The Oilers are coming off a 4-2 victory against the New York Islanders on Thursday night, which easily ranks among their best 5v5 efforts this season. 
Per Natural Stat Trick, high-danger scoring chances at 5v5 were 14-0 in favour of Edmonton, with 10 of those chances coming in a dominant first period. For the most part, it was an excellent defensive game, especially at defending zone entries against.
However, the Oilers still rank 20th in the league in 5v5 goal differential, being out-scored 77 – 83 at 5v5. It was a solid victory, but for that success to continue, they must improve in several areas. Specifically, they need to address a concerning trend in their play as of late; struggles to efficiently break out of the defensive zone.
Breakouts are a key element of both offensive and defensive play. Per Cam Charron, teams that exit the zone with possession will be the next team to enter the offensive zone 19 out of 20 times, compared to just 8 out of 20 times with an uncontrolled exit. Consistently executing efficient zone exits helps teams attack off the rush more often, and spend less time in their own end. 
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This season, I’ve begun a manual tracking project for the Oilers, tracking various statistics such as zone entries, zone exits, entry defence, puck retrievals, etc. The purpose of this project is to obtain data that is not publicly available from the NHL, and to gain a better understanding of the team and its players.,
Just to clarify some key terms that I will frequently use throughout this piece; a successful zone exit is simply successfully getting the puck out of the DZ. A zone exit with possession is classified as either successfully carrying or passing the puck out. An exit without possession can be classified as a zone clear or missed pass that exits the zone. Failed exits are classified as turnovers when attempting to exit the zone and icings. Exit success rate is the total success rate of exit attempts (total exits/exit attempts), and possession exit rate is the percent of successful exits that are with possession (possession exits/total exits). 
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In the past six games, the Oilers’ defence has combined for 169 successful zone exits, and 76 failed exits, equating to a 68.9% exit success rate. Per Corey Sznajder, the league-average exit success rate for defencemen in the past two seasons is 76%. Not good at all.
Overall, in the games I’ve tracked this season, the Oilers possess a 71% exit success rate, which still doesn’t meet acceptable standards. Aside from Philip Broberg in an extremely limited sample, every defenceman on the team ranks below the league average in exit success rate. 
This likely plays a role in their mediocre 5v5 scoring rates, as they rank 20th in the league in 5v5 goals per hour. Per Corey Sznajder’s data, the Oilers rank slightly below the league-average in shots off the rush, which is quite disappointing as the team possesses two of the most lethal attackers off the rush in McDavid and Draisaitl. There’s a major correlation between controlled exits and rush chances.
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The question remains; how do the Oilers solve this issue? Is this a systematic/structural problem, or is it merely personnel? If you ask me, I think it’s a combination of both.
On one hand, the Oilers do possess several strong puck-moving defencemen, such as Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard, and Tyson Barrie. The team shouldn’t be this poor at exiting the zone with success. Let’s look at some examples of video.
This is a perfect example of how to execute a zone exit. Nurse retrieves a dump-in under pressure and successfully passes it over to Ceci. Yamamoto retrieves a pass from Ceci and takes a hit to get the puck to McDavid, which results in a successful exit and an odd-man rush for the Oilers. McDavid enters the OZ and fires a pass to Nurse, who scores. Perfect support from the forwards and defencemen here, and this is what should be occurring more often.
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Here, Kulak retrieves a puck, but makes a pass that McLeod doesn’t retrieve and it ends up in a failed exit intercepted by an Islanders forward who dumps the puck back in and goes for a line change. This grants the Oilers another attempt to exit the zone, but Kulak makes another failed exit attempt that McLeod doesn’t obtain, and this time, it results in a controlled entry and a goal for the Islanders. Overall, sloppy plays by both Kulak and McLeod in this sequence.
Ceci doesn’t make a great pass to Hyman here, and Hyman can’t get the puck out of the zone. With some poor coverage by Barrie, it results in a goal against.
Bouchard retrieves a loose puck. Foegele immediately goes the other way in hopes of retrieving a pass, but Bouchard is pressured by two Seattle forwards at once, and with no support from the forwards, he makes a turnover. A couple of seconds later, Bouchard retrieves the puck and tries to get it around to Yamamoto, but he can’t get a stick on it, and it results in an icing. Bouchard wasn’t great on this play, but there’s definitely some poor puck support.
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Fellow Oilersnation writer Bruce Curlock also posted an excellent example here. The forwards are all moving up the ice, and the center (Draisaitl) is already at the blue line while the puck is below the goal line. Barrie is put into an awkward position where he makes a failed exit, which then leads to chaos in front of the net. These sorts of plays off DZ faceoffs are common for this team and typically result in a failed exit or an exit without possession.
Some of Edmonton’s failed exits are simply poor turnovers by the Oilers’ defence. Nurse has been prone to unforced icings throughout his entire career, and currently, Bouchard’s puck management could use a lot of work. That said, a considerable portion of their failed exits are due to a lack of puck support from the forwards as well.
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There’s another potential issue with the Oilers in the DZ; puck retrievals.
Puck retrievals are a key component of zone exits, as the vast majority of exits start with a successful retrieval. This season, I’ve also tracked retrieval success rate in the DZ. Now, my definition of retrievals is a bit subjective, as I only count dump-in and loose puck retrievals under pressure from opposing players to evaluate how well defencemen can evade the forecheck and recover pucks. If a successful retrieval immediately results in a turnover, it is not classified as successful.
Here are the retrieval success rate results for the Oilers D (I omitted Murray and Broberg due to limited samples, although the sample for Niemeläinen isn’t very large either):
I only track these stats for the Oilers, and I track them much differently from other microstat trackers, so I don’t have an exact handle on what the league average is. If I had to guess, I’d say ~50-52% is a solid benchmark. The only Oilers D that rank above this mark are Nurse and Niemeläinen.
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Now, some may look at Niemeläinen results and suggest that he should play more, but I don’t know if I’d agree with that. While yes, Niemeläinen has been quite good with retrievals, he’s been fairly sheltered, and he’s Edmonton’s worst defenceman at zone exits. He holds the highest failed exits per hour among all defencemen, and of his successful exits, a mere 38% of them are with possession. Although the entire defensive core has had issues with exits, at the least, every other defenceman ranks above the 50% mark in possession exit rate. Niemeläinen may be efficient at retrieving pucks against opposing third and fourth lines, but the puck doesn’t often leave the zone with possession after he retrieves it.
Nurse is having an up-and-down season defensively. He ranks last among all defencemen in controlled entry against% and zone denial%; in other terms, he’s been Edmonton’s worst defenceman at defending the rush and denying entries. Not to mention, Nurse only ranks 5th among the defensive core in defensive-zone breakups per shot attempt allowed. He still has several flaws defensively, but puck retrievals under pressure is an area of strength for him this season. Nurse is good at using his size, skating, and strength to push off opposing forecheckers and retrieve dump-ins on a consistent basis.
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As for the rest of the D, they all rank below 48% in retrieval success rate. This is a roster issue that should be addressed, as the Oilers could significantly benefit from a player that can effectively and efficiently retrieve pucks under pressure, and turn them into successful zone exits. A guy like Jakob Chychrun would largely benefit the team with retrievals.
The Oilers will play the Colorado Avalanche tonight for the first time since last season’s Western Conference Finals. This could be a major test if they’re on their game, as Colorado’s tenacious forecheck was a major reason in their four-game sweep against Edmonton last season.
Their next five games will be against Pacific Division teams, with four of those games on the road. This is a crucial opportunity for them to gain some points and get ahead in the playoff race. To increase their chances of success, the team needs to address and improve their defensive-zone breakouts.
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