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The Oilers Offensive Zone Tactics

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Building on research recently published on offensive zone tactics, I take a look at how the Oilers tried to generate scoring chances and goals in McLellan's first year as the Oilers head coach.

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Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

This past week, Ryan Stimson of Hockey Graphs published a very insightful article where he attempted to quantify two offensive zone strategies that teams rely on, focusing on the tactics used by the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings this past season. This was following some comments made by Kings assistant coach Davis Payne, who presented at a coaching clinic in Buffalo. The full article is a must-read for anyone interested in team systems and analytics.

Tactalytics: Using Data to Inform Tactical Offensive Zone Decisions - Hockey Graphs (2016, July 11)

Two tactics, the Low-to-High-to-Net Attack, where assists come from point shots, and the Behind-the-Net attack, where a play is developed from behind the goal line, are explained extremely well in the above article, including plenty of video to explain the tactics and the pros and cons for both plays.

Using the data collected from his Passing Project, Ryan was able to see how much of a team's offence relied on point shots to generate offence compared to the team's offence that was generated from behind-the-net plays. The Passing Project (amazingly) collected a significant amount of data for over 400 games in 2015/16, including the context of the shot (i.e., game state), as well as the details on the three passes that lead to the shot attempt, who completed the pass and what area of the ice it was completed from. (The data for all 400+ games, along with a glossary, is available here: Dropbox - Passing Data. The methodology to collect data and rationale for the Passing Project can be found at All About the Jersey).

Next, Ryan looked into which system was more effective in generating scoring chances and goals.

What stands out is that of the shots that are on target from shot assist from behind the net, they are converted 12.8% of the time compared to shots on target from the point that are converted at a much lower rate of 4.1%. Now, the logic behind shots from the point is that a good shot will get through and also create rebounds. While it is true that 4.6% of these shots result in rebounds, you are more likely to generate a rebound scoring chances on a shot assisted from behind the net (6.4%).

To quickly recap: you are more likely to score and generate rebounds by playing behind the net rather than going through the point for offense. (Source: Hockey Graphs)

Source: Hockey Graphs

Source: Hockey Graphs

Since the passing data is publicly available, I figured it would be worth digging into the Oilers numbers and verifying what we've heard the coaching staff discuss this past season, including McLellan's concept of volume shooting. In December, Oilers assistant coach Jay Woodcroft was discussing the improvements defenceman Justin Schultz needed to make in his game on Inside Sports, and expanded on the importance of generating offence from the point.

The one area we continue to emphasize with Justin is the willingness to continue to shoot the puck. The ability to hit the net when you do shoot the puck. And letting him know that, and encouraging him that, when you do shoot that creates offence for everybody. Even if that first shot doesn't get in, if it gets through, that's what leads to the second chance or third chance. But it's vital that that shot gets through from the top. (Source: Inside Sports)

Reviewing the data available in the Passing Project, which includes 23 Oiler games from 2015/16, we can confirm that the club was generating plenty of offence from the point, as of the total shot attempts at 5v5, 20.6% of them were a Low-to-High-to-Net attack (i.e., shots that received a pass from the point). (Please note that I factored in shots from the point that were tipped or deflected in front of the goal, similar to the methodology used by Ryan in his analysis) This proportion of shot assists aligns with the league average when it comes to plays that saw an assist from the point. And it also confirms what Woodcroft was emphasizing back in December when it came to generating scoring chances.

And when it came to the proportion of Behind-the-Net attacks, which was found to be a much more effective way to generate rebounds, scoring chances and goals, the Oilers were well below the league average, with only 6.0% of their shot attempts having received a pass from behind the net compared to the league average of 12.5%. Knowing that the Oilers haven't been a strong cycling team for some time, it should come as little surprise that the team didn't generate offence from there. And seeing the results from Ryan's analysis, the Oilers coaching staff may need to focus on deploying the right tactics to improve this facet of their offensive game.

One last thing I looked at was which individual players on the club were good at sending passes from behind the net to create a shot attempt. And it should come as little surprise that Taylor Hall led the team in this area, with his most common linemate Leon Draisaitl following close behind. Considering how much the latter relied on the former for offence, it should be of concern to the Oilers losing Hall, although we'll have to see how the new additions to the roster do and how the coaching staff deploys players and tactics in 2016/17.