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Protecting leads with more offence

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Quick follow-up to something I’ve been tracking this season, which has been around how aggresively the Edmonton Oilers play when protecting a lead. In my opinion, if you have the offensive talent the Oilers do, but a roster built by management that has defensive deficiencies, it’d be more efficient and conducive to winning if you protect your leads by possessing the puck more often and forcing your opponent to play defence.

Using Corsi For percentage as a proxy for puck possession, we can see in the graph below how when the game is tied, team’s on average (between 2019/20 and 2021/22) 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% jumps to 54%. And when teams are leading in a game, they tend to take their foot off the gas, less likely to take risks that could cause scoring chances against - and we see the league average Corsi For% drop to around 46%. 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.

Last year, I found that when Todd McLellan, Ken Hitchock or Dave Tippett were coaching, the Oilers followed the usual league-wide trends. They would push for offence at a league average rate only when trailing in a game, and saw a significant drop in their puck possession numbers when leading in a game. Hitchcock especially had the Oilers pretty much playing in a defensive shell posting some of the lowest possession numbers in the league when the score was tied or when the Oilers were leading in a game.

That all seemed to change when Jay Woodcroft was hired as head coach at the end of the 2021/22 season. The team posted much stronger shot-share numbers overall, but what stood out to me was the team’s Corsi For percentage of 51.72% when protecting a lead. That was the third highest percentage in the league, and well above the league average share of 46.12%. They were clearly using their offensive talent to control the flow of play and more aggressively protect their leads.

Considering the excellent results over the final 38 games last season, I assumed that going forward the Oilers would continue to play an aggressive style to protect a lead. But that wasn’t the case as after the first 16 games of the 2022/23 season, the Oilers were only posting a league average Corsi For percentage playing with the lead - 45.60%, ranking 18th in the league.

Looking at the numbers since that point in time (November 14, 2022), it appears the coaching staff has made adjustments (or perhaps the players have been more on-board), as the Oilers have posted a 49.40% Corsi For percentage protecting the lead, which is sixth highest in the league and only behind Carolina, Calgary, Boston, New Jersey and Dallas.

Their aggressive play also stood out in their recent win at home against Seattle - who have posted decent puck possession numbers at even-strength this season and have had a lot of success, especially on the road. The Oilers held the lead for most of the game, but didn’t seem to let up at all at even-strength (5v5), maintaining the puck well and continuing to push for offence.

Playing more aggressively when protecting a lead really goes against the norm, and is definitely driven by coaching tactics and philosophy. So I’d be curious to know what the issues were earlier on in the season from Woodcroft’s perspective and why the team is now playing more like they were at the end of last season.

Data: Natural Stat Trick