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The Oilers in Seven: Part Two – A Bitter End to a Beautiful Beginning

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Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
3 months ago
This is the second article in a season-long series breaking down the Oilers into seven-game segments. This segment cost the head coach and his chief assistant coach their jobs, and their prize goaltending free-agent signing was sent to the AHL to get his game sorted.
STATRATE G1-7 + LEAGUE RANKRATE G8-14 + LEAGUE RANK SEASON TOTALS
RECORD, PTS%1-5-1, .214% — 31st3-4, .429% — T-10th4-9-1
GF-GA17-30, 36.17% — 30th22-22, 50% — 16th39-50, 42.9% — 28th
5v5 GF-GA10-18, 35.71% —28th13-14, 47.1% — 21st23-32, 41.8% — 28th
5v5 xGF%54.58 — 8th59.6% — 2nd57.1% — 1st
POWER PLAY7-for-27, 25.9% — 8th6-for-22, 27.3% — 9th13-for-49, 26.5% — 7th
PENALTY KILL20-for-27, 74.1% — 24th18-for-26, 69.2% — 27th38-for-53, 71.7% — 28th
SV%.861% —31st.885% — 18th.872% — 31st
5v5 SV%.886% — 29th.907% — 16th.896% — 27th
Honestly, this is the worst part of hockey. Don’t get me wrong. Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson will be fine. They’re being paid for another 18 months and I am convinced, if they want it, they will have another NHL opportunity in short order. The part that is tough to stomach is two very good coaches paid the price for a lot of errors made by others in the organization who still have their jobs today. Did the coaches make errors? For certain. Were their errors bigger than others? I don’t think so.
Nevertheless, the Oilers announced on Sunday, after a 3-9-1 start to the season, that Kris Knoblauch would take over as head coach with Paul Coffey replacing Dave Manson in the capacity of defence coach. Knoblauch’s first game as head coach was the last game in the second seven-game segment of the year.
Before getting to the last game, a quick autopsy of the first six games is necessary: goaltending, the penalty kill and injuries to major components of the team. That’s the summary. I’ve also been out here saying it was a certainty the Oilers were already on the rebound. The expected goal share alone tells you this team was not getting a fair shake in the results of games. The shooting percentage is another tell. The Oilers have a shooting percentage of 11 percent in the past two seasons in all situations. This year it is 8.2 percent. Had the Oilers shot to their normal percentage, it would have added 14 goals in their first 14 games.
The Oilers have lost four games by one goal. All of a sudden the standings don’t look so forbidding. Yes, the Oilers have some work to do in the net. Campbell is clearly not the answer and may not ever be. For Skinner, it is way too early to tell what he is as a goalie in the NHL. Should you run a Skinner-Pickard combo for a long period of time? Probably not. Is that a certainty? Not in my books. We do not have enough data.
Where Woodcroft and Manson need to accept some responsibility is in two critical areas. First, the penalty kill. It is atrocious. Right now their penalty kill takes away everything good the Oilers do on the powerplay. They are a -2 in terms of PP-to-PK goals. If you count the shorthanded goals in both directions, it is -3. For a team that has the offensive firepower it does, the ability to run a competent penalty kill would have made a massive difference.
The other area that is ripe for critique is personnel deployment. Woodcroft relied heavily on a certain core group of players playing them a lot of minutes. In addition, he continued to play McDavid and Draisaitl together when there was certainly evidence that splitting them up would have been a positive change. Woodcroft also seemed leery of trusting younger players in certain roles, causing them to see limited minutes in sheltered circumstances.  Finally, the blender was on full speed with forward lines for most of this season, which in my opinion, is hard on a team fighting confidence. Providing continuity of linemates is a way to take some uncertainty out of a player. That can be a calming type of action that can help confidence. All of this happened in the first six games of this segment. Again, I remain convinced the team was turning anyway, but these two areas certainly have held the team back this year.
So what happened in game seven of this segment, which happened to be the first game of the Kris Knoblauch era? Good things and a win. I saw a lot of commentary about this game being an awful game to watch. No question, the Oilers seemed shocked at the events of the last 48 hours. No question, learning a new coach had some impact. However, let’s give the Islanders some credit or blame for this game. They were trying to win this game 1-0, and when that went by, they were trying to win 2-1 in a shootout. I would expect a far different game on Wednesday against Seattle. The tempo of that game will be something to behold.
Nevertheless, let’s look at what Knoblauch did in his first game of note. Regarding tactics, the team continued to play the box plus one. I loved the players’ awareness of getting to their spots. Watch Hyman revert to his spot when Nurse arrives. I thought the box was nice and tight, and many players got in shooting lanes. Most interesting was how aggressive the Oilers were when the puck went to the wall. The Oilers were much more assertive when they had a chance to contest puck possession. I even note in this clip that Draisaitl had a chance to get on a puck carrier earlier than he did in one instance. Had he done it, the play would have been shut down quicker.

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The neutral zone is where we saw the most change. The Oilers moved back to a 1-2-2 for most of the game. This was the system they ran last year and, for at least one game, the team looked very comfortable doing it. Now, whether it can withstand quick attack teams will be the next big test. The first tell will be Wednesday against Seattle.

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One fascinating wrinkle was when the Oilers got the lead, the neutral zone switched to a 1-4 style. It’s very similar to how the Vegas Golden Knights operate for the most part. The Oilers did it a fair amount after they took the lead and it appeared it happened a couple of times on line changes. Here is an example of what this looked like, and it was effective.

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Notice the four Oilers between the center ice line and the blue line and how little space there is for the opposition to attack with any type of speed. I really like this adjustment. I believe this is one that could have a very positive impact on the Oilers going forward. It is a great way to lock down games when you are up in the game.
Another fundamental change was a commitment to moving the puck up ice much quicker than previously. Watch this little play from Mattias Ekholm, which was repeated by all of the defence group on this night.

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Finally, I really liked the Oilers’ commitment to try and use the middle of the ice to exit the zone and start attacks. This is something I expect to see much more as time goes on under Knoblauch. Plays like this one here should become commonplace highlights in Oiler games in the future. I love the fact that instead of trying to pitchfork it up the wall or hard-rim the puck to the weak side, instead Desharnais makes himself available in the middle and the pass is completed.

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This next clip is my favourite clip of the game. It is quite possibly the most important clip of the game. A whistle came, resulting in an Oilers’ defensive zone face-off. The Islanders immediately sent the Barzal line over the wall. The line on the ice for the Oilers was the 4th line of Hamblin, Ryan and Lavoie. What did Knoblauch do? He left them on the ice. I loved that call and I guarantee the entire bench noticed it in real time. How did the 4th handle it? Well, they had to manage some defensive zone time, but it went well and they cleared the puck into the Islanders zone.

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This is a massive statement by the head coach to everyone on that roster. You cannot overstate how big it was for Knoblauch to make this call. It said, “every player has a role and the coach will trust you against anyone at anytime”. Will that always be the case? No, but it is an encouraging start and more of this will lead to positive results for all of the players on this roster.
In terms of the segment, it was a bitter end to a great start. The tandem of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson took this city by storm 18 months ago. Stanley Cup dreams were undoubtedly in the heads of most Oiler fans until the early part of the season. When the end came, it came fast. Was it just and fair? Probably not. Did the Oilers hire a very good replacement? I believe they did.
For his first game, there were green shoots of hope in lots of areas. The next seven game segment will likely tell the tale of whether the Oilers can recover from the abysmal start to the season. Can Kris Knoblauch get them there? Time will tell, but the beginning looks good.

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