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The Oilers Struggles At Centre Aren't A Slump - It's The System. Again.

The Oilers centremen are struggling. Here's some insight as to why.

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I am a rock. I am an iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiisland.

The struggles of the Oilers' centremen through the entire 2013 season have been discussed at length. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can't score anymore. Sam Gagner can't play defense anymore. Ryan Smyth look like an ECHL'er when he moves over. The AHL call-ups are being fed their lunch through a tube and Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger both stepped into the elevator shaft at the same time. It's one thing for a centre or two to slump, but for an entire squadron of centres to forget how to play the game is something else altogether. When your best centre has possession just 42% of the time away from his regular right wing, something is very, very wrong. Horcoff's numbers might be explained away by tough minutes or zonestarts, but someone, somewhere should benefit. And no one else is. Hopkins is 38% away from Hall. Gagner is 42% overall. Belanger is 37% overall. What is happening?!

I ripped through the numbers and found...nothing. There were a couple of effective combos, but by and large every person to play centre for the Oilers collapsed this season. Since the numbers weren't working, I kicked around some theories and started focusing solely on the struggling centres while watching night in and night out to see if I could recognize anything amiss in the zone.

What I picked up over a number of games was that I believe Ralph Krueger's defensive system is asking too much of the Oilers' centres in their own zone. The pivots, all of them, are playing the entire ice from sidewall to sidewall and through the slot in a combination with the two defensemen. The wingers, both of them, are allowed to stay very high in the zone, much higher than in Craig MacTavish or Tom Renney's schemes.

Typically Renney used one forward high in the zone and a second supporting the puck or patrolling the middle of the zone. In Krueger's system, the forwards were literally watching the centres lose 1-on-2 puck battles along the walls, sometimes just a stride or two away while they ferociously guarded the point shot most times and the boards and glass others. Even when the forwards were in the correct spot to support puck movement, they weren't getting to the puck. And they were leaving the centres on an island.

Below are three examples of what I've seen:

Note that in the goal against above, Horcoff is acting as the left wing and has moved well up the boards, though he could be supporting a chipped puck and doesn't want the point defenseman to gain easy possession. But Horcoff is an agile fellow - he can take a step down to meet the puck. He doesn't. Where is Ales Hemsky? He's positioned himself so far away from the play that he's out of the shot.

Here's a case of Yakupov moving low into the zone to cover in the zone, and Belanger recovering, but watch Yakupov's next move - he turns his back to the play and skates towards the point. The entire time Ryan Jones has the boards on lockdown.

This is one of my favorites. Smyth, playing centre, gets down to engage and pushes the puck up the wall, but Mike Brown is cemented to the point, staring slack-jawed at the play, and does nothing to corral the aforementioned puck. Lennart Petrell, hanging out by the blue line, watches as Tommy Wingels roars down the centre of the ice for the goal.

One of the first things that wingers are taught during defensive instruction is that shots coming from above the slot hashes, inside the faceoff dots and below the points are their fault. Goals scored by players skating through that area are their fault. The Oilers' wingers are in no position to stop shots from their territory and are so far away from the play that they can't recover if someone chooses to skate through their territory.

Yes, these are three egregious examples, but they point to a problem I'm seeing over and over again - there is no support for the centres in the defensive zone (though Taylor Hall does not abide by the system - he's all over the place), the wings are so high and wide that the middle of the ice is undefended and even when the Oilers do recover the puck or move it towards the wings, they're so far away that they can't gain possession of the puck. It happens multiple times per period.

I asked our resident tactics guru, dawgbone, about this and he saw it long before me:

I mentioned this early on in the year, but the Oiler wingers chase really high in the defensive zone, almost like they are supposed to cover the point men tight.

Generally speaking when you play man on man in your own zone, it's the 2D's and the C who are playing strict man on man and the 2 wingers are supposed to play a soft zone where they cover the areas between the face-off dots and the blueline, which allow them to drop in when their team needs help while still being able to get to the points. When the puck goes up, you only really need the winger who is on that side, while the Oilers often seem to send both up which puts them in trouble against teams that go low-high-low.

I was alerted that Woodguy, hockey's most famous wood expert, was also in pursuit of the answer, so I kicked my theory over to him and he answered in the affirmative, then pointed out the downstream impact. Because puck support is lacking:

Too many of the 1st and 2nd passes have to be good 40ft passes hitting a guy on the fly. [Those passes are] too easy to break up in the neutral zone and demand that passer and passee be very good.

I threw my thoughts and a couple of clips at a Western Conference scout and asked if he noticed anything similar or if I was barking up a non-existent tree. His answer was succinct and to the point: "I'm not going to give away the store here, but there are no other teams in the league playing the [Edmonton] system"

So there you have it. This is by no means a definitive explanation, but should serve as an opening to more discussion about the shortcomings in Ralph Krueger's systems and how the coach has submarined his team in their own zone.

Personally, the investigation and subsequent discussion changed my mind on two things:

  • This isn't a Gagner problem. This isn't a Smyth problem. This isn't a Hopkins problem and it's not a matter of finding chemistry. This is Ralph Krueger's problem, and the more I watch from Krueger, the less I like him. Line matching and in-zone tactics aren't something he can blame anyone else. These are things he should be able to fix and fix quickly. Knowing the underlying reason for the struggles in the middle this season reminds me of Tom Renney's awful experiment with the Diamond Penalty Kill.
  • I've repeatedly knocked Jordan Eberle and Ryan Jones for not engaging in the defensive zone, and hanging out at the blueline (or in Jones' case, on the boards) while their teammates drown. It seems this is systemic, and not by choice, so I need to drop that line. Jones leaving the zone early at every opportunity is still something unique to his game and he deserves continued criticism. Though, with luck, he won't play in Oilers' silks again and we won't have to worry about it.

UPDATE: dawgbone points out that Lennart Petrell was guilty last night on this goal. Interestingly, he goes from a good spot to no-man's land on purpose: