Identifying the source of the Edmonton Oilers’ struggles this season hasn’t been difficult. There are a number of problem areas on this team. Their trouble scoring five and five, their lack of physicality, their floundering powerplay, inconsistent goaltending and porous defense have all contributed to a disappointing season. But there are two things in particular that have plagued the Oilers all season: puck possession (and their lack there of) and zone entry (letting the opposition skate in freely).
Be it because the small forwards are too easy to knock off the puck. Be it because they take low percentage shots that result in turnovers. Be it because they try to get too creative and end up losing the puck. Be it all of those things and more. The Oilers need to get better at puck possession.
There are teams, mainly the New Jersey Devils in years past, who rely on a trapping style of defense to win games. Clog up the neutral zone and force opposing players to just fire the puck in. In the Devils case, strong puckhandling skills from goalie Martin Brodeur and a strong defensive core would swallow up the puck, preventing the opposition from establishing a forecheck. Trapping teams pop up now and then in today’s NHL. And they’re infuriating to both watch and play against. It seems like they never really have the puck, it seems like they’re getting outplayed, yet their goalie always seems to make the saves when it counts and they manage to somehow find ways to score. The Oilers aren’t that team.
The Oilers have a lot of firepower. They have forwards who can dangle and toe drag their way into the zone. They have quick puck moving defensemen who can make a good first pass. They aren’t a defense first team. But a run and gun offense is only successful when that offense can create chances off the rush and actually capitalize on them. The Oilers inability to score five and five isn’t about a lack of skill. It might not even be a matter of stars underachieving or poor execution They simply don’t have the puck long enough to make anything happen.
Playing the Oilers isn’t scary if you have defensemen who can muscle their forwards off the puck. Playing the Oilers isn’t scary when you have a system that limits those chances off the rush and forces Edmonton to have to send the puck deep and go retrieve it. The Oilers are fast. But that speed just hasn’t translated into a lot of production. They have moments of brilliance. Moments where you just sit back and watch the magic. But they simply don’t have the puck enough to allow that to happen.
The Oilers defenders are easy to knock off the puck. They force passes that aren’t there. They make risky plays that often end up in the back of their net. The things that worked in the AHL simply aren’t working at this level. Puck possession is so important for a skilled team like the Oilers. There are so many teams who rely on strong defense and then take their chances whenever they do get the puck. The Oilers have the manpower to create offense using skill. But you can’t do that without the puck on your stick.
Watching some Oilers games, you’d think there was a sign at the Edmonton blueline that said “come on in, everybody welcome!”. The Oilers defensemen aren’t aggressive They back up and allow the opposing team to walk right in. They often leave their goalies out to dry by giving up too many odd man rushes. The forwards are slow getting back. It really is a free for all in the Oilers zone.
After last night’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks (their ninth loss in the last 10 games), Devan Dubnyk offered an interesting soundbite summing up his teams play:
“That’s a team that’ll make you pay for (turnovers) and they did. We can’t just ditch our system.” (Oilers Twitter)
That quote begs the question: what is the Oilers system? New GM Craig MacTavish wants to address the on ice personal before he even gets to the coaching staff. Does that mean Ralph Kruegars days behind the bench are numbered? He’s a rookie coach, and he certainly didn’t get the best out of his players this season. That said, it would be foolish to lay everything at the coaches feet. The team didn’t execute whatever system was in place.
In the game against Chicago, the Oilers defense constantly backed up toward their net, not challenging the Blackhawks at all. They gave them a little too much respect, and while that respect is justified, the Hawks were allowed to waltz into the Oilers zone uncontested and set up camp.
Coach Kruegar made a reference to the team’s poor puck management and the assessment was spot on. So what is the answer? New coach? New system? Different players? Maybe all of those. Maybe just one. The Oilers issues can be fixed. There is a lot of potential on this team. But until they learn how to protect that puck, and protect their own zone, that potential will continue to be wasted.
Marcy, a former hockey player, is a hockey correspondent on CTV News and TSN radio. She began her career as a Sports Journalist in 2009 and has been part of The Hockey Writers since 2010, where she is currently a senior writer and editor.