Edmonton Oilers

Early strategy changes seen in the Edmonton Oilers 2023–24 training camp

The regular season is just around the corner, the captain skates are over and training camp is underway. There were some interesting takeaways from the first day of camp most notably how the Edmonton Oilers lined up and the implementation of a 1–1–3 forecheck. Let’s take a closer look at what it all means.

What this will look like

We got a look at what the top-six forwards might look like on Game 1 with the following lines:

Kane – McDavid – Brown

Nugent-Hopkins – Draisaitl – Hyman

If Connor Brown can regain his form from knee surgery and keep his spot in the top six, then it would appear that there are no longer any questions marks and the Oilers could potentially have the best top six in the league. With that said Evander Kane is still healing from a major wrist injury and it was not that long ago that Brown had that ACL surgery. If an injury occurs it will be interesting to see who gets bumped up and how well they do. Still an impressive group heading into the season opener.

With Mattias Ekholm missing the first week of camp due to a hip flexor issue, we did see an adjustment on defence to start camp and which has me wondering how the defence will lineup for Game 1.

Nurse – Bouchard

Kulak – Ceci

Broberg – Desharnais

Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard have been an effective defence pair when paired together over the past two seasons with 152 games played and a 58.61 CF% and 59.56 xGF% according to naturalstattrick.com. During a smaller sample size of 21 games Bouchard did post slightly better advanced stats with Ekholm with a 59.02 CF% and 61.26 xGF%.

Worth noting is the pair of Nurse and Cody Ceci over 149 games with a 50.82 CF% and 51.58 xGF%. Even though they face the toughest competition, this pairing has received a fair amount of criticism the past couple of seasons and rightfully so according to those stats. One would only assume the same level of competition when Bouchard replaced Ceci on the top pairing and yet Bouchard posted better numbers than Ceci when playing with Nurse.

I would love nothing more than to see Nurse and Bouchard as the top pair and Ceci demoted to the third pair with Brett Kulak. Nurse would benefit from having a better D partner and Ceci would more than likely excel in a third pair role. This would require Phillip Broberg to step up into top-four minutes along side Ekholm. Which is why I am curious to see the defence pairings when Ekholm returns to camp healthy.

The addition of 1–1–3 forecheck

The other big news from Day 1 of camp was the addition of a 1–1–3 forecheck.

Coach Jay Woodcroft had all 62 players at camp practicing this forecheck. One would only assume that he has implemented this strategy on Day 1, with the entire group so that on Game 83 the entire franchise, including the farm team are all on the same page.

The Got Yer Back podcast with Ryan Rishaug, Rob Brown, and Jason Strudwick did an excellent breakdown of this forecheck.

The breakdown as follows:

Each team has three or four systems in place based on who is in the lineup or injured, who the opposition is and what the score in the game is. The Oilers have used a more aggressive 1–3–1 forecheck in the past and it makes sense when you consider the speed the Oilers roster has. However an aggressive forecheck requires all five players to be on the same page and can be easily broken down if one player is struggling or having an off night.

The 1–1–3 is a conservative forecheck that would require the forwards to be skating less or even backwards. The first forward is forechecking with the second forward reading the play and the third forward lined up all the way back with the defencemen. It is a strategy that attempts to split the ice in half, force the puck up the boards to create a turnover before the red line or a dump in from the opposition. The other objective is to reduce the speed of the opposition at the blue line.

The counter to a 1–1–3 is to reverse the puck by either skating up the wing and passing back to the defenceman near the top of the circles. That defenceman can then either skate up the opposite side or pass it to the open winger as the two forechecking Oilers would now be caught on one side of the ice. Another option would be to skate up a wing and make a neutral zone pass to the open winger, this would be considered riskier and the second forward would have an opportunity to read that pass and create a turnover.

Another counter to the 1–1–3 would to gain the red line with speed and dump it in with the far side winger forechecking with speed. The goal would be to catch the defencemen and third forward flat footed at the blue line. This is when it is advantageous to have a goaltender who excels at playing the puck outside the crease. If only Mike Smith was still available, just kidding.

No perfect strategy

There is no perfect system otherwise every team would use it. With the 1–1–3 you are trading off a race and battle for dump-ins in exchange for neutral zone turnovers. A 1–1–3 forecheck is a more forgiving strategy but still requires buy-in from the top players. McDavid, Draisaitl, Ekholm, and Nurse have spoken about the need to win more games with defence. This system could allow them to do so but it will take trust in the system and a change of gears to do it. It is possible that their personal stats will suffer as a result of winning more one goal games as opposed to running and gunning all game.

Coach Woodcroft mentioned at his availability during Day 1 at camp that goal was to add another layer to the onion. Which would suggest that this will not be a primary forecheck but an addition to the overall strategy. The Got Yer Back podcast mentions that when the opposition has the puck behind their net, line changes and one goal leads with six or seven minutes left would ideal times to implement it.

We should still expect the Oilers to be overall aggressive on the forecheck as usual however keep an eye out for the 1–1–3 at specific times during this upcoming season.

Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

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