The winds of change are here with the Edmonton Oilers

Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
7 months ago
The person who can make me look dumb the quickest is my wife. She’s not mean about it, but she will certainly ensure my ego is sufficiently in check when I’m perhaps a little too full of myself. I know, seems hard to believe. Well, my wife may have competition. On this past Sunday, it only took Jay Woodcroft about 4 hours to make me look fairly dumb. Now I am sure Mr. Woodcroft’s focus was not on trying to make me look dumb. He assuredly was focused on the Edmonton Oilers and the journey to a Stanley Cup. What did Jay Woodcroft do that reinforced the opinions have of me? Well, he has implemented some structural changes that I didn’t think would happen.

What Did I See?

Last week, I wrote an article summarizing the tactics of the Edmonton Oilers used at 5v5 last season.
In the article, I promised to write an article at the end of the pre-season noting any changes the Oilers may have made in their 5v5 tactics. Well, it took about eight shifts and about five minutes of playing time to see the Edmonton Oilers are indeed changing up their 5v5 systems.

The 1-1-3 Neutral Zone Forecheck

As a refresher, the Oilers ran a 1-1-3 neutral zone forecheck when Woodcroft was first promoted in February of 2022. The change from the Dave Tippett 1-2-2 had an instant positive impact. The Oilers’ goals against were immediately reduced and the team went on to the third round of the NHL playoffs losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers changed back to the 1-2-2 forecheck in the neutral zone in the 2022-23 season. Why that was, I am not sure. However, the Oilers were poorer in goals against climbing back over three goals per game against to levels seen under Dave Tippett.
When training camp for 2023-24 started, almost immediately, it was being pointed out (I see you Ryan Rishaug of TSN) that the Oilers might be changing back to the 1-1-3. However, the Oilers had not played a game yet, so it was hard to be certain. Well, game one against the Winnipeg Jets last Sunday showed almost immediately the switch was in play. However, I wanted to wait until the vets including McDavid and Draisaitl played to ensure there was a change. Well here is a clip that illustrates the 1-1-3 is back.

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This was a great example of what the Oilers will try to do this year. Notice the three players standing up at the blueline. The ultimate goal is to force a dump-in leading to a change of possession. In this case, Vancouver manages to gain the blueline with possession. However, look at how limited the options are for the puck carrier. His time and space are being compressed and his options to the flanks are not moving with any speed at all. Ultimately, Vancouver settles for a deep chip and the possession is lost.
Here is another example from last evening of the impact the 1-1-3 can have even when the attacking team gains possession down low. Watch the Canucks player win the foot race to the puck. Notice in this case how the Oilers collapse down low and win the puck. They can do this more easily because 4 of their 5 skaters are playing quite high above the puck. The Canuck forward is immediately under pressure and Draisaitl takes control of the puck and the Oilers exit.

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I strongly believe the 1-1-3 is an excellent fit for this team. The Oilers speed at center makes it easier for the Oilers to quickly establish the 1-1-3. This, in turn, helps the Oiler defence group on puck retrievals. This is not a group that is blessed with great transitional skating, especially on the right side. So bringing another forward back to help with the retrieval is a definite plus. In addition, it should have the added benefit of allowing players like McDavid, Draisaitl, McLeod, Holloway and others the opportunity to gain possession of the puck low in their zone with time and space. This change alone will help the Oilers defensively.

“Ok, But Let’s Get To You Looking Dumb Bruce”

Yeah, yeah. I went all in on Sunday suggesting the Oilers did not need to change their defensive zone structure. That structure is a hybrid set-up depending on where the puck is in the zone. If it is low, the Oilers play man-on-man with the two defencemen and the center marking their players all over the ice. The two wingers hold position at the dots protecting against passes to the point and seam/slot attacks. When the puck goes up the wall, the Oilers press hard on the puck carrier using the blueline as another defender. The two defencemen should rotate down to the net front to pick up their checks. Here is a good example of how it works from low to high.

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In the article, I stated that the Oilers should ignore calls to play a more passive zone-style defence and carry on with last year’s structure. What did Mr. Woodcroft do in this exhibition season? He switched to a zone style defence and boy is my face red. The system is most commonly known as a box plus one. Here it is in all its glory.

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Less than two minutes into the Oilers’ first exhibition game, my dumbness was exposed. Look at the clip above again. Notice how the Oilers immediately form a tight box when the puck gets low. The Oilers shift the one forechecker on the puck as it moves around the zone. Again, look how tight the slot area is marked, which is the goal of this type of defence. The second benefit is once the puck is retrieved, the Oilers will have more players as short pass options to escape their zone with possession.
Here is an even better clip of what this type of defensive zone structure is designed to do when the puck tries to come into the slot. Watch the collapse by all four players into a very small box to prevent any opposition players from being able to gain position in a dangerous area with the puck.

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So what does this type of defensive system want to give up in terms of attempts? The low-risk outside shot. Take a look at this video from last evening. When the Canucks player gets the puck on the half wall, he has no option to get the puck to the slot. It is very tightly marked. The player is forced to send it up top for a point show that is blocked. PERFECT! That’s what you want to give up. Now watch when the puck rotates to the other side. This is what should happen on seam passes in this system. They should not be able to get through as this clip shows. The Oilers now have possession and can attack back up the ice.

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Now every system has its warts and the box plus one certainly has those as well. The way to attack it is by bringing players to the top of the zone and attacking downhill. The hope here is to get someone in the box to lose discipline and attack the puck. This exposes the slot and should lead to a high danger chance. Here is an example from the game in Winnipeg earlier this week. Watch #21 and #86 lose patience and attack the wing possession. The result is a goal against.

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This will certainly be the common play against the Oilers if they continue with this defensive system. I also have a couple of more worries about it. High-skill teams will be able to maintain a lot of possession in the zone even if they don’t generate chances. If 97 or 29 are on the ice, it might mean a shift where neither touches the puck offensively. The other issue for me is this system requires shot-blocking. No question you want all your players to defend shot attempts. However, I am not certain having McDavid and Draisaitl stand twenty feet away from shot attempts trying to block the puck is a great idea. Injuries can happen that way.
Nevertheless, the Oilers at this point of the preseason appear to be locked in on this system. They do seem to run it quite well. They held a decent Canucks lineup to seven shots against in the first two periods before the vets decided they had skated enough.


The Oilers are making some pretty significant tactical changes here. Two-thirds of their system forecheck is being changed. All of it is designed to prevent high danger scoring chances first and foremost. The 1-1-3 is designed to prevent odd-man rush attacks. The box plus one is to prevent the slot from getting attacked by the opposition team. Will it lead to fewer goals against? Almost assuredly. Will it lead to Stanley Cup success, we will find out in about eight months.
That’s it for today. Send me your rants on the X to @bcurlock or right here below. Mock me at your leisure. Have a great day.

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