, he’s had some decent production recently, and is a solid penalty-killer, ranking third on the team in PK GA/60, so there’s a strong case for him to play in the lineup on the fourth line as well. With the way Shore has played, Janmark would be my choice for a healthy scratch, although I don’t think that’s entirely realistic. He’s played a higher percentage of his TOI against elite competition (29.8%) than any other bottom six forward, so the coaching staff seems to trust him. 
Not to mention, Dylan Holloway will be healthy soon, so he’s yet another option.

Final Thoughts

Here’s a look at Edmonton’s totals with 11/7 as opposed to 12/6.
*Note: The 4 games (record of 2-0-2) where Edmonton ran 11 forwards and 6 defencemen due to injuries/cap constraints are omitted
The team has a markedly better points percentage, goal differential, and expected goal differential when running an 11F/7D alignment.
12/6 is the most common lineup in the NHL today, and it would allow you to run four consistent forward lines and three defensive pairings. For once, Edmonton also has more than enough NHL-caliber forwards to run four solid lines.
With 11/7, one or two very solid players could be sitting out. Of course, that may not matter much if the TOI of that 12th forward could be replaced with more McDavid/Draisaitl TOI. However, with playoff games having twenty-minute overtimes, could it be a superior idea to run twelve forwards to reduce the load and injury risk on McDavid and Draisaitl? But even then, the Oilers have plenty of forwards that can center a line. If load management is a concern with longer overtimes, it’s a viable option to additionally increase RNH or McLeod’s minutes. Consequently, there are several pros and cons regarding the forwards with either alignment.
The major benefit of 11/7 for me is that it allows for better deployment with the defencemen. In this scenario, Edmonton wouldn’t need to pick and choose between Philip Broberg and Vincent Desharnais; both would play. I prefer Broberg, but both players have some strengths.
Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci have struggled as a top-pair, so 11/7 would allow more flexibility and rotation of the defensive pairings, and more preferable matchups. Especially with Ekholm, even more of the workload could be shifted off Nurse and Ceci against top opposition. Not to mention, Jay Woodcroft and Dave Mason in general have had a considerable amount of success with 11/7, and the Oilers possess a superior record with this alignment.
What are your thoughts? Should the Oilers continue running 12F/6D as they’ve done recently, or should they go back to 11F/7D?
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