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Fixing the Edmonton Oilers Part 1 – The Current Team

A 3 part look at fixing the Oilers without the orbital nuclear strike.

Derek Leung

Last summer I had the privilege of coaching my daughter's rep indoor lacrosse team. Out of a team of 15 players and 2 goaltenders, I had approximately 3 who had rep experience. I started at a certain level in practices and while there were struggles with some of the concepts, they seemed to go okay. 2 games into the season, I realized we were in big trouble. In practice when I told them left shots in one corner, right shots in another I didn't realize they were going there because I told them to, not because they knew what side of the floor to be on. During games our guys were constantly on the wrong side of the floor, often with 4 or 5 players on the same side. this was happening both offensively and defensively and we were getting shelled. I quickly realized that I needed to break it down and teach everything from defensive zone setup to line changes to offensive zone setups for us to develop. Over the summer we learned and struggled and lost more than we won. Some games we'd make strides only to see everything go wrong the next game, but overall you could see the progression. We lost a few winnable games because of how I managed our bench (i.e. putting 5 left shots on the floor and seeing whether they'd realize it and adjust or if they'd all go to the same side). The losses started to become worth it because the players went from being completely overwhelmed to realizing they could influence the game. Once they realized that, things got much better and we ended up winning a provincial silver medal in our division.

Of course there is a big difference between coaching 9 & 10 year olds in lacrosse to fixing an NHL team, but the same basic philosophy applies. There's something broken and it's time to try fixing it at it's most basic levels. Sacrificing some wins over the remainder of the season in an attempt to make long term repairs.

Over the next few days I’ll look at ways the organization can get out of the rut they’re in. These aren’t complex moves and they don’t require firing the front office and coaching staff (though some of that might be needed). It’s a focus on how to right the ship, building first off what they have and moving on to identifying and subsequently fixing their needs.

The first step isn’t going to come from management simply because it can’t. The Oilers have already tossed a wrench into this by punting out Devan Dubnyk and acquiring Ben Scrivens. It’s not a game breaker, but I think it focuses on the wrong thing off the bat.

Before you start making personnel changes, you have to identify why the players you currently have are having so many issues. Why is this team 29th in the NHL? They certainly aren’t a worse team on paper than 28 other teams. They certainly aren’t a worse team on paper than 6 other teams in their division.

So then where has everything gone wrong?

A lot of what sewered the season early on was a combination of poor goaltending and poor implementation of Dallas Eakins’ swarm system. When you lose confidence in your goaltenders you start to try and compensate for that, which can then cause you to over-compensate, leading to breakdowns. Once your system breaks down, your goaltenders are then over-compensating themselves, over-anticipating and cheating on plays. When you combine these two factors together, nothing but bad things can happen. Dallas Eakins recognized his system wasn’t working and recognized that his team was lacking in defensive skills. Recognizing and fixing are two different things and the coaching staff has failed to do the latter.

Step 1 – Admit the season is lost.

The very first step in fixing this mess is for the coaching staff and management to lock themselves in a room and create a plan to get this team where it needs to be for the start of 2014-15. As much as it sucks as a fan to say “Next Year”, it needs to be done. Once you do that, you can start making the adjustments you need to make without pressure. You are going to lose anyways, so you might as well learn something and grow while you do it.

Step 2 – Wipe the slate clean with the players.

From this day forward, everyone is at evens. No favourites, no one in the doghouse, no rookies, no vets, nothing. The players are sick of losing, the coaches are sick of losing, so stop worrying about the losses over the last 40-odd games and start fresh. Get rid of the anger, get rid of the frustration and go back to day 1 of training camp. It’s not easy to turn around and do this but it is possibly the most crucial step.

Step 3 – Get them up to speed with the basics.

Earlier in the season Eakins said this:

“I assumed that we knew what traditional d-zone coverage was and it was clear that we didn’t. So we took a slight step back from our double up system.”

I think we need to take a bigger step back. If the players aren’t getting it, then dumb it down more. Start with a completely traditional zone defense (say a box+1). It’s not flashy and it’s not great at getting the puck back but it’s good at limiting chances against when playing 5v5 in your own end. If a player screws up, go over it with them. This is where step 2 is important. The screw up in this game has nothing to do with the mistake they made in game 38. That game no longer exists.

Get a basic 1-2-2 forecheck going. It doesn’t matter whether you are up 1 or down 3, get this system working. Playing in the neutral zone without the puck is just as important as your own end. Work on funneling the puck carrier on the other team into the areas you want them to be. Reduce the amount of area each player has to individually cover so they have support from their teammates if they do have issues.

The breakout and offensive system should focus on short passes with multiple options. If the defensemen have to consistently make a 25 foot pass through the neutral zone for you to have possession in the offensive zone, you are doing something wrong. Give them options that they can see. If the forwards use the whole neutral zone, the defensive coverage is going to have to keep up with them, which will create holes for you to move the puck. Possession is now the name of the game. If there isn’t an opening to successfully gain a zone entry, reset. The good NHL teams all use the full neutral zone and move the puck forwards, backwards, to the middle and to the outside. Build your system to emulate that. Teach the players that they don’t have to take the puck and score right now, instead show them how to be methodical with the puck and pick their spots and exploit the holes that occur.

Support in the offensive zone should be the mantra. This includes both puck support and coverage support. If you are the LW and the RD pinches, start heading back to fill the gap. The one goal you miss out on every 20 games will be made up for by the 3 you prevent by not giving up another odd man rush. Everything from here on out is prevention first, attack second. Everything is now about defensive puck retrieval and counter attacking. Sacrifice the scoring chance you might get if your winger wins the puck and can thread a pass through 2 defensemen for the sure play of supporting the puck and keeping it low in the offensive zone.

Step 4 – Identify those who get it and those who don’t

You are starting from the basics and have 32 games and around 100 practices to figure this out. Players are either going to get it by then or they won’t. The ones who aren’t getting it or who won’t buy in are the ones you want to get rid of. Whether it’s they can’t get the concept or they can’t execute it matters little. Whether this player is one you identified as a piece of your core or a player you were ditching anyways, you have to be prepared to walk away. If they aren’t capable of strong play at both ends of the ice, there’s little point in keeping them because they either cost you wins or they are an inefficient usage of cap space. If it’s a “core player” you now have a valuable trading chip that you can use to upgrade the areas you’ve identified through this process. This doesn’t mean that you need Nail Yakupov to be Pavel Datsyuk by the end of the year or he’s gone. What it means is you need to see progression over the next couple of months.

Again, it’s important to remember step 2. You want to foster an educational environment here. They need to learn and develop and there will be less frustration on both the player side and the coaching side if past sins are forgotten. Once you’ve identified those that can grasp these concepts you can determine what your actual needs are going forward. Maybe you determine that you need 6 new forwards and only 1 defenseman. Maybe it’s 2 forwards and 4 defensemen. You cannot accurately address your issues until you know precisely what they are.

These 4 steps will not be easy. They’ll probably promote more losing in the early going but will have a positive impact going forward. It requires a full organizational buy in, and those that don’t buy in will be culled. It’s time to stop burning seasons and going through coaching staffs. It’s time to start growing and taking steps forward.

Part 2 discusses player acquisition and a change in the philosophy of identifying needs and how to fill them.

Part 3 discusses amateur scouting, drafting and draft picks.