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Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Where Does Oilers Defence Need to Improve?

Peter Chiarelli elected to be patient with his burgeoning defence corps this summer, instead of making a major move.

He re-signed Kris Russell, much to the vexation of many, and wants to see how his group can develop.

The injury to Andrej Sekera causes some concern, but it will also create an opportunity for Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning.

When you look at the Oilers numbers, it is understandable why Chiarelli opted for continuity.

The Oilers had a strong 2016/2017 season.

They finished with 103 points, tied for seventh most with Montreal.
They had the 10th most regulation wins with 43
They were eighth in goals against at 207
They were eighth in goals for with 243
They were ninth in shots against/game at 29.5
They were eighth in shots for/game at 31.1

They won more games than they lost, they scored more goals and allowed fewer shots than the opposition.

Some teams win despite many underlying flaws. The Oilers weren’t that team.

Let’s look at their 5×5 numbers.

They outscored teams 166-140, a massive improvement from their 2015/2016 season when they were outscored 170-134. In one season they went from being -36 in GF/GA to +26, a 62 goal swing in one year.

The Oilers had the sixth best 5×5 GF/GA in the NHL.

Washington was +66
Minnesota was +36.
Columbus and Pittsburgh +35.
Chicago was +28.
Edmonton +26.

The rest of the west playoff teams were:

Nashville +18.
San Jose, Anaheim and St.Louis +17.
Calgary was -4.

MORE NUMBERS

April 4, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Matt Benning (83) and defenseman Oscar Klefbom (77) help goalie Cam Talbot (33) defend the goal against Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown (23) during the second period at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve seen some point to the Oilers 5×5 CF% (Corsi For) as a concern. The Oilers finished 18th at 49.9%. They had 3643 CF and 3656 CA.

However, digging a bit deeper you find some other numbers.

They Oilers were ninth in 5×5 FF% (Fenwick For, which only counts shots on goal and missed shots, not blocked shots) at 50.9%. They were 2725 FF and 2628 FA.

They were also ninth in 5×5 SF% (Shots For) at 51%. They had 1991 SF and 1914 SA.

Their season numbers looked like.

Shots For: 1991
Shots against 1914
Missed shots for: 734
Missed shots against: 714
Blocked shots for: 909
Blocked shots against: 1028

**It is gross to see how many blocked shots there are in today’s NHL, but that’s another story.**

The Oilers blueline was very good at blocking shots. I can’t stand how much of a focus shot blocking has become, but there is no denying there is a skill set involved. Getting in the shooting lane at the exact moment helps, as does the willingness to do it regularly and the Oilers D corps was very adept at blocking shots.

Russell led the NHL with 213 blocks. Sekera was 10th with 166, Adam Larsson was 17th with 160 and Oscar Klefbom was 30th with 146.
Ottawa had three in the top-30: Erik Karlsson was second with 201, Cody Ceci 18th with 159 and Dion Phaneuf was 23rd with 156.
Seven other teams: CAR, CHI, LAK, NYI, NYR, PHI and SJ each had two.

When you eliminate blocked shots, for and against, the Oilers were top-10 in Fenwick and SF/SA %.

We can debate if blocking shots should be viewed as a positive or a negative. I can see it being both depending on the situation, but if your top-four defenders are good at getting in the shooting lanes and eliminating scoring chances, I’d argue it has value.

INDIVIDUALS

Mar 7, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Oscar Klefbom (77) skates against the New York Islanders at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to last season, Larsson (274), Klefbom (107), Nurse (71) and Benning (0) had played a total of 452 games.

Entering this season they are now at 719 NHL games and they have 50 playoff games. Nurse and Larsson played 13 while Klefbom and Benning played 12 each.

Klefbom and Larsson made huge strides last season. Klefbom was finally healthy and he and Larsson were a formidable pair.

Nurse played well before being injured, and his final 19 games coincided with a playoff push. He struggled a bit to find his rhythm, which was expected.

Benning also played great early on. He fatigued in the middle part of the season, combined with returning from a concussion, but he had very good numbers for a rookie defender.

Russell and Sekera faced about the same competition as Klefbom/Larsson, and were surprisingly solid from the start considering Russell didn’t sign until a week before the regular season began.

Sekera’s injury likely means Russell will play his natural left side with Benning, while Nurse will play with Eric Gryba. Head coach Todd McLellan said, “In an ideal world they will play together,” referring to Klefbom and Larsson.

They will miss Sekera, who is out most likely until late November at the earliest, but Nurse, Benning and Klefbom still have lots of room to grow and develop.

Larsson would like to get a step quicker, and the coaches want Russell to use his skating more as well as make a few more plays.

This group, which had a solid 2016/2017 season, has room to grow, and I understand why Chiarelli wanted most of his improvement to come internally.

PARTING SHOTS….

  • I think most would have preferred Russell’s contract to be shorter. I believe the structure of the contract — the fourth year worth $2.5 million with a $1 million signing bonus on July 1st and 15 teams to trade him to — makes him a very moveable asset after July 1st. His new team would only pay him $1.5 million, but count $4 million against the cap. Even trading him prior to July 1st would be possible with a $4 mill cap hit, but only $2.5 million owing in actual dollars.
  • I didn’t see any better UFA options to sign who could play both left and right defence. With Sekera out they needed a LD to start the season, and when he returns Russell can slide over to the right side. We can debate the length of his contract, but I didn’t see many better choices on July 1st.
  • I think there is more to Russell’s game, but of course he needs to show it. He knows he needs to make more plays and not be so passive with the puck, and I think he has the ability to do it. I don’t expect a massive increase in points, but the coaches encouraging him to be more assertive should help him move the puck better. He told me he will be working on that aspect of his game this summer. We’ll see if it pays off in October.
  • I could see a scenario where both Benning and Nurse sign two-year extensions, and those deals would expire after Russell’s third season. Unless Benning or Nurse have huge seasons, I see them coming in around $1.9 million to $2.3 million/season. Let’s say they both come in at $2.2 million. The Oilers top-six D will total $22.2 million.
  • Nashville’s top-six this season will total $23.95 million. Calgary’s top-six totals $25.12 million. San Jose is $24.8 million. The Oilers blue line was very solid, but not spectacular, last season, and if the young players continue to develop, then the Oilers blueline production/salary ratio will be very competitive.
  • Tickets are still available for the first ever Oilersnation Open golf tournament! The tournament is filling up quickly and you’re going to want to be a part of it! Not to mention, a portion of all sales will be donated directly to the Gregor Foundation.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • freelancer

    Would still like to see the Oilers add another natural right shot to their D. Someone who can compete with Benning, push Gryba down and provide a right shot on the PP for more options.

    • Jason Gregor

      What is interesting looking at best PPs last year. Very few of the best ones had a D-man known for having a “Cannon” of a shot. The best powerplays don’t have their Dman as the focal point. McDavid is rightfully so the centre piece. Edmonton’s PP was 5th best last year. Had they scored four more goals they would have been 1st in PP%. Klefbom does have a hard shot and he started to use it much more, and it is a nice asset to have, but the PP shouldn’t go through him or his shot. He can be a good piece, but better to flow through McDavid and closer to the net.

    • Jagrbaum

      Defense man drafted after Nurse by the Edmonton Oilers:

      2014 William Lagesson
      2015 Caleb Jones
      2015 Ethan Bear
      2015 John Marino
      2016 Markus Niemelainen
      2016 Matthew Cairns
      2016 Vincent Desharnais
      2016 Filip Berglund
      2017 Dmitri Samorukov
      2017 Philip Kemp

      Combined NHL games played by the above: Zero.

      Darnell Nurse NHL games played: 115 (5th amongst defense men in his class – 6th place has played 83 games)

      The four defenders above him in games played are:
      Seth Jones 315
      Rasmus Ristolainen 273
      Brett Pesce 151
      Nikita Zadorov 145

      So what uh…what do you mean there @Rebuild 3.0?

      • Carl the tooth

        I’m not sure you can put nurse in the comparable to Seth jones or ristoilaen those guys are top pairing d .playing 300 games as no.1 ( not that they started out as no. 1 s but are now and way larger salaries) to a defenceman that’s player 6,7th min or scratched is not a good comparison. Nurse still young .did he progress or was it the rest of the team around him ? Stats don’t always tell the tale .noy saying either way just spit ballin

        • Seth Jones and Ristolainen are different types of d-men then Nurse. I don’t think it’s safe to say Nurse hasn’t progressed, he looked like a poised vet alot of the time against the Sharks. Nurse is the type of d-man who doesn’t get recognized by stats, his grit and leadership skills that he took from his time at SOO can’t be measured. Also if you are concerned about his development just watch his video last week where he lifted 520ibs and you’ll see he’s doing fine.

  • Glencontrolurstik

    For the most part, the “blocked shot = value” debate has everything to do with the goaltender & not the coaching staff or fan. Some goalies love it, the fact that a “D” will take one for him. Others, hate it at it takes away their vision of the play at hand.
    My guess is that Talbot is 100% OK with it. I’m sure his comments regarding his defense had a lot to do with who was signed, extended & traded. He is the quarterback of the team defense…

  • Glencontrolurstik

    Jason, you didn’t speak of the goaltending here. They are probably the most integral part of the defense. While definitely a category on their own, the goaltender clearly has to have chemistry with the defense in order to be effective.
    I see POSSIBLY a huge hole in our goaltending that could very well be an issue. That is in not having a proven goaltender at back-up. On two fronts, in order to give Talbot a regular break during the season & in case of debilitating injury. I believe that if we gave Talbot regular (stress-free) breaks last year, our record would have been even better.
    I think we really missed out on an opportunity for Darling. But, Halat may still be available? Others?

    • Jason Gregor

      Darling? He signed for $4.150 million. Basically the same as Talbot. Why would Oilers want him when they have a starter? Brossoit had a .928sv% last year, albeit in small sample size. He will easily be better than Gustavsson was last year, .878sv%, so the backup will start between 14-18 games. Talbot was fresh all season. He doesn’t waste a lot of energy between the pipes, and while he will start fewer games this year, I’m not sold had he played 65-68 games last year the Oilers would automatically been better.

      • Glencontrolurstik

        Thanks for the reply. regarding Darling, I had just looked at what he was traded for, not what he would have cost.
        Thanks for keeping us informed…

  • madjam

    Not sold on Benning being much for offensive production anymore than Fayne or Gryba . I can see why Oilers hoping for more offensively from Russell seeing as whom he might have to play with , and try to lessen the effects of points from Sekara . Bear and Mantha look far more productive offensively than Benning , and it would not surprise me if one makes opening lineup . Nurse might also be pushed on left side by others including Paigin . Competition should be fierce .

  • madjam

    Shot blocking is huge in todays NHL , as is an active stick for all members of team . Oilers defense was good at it last year , and results certainly bore that out .

      • madjam

        That might explain why Rask might be part of their problem . Like the Flames goalies last season , complaining of not being able to read off their defenseman .

        • Carl the tooth

          Two new goalies .new coach new system .there were players being switched around all over . Rough start . When were they complaining I’m assuming not when Elliot had a ten game win streak tying a franchise record or when flames went on a roll of domination.reads looks pretty good to me one of top teams last half of season. How good was edm there first year under McLennan? 77 points and a pukejarvi pick at draft .im sure that every sports writer analysis and gm are wrong about putting flames defence core at the top because there confusing the $@”(@ out of all the goalies lolol.or ranking flames up to no.5 on power rankings .problem solved . Smith is the best passer in a goalie you can get flames don’t need the goalie and d to make reads .smith to Johnny …… johnnys on a break away …….shoots …. scoresssss!!!! Smith 30 assist season lololololol just spit ballin

  • Rock11

    I always enjoy myself watching people get themselves tied up in knots trying to defend the KR contract. This isnt so much about the player either. I think he is better than Henderson does and not as good as Gregor does but that whole last section is pure comedy gold. You see the contract is good IF we can trade it in the last year and IF there was nothing better in free agency and IF he improves his game significantly while in his 30’s and IF Benning and Nurse sign value deals. IF all those things happen then we can pay just about as much for our D as teams who have much better D corps.
    Why, I beg of you why, can’t those who like KR as a player just come out and say the contract was an absolute disaster despite the fact that we like the player and feel like he can help. Those two opinions do not have to be mutually exclusive.

    • OilHorse

      I for 1 think the deal is 1×1 too long. A 3×3 deal is perfect for him. Other than that I have no issue with him on the team. The only “IF” I have is IF Sekera wasn’t injuried would he have gotten the same contract.

      • Carl the tooth

        I was gonna ask the same question.but was there any better options on free agency ? Cody franson? Maybe? I’m even kinda surprised that with edm needing more of another good defenceman especially with sekera injury and flames kinda needing another rw .that flames traded for hamonic and edm trading eberle for strome ? Strome/hamonic salaries are similar . Just spit ballin lol

  • Oiler Al

    Would you trade Oilers defense for the Pitts team defense that was on the ice when the
    Stanley was hoisted? I would not make that trade, but I might trade coaches.

  • madjam

    To have the best shot blocking defenseman in the league at only 4M is a bit of a bargain considering the contracts of the next 30 top ones . Sekara also ranks high on list at NBR.9 . If Russell maintains at or near top choice each year ,then his contract is more than reasonable .

    • Rock11

      Or to look at it another way, having the 172nd rated D-man in Pts/gm on your team at all is a waste of space let alone at 4×4. You can cherry pick any stat you like to make your point. My guess is the truth lies somewhere in between. Personally I prefer rate stats to counting stats. Blocked shots is largely a function of ice time and time spent in your own zone. The first is good as it means the coach trusts you. The second is bad as it means you never have the puck. I imagine both sides of the KR debate know what side they are on in that particular argument.

    • Carl the tooth

      Compared too? Brodie ?hamilton?stone? Klefbum? Larson ? Sure russel is pretty decent at defending infront of his net but ever notice when he’s on the ice your always defending more than pushing offence?

    • Carl the tooth

      If he’s such a good defenceman than why is spending so much time defending and blocking shots instead of not letting them past the blue line in the first place or hemming them in the offensive zone and having possession there. Flames seen this and there was no way we were gonna give him over 3 mill for 4 years and that was a few years ago now when he wasn’t 30+

      • ponokanocker

        This. Also, he defends so much of the time as most of the time he has to move the puck out of his end, he flips it off the glass/boards, or makes a poor pass resulting in the other team gaining possession. Thus the cycle of having to block another shot happens.

  • Spydyr

    That stat that matter most IMO is wins,especially playoff wins. The Oilers were one win away from advancing to the third round. They would have been there with this same defence corps ,that have matured with the experience, except for a late three goal collapse aided by a missed reviewable non-call for goaltender interference.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      The Oiler’s were worst in the league in faceoff wins.
      2015-16 the Pens were worst in the league in faceoff wins & won the cup.
      They weren’t much better than the Oilers last year in that category.
      Face off wins over the long haul seem to not matter?

        • Carl the tooth

          I think that usaully would depend on if your a possession team or not . Stats can be misleading from one year to the next .flames had all those crazy comebacks and high shooting percentages and it was unlikely to be sustainable and they missed play offs next season .i think same with faceoffs etc you may get away with being on the right or wrong side of a stat but eventually like black jack it’s the odds over a longer period of time than 1 season

        • Rock11

          The key there I think is context. Many faceoffs are relatively unimportant. Do we really care who wins the opening faceoff for every period. The answer there is no. Do we care who wins the O or D zone faceoffs while on special teams. Hell yes we do. Somebody somewhere has probably already done this work but I’d be curious to see what the FO% of each team was if we eliminate neutral zone FO’s. Maybe it doesnt change but maybe we see the Penguins, for example, spike up as they put an emphasis on those “more important” draws and essentially throw away the neutral zone ones.

  • Wranglicon

    Thanks for another good off-season read mr gregor! Wondering if you plan to do an article, or even a WWYD Wednesday feature on shot blocking in the nhl. Be curious to hear more of your thoughts on it, and potential solutions or ways to curb it. I’m on your side, I can’t stand the amount it happens, and want to see it drop substantially.

  • All hail King Connor!

    Last year Chiarelli made players compete for lineup spots by bringing in quality players throughout the lineup. Looks as though guys are almost guaranteed their position on defense 1-5.
    Guys need to be pushed by another 3-4 dman.