Monday, February 11, 2013

Oilers PP: High Slot Play

As I've been watching the games lately, I've been noticing the Oilers PP is getting much less effective. While the conversion rate remains high, aesthetically, it's simply lacking movement and shot generation. I'll probably dive into powerplays in general in a little more detail later on. But for now, I'll just stick to a little wrinkle that I think the Oilers could use on their powerplay.

Currently, they're using Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle in an umbrella setup. The two low guys, usually Hall and Hartikainen lately, suffocate and cluster around the net. At a glance, it doesn't seem the most efficient use of personnel spatially. RNH will often go down low to Hall and he tries backdoor to Horcoff or Hartikainen or whoever it may be while they are both already less than two or three metres away from the net. Sometimes, they get some better movement at the top, but I really think they're not utilizing the ice as effectively and efficiently as possible and forcing the penalty killers to move and cede position and passing lanes. Teams close in on the right side of the ice or jam the net area when the puck is down low too often, not giving them enough room.

As of now, the Oilers are averaging 37.3 shots/60 minutes at 5v4 (according to Behind the Net), which is good for a woeful 28th in the league. The league leader, Columbus is averaging 65.5, which is 76% more shots. The Oilers still has a better conversion rate than Columbus, but I really think that more shots need to be created on 5v4 situations in order for that rate to be sustainable.

I had noticed just by casual observation during Sunday's game that Columbus was utilizing an umbrella set-up, where Anisimov was floating around in the high slot with Nikitin at the top and Tyutin and Prospal on the walls. Anecdotally, they seemed to be generating a lot more chances than the Oilers on the powerplay with a lot crappier players; when I went to check the Behind the Net 5v4 statistics today, my suspicions were confirmed. Now, you might think Columbus' powerplay probably isn't exactly something you want to model yours off of if you're going to copy a team. However, I have a feeling that Todd Richards is implementing a solid PP system, but the team is lacking the personnel to capitalize on the shots they generate. Their shots/60 at 5v4 was in the top 5 in the league last year, but their conversion rate was 24th, and the numbers are looking pretty similar again this year. Can't say they aren't trying.

I looked through some past years' data of shots/60 at 5v4 and San Jose are 5v4 shot generating superstars, and they consistently have a top 5 powerplay conversion rate (as mentioned, I might dedicate an entire post to this — I think Todd McLellan is a PP savant). The Sharks are a team that's a little more analagous to the Oilers in terms of talent, and the Oilers could obviously learn a few things from their systems. Pittsburgh, another highly talented team, was second last year with 56.5 shots/60 at 5v4 and 8th so far this year with 52.6. It's a case of two teams with a surplus of talent actually maximizing the use of said talent.

With this information in hand, I watched a few games from this season to observe how these two teams generate their shots. For starters, they utilize their spacing a lot better than the Oilers and exploit the leverage of the man advantage to create where defenders are forced to move and scoring chances and shots can easily be generated from an open man somewhere on the ice — sounds simple enough in theory. Pittsburgh's PP is actually very similar to Columbus', but instead of Anisimov, they have Neal in the high slot — a verifiable sniper who never passes up a shot attempt if he can help it. It also helps they have Crosby and Malkin (and eventually Letang) operating their umbrella and not Tyutin, Nikitin and Prospal. I've linked a YouTube clip of Pittsburgh looking for that Neal play in the high slot in order  to get a hard shot on goal or to open up cross-seams from the two players on the walls, while also opening up space around the net. If that's not working, or being covered, Neal still has the option to go down low and work it there with Crosby or Malkin in an overload with Kunitz still jamming the net. I noticed the Oilers doing this high slot placement with Gagner briefly when they tried to tie up the Detroit game on the PP 6v4, would like to see them use it more as I'll detail later.

 I intentionally chose some clips where Neal's just getting his chances, not necessarily goals, because the purpose of this post is to examine the process of a powerplay (shot generation specifically), not just the result. He gets an assist on Crosby's goal in one of the clips because his presence in the middle opens up options and spreads out Washington's penalty killers side-to-side, opening up lanes. Most of the clips are from the Washington game on February 7th. As you can see, they kept going back to it. They actually had a bit of a hard time sustaining shot pressure against New Jersey, as the Devils have an extremely aggressive penalty kill (which I may look into some other time), but the point is that the Penguins coaching staff has found ways to exploit their personnel's talent efficiently. Martin and Despres were running the PP in these games, as Letang was injured; I'll be keeping my eye on their PP when he returns.


With things getting a little stale with the Oilers, it could be time to experiment a little. Personally, I'd like to see them try the umbrella set-up with Eberle on the left wall, Schultz at the top, Nugent-Hopkins on the right wall, Yakupov in the slot and Hall down low (as diagrammed below). This gives a few more options, it allows Hall to buzz around the net, he can be fed for a walk-out by Nugent-Hopkins; Yakupov can feed Hall a quick pass down low from the slot or vice versa, and Eberle can find him backdoor. Hall can get in there to clean up rebounds too, which he is actually pretty great at from watching his past goals. This is all aiming towards the objective of getting the shot rate up with a few new wrinkles after you actually gain the zone, it's only half the battle. Currently, putting the onus on Hall to be a creator down low doesn't seem to be working very well as the players down low seemed to be bunched too close together, and it seems as if Eberle (and his side of the ice) is being a little underutilized. With that being said, it is generally easier for Hopkins and Schultz to exchange passes because of the sides they shoot from. This umbrella/high slot setup would place the puck-moving responsibility in the hands of Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz and Eberle primarily, who are probably the best puckhandlers anyways. Meanwhile, it utilizes Yakupov's one shot sniping ability (without a doubt the best on the team), in the same vein as Neal. Edmonton has been in the bottom five for years in terms of shots/60 at 5v4 (I suspect Schultz alone can improve this) — but it still seems as if the current PP's success may be in spite of the current system, not as a function of it. If the Oilers don't want their PP success of this year, and last year, to become a fleeting mirage, adjustments may be necessary.

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