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The Edmonton Oilers in 2022-23: A Tactical Review

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
7 months ago
While the Edmonton Oilers are often associated with generational offensive talents who make highlight reel plays almost every game, there is a less exciting, but certainly more critical part of the Oilers.
That part is the 5v5 tactics the team employs to not only score goals but to prevent them. Like every NHL team, the Oilers have philosophies of how they want to deploy their players in each of the three zones to both defend and attack. These tactics are most important in the 5v5 setting because that is the common game state played.
Last season, I wrote about some of these key strategies for the Edmonton Oilers both in the regular season and the playoffs. So I thought before the exhibition season got underway, I would review what the Edmonton Oilers did last season. I’ll follow this up with an exhibition season review to see if there have been any changes to their systems and what effect each change had or is likely to have. Finally, I will write on a semi-regular basis through the season and in the playoffs on this topic as the Oilers look to compete for the Stanley Cup.
With any luck, you’ll all be shouting, “The 2-3 offensive attack was really awesome Connor” as he parades by on Jasper Avenue with the Stanley Cup. Ok, maybe that’s pretty nerdy, don’t do that.

What Did I See Last Season?

Before we jump into the strategies in each of the zones, I want to talk briefly about why a coach chooses a certain strategy. Generally speaking, coaches are divided into two camps: those who want to primarily score goals and those who want to primarily prevent goals. Certainly, a coach is going to tell you he wants to do both, but each has a base philosophy about what they want their team to do at 5v5. The ’80s Edmonton Oilers or the ’90s Pittsburgh Penguins wanted to score on your team every shift. The ’90s New Jersey Devils wanted to win every game 1-0. In today’s league, teams with an offensive leaning are the Seattle Kraken, the New Jersey Devils, and the Buffalo Sabres. On the defensive side, the Los Angeles Kings would be the best example.
The key part for a coach in determining what type of game he wants his players to play are the players themselves. If you have limited offense, but a great goalie and strong defensive defenders, you are more than likely to play more defensively. The opposite, of course, goes for the team that chooses to play for the next goal all the time. High-end offensive ability and poor defenders and/or goaltending likely means you are aiming to play 6-4 type games.
Whatever a coach decides in terms of philosophy is certainly based on what he and his staff think his team can do best relative to the rest of the league. The hardest part for the coaching staff is determining what’s best and then coaching his teams to execute those strategies. It can be the difference between a long coaching career with Stanley Cup success (Hi Bruce Cassidy) and not coaching in the NHL for very long at all. Hopefully, Jay Woodcroft is the former and not the latter for all of our sakes. Now let’s dig into what the Edmonton Oilers did last season.

The Defensive Zone

The Oilers most talked about tactical coverage, especially after being knocked out of the playoffs, was their defensive zone. There was lots of gnashing of teeth over what they did and should have done last year. Lots of the commentary linked the Oilers’ defensive zone coverage to why they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights. Some go so far as suggesting that a more passive, zone coverage be implemented. I wrote about this last weekend here at Oilersnation. For a more detailed look at the defensive zone, please have a read of this article.
In summary, the Oilers, like most NHL teams ran a hybrid defensive zone scheme. When the puck was down low, the Oilers man on man low with the two defenders, and usually the center locked up on their marks. The two wingers stayed relatively fixed using the dots as their key. The strong-side winger focused on the defenseman behind him and the puck carrier if he came up the wall. The weak side winger protects the slot and the potential of cross-seam passes. Here is a good example of the low part of the Oiler defensive zone coverage.

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If the puck moved up the zone, the center would now press on the puck carrier hard using the blueline as another defender forcing the puck carrier to dump the puck in or try a difficult pass. The two wingers would tightly mark their defenseman assignments to eliminate them as a passing option. The Oiler defensemen would retreat to the net front and find their marks and look for loose puck opportunities. Here is a good example with Nick Bjugstad. Watch him keep working up the wall on the puck carrier. Notice Hyman and Nugent Hopkins get tight on the Kings’ defensemen. Finally, Nurse and Ceci roll back down low to find their marks.

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Here is how the hybrid system works in its entirety when executed well.

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That does not mean the system does not have holes in it. This type of defensive scheme involves a lot of switching. When it works, the defending team usually exits the zone quickly and cleanly. However, if a player misses his assignment, it can lead to some high-quality chances against. Here is one of the more infamous moments in the last year’s playoffs. Watch what happens to Nurse and Foegele on this play.

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The system is one that looks very good until one player misses an assignment. When that happens the chances against are very noticeable and can have an outsized impact on the result of the game. Whether the Oilers stick with this concept or move away, the focus on the defensive zone work of the Oiler coaches and players this season will certainly be a hot topic.

The Neutral Zone

When Jay Woodcroft arrived, he made one major change to the Oilers tactics. It was how they managed the neutral zone. The Oilers under Dave Tippett ran a 1-2-2. Under Jay Woodcroft, the team ran a 1-1-3. Essentially, the 1-1-3 requires one forward to retreat when the other team gains possession and forms a picket fence at the defensive blueline with his two defensemen. The top forward or F1 tries to drive the puck toward the side of the ice where the two defensemen are positioned. The F2 or second forward reads and reacts trying to cut off cross-ice passes. Here is a pretty simple example of that type of defence from the Oilers.

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The entire goal is to force the team with the puck to give it up and shoot it in. With three defenders in front of them and back pressure coming, often the team with possession opts to dump and chase. This leads to the other nice benefit of this system. It really helps defensemen who struggle with retrievals either due to speed or puck skills. It gives them more help with that third player to retrieve and also a second short pass option when trying to outlet quickly. For the Oilers it certainly had some impact, reducing their goals against by almost .5 goals per game after the change to Jay Woodcroft.
Then a funny thing happened in 2022/23. The Oilers switched back to the 1-2-2. With it, the Oilers ended up reverting back giving up almost the same amount of goals per game they did under Tippett. Here is a clip of what the Oilers tried to do with their neutral zone defence.

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Pretty simple concept. F1 does his work trying to drive play to one side. F2 steps up to close off. F3 protects the middle of the ice. D1 and D2 read and react at the blueline with D1 stepping up on the strong side to force the play. Unfortunately, the Oilers do not have great fortune with this system. My hypothesis is the Oilers puck retrieval amongst its defenders is not the best. Ceci, Bouchard, and Desharnais are slower afoot to get back. Broberg is good but is asked to play the right side which is tough. Kulak and Nurse are fine on retrievals. Ekholm is simply a monster. So I think teams tried to push the puck into the right side of the ice and force the right defense to advance the puck. Without the presence of the third player, it makes it tougher. Here is an example of this type of situation. The puck is deflected in and the Oilers struggle to retrieve it before the pressure gets there and subsequently, the puck is recovered by Carolina.

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The other issue is the 1-2-2 is prone to rush attacks. While I think the Oilers group is okay at rush attacks, it is not uniform across the group. Watch this clip and how much speed the Kings can build because they have space on the flanks to attack. Poor Vinny Desharnais is left to his own devices here. Skinner probably could have helped him out here as well.

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This is my biggest area of priority this year. I really hope there are changes coming. Ryan Rishaug of TSN alluded to the potential of a switch to the 1-1-3 in a tweet on Friday morning. This would be an improvement, so hope springs eternal for me in this area of the Oilers coverage.

The Offensive Zone

Talking about the offensive zone forecheck gives me a chance to show my very favourite clip of the Oilers playoff run two years ago.

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Ok, maybe not the last part, but it is still a favourite of mine.
This is a thing of beauty. The entire concept is to have F1 push the puck carrier in one direction to the wall. Then F2 comes to collapse on the puck, while F3 stays in the slot waiting for outlets or passes off the turnover. D1 stays hard on the wall and pinches down at will with the only exception being if the defending team has full control and is moving up ice. D2 roves the middle of the blue line looking for interception opportunities but is also the safety valve if the opposition breaks out with numbers.
The Oilers are very good at this element of the game. The forwards are, as a group, quite quick and they have a ton of stick skills. In addition, they are not a small group on the whole so they clog up lanes quite well and can be very hard on puck carriers against the wall. Here is one more example of the great work done here by the Oilers here.

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The Oilers are excellent at working around the zone low. The key is to keep the F3 higher up. They do this remarkably well. However, when it does fail, it leads to a very simple breakout. Here is an example of what happens when F3 gets too low in the zone. McDavid leaks too low and off to the side. The slot becomes completely vacated. Watch how quickly the Kings attack that open space and what it leads to.

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When watching the Oilers this year in the offensive zone, watch the F3 and the rotation amongst players to cover this slot area. When it is done well, it is very hard to break.
This is an area I expect the Oilers not to change and they should not. They excel in this formation. In addition, if they do revert to a 1-1-3 neutral zone forecheck, it is much easier to do with F3 positioned nice and high.

Summary

Coming into the preseason, we will watch for some tweaks to these coverages. In the offensive zone, I would be surprised to see any change in philosophy. In the neutral zone, I hope the comments about changing to a 1-1-3 come to fruition. This is a better fit for the Oilers personnel as currently constructed. Finally, the defensive zone will likely be the hot topic all year. I doubt there is much change and certainly a zone-type coverage would be less than ideal in my opinion. However, if all the Oilers coverages shake out, let us hope each helps the Oilers take the next step in their quest for Stanly Cup victory.
Thanks for reading. Feedback is always welcome right here and on the X @bcurlock.

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