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The Oilers In Seven: Part One – Well That Was Fun

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Photo credit:Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
6 months ago
This is the first in what will be a season-long series breaking down the Oilers into seven-game segments. Here is hoping we are getting the worst out of the way first.
Record: 1-5-1 – 3 points (6th in division; 31st overall)
Total GF-GA: 17-30 = 36% (30th ranked)
5v5 GF-GA: 10-18 = 35% (28th ranked)
Expected Goals For 5v5 – 54.48% (8th ranked)
PP 7-27 = 25.9% (8th ranked)
PK 7-27=74.1% (23rd ranked)
Save % Overall – .861 (31st ranked)
Save % 5v5 – .886 (29th ranked)
Folks, that was not fun at all. The Oilers entered the season as one of the favourites for the Stanley Cup despite nagging questions surrounding their defensive play last season and in the playoffs. The pre-season seemed to remedy all of those questions when it became clear the Oilers were changing both their defensive zone scheme as well as their neutral zone.
The neutral zone was a return to the 1-1-3 the team ran under Woodcroft when he came up in February of 2022. The team had moved to a 1-2-2 in the 2022/23 season which created a lot of rush chances against. The return of the 1-1-3 was designed to slow down the number of rush chances against by using a wall along the blue line to force the opposition to dump the puck in.
The defensive zone was a radical departure for the Oilers who had for years under Connor McDavid played a hybrid man-on-man style of defence. The team completely swung from this to a box plus one which is essentially a zone formation with one player pressuring the puck until there is a chance for a turnover. The idea of the box plus one was to protect the Oilers’ slot area and lower the number of high-danger chances against.
The entire concept was designed to lower the number of high-danger chances against. The bet being the Oilers vaunted offensive talent would continue their scoring ways at 5v5 and on the powerplay.
Well, the first seven game segment did not yield the results the team was expecting. The defensive system was challenged. The neutral system was challenged. Offensively, the team was challenged scoring average just 2.4 goals per game. To boot, the best player in the world ended up injured in game number 5 of the season and missed the last two games of the first segment. It all led to a very poor start to the season and lots of blame to share.

Is It The New Defensive System?

The immediate commentary for the poor start has been centered around whether the new defensive system is the culprit. There are battling narratives where some private data show the Oilers being near the bottom of the league in slot shots while Natural Stat Trick has them 9th in high danger changes against per 60. So I decided to look at each 5v5 goal against. Of the 18 goals scored against the Oilers at 5v5, my view is six come from a breakdown in the box plus one and 12 are the result of rush plays or dumb luck. You may vary in your opinions so here is the video to review.
Here are all the goals I would categorize as coming against the zone system employed by the Oilers.

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Here is a clip of all the goals I believe did not result from the box plus one, but other poor plays(neutral zone mainly) or dumb luck.

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Whether you agree with my numbers or not, it is clear the system in the zone is not the clear culprit. Don’t get me wrong. It has its issues. Here is a great clip of some of the trouble. A lot of the Oilers issue revolves around the center play in this system. In the box plus one, you divide the ice in half using the hash marks as a split. When the puck is low, the defensman will challenge the puck and the center will take the strong side post. When the puck moves up to the top of the zone, the winger takes the puck carrier and the center slides up to replace the winger while the defensman rotates back to net front. Again, the design is a tight box in the middle of the ice with pressure on the puck by one player. The hope is the of opposition team wastes a shot that is blocked or saved resulting in a transition play. They only time it gets more like man on man is on the walls. When the opposition moves the puck on the wall or bobbles the puck, there should be an immediate 2v1 by the Oilers. If the puck is low it is the defensman and the center. If the puck is high, it is the winger and the center. The remaining three players move to that side with the weakside winger protecting the slot and the defensmen ensuring the net front is clear and no player is underneath them. With that long preamble, watch this clip by the Oilers.

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Not a great display, but not horrific. Fortunately, the Oilers got to play two teams, Philadelphia and the New York Rangers who run excellent box plus one systems. Take a look at these two clips without comment.

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Look how disciplined the play is in terms of maintaining the box and then attacking the puck on the wall. Notice how competitive the defensmen are in shielding the net front from opposition players or making it very hard on them if they are located there. This is what the Oilers need to strive for in this system. Here is another goal where Darnell Nurse took a lot of blame, but honestly I would assign blame to McDavid before Nurse. McDavid was likely going to the wall for the breakout, but he should have inside-outted that play working from the strong side post to ensure the situation was in control. Asking Nurse to come across like that is unreasonable in my opinion.

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For me, the box plus one hasn’t been a major issue for the team. It’s not be great, but I think that should have been expected. This is a team with a core group who have never run this system in their professional careers in Edmonton. A core group that plays very big minutes. To expect perfection in short order was asking far too much.

Death By 1000 Paper Cuts

What should have been expected was better neutral zone play and better goaltending. Take a look at some of this neutral zone play that led to goals against. Eiyee.

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The full video at the start contains all of these clips and the Oilers have not been good enough in the neutral zone. I would expect some regression here on these ten bell gong show goals against, but the video is not pretty for some very important players on the Oilers. The 1-1-3 should be preventing rush chances against, but the players have been slow to adjust to it which is a surprise for me. This team was very good with this system at the end of the 2021/22 season.
As for goaltending, I understand that some people want to look at systems and player mistakes. I understand that some people want to choose one goalie over another. Personally, I don’t think it matters. When you sport a 89% save percentage at 5v5 and a 86% save percentage overall, your goalies are not good enough. Sometimes your team needs a stop.
In summary, whatever could go wrong in the first seven game segment, did go wrong. Will the Oilers as a whole, regress? Most certainly. Is the season a wash? Definitely not. As much as this will get ridiculed, patience will need to be preached while the Oilers sort out new systems and players stop overthinking on the ice.
Here is hoping for a much better second segment three weeks from now.

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