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The Edmonton Oilers Preseason Review: A Systems Assessment

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Photo credit:Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
7 months ago
The pre-season is too long. It is absolutely too long for the players and the fans grow weary of it as well. The one group of people who love the pre-season: coaches. Oh, they love to practice and to play practice games. It gives them time to work down at the individual level working skills development. It also gives them time to work on team-wide concepts such as systems play. Prior to the start of the exhibition season, I wrote an article about what the Oilers’ systems play had looked like the prior year.
In the article, I speculated the Oilers would like not make any changes despite there being some benefit for change. Well, Jay Woodcroft, Dave Manson and the gang decided to use the exhibition season to implement fundamental changes to the 5v5 systems of the Edmonton Oilers. The changes didn’t last one game or two. The changes were not temporary where the team switched up what they were doing. The changes were permanent across all eight games and for every player at camp. What’s clear is the Oilers are going to do more to defend against the next goal than worry about scoring it this season. Why do I say that? Let’s watch the tape!
The one area of the Oilers’ system work that didn’t change much was in the offensive zone. The Oilers are very adept at their 1-2-2 offensive zone forecheck. The basic premise is for F1 to attack the puck and push the opposition puck carrier in one direction. The two trailing forwards take their cue from the direction of F1. F2 now moves in to lock down the puck carrier and F3 surfs to the middle of the slot to prevent cross-ice passes. The defenceman on the strong side will pinch hard in most occasions and the weakside defenceman will monitor the middle of the ice protecting against cross-ice passes, but more so to be the last line of defence. This has been a staple of the Woodcroft regime for quite some time. Here is my favourite clip of its implementation during their playoff run two years ago.

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This exhibition season there has been little change to this except I think we are seeing the F3 a little bit higher in the zone than previously. Here is a clip from Wednesday’s game and watch how high the F3 plays in the zone both when the Oilers possess the puck and when they don’t.

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The reason for this little tweak is two-fold. There is an offensive element to it in that it frees F3 up to play in some open space. Should he get the puck here, he can attack down hill with speed against defenders who are either stationary or trying to transition their direction. We will talk about this in a future article. The more important reason for today is because it helps the Oilers execute their neutral zone forecheck which has reverted to the 1-1-3. I wrote about seeing this change in an article a week ago that you can find here. In terms of why the higher F3 is important to the 1-1-3, watch this clip.

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Notice how high both Kane and Brown play constantly interchanging in the F3 position. When the Flames get control of the puck, the Oilers F3 is in a great spot already for a 1-1-3 defence. He surfs over to the puck and the Flames are forced to make a weak dump-in which immediately comes back at them with speed. This high F3 will be a key part of the 1-1-3 all year.
The general goal of the 1-1-3 is to prevent rush chances against. By lining up 3 players across their blueline, the opposition is usually forced to chip the puck in and try to win a forecheck battle. One of the critical issues for the Oilers last year was odd-man breaks against. The 1-1-3 is absolutely the best way in the neutral zone to resolve this issue.

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The other element of the 1-1-3 is the system brings a lot of players back down low quickly. Count the players below the hash marks for the Oilers at the .22 mark of the clip. This has the effect of smothering the offensive player’s options. It also provides a number of quick, short outlets should the Oilers regain possession, which is what happened here.
It is important to note this is not an easy system to run. It demands a great deal from the Oiler forwards. Each needs to ensure there is a nice high F3 in the offensive zone and when possession changes the high forward needs to race back to get into the 1-1-3. The Oilers have a lot of speed in the center ice position, which will normally be the higher player up. However, when the center is low, the wingers will need to work hard to get back into the F3 role. That said this change should have a very positive impact in terms of the quality of chance given up by the Oilers this year.
The other significant change to the Oilers’ systems this year is in the defensive zone. No question, this will be much talked about and watched this year. The Oilers have gone from a fairly aggressive man-to-man style of defense to a very passive box plus one. This type of defence is structured with four players protecting an area of the zone in which the shape is a box and the fifth player attaches to the puck carrier to try and force turnovers. This defence will be very familiar to all the Oiler players. To give some perspective, the box plus one is the base defence we teach at minor hockey levels to introduce defending concepts.
Just because it is a very basic defence does not mean it is not effective. If executed properly, opposition teams should have a great degree of trouble getting shots from high-danger areas. This should help the Oiler goalies this season. In addition, it provides a lot of short pass support when the puck is won back by the Oilers. Here is an introduction clip to the box plus one run effectively.

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Now that does not mean the box plus one does not have its issues. Primarily, it is going to allow the Oilers’ opposition to maintain a lot of puck possession. This can wear on players from an energy standpoint. It also has the possible effect of wasting Connor McDavid’s shifts by having him pinned in his own zone more than would occur under a man-to-man style of defence.
The box plus one also has some tactical issues. It can be exposed at its outset when the opposing team attacks the zone with speed. Watch this clip.

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The natural tendency for hockey players is to attack the puck and players close to it. So the box takes some time to form up. That often leaves gaps in the slot area that can be exposed. It will require tremendous discipline for the Oilers to maintain their position at the outset to avoid this type of occurrence.
Another element is the system requires patience and lots of it. Players will eventually break down and chase the puck, which can lead to slot chances. Here is the clip above with the second part. Watch Leon Draisaitl leave his spot and what gets created when that happens.

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The final element of the weakness of this style of defence is switching. Players will naturally start to switch as the puck is moved from low to high and across the rink. This is the key offensive tactic against this type of defence. Move the puck across the formation to force changes. When that happens players can get caught out of position trying to get back into the setup. It can lead to some very open looks.

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What Can We Expect?

Well, put your Corsi For analytical tool away. The Oilers will likely lose the possession battle a lot this year. However, what the focus should be is chances against especially high-danger chances. The changes in the neutral zone and the defensive zone should have the effect of lowering the amount of these chances against. It will also likely lower the offensive output of the Oilers. There will be less jailbreak style of offense for the Oilers flying up the ice leading to rush chances. Does that matter? At the end of the day, if it leads to a Stanley Cup, no one is going to complain that Connor McDavid didn’t get 150 points.
That’s our wrap on Oiler systems play for the exhibition season. We will be back routinely through the season to talk about these systems are working and if any other changes occur. Thanks for reading. Feedback is always appreciated right here or on the X @bcurlock.

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