The recent trend for Edmonton may be positive, but coaching still remains as a significant issue

Photo credit:© Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
2 years ago
It’s safe to say that Edmonton’s record has been a roller-coaster so far. After a disastrous fifteen-game stretch in which they had a mere two wins, the Oilers have won five of their most recent six games.
There’s been plenty of debate amongst the Oilers fanbase on the various issues surrounding the team, and the areas that still require improvement.
Goaltending is certainly an area of weakness. Edmonton could require help at both LD and RD as well. Trading Tyson Barrie for a cheaper, and more defensively inclined 3RD would be an excellent decision (here’s a great read on this topic by Zach Laing).
Another frequently discussed subject is the coaching staff. Opinions on this topic have widely ranged from some believing that Tippett is a fine coach and has been a scapegoat for the goaltending, while many others feel he should have been fired last May following the series loss against Winnipeg.
I agree with the latter, as I have several serious doubts about Edmonton’s system in general. 
In this piece, I’ll be outlining these doubts and specifying why it will be difficult for the Oilers to achieve major success with their current coaching staff. Their recent trend of wins is certainly encouraging, but it shouldn’t detract from the concerns with Edmonton’s coaching that still linger.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Why the point shots are an issue

Several weeks back, assistant coach Jim Playfair mentioned on the Spittin Chiclets podcast on how he desires for every defenceman to have a shot per period. In other terms, Edmonton’s aim is to have approximately 18 point shots per game. 
This is pretty evident.
Over 40 percent of Edmonton’s shot attempts have been taken solely by their defencemen, ranking 2nd in the entire league in this regard. This is a staggering amount.
In addition, a relatively high rate of Edmonton’s shots from their defencemen are getting blocked. Only 25.1% of their unblocked shot attempts are missing the net (for comparison, the league average is 28.1%), but it isn’t encouraging that a (relatively) considerable portion of these shot attempts are getting blocked.

So, how well do defencemen finish as opposed to forwards in general?
Historically, it isn’t astonishing that forwards are far superior finishers than defencemen. The average 5v5 SH% for forwards is over two times higher than the average 5v5 SH% for defencemen. Their rate of goals is roughly 3.5 times higher.
High danger shots from the slot area typically possess a 16-19% chance of going in, shots from forwards generally have a 9-10% of scoring, while shots from defencemen and/or the point roughly have a 4% chance of going in. 
Consequently, the vast majority of teams shouldn’t be heavily reliant on offence from their defencemen to this extent. However, this degree of shot volume from the point can usually be successful only if a team’s forwards consistently crash the net, pressure defenders, and look for tip-ins, second chances, and rebounds (this is similar to how Carolina’s play-style operates, as mentioned in this article by former Maple Leafs assistant coach Jack Han). 
However, Edmonton doesn’t accomplish this enough (with the exception of Kane’s deflection goals so far). Their forwards seldom crash the net, and they don’t generate a high quantity of chances near the inner slot areas. For a team with players such as Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and Foegele, their lack of aggressive forecheck or pressure is surprising. 
There isn’t much publically available data out there for 21-22, but per Corey Szjadner’s tracking project (@ShutdownLine), the Oilers ranked 22nd in the NHL in shots off the forecheck/cycle in 20-21. I doubt that’s changed this season.
Additionally, only three Edmonton players (McDavid, Hyman, Foegele) rank in the top 100 in the league in Rebounds Created per Natural Stat Trick (their highest defenceman is Bouchard at 141st. Nurse is 252nd, with just six rebounds created on 210 shot attempts).
In comparison, Carolina has seven players among the top 100 in the league, and forward Andrei Svechnikov ranks second.
Furthermore, a team such as Carolina has a considerably stronger defensive core. Edmonton’s primary strength is their forward group, and evidently not their defencemen. There’s little reason for a team with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to have its blue-liners frequently shoot at this high of a rate. 
I’ve seen some theorize that Edmonton’s blue-liners are shooting at this excessive rate due to the poor forward quality and lack of finishing in their bottom-six, but this is statistically false.
Nurse and McDavid have been on-ice for 422 shot attempts, and 117 (!) of those have individually come from Nurse. In other terms, Nurse has over ¼ of Edmonton’s total shot attempts when he’s on-ice with the best player in the league.
The case is similar with Draisaitl. Nurse has been on-ice for 290 shot attempts with Draisaitl, and has individually taken 72 of those shot attempts, or in other terms, 24.8% (just a shade under one-fourth). Edmonton’s defencemen, most notably Nurse, are shooting at an excessively high rate even when the best offensive players in the NHL are on-ice.
As Playfair directly confirmed, Edmonton is coached to play in this manner, and simply put, this method clearly hasn’t been successful. Edmonton ranks 18th in the league in total 5v5 goals from their defencemen, and 26th in SH%. There’s a likely chance this has contributed to Edmonton’s subpar finishing as of late (with the exception of the outlier game against Montreal).

High-quality chances against

Another concern is the alarming rate at which Edmonton gives up high-quality chances.
I mentioned this in my piece last week, but the Oilers have experienced struggles defending the slot, most notably shots from the lower portion of the left circle, and in the lower slot area.
Their xGA/FA at 5v5 ranks 25th in the league; in simpler terms, the scoring probability of the average unblocked shot attempt they allow is higher than all but seven teams in the league. They’ve performed fine in suppressing shot volume and shot attempts against, but it’s the quality of those shots that’s unsettling.
In regards to the total sum of scoring chances allowed, the Oilers are generally average, ranking 15th in the league. However, over 22% of the chances they allow are high-danger, and they rank 26th in the league in this facet. They’re also below-average in preventing mid-danger chances, but typically excel in suppressing low-quality shots against. 
Limiting HDCA requires improvement. A portion of that is Ken Holland’s fault and the flawed defensive core he made, but coaching has played a role in this as well.

Neutral Zone Play and Defending the Rush

Another glaring issue with Edmonton’s play style is their neutral zone play and defending chances off the rush. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of publicly accessible data that supports this, as it’s more of a theory that I’ve noticed from watching the games. 
However, on January 21, Mike Kelly of SportLogIQ (a proprietary analytics company that only NHL teams and certain individuals have access to generally) pointed out that Edmonton ranks 25th in the league using a metric that attempts to measure neutral zone performance
I feel that Edmonton is simply too passive and predictable in the neutral zone and when defending their blue-line. The defencemen (especially Keith, Ceci, Barrie and Koekkoek) essentially give up the blue-line with ease. Especially for skilled and speedier transitional teams, such as Florida or Toronto, they typically have little problem or difficulty skating past Edmonton’s defencemen. 
Per Mike Kelly and SportLogIQ, Edmonton ranked 3rd last in the league in rush chances against as of January 22. This shouldn’t be shocking.
Another thing that frequently exasperates me is how Edmonton’s defencemen will launch a stretch pass to center-ice, the puck will be tipped into the offensive zone, and Edmonton’s forwards will lose the puck battle in the o-zone more often than not.  Subsequently, the play moves south. Either that occurs, or the puck will be unnecessarily iced (this mostly occurs with Nurse).
Both the (accessible) data and my eyes support this; Edmonton is an exceedingly poor neutral zone team.

Edmonton sits back too much when they’re leading and don’t perform well when the score is tied

An obvious problem for Edmonton is how they’ve consistently allowed the first goal of the game. However, even when the score is tied, or when they’re leading, the team struggles at defending.
Dave Tippett often sits back when the Oilers are leading, especially when they’re up by exactly one goal, and it’s an exceedingly poor strategy for a team that desires playoff success. This was evident in Edmonton’s most recent game against Washington; a win is a win, but squandering a three-goal lead against a Washington team without Ovechkin, Mantha, and Oshie isn’t an exceedingly encouraging sign.
To add on, Tippett seldom uses timeouts, and rarely line-matches as well. His in-game management just doesn’t seem effective. 

What about special teams, you may ask?

The major strength of the Oilers under the current regime has been their special teams. Since the beginning of 19-20, Edmonton ranks 1st in PP%, and 8th in PK%. One could argue special teams as a reason as to why the coaching staff deserves credit. 
However, the main problems with Edmonton lie with Tippett and Playfair, and not Glen Gulutzan, who currently runs the PP. 
In 17-18, the Oilers ranked dead last in the league in PP%, but the subsequent year in which Gulutzan was hired as an assistant coach, they ranked 9th. The improvement in their power play had already begun before Tippett’s arrival, and I’d attribute a great chunk of credit to McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nuge as well.
As for the penalty-kill, it’s reasonable to say that Tippett/Playfair have improved it. With that said, Edmonton ranks 21st in the league in PK% in 21-22 alone. They’re also 24th in PK goals against/60, and 26th in PK expected goals against/60.
Tippett also frequently scratches his best 5v5 players (e.g. Tyler Ennis last season), and/or neglects giving opportunities to younger, skilled players with potential (e.g. Benson and Marody). Instead, he’ll consistently deploy PK specialists with limited skill-sets, such as Devin Shore.
It would be an unfair statement that they don’t deserve any credit for the overall improvement in the penalty kill in the past three seasons, but the PK’s performance has been quite poor this season, and it shouldn’t be considered close to enough to make up for Edmonton’s substandard 5v5 play.


I’ve frequently used the visual above in prior articles, so I felt it would be redundant to write a separate section on it again. Nonetheless, it’s definitely something worth mentioning again. 
Holland hasn’t built a great bottom-six on paper, but it can’t be just a mere coincidence that essentially every depth forward performs worse than they did prior to their arrival in Edmonton, right? 
I think some people underestimate the extent to which coaching can impact 5v5 play. Calgary, Vancouver, and Chicago (somewhat) are prime examples.
The Blackhawks massively improved on the defensive end by firing Jeremy Colliton, going from a 4.1 GA/60 (goals against) and 2.7 xGA/60 (expected goals against), to a 2.1 GA/60 and 2.3 xGA/60 under current coach Derek King (5v5)
Vancouver progressed from a 48% goal share and a 47% expected goal share under Travis Green, to a 52 GF% and 51 xGF% under Bruce Boudreau (5v5).
Calgary currently ranks 2nd in the entire NHL in expected goal and high danger chance share at 5v5, which is a significant improvement as opposed to Calgary’s play under Geoff Ward the season prior. On paper, the Flames don’t have an appealing roster or defensive core either, as their superb 5v5 performance has largely been the result of excellent coaching and goaltending.
Meanwhile, a brief summary of Edmonton’s play-style is that they’re a weak neutral zone team that heavily relies on low-quality shots from the blue-line, while they conversely allow high-quality chances the other direction. 
They’re essentially a perimeter team that generally plays on the outside, with below-average forechecking, and they seldom crash the net to obtain second chances and rebounds.
Puck possession is definitely a strength, and that’s a positive of Edmonton’s coaching system. Per Jason Gregor, the Oilers rank first in the league in offensive zone time as of January 26. However, their possession doesn’t mean enough if they don’t take advantage of it, as they instead utilize it by placing emphasis on quantity over quality. I consistently notice plays where their extended o-zone shifts end with a weak point shot.
The issue isn’t solely Tippett either; Jim Playfair should be questioned as well. It nearly seems as if Playfair instructs the defencemen to give up the blue-line. 
It’s why I believe that if Edmonton desires to make a coaching change, replacing Tippett and Playfair with Woodcroft and Manson would cause a more substantial impact than just only replacing Tippett with Woodcroft. 
I’m not 100% certain as to what specific extent Tippett or Playfair have control/influence over each of these areas of weaknesses, but I feel it’s best for the organization in the short and long-term if they both go (Gulutzan should stay though).
Edmonton is 10th in the league in 5v5 shot attempt differential, but 21st in both 5v5 goal and high danger chance differential (-7 in goals, -25 in HDCF). Overall, they’re 16th in points percentage, which is simply not acceptable or satisfactory in Year 7 of Connor McDavid.
I’ve frequently criticized Ken Holland’s decisions, and Edmonton’s finishing, goaltending, and defensive core are the direct result and cause of his errors. With that said, Edmonton’s finishing woes may be related to the degree to which their defencemen shoot from the point, and Tippett/Playfair’s system isn’t helping the defence. There’s also quite a bit of potential in their forward core.
Holland hasn’t built a great roster, but the Oilers can perform better than they currently are at 5v5. 
I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think Edmonton will find a large degree of success under their current coaching staff. 
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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