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Protecting leads

Under Jay Woodcroft, the Edmonton Oilers appear to be taking a different approach when protecting a lead.

Edmonton Oilers v Winnipeg Jets Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

A common trend we’ve seen across the league for many years now is how coaches alter their approach depending on what the score is in a game. Trailing in a game, and you can expect the coach to start playing the skilled players a little more and be willing to take on some more risks to create offensive chances. Leading in a game, and teams start to play more conservatively, not really trying anything that could lead to a turn over, and focus more on just keeping the puck out of their own zone.

And we can see this in the data from the previous three seasons. Using Corsi For percentage as a proxy for puck possession, we see how when the game is tied, team’s on average control about 50% of the total shot attempts for and against. When trailing in a game and looking for the next goal, we see that the league average Corsi For% jump to 55%. And when they’re leading, teams tend to take their foot off the gas, not trying to create too much, and we see the league average Corsi For% drop to around 45%. In the graph below, these league-average levels are indicated by the orange line. And for context, I also added the league-high (blue line) and league-low (grey line) Corsi For% for each game-state to show the range.

Protecting the lead

The way coaches approach things when their team is leading in a game isn’t all too suprising considering the majority of them are fairly risk-averse. And they would rather their players play a simple game and not do anything that could jeoparidize their lead. What’s interesting is that in his first fourteen games as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Jay Woodcroft seems to have a different approach and appears to be pushing his team to continue generating offence even with a lead. A stark contrast to the previous three head coaches the Oilers have had since 2015.

The table below has the same three lines as the previous graph showing the range of Corsi For% across the league when a team is leading in a game, tied or trailing. Added to the graph now are bars to represent the previous coaches the Oilers have had and what the Oilers Corsi For% was under them in different game states.

What we see here is that when Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchock or Dave Tippett were coaching, the Oilers followed the usual trend. They would push for offence at a league average rate only when trailing in a game, and saw a significant drop in their puck posession numbers when leading in a game. Hitchcock especially had the Oilers pretty much playing in a defensive shell posting some of the lowest posession numbers in the league when the score was tied or when the Oilers were leading.

What stands out here are the Oilers numbers when they’ve been leading in games under Jay Woodcroft. While the average team posts a Corsi For% of 45% when leading the score, the Oilers are posting one of the highest possesion numbers in the league with 54%. They appear to be pushing for offence, opting to control the flow of play and put pressure on opponents as a way to stifle any chances against. It’s a riskier way to play, but makes sense considering it’s what the top teams in the league do. This season, eight of the top ten teams in terms of Corsi For% when leading have a points percentage above 0.600, and includes Florida, Calgary and Colorado at the top.

I’d be curious to hear Woodcroft’s thoughts on the matter and if he does have a different perspective on how best to protect leads, especially with so many critical games coming up. And if this changes the type of players Holland and his scouting staff start targeting in the off-season.

Data: Natural Stat Trick