Prior to the 2015/16 season starting, I spent some time re-watching San Jose games to get a sense of their style of play and their overall tactics with McLellan behind the bench. We knew historically the Sharks had been a very good team, one that was properly constructed with depth and balance across the roster, and had the ability to outshoot and outscore opponents on a fairly regular basis. But I was curious to see how certain types of players, mainly the ones on defence, were being utilized and what we could expect for the Oilers under a new coaching staff.
What stood out to me from re-watching these games was how often the Sharks would shoot the puck, and how quickly they would get a shot on goal soon after entering the zone. It was obvious that they would crash the net fairly quickly, getting opposing defencemen on their heels, and rely on their skilled forwards to create second and third chances from rebounds.
Defencemen were typically dumping in the puck, and could rely on their forwards to retrieve it. And if they crossed the blue line, defencemen were very good at getting shots on goal, leading to second chances. To confirm what I was seeing, I looked into what proportion of the Sharks total shot attempts came from defencemen, and how they measured up to the rest of the league.
Here we see that under McLellan (2008/09 – 2014/15), the team saw the shot attempts from the defence core gradually increase to about 35-40% of the team total at even-strength. The Oilers on the other hand, were typically below league average (~30%) when it came to shot attempts from the blueline and saw a bump in their proportion in 2014/15 under Eakins and Nelson (Source: Corsica Hockey).
Now with McLellan behind the bench this past season, the Oilers defencemen generated about 35% of the team’s total shot attempts, well above the league average, and closer in line with what the Sharks have done in the past. If we break the proportion of shot attempts into rolling 25-game averages over the course of the 2015/16 season, the Oilers actually did get up to 40% at one point, which just happens to be around the time that the Oilers had a Corsi For percentage above 50% [Copper & Blue]. And when the defencemen started generating fewer shots closer to the end of the season, well that’s also when the team’s overall possession numbers went into the tank.
I can’t say for certain that there’s a direct correlation between the proportion of shot attempts from defencemen and the teams overall possession numbers. But it does appear that McLellan shifted away from his strategy of getting shots from defencemen and letting forwards crash the net for rebounds. Early on in the season, the coaching staff did emphasize volume shooting and the importance of getting shots from the blueline, but for whatever reason, McLellan appears to have relied on his defencemen less for shot attempts and relied more on his forwards to funnel shots towards the goal. My thought is that McLellan’s original strategy did a better job of sustaining pressure in the offensive zone, which would lead to better possession numbers (similar to the 25 game stretch this season).
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Oilers lost Brandon Davidson right around the 67 game mark, which is also when the Oilers started to crater when it came to possession numbers. As a depth defenceman, Davidson was quite effective at generating shot attempts, ranking near the top when it came to individual shot attempts per 60 this season.
Not suggesting here that losing Davidson is the reason why the team’s possession numbers took a hit. But it appears that after losing him, McLellan looked to his forwards to generate original shot attempts, moving away form his shot-from-the-blue strategy.
- McLellan has historically had his defencemen generating a higher proportion of the teams total shot attempts compared to other teams. This forced the forwards to crash the net looking for rebounds and creating additional chances.
- This past season, the Oilers did see a higher proportion of shot attempts from defencemen, but after the 67 game mark, the club saw fewer shot attempts coming from the blueline. The Oilers possession numbers also took a nosedive around this time.
- Davidson’s absence may have been a factor in the fewer shots from the blueline, as he ranked higher among Oilers defencemen when it came to individual shot attempts/60.