Why the Oilers are struggling in transition, and how they can improve
Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
By NHL_Sid1 month ago
In their first five games of the season, the Edmonton Oilers have just one win. The team sports an overall 1-3-1 record, which ranks 29th in the league. Their defending has been inconsistent, they’re struggling to produce enough at 5v5, half their forwards have yet to record a point, both goaltenders have struggled, and, to top it all off, Connor McDavid is expected to be out for 1 to 2 weeks with an upper-body injury.
I think it’s safe to say they haven’t had the best start.
There’s lots of blame going around. Many have pointed their fingers at the goaltending, the lack of finishing, the defending, the coaching decisions, and so on, but I’d like to focus on one specific issue that isn’t being mentioned nearly enough: their transitional play.
This season, I’ve begun a manual 5v5 stat tracking project for Oilers games alongside two other wonderful people (here’s a glossary outlining each stat we track). This project aims to obtain micro-statistical data that is generally only accessible to NHL teams and private stat companies, as publicly available NHL analytics possess several limitations. To ensure the accuracy and validity of the data in this project, the exact timestamp of every play tracked is noted down. All stats in this article are via our tracking project unless stated otherwise.
One thing we track is shot types, as we split shots into four categories; rush, forecheck, cycle, and faceoff. As explained in the glossary, a rush shot is a shot that occurs within six seconds of a controlled zone entry, a forecheck shot is a shot that occurs within four seconds of a turnover or dump-in recovery, a faceoff shot is a shot that occurs within six seconds of a faceoff win, while a cycle shot is any other OZ shot that doesn’t fit the above categories (i.e. cycle shots come off extended zone time).
The average rush shot is more dangerous than a forecheck or cycle shot. Generally, around 40 percent of all goals in a season come off the rush. Keep this in mind.
This season at 5v5, the Oilers have scored 7 goals for, and 11 against, equating to a dreadful 39 percent goal share.
They’ve allowed one goal off a faceoff, but they have a +1 differential in forecheck goals (three for, two against), and a +2 differential in cycle goals (three for, one against). There’s been much discussion regarding Edmonton’s defensive zone system and how they’ve switched from an aggressive man-to-man system to a more passive box plus one, but their in-zone defending isn’t actually killing them in terms of directly causing goals against.
The area they’ve heavily struggled in is rush goals.
So far, the Oilers have scored just a single goal off a controlled zone entry, which was Darnell Nurse’s goal against Winnipeg on Saturday night, while they’ve allowed seven (!) rush goals against.
That is a big problem. Theoretically, if they simply had a net-even rush goal differential, they would have an overall positive goal differential, meaning their record would look much prettier than it does now.
Now, the Oilers have 32 scoring chances off the rush at 5v5, and have allowed 32 against, meaning their rush chance differential is net even. Additionally, the Oilers have a +45 controlled entry differential, and 48 percent of their zone entries are controlled, compared to 35 percent for opponents.
This data makes their rush goal differential a bit less concerning, as there seems to be some bad luck involved and likely some regression coming soon. In this facet, they were also much better in their latest game against Winnipeg.
However, the issue is that Edmonton was still out-chanced in rush chances in three of their prior four games, while they were tied in this area in their second game against Vancouver. Their effort against Winnipeg was good, most notably in the first period, but it needs to be more consistent. Furthermore, many of their rush chances against are more “five-alarm,” as the Oilers have allowed quite a lot of odd-man-rushes. While Edmonton does possess a considerable edge in zone entry volume and controlled entry efficiency, meaning they’re generally driving possession well, 27% of opposition entries have led to a scoring chance, compared to just 20% for Edmonton.
Not to mention, none of the teams Edmonton has faced are particularly skilled transitional teams. If this is how they play against the competition they’ve faced thus far, I fear how they’ll perform against faster and more dynamic teams.
The Oilers should be one of the most dangerous rush teams in the league, and they generally were last year; per Mike Kelly and SportLogIQ, the Oilers scored 79 goals off the rush last season, second most in the NHL.
Placing net-even in rush chances isn’t a satisfactory standard for a squad with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It won’t be enough for the team to succeed in the playoffs, where dynamic rush teams like Colorado and Vegas dominate.
So, what’s exactly going wrong? First, let’s dive into their rush offence, or lack thereof.
Last year, Edmonton’s three primary creators in transition were their three primary centres: McDavid, Draisaitl and McLeod. How have they fared in transition this year?
Each of Edmonton’s centres has seen a decrease in controlled entry rate, which has likely played a role in their mediocre rush offence.
Now, I’m not as concerned with Draisaitl, as his overall entry rate has increased, and he’s the only player with a controlled entry leading to a goal thus far. He’s been the best of the three, in my opinion.
However, McDavid hasn’t entirely looked like McDavid at 5v5. Of course, his raw numbers are still great, and would be seen as impressive if it was any other player, but he hasn’t played at the level at which we’re used to. His entries aren’t leading to scoring chances at his typical rates (I didn’t track entry chances in the regular season last year, which is why it’s not in the visual above); 23% of his controlled entries have resulted in a quality shot. That number was at 34% in the 2023 playoffs, when I would argue McDavid still wasn’t at the top of his game.
Of course, the injury to McDavid makes this situation even worse. Even though McDavid is entering the offensive zone at a lower rate compared to prior seasons, there’s obviously no question that losing him for a week or two will significantly affect their rush offence.
Additionally, McLeod’s play is a concern, as he doesn’t look healthy, which makes sense as he missed the entire pre-season. His controlled entry rate is at a measly 7.5, which ranks behind Mattias Janmark and Derek Ryan. He also has the highest (i.e. worst) defensive zone turnover rate among all Oilers forwards. The bottom six has yet to produce a single goal, and McLeod struggling to move the puck in transition is a big factor.
Furthermore, Edmonton also needs to do a much better job at finishing the rush chances they generate.
Warren Foegele leads Edmonton in controlled entries leading to chances, but none of those chances have resulted in goals. He’s been highly inconsistent at capitalizing on his opportunities throughout his career.
Connor Brown is the team leader in zone entries per hour, which can be viewed as a positive, as he’s at least tilting the ice in the right direction, but again, those entries aren’t leading to goals. Brown needs to start producing at this point, as he’s yet to record a single point. He’s five games away from earning a $3.25M performance bonus that eats into Edmonton’s cap hit next season.
Now, let’s move on to the rush defence. The Oilers also had a systematic change in the neutral zone, switching from a 1-2-2 NZ to a more passive 1-1-3 NZ forecheck, which is a change I agreed with. The Oilers ran a 1-1-3 when Woodcroft initially arrived in Edmonton, and they had great success with it, with Edmonton’s rush defence significantly improving following the coaching change. For a much more detailed dive into their system and tactics, here’s a great read by fellow OilersNation writer Bruce Curlock.
So, what’s happening here? Prior to the game against Winnipeg, Woodcroft mentioned in an interview that, from his eye, only one goal against has been the result of a systematic breakdown. Instead, he notes that many of their GA have simply came from individual mistakes.
I would actually agree with him. While I don’t believe Edmonton has been as successful with the 1-1-3 this season, I feel that a considerable portion of Edmonton’s GA are simply the result of players making careless errors. Let’s go through some of their rush goals against:
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Here’s the 8th goal against on opening night. Nurse makes an unsuccessful pinch, leading to a 2-on-2 the other way, which eventually develops into a 2-on-1 with McLeod falling to the ice. The Canucks capitalize on a royal-road shot that Skinner had no chance on.
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On this goal, Foegele takes an awful shot attempt off the rush, which misses and goes around the boards to the other side. Both Nurse and Ceci are out of position, and it leads to a 2-on-0 the other way.
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On the GWG in Game 2, ideally, you’d like a big save from Skinner, especially considering the crucial saves made by Casey DeSmith in that game. However, Ekholm is beaten wide by Lafferty, and Brown’s turnover at the offensive zone blueline led to that rush up the ice in the first place.
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Here, Bouchard gets cleanly beaten by an excellent stretch pass from Tippett, who springs Atkinson on a partial breakaway.
Many of these goals are simply the result of individual mistakes rather than systematic breakdowns, as Woodcroft mentioned.
I can give Ekholm the benefit of the doubt on the GWG in Game 2, as he was coming off an injury, and hadn’t played since May. Overall, he’s generally been fine. However, Nurse in particular has been prone to careless errors, such as those, throughout his entire career.
As for Evan Bouchard, he was Edmonton’s top zone entry defender last season, leading the team in entry denial rate in both the regular-season and playoffs. However, through five games so far this season, Bouchard has yet to record a single entry denial, while he’s made some very costly errors resulting in goals against. Aside from Ekholm, Edmonton’s next best entry defender is Kulak, but he’s allowed more entries leading to scoring chances than any other Oilers defender. Edmonton’s typically best rush defenders struggling is yet another big problem.
So, the big question is: to what extent can they solve this problem with the current roster?
First off, the Oilers must improve their breakouts, which is a massive component of transitional play. So far, Edmonton’s defencemen have combined for 90 controlled zone exits under forecheck pressure, but 46 missed passes out of the zone, 56 in-zone turnovers, and 11 icings, for a total of 113 “unsuccessful” exit plays. If a team’s defencemen can’t efficiently break out of the defensive zone, it’s safe to say they’re going to have a harder time entering the offensive zone.
However, this is partially a personnel issue, as I’m not a fan of the defensive corps that Ken Holland has constructed. As a whole, Edmonton’s defensive core is not filled with great breakout passers. Nurse and Broberg are good at skating the puck out, but neither of them are exceptional passers. Ceci, Kulak, and Desharnais are around average, or perhaps less. Ekholm is above-average. Bouchard is generally excellent at breakouts, as he led the team in DZ pass-outs per 60 by a significant margin last year, and continues to lead the defence in zone exits per hour this season, but he also has the worst d-zone turnover rate (14%), so he has been a bit high-risk.
A right-shot defenceman with steady defensive metrics and the ability to make a breakout pass should be a target at the trade deadline.
That said, while part of their breakout issues is related to personnel, Edmonton’s general breakout structure is far from perfect, as the defencemen could use more support from the forwards in the DZ. Here’s the first GA against Philadelphia, which was off the rush. Watch Foegele here, who carelessly loses a puck battle in the NZ following Kulak’s breakout pass, and then goes for a line change; this leads to a controlled entry and a goal the other way.
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Still, a lot of Edmonton’s transitional performance simply relies on their best players to be at the top of their games, and on the health of their top forwards.
McDavid is the best transitional player in the league; being out for any period of time will obviously hurt Edmonton’s already underperforming rush offence. The Oilers will be forced to rely quite a bit on Draisaitl in these next few games, and they’ll need McLeod to get going.
I believe the Oilers should be giving more ice time to Dylan Holloway, who leads the team in 5v5 expected goal differential, but ranks 17th out of 19 Oilers players in TOI per game (per Natural Stat Trick). Zone entries and overall transitional play is an area Holloway has excelled at throughout his entire hockey career. In these next few games, I would give Holloway an opportunity on the top line alongside Draisaitl.
When 100% healthy, the Oilers should be one of the league’s top teams at rush chance creation. However, they still need their wingers to start producing and finishing. In Evander Kane’s first season with Edmonton, most of his goals were off the rush, but right now, he’s playing some of the worst hockey in his career; if he doesn’t start scoring, he will be a major on-ice liability.
As for the rush defence, ideally, you’d hope that the mistakes being made that have led to GA are preventable and fixable. In a large sample, we’ve seen both Bouchard and Kulak produce strong entry-defending results, so it’s reasonable to expect them to bounce back. While the rush defence of Nurse and Ceci remains a concern to me, their overall possession metrics together have actually been fine so far; if that somehow manages to continue, and if Bouchard and Kulak bounce back, there could be a significant improvement in this area.
Of course, better goaltending would also reduce their rush GA, although again, the quality of the rush chances Edmonton allowed has been high.
To conclude, I wouldn’t say the sky is falling, as we’re only five games into the season. However, there are undoubtedly numerous areas to work on, and a big one is their transitional play. Only time will tell if they can improve there.
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