Sometimes one play has an outsized impact on a game. In a playoff game, it can be magnified even further. When the play happens to the Edmonton Oilers who are pressing to win a Stanley Cup with Connor McDavid, it’s proportionality goes off the charts.
A play like this happened last spring. At 12:40 of the second period of game three against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights, Darnell Nurse and Warren Foegele had an innocuous little play cause a goal against changing the course of a game. The end result was a loss in that game and a series loss in six games. For those that don’t remember, here is a clip of the play.
The resulting effect was a litany of commentary, including myself, about the overall tactical concepts the Edmonton Oilers have above the defensive zone. One theme seemed to gain more traction than others: why don’t the Oilers play a zone defence? This came from fans and from expert commentators alike. The core thought process was that if Nurse and Foegele were not required to mark their men aggressively, the play and the resulting goal would not have happened. Perhaps then, the Oilers would not have lost the series and given Vegas won the Stanley Cup, maybe the Oilers would have done the same.
Now there can be no question, the Edmonton Oilers are not the ’90s New Jersey Devils. The Oilers finished middle of the pack in shots against, goals against and save percentage. This was essentially the case in all situations as well as the most common play format, 5v5. However, some commentary started to focus on the defensive capability of the Vegas Golden Knights as the model to copy for post-season success. This was a little strange to me given the fact the Golden Knights were not that much better than the Oilers in the regular season in a lot of these same metrics.
No question, the goals against was a win for Vegas giving up nine fewer goals at 5v5 and a whopping 31 fewer goals in all situations (hellooooo…penalty kill). However, did ya know that Vegas gave up more shots than the Oilers at 5v5 in the regular season? Oh did you say all shots are not created equal? Well according to our friends at Natural Stat Trick, the Vegas Golden Knights gave up 242 more scoring chances against than the Oilers at 5v5 in the regular season. Vegas also was worse in high-danger scoring chances against totaling 755 to Edmonton’s 712.
Heck, even in the series itself those trends played out. The Oilers gave up fewer shots, fewer scoring chances and fewer high-danger scoring chances at 5v5 than Vegas, but surrendered far more goals against.
So from my perspective, this appears to be far more about goalies and specialty teams than it is about the defensive tactics of the Oilers. However, let’s review the Oilers’ defensive zone tactics along with these suggestions for zone defence to see if there are changes that can improve the situation.
Let’s start with what the Oilers do defensively. Like most teams in the NHL, the Oilers have two systems in place in their zone. One for when the puck is low in the zone and one for when the puck is high in the zone. When the puck is down low, the Oilers play 3v3 man to man with the two defensemen and the center usually involved. The wingers will stay higher using the space between the face-off dots as they mark with the strong side forward (F2) preventing pucks from coming up the wall and the weak side winger (F3) watching for diagonal passes through the slot.
Here is a great clip of this in action. Once the Oilers goalie fails to make a pass to the wing, the Oilers three low start marking their men. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins stays up on above the dots on the strong side. Once the puck goes to the other side, Nugent-Hopkins becomes the weakside winger whose job is to protect against seam plays. Watch him track down to defend a seam pass to the Penguin defenceman. McDavid then rolls up to take Nugent-Hopkins’s spot and quickly stretches when he sees Nugent-Hopkins win the puck.
When the puck moves to the top part of the zone, the Oilers tend to be very aggressive using the blueline almost like a checker by forcing very tight plays to occur near the blueline. The default goal is to try and push the puck out of the zone or force a chip down the wall that is up for grabs. The clip below is a good illustration of this concept. Watch Bjugstad mark his man low as the center. When the puck moves up the wall, Bjugstad continues to push up on the puck carrier. Ultimately, the opponent sees the trouble and sends an area pass low that results in an Oiler exit.
Like all systems, the Oilers’ defensive zone can have its flaws. Here is a good example of what can happen when the wingers up top leave their responsibilities. With the low three players working man to man, if the wingers up top fail to mark the slot and the seam attacks, it leaves lots of ice for opponents to attack. In this clip, watch Yamamoto misread the play and go to the wall thinking the Oilers will gain possession. Possession remains with Pittsburgh and the strong side defenseman for the Penguins takes the space in the slot and scores a pretty easy goal against.
Similarly, up the zone, the man on man up high can lead to some bad looks if you miss your assignment. Here is another clip with Bjugstad and watch him get lost in the zone. He loses track of his mark and the player floats down into quiet space behind him and is available for a pass. Fortunately, Vegas does not capitalize on this mistake and the Oilers escape without damage.
In all its glory, the Oilers’ defensive zone coverage should look like this clip from a game against Minnesota during last season.
Or like this clip as well, which should be considered a success despite the shot attempt against. This is the exact type of shot that should be given up.
So why do the Oilers run this type of structure? Not being in the coach’s room with Mr. Woodcroft and his team, I will have to make some educated guesses.
The first reason I would suggest they run this way is the center strength of this team. In McDavid, McLeod and Draisaitl, you have three very good centers. Of the three, Draisaitl is likely the weakest defensively, but that is a very high bar. Each has excellent foot speed, great sticks and maybe most importantly, the ability to exit the zone either with the puck or via pass when the Oilers gain possession.
Take a look at this clip. McDavid makes a great pressure play on the Kings’ defenseman who tries to rim the puck down low. McDavid swallows it up and then calmly sends a great mid-lane pass to Draisaitl and the Oilers exit the zone in an attack position.
Here is another example involving Draisaitl where he makes the defensive play on a breakdown. Then look at the instinct to get moving on the attack which sets the Leafs defenders on their heels. He makes a great little play to Darnell Nurse for a nice attempt on goal.
Each of McDavid, Draisaitl and McLeod can either exit via pass or skating. I actually think Dylan Holloway does this as well, which is why the coach experimented with him at center last year a little. In any event, I think the idea is that the Oilers have three centers who are highly skilled at exiting the zone in multiple ways and are also good to great defensively. As such, bring them lower in the zone to help defend, which has the collateral benefit of giving them more space to operate in if they transition the puck from the attacking team.
The other reason, I believe the Oilers employ this type of defensive zone strategy is that they are not very good at playing stationary defence. Last year when Vincent Desharnais was brought up, there was a lot of mention by Jay Woodcroft about his ability to take on the cycle. Certainly, before the addition of Mattias Ekholm, the Oilers’ defence was not strong on defending in-zone. One way to counter this weakness is by adding players like Desharnais and Ekholm. Big, physical defenders who relish engaging players with the puck. The other way is to add a man-to-man look down low and also up high to force turnovers or loose pucks that lead to exits. In other words, stop the risk of having to defend in-zone by not allowing it to set up at all. Watch this aggressive defending at the blueline by the Oilers to set up a relatively quick exit before every allowing the Golden Knights to set up.
What About The Zone?
So yes there has been chatter about a zone style of defense. Now to be clear, there really is not team that runs a pure zone defense. The concept here is to lay off the puck and allow it to be passed around the perimeter. The goal is to force a weak chance against that leads to a recovery or a stop. You see that type of coverage a lot 5v6 in the last minute of a game. Here is an example from Bakersfield with James Hamblin in the starring role. Watch how all of the Condors are passive hoping to force a shot, which they do twice. When the second shot comes, Hamblin makes the block and the Condors end up with an empty net goal.
Given that NHL teams don’t really run this type of defence, what does look like a zone? Well, the most prominent would be the box plus one. A couple of teams run it with Pittsburgh and Philly being right at the top of the list. Here is an example from Philly. The entire goal here is to force an outside shot that is absorbed by the goalie or blocked and turned over. Watch how Philly backs off into a passive resistance style of defence with only one player trying to force plays on the puck.
A pretty simple type of defence that would be easily playable for the Edmonton Oilers. So what are the downsides? Well, I believe there are two big, big ones. The first reason not to play a more passive type zone defence stems from one of its requirements: blocked shots. My personal preference is that McDavid and Draisaitl in particular, should not be blocking shots. It is a recipe for disaster on the injury front. No doubt, they would do it and sell out to do it. I am just not convinced that is the best use of them in the defensive zone.
The second reason I would prefer not to run this type of scheme is what it does to the Oilers’ offence as it almost assuredly will slow it down. If I were another coach and I had the McDavid line or the Draisaitl line or the McDavid-Draisaitl line on this ice and they were running a zone defence, I would play perimeter hockey for 90 seconds until they were tired. At worst, I exhaust those players for their next shift. I certainly stop their offense. Finally, I might actually end up with a quality scoring chance once they are thoroughly tired.
The final reason is my personal philosophy to play to a team’s strengths as opposed to protecting against weaknesses. This team is highly skilled. It’s also a very quick team overall. Finally, it is a pretty darn big and long team. This team was second in height and fourth in weight last year. Mix this all together and there is simply no reason to play a passive style of hockey. It doesn’t even fit the personality of most of this team.
If none of that convinces you, just look at the stats from the start of the article. This team was middle of the pack defensively. It got significantly better when Mattias Ekholm got here. Ryan McLeod absolutely showed his chops to play against the toughest competition in that series as well.
The hardest thing for a coach when they lose is not wanting to change something about the team. In terms of team defence, for all of the reasons above, I think Jay Woodcroft should stand pat and bring the same system back. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing.
That’s it, folks. If you made it to the end of this article without napping, good for you! Feel free to yell at me on the X @bcurlock
or right here below this article.