As the Dave Tippett era was coming to an end, a lot of the narrative about why the Oilers were struggling related to the a of coaching creativity in terms of line and pairing combinations as well as personnel deployment. One undercurrent that was discussed less was the tactics of the Oilers and the execution of those tactics. This topic became much more prominent after Jay Woodcroft took over and finished the season with a .724 winning percentage. Underlying that winning percentage was the substantial improvement in 5v5 performance of the Oilers after Woodcroft took over. Goal share at 5v5 went from 47 percent to 56 percent. The shot share percentage increased from 50 percent to 53 percent and an expected goal share percentage increased as well from 50 percent to 53 percent. So the question became what did Jay Woodcroft do to spark such a dramatic turnaround that took the Edmonton Oilers to the Conference Finals from a team that was barely in the playoff fight when Tippett was fired. For me, one of the most important changes was the 5v5 tactics used by the Oilers and the commitment to the execution of those team’s tactics. But what were those tactics before and after Woodcroft and what is happening this year? That’s what we talk about next.
Let’s Talk Nerd Talk
Before we drill down on the Oilers specifically, let’s begin with a general discussion about team tactics at 5v5. In hockey, the most common state of play is 5v5. Teams that perform well at 5v5 in terms of shot share, expected goals and goals typically perform well in-game performance. In terms of 5v5, teams either have puck possession or they do not. The focus of this article is on what the Oilers do when they don’t have the puck. We know what they can do with the puck, but the far more important part for the Oilers is what happens when they don’t have the puck in each zone. How do they regain possession in each of these zones and how often do they regain possession? In the offensive zone, what type of forecheck do they use to get the puck? In the neutral zone, again, how do the Oilers forecheck? Finally, if the Oilers cannot regain possession in the offensive zone or the neutral zone, how do they defend in their own zone and does it work well?
At its basic level, the game of hockey is a game of time and space. When you have the puck, you want to create more time and space for the defenders. When you do not have the puck, you want to take away time and space from the team with the puck. How a team forechecks and defends is directly correlated to taking away time and space. In the offensive zone, we hear terms like 2-1-2, 1-2-2 and 2-3 forechecks thrown around. In the neutral zone, it’s 2-1-2, 1-2-2, 1-3-1 and 1-1-3. When defending, there is the old Oiler favourite, the “swarm” (it still gives me night sweats), zone defence, man-on-man defence and a variety of hybrid systems.
To make matters more complicated, you want the systems being run in each zone to be connected together. When I hear smart hockey talk about systems, I hear the term connected a lot. The players executing the systems have to be playing systems that allow them to connect an offensive zone forecheck with a neutral zone forecheck to a defensive zone structure. If teams are not connected, you start to hear comments like “the team is susceptible to seam passes” or “look at that stretch pass” because the players are now giving up time and space that is attackable by the opposition.
So What Did Jay Do?
With all that nerd talk out there, let’s try and break down this into simple chunks about what the Oilers have done and whether anything has changed.
Offensive Zone Forecheck
The Oilers under Tippett and still under Jay Woodcroft have run a 1-2-2 forecheck as a default. The premise of the forecheck is to send the first forward (F1) in hard on the puck. The ultimate goal here is to turn the puck over, but that happens less frequently. The real goal is to push the puck carrier to ice where he is forced to give up the puck. The next two players(F2 and F3) create a second layer of defence. F2 becomes F2 purely by the puck coming to his side of the ice. His job is to get that puck! F3 is the weakside player and his role is the most involved:
- Stay in the middle of the ice usually at or above the hash marks to retrieve pucks coming through the middle;
- Race to cover for a pinching defenceman; and
- Reverse course and become F2 if the opposition decides to reverse the puck to the opposite side.
I can say without a doubt, F3 is your most involved position and we will talk about that as it relates to the Oilers through this article.
The remaining two players in the 1-2-2 are your defencemen. D1 is often called the strong-side defenceman because he is the side where the puck goes. His job is to provide a seal for the puck coming up his side and this can be done by holding the line or pinching down depending on where the puck is located. D2 holds the middle of the ice and is really the safety valve if the 1-2-2 breaks down. He is the last line of defence as the opposition comes up the ice.
So this was the offensive zone forecheck under both Tippett and Woodcroft as demonstrated below.
Now there was a fundamental difference between how it was executed under Tippett and then under Woodcroft. Take a look at these two clips and focus on the location of F3.
That is the single biggest change under Woodcroft. It is crystal clear, he demanded the F3 stay about the puck and in the middle of the ice to prevent easy exits when all three forwards were down below the bottom of the circles chasing the puck. When the F3 rotated down, a new F3 needed to replace him.
This is absolutely my favourite clip of how well the 1-2-2 was working for the Oilers last season. Watch the rotations amongst players and the commitment to follow the structure without the labels. To a nerd like me, it is poetry.
Neutral Zone Forecheck
This area of the Oilers’ team tactics has seen the most change. Prior to Woodcroft, the Oilers ran a “very aggressive” 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck. In this instance, F1 tries to push the puck carrier to the wall. F2 and F3 again create a second layer of defending. The role of F2 is to move toward the puck carrier and force a pass up the wall. F3 sits in the middle of the ice defending royal road passes across the ice. D1 and D2 are designated just like the offensive zone forecheck depending on which side the puck is on. So what was the “very aggressive” element of the Tippett 1-2-2? It was the positioning and tactics of the D1 and D2. First, D1 and D2 were quite high in the neutral zone, trying to force the play. Second, D1 immediately pushed even further up to attack the pass and force the dump-in or icing. Many teams (think Boston, Calgary), keep their D1 and D2 closer to their blueline and allow the opposition to dump the puck in as opposed to force icings. Let’s take a look at an example.
Why did the Oilers run the aggressive 1-2-2? Well, it is a more offensive style of approach to defending. With three forwards up the ice, any turnover can lead to a quick counterattack. Think the Vegas Gold Knights pre-Bruce Cassidy. It can work well.
Now the problem for the Oilers in running this tactic was that the composition of the Oilers defencemen. Barrie, Bouchard, Ceci and Keith were not burners. This created two advantages for the opposition:
- D1 often was late to get to the pass up the wall and it allowed dump-ins that could be retrieved; or
- D1 and D2 were susceptible to being attacked on a rush if the Fs were unable to force the pass up the wall.
It routinely led to this type of play:
When Woodcroft came in, he had run a mostly 1-1-3 neutral zone forecheck. So what the heck is that? Well, it is a neutral zone forecheck that got Barry Trotz a Stanley Cup ring and also the Tampa Bay Lighting two titles. The basic play is that when the offensive zone possession breaks down F3 immediately moves back to form a three-player wall towards the defensive blue line. So again F3 becomes the key. That player has to stay higher in the offensive zone and then has to work very hard to get back to a defensive posture. Then it gets even harder for that player if there is a turnover because he has to work getting back up the ice. Forwards are generally not a fan of the 1-1-3. Remember this point for later.
Back to the concept. The lineup should look like F3-D2-D1, so you have the forward hopefully on the weak side of the ice. F1 then tries to steer the puck up the D1-D2 side. F2 holds the middle of the ice and is completely responsible for preventing the puck from being passed through the seam to the opposite side.
There are two ways the 1-1-3 is successful. First, it can create turnovers at the blueline leading to transitions in the other direction. The other, and far more common way the 1-1-3 succeeds is by forcing dump-ins that can be now handled by 3 players instead of two players with F3 being that third player. For the Oilers, and the defence composition, it was a winner.
There is no question to me that this change in tactics was a huge reason for the improved play of the Oilers under Woodcroft.
Defensive Zone Structure
Under Dave Tippett, the Oilers ran a very right five-man low defensive structure. D1 would be on the puck with F1 joining to try and create turnovers. D2 would hold the net front to protect from slot and seam passes from below the goal line. F2 tries to prevent the puck from coming up the wall. F3 stays in the high slot and marks the defender behind him. F3 is positioned in the high slot to help in emergencies net front.
Jay Woodcroft did not change this very much at all, More what Woodcroft did was add a little bit of man-to-man when the puck came up top. So below the hash marks, they ran a tight zone and above the hash marks they ran a man-on-man with the forwards tracking their assignments. Here is an example of both structures in one clip.
Here you can see a recent example of how well it can work in terms of leading to a lost possession.
Under Woodcroft, there was a modest improvement defensively giving up 1.92 goals per game at 5v5 compared to 2.28 goals per game under Tippett. However, I really believe that Woodcroft’s tweaks in the defensive zone were a large contributor to the Oilers increasing offence. His emphasis is on making sure F1 was nice and low and wasn’t cheating for offence. Why would this make a difference? Because you have fleet of foot centers in McDavid and McLeod along with an excellent puck carrier in Draisaitl. The ability of the Oilers to get the puck into their supreme talents low in the zone with time and space creates instant offensive possibilities.
What About This “Connectivity” Between Zones?
One final point before we get to what we have seen this year by the Oilers: connected play. What Woodcroft did in terms of team structure should not be taken lightly. He, and Dave Manson, came in, assessed the roster and kept tactics that worked, throughout ones that didn’t and did so based on the talent he had. He also emphasized a commitment to these tactics. The result: connected play.
Let’s think about the F3 as an example. In the offensive zone, the F3 stays higher to be available to create turnovers or re-establish possession. If the forecheck breaks down, he is high enough in the zone to get back to his position on 1-1-3 to set up another zone where a possession change can occur. If that still doesn’t work, F3 can be the first forward back and turn into F1 where he can assist in regaining possession or defending as needed low or high. In that one role, that is the very definition of playing connected. Each player on the ice has the same goal. Playing connected leads to better structure and that leads to 5v5 success.
What’s Happened This Year?
Until a month ago, it was easy to say the Oilers were not living up to expectations. There were lots of reasons for the situation. Some related to injury. Some suggested the schedule was more challenging. Some pointed to goaltending. All of those had contributions. However, our topic of team tactics also played a role. Both, in what was being done and also execution.
Let’s start in the offensive zone. There has been a little too much of this occurring this year. This was very reminiscent of the Tippett days.
Now, fortunately, this is an easy fix and I would argue we are seeing that in the last month. Again, here is a clip we love to see over and over again.
In the neutral zone, we have seen a lot of change. It is clear the Oilers decided this year to run more 1-2-2 in the neutral zone than it did under Woodcroft last year. Now there is a rumour the Oilers didn’t like how they stacked up against Colorado in the Conference Finals. That’s just a rumour. It could be as easily that the coaching staff believed that the re-designed Oilers defence could handle it. Or, and I think this has value, maybe the forwards wanted to play a little more offensively without some of the difficult tasks that the 1-1-3 requires. Unfortunately, that has caused some grief. The 5v5 goals against are slightly up at 2.02, but maybe more interesting, the offensive outscoring is down from 2.45 goals per game to 2.15. My view is that the 1-2-2 is allowing more controlled possession by the opposition which limits the ability of the Oilers to get on the attack. While Corsi is not a great tool any longer, it does remain somewhat of a proxy for possession. This year the Oilers are down to 50.71% from 53.3% under Woodcroft last year. So at a minimum, teams are improving their possession against the Oilers. Here is one example of what is happening.
I even would add I think defencemen used to the Woodcroft/Manson 1-1-3 have struggled to adjust to the 1-2-2 structurally. Look at this clip of Niemelainen being burned for a goal against.
Now, a defenceman is taught to play inside the dots so Niemelainen does breach hockey defending 101. However, I thought a lot about this play IF the Oilers were running the 1-1-3. Niemelainen could be further out, but the mid lane would be covered by 29 or D2 and the likely result was a dump-in or possession change. Maybe Niemelainen even had a muscle memory response playing tighter to the wall from living the 1-1-3 in Bakersfield.
Nevertheless, that does appear to be changing. Again, using Corsi as a proxy, the Oilers have run a percentage of 56.4% going back to the Los Angeles Kings. There is definitely more commitment to a 1-1-3 neutral zone. Although I still see some 1-2-2, especially from the big line, there are many videos that look like this again.
In the defensive zone, the wobble has really been all about the low forward not cheating for offence. When that is avoided, which has become much more consistent recently, we see plays like this from even the bottom six that lead to exits and offensive attacks.
Where the season goes in terms of tactics is anyone’s guess. Every team has mastered many of these strategies and will often change them depending on the score of the game, injuries or to game plan a coming opponent. The Oilers are no different. What is clear is that Jay Woodcroft’s systems and his requirement to execute them are back and not a moment too soon.