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Oilers midterm report card: Defencemen and Goaltenders

The Oilers are on their bye week right now, which is a good thing for the team and fans alike. I think we all need a bit of a break. 2017-18 hasn’t been kind to the Oilers as the team has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that stemmed from their breakout season and subsequent playoff run last spring. So while we have the week off to think about things, let’s look back at the season so far and determine who’s doing well and who isn’t with some good old fashioned midterm report cards.

I did forwards earlier this week, so I’ll do defencemen (who have played at least 15 games) and goalies now. My ratings system is pretty simple. The A range is very good, the B range is pretty good, the C range is mediocre, the D range is bad, and F is terrible. I’ll try to grade players based around their performance in relation to their expectations.

As usual, let me know in the comments how you would grade everybody and if I was either too hard or too soft in my grading.

Oct 9, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the third period against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Winnipeg Jets won 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Darnell Nurse: A-

Darnell Nurse has been one of the biggest bright spots on a frustrating Oilers team this season. In Andrej Sekera’s absence, the Oilers badly needed somebody to step up and Nurse was the one who did. He’s averaged 21:24 of ice time per game, which is four more minutes per game than he did in 2016-17. His +3.4 Fenwick For percentage (unblocked shot attempts, better for analyzing defencemen than shot attempts) relative to teammates is tops among defenders on the team despite the fact Nurse plays big minutes against the other team’s best players.

All of the Oilers’ defenders have actually fared quite well in shot metrics, as the team in general is massively underachieving based on those numbers. But Nurse ranks second (behind only the part-time, soft minute Yohann Auvitu) in terms of on-ice Goals For percentage at even strength. When Nurse plays, the Oilers score 56.72 per cent of the goals, which is very good given who he faces.

Nurse has looked like the big, strong, physical, and mobile top pairing defender that made him the No. 7 pick in 2013 and hopefully he continues to improve from here.

Adam Larsson: B

Adam Larsson has been pretty much exactly what you’d expect him to be this season. He’s played largely alongside Darnell Nurse on the team’s top pairing, excelling in Edmonton’s zone as a tough, shutdown defender. Like last year, he’s shown to be capable of logging big minutes against the other team’s best forwards.

Overall, Larsson has been largely effective in that role. His underlying numbers are solid (ranking above 50 per cent in shot attempt, unblocked shot attempt, and scoring chance for percentage at even strength) and match up with what he did last season. The one major drop off has been Goals For percentage at even strength. Larsson has an ugly 38.78 GF% at even strength so far this season, the worst among regular Oilers defenders. That said, this is largely the result of the team’s horrific offensive play. Larsson’s on-ice even strength goals against numbers are just slightly worse than last year, but his on-ice goals for numbers are significantly worse, which has torpedoed his overall GF%.

All told, Adam Larsson has been Adam Larsson. Thoroughly solid but far from spectacular. I would say he fits perfectly at the bottom of the pretty good category given the fact you’d hope he could evolve into more of a two-way, top pairing guy.

Yohann Auvitu: B

Yohann Auvitu has been exactly what the Oilers expected him to be this season. He was inked to a one-year deal in the middle of the summer to come in an help the Oilers produce some offence from the blueline. He’s historically had excellent underlying numbers, and we’ve seen that this year.

Auvitu can’t be counted on in the defensive zone at all nor can he log big minutes, but he’s been completely adequate as a No. 7 defender who jumps in and out of the lineup with easy minutes. When he’s on the ice, the Oilers have scored a whopping 64 per cent of the even strength goals. Given expectations, what more can you ask for?

Matt Benning: B-

Matt Benning had a shockingly good rookie season in 2016-17. He was a college free agent signing who slid completely under the radar, broke camp with the team, and then went on to form a very effective third pairing with Darnell Nurse for the majority of the season.

You don’t really notice Benning on the ice all that much, which is said to be a good thing for defenders. He’s smart, makes calm, poised, and simple plays, can move the puck, and holds his own in the defensive zone. His underlying numbers are strong again just like they were last year, and he has the second-best Goals For percentage at even strength among regular Oilers defenders behind only Darnell Nurse.

I would rank him higher if he developed more of an offensive game and cut down on boneheaded plays in the defensive zone, but given the fact he’s a cheap sophomore, Benning has been pretty solid this year.

Oct 28, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Kris Russell (4) and Washington Capitals forward Alex Chiasson (39) chase a loose puck during the second period at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Russell: B-

I feel I’m going to get attacked by somebody for whatever I say about Kris Russell because that’s just the nature of what he represents to Oilers fans. His value as a player is massively distorted because of his role as a centrepiece within the analytics discussion. Also, he’s been put under the microscope even more this season because of his heavy four-year contract.

That said, I think Russell has been solid this season. He’s still getting caved in shot attempts, but he does a fair job in suppressing scoring chances against. He logs around 20 minutes a night and his offence has improved from last season, as he sits second on the Oilers for points among defencemen.

The reason I put him at the bottom of the pretty good department has been a wealth of boneheaded decisions and frequent flops on the ice that have given the other team prime goal scoring opportunities. For a pretty expensive shutdown defender, Russell needs to tone back the yard sales in the defensive zone.

Oscar Klefbom: C

After a breakout season last year, Oscar Klefbom has been disappointingly mediocre in 2017-18. It was expected that Klefbom would be the one to step up and fill the void left by Andrej Sekera’s injury, but that didn’t happen, as Klefbom struggled with an increased responsibility on the team’s blueline.

Darnell Nurse passed Klefbom on the depth chart and has taken over as the team’s top left-handed defender alongside Adam Larsson. Klefbom has solid underlying numbers that largely match what he did last season, but he’s struggled in the goal department, as the team has just 40.35 per cent of the goals when he plays at even strength.

In a vacuum, his season hasn’t been that bad. But Klefbom was supposed to be Edmonton’s top defender this season and given the expectations, he fits perfectly in the mediocre category.

Nov 26, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Edmonton Oilers goalie Cam Talbot (33) during the first period against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Talbot: C-

This season has not been kind to Cam Talbot. Just one year after putting together one of the most impressive seasons in Oilers history (setting a franchise record for wins in a single season), Talbot has struggled mightily. Through 36 games, Talbot has posted a .902 save percentage, nowhere near the .919 figure he posted last season. According to Hockey-Reference’s ‘Goals Saved Above Average’ statistic, Talbot has been one of the worst goalies in the league this season.

I’m willing to give Talbot some benefit of the doubt because his 91.56 save percentage at even strength indicates part of his struggle this season has been the team’s historically horrific penalty kill. Still, given his numbers, the most generous grade I can give Talbot is the low end of the mediocre section.

Eric Gryba: D

Eric Gryba was inked to a two-year deal this summer to be a depth presence on Edmonton’s blueline. He had played two seasons with the club and was a gritty, hard-working, veteran presence, so it made sense to keep him around.

But it became evident this year that the game has become too fast for Gryba. You don’t expect him to produce any offence, but Gryba struggled in the defensive zone and was the worse Oiler in terms of minor penalty differential. As a result, he cleared waivers and was assigned to Bakersfield of the AHL.

Laurent Brossoit: D-

Like Gryba, Laurent Brossoit has found himself on the outside looking in. He was pegged as Edmonton’s backup goalie coming into the season, a role he was good in last year. Brossoit was called up after Jonas Gustavsson was waived, and he posted a .928 save percentage in eight games.

This year, Brossoit was a disaster in net for the Oilers, posting a .886 save percentage in 13 games. He had a few pretty good starts when Cam Talbot was on the Injured Reserve, but didn’t prove that he could be a consistently capable backup at the NHL level. As a result, the Oilers went out and acquired the veteran Al Montoya to replace him.

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  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    For my money only Nurse and Russell have played worth a damn this year on defense and Talbot hasn’t played well this year either. These are 2 big reasons why the Oilers haven’t been winning this year.

  • LAKID

    When are the Oiler’s going to get a proven #1 goalie to push Talbot or put him to#2? The deadline is comming up and if the Oil are out of it 100% time to trade that #1.

      • IRONman

        Get saros from predators. Helluva good goalie, contract is up. Nurse and Larson best line combo going forward. Nurse is offense is coming on and Larson is our best stay at home D. Russel is a warrior. To be realistic, sekera and klefbom are injured. Hard to be 100%.

    • Mc🙏

      One bad season….. ( more off and on than all bad ) and we should trade the guy that played lights out last year and is also playing in front of a team that has not been clicking? Are you Chia’s twin brother?

      • LAKID

        Where does it say trade Talbot? Trade for a #1 to challenge for the starting position, last year could have been a fluke and it looks like that so far this season.

          • LAKID

            A question not a statement and players are going to be on the move after this dreadful season and without a starting goalie the Oiler’s are in the same boat. Plain and simple the Goalies ( not including Montoya) don’t cut the mustard and we are looking at the same old song if it not adressed.

          • Mc🙏

            I think this is where most would disagree, and that goes for the team and the coaching. We can all agree he has had an off year, but you might be the first person to ever state our goaltending as an issue going forward. Either you are an evil genius, or are wayyy off the mark.

            You know what they say in poker…. if you sit down at the poker table and dont see the ‘fish’…. than you are the ‘fish’

      • Spydyr

        I think you mean one good season. Talbot was a career backup who lost his starting job his first season here. Played above his head one season and now has regressed back to his career levels.

        • oilerjed

          Talbot didn’t lose the starters job really. He had a start that was forgettable and turned it around by December. Then went on to have an above average season. Please don’t make Talbot your new Eberle.

        • Redbird62

          Yes, he had a 2 year stint to start his career as a back up to Henrik Lundquist, who had been in the top 6 for Vezina’s for 10 years running. Even as their backup he played extremely well, and when Lundquist went down with an injury, Talbot’s 36 game performance in 14-15 earned him 7th place voting for the Vezina and made him a coveted goalie to be a starter. He had a He hasn’t cemented himself yet as a top 10 goalie, but Talbot has done enough that I support the Oilers keeping him their number one for now.

        • OTOF2

          Agreed. Until he can learn to stay off his knees he will not get his game back. The book is out on him now, shooters know to go roof and he has no chance. He is on his knees before the puck leaves the shooters stick most times. His drop in performance is not just an off year – it is tied to his style.

        • Kneedroptalbot

          Spydyr, you are bang on 100%. Talbot is overvalued just like Tommy Salo and Ben Scrivens were. With a 45th (Talbot) best sv% and a 51st (Brossoit). Can’t win with that type of goaltending.
          I don’t see how you could rate them higher than “D”. Goaltending has been DISMAL.

    • NoBuBlackOPS

      You keep complaining about the need to bring in another #1 to challenge talbot please explain how that would work exactly. The oil can’t keep Talbot on the books and bring in another #1 to challenge him like you keep saying. Regardless of the contracts coming off the books this year there are a number of players that are going to need raises this year. There’s not close to enough money coming off the books this year to address the players that need new contracts nurse and Benning both need new deals. Not to mention addressing the lack of depth on the wings. But you want to bring another #1 who makes what at least 3mil a year. To push are total for goaltending to over 7mil a year ok lol that makes a lot of sense.

  • freelancer

    Benning and Larsson grades are way too high in my opinion. Benning has been a trainwreck in his own zone this year and has regressed from last season.

    Larsson has not looked great either which probably has alot to do with Klefbom not performing well. Larsson needs a partner who can move the puck up effective as Larsson is horrible in that aspect.

    • jultz=2cups!😂😂

      I’d like to see proof that benning is a “train wreck”. I don’t agree with this statement at all. Why does oilersnation hate right handed dmen so much? He’s been pretty solid for a second year pro imo.

  • TKB2677

    Can someone tell Cam we are in the 2017-2018 season, not last year.
    B- for Benning? WOW. He’s been scratched multiple times for being lousy and has looked like a tire fire at times with his play. His first 1/4 of the season was a freaking disaster and he and Klefbom have been taking turns as being train wrecks.

    I still think there is a decent #5 dman in Benning but to give him any kind of B grade is extremely generous to me.

    • Ready to Win

      From the text of the article its clear that the grades were chosen with what was reasonable to expect from the player in mind; so basically the author is saying that this is what we should have expected from last year’s defense minus Sekera.

  • camdog

    “The one major drop off has been Goals For percentage at even strength. Larsson has an ugly 38.78 GF% at even strength so far this season, the worst among regular Oilers defenders. That said, this is largely the result of the team’s horrific offensive play.”

    I think Larsson has the least offensive abilities out of all the d-man on the roster right now. I don’t think it should surprise that his goal for 38.78 GF% is the lowest of the d-man on the team. I’m of the belief that he has had back problems that will get better in the off season and his offensive game will improve, but unless he’s playing with a Klefbom having a career year and with McDavid I expect his offensive numbers to be weak.

  • Dan 1919

    This year is a team funk with some forwards responsible too, but let’s be honest, up front last year too has always been McDavid dependent. If you had to really pinpoint this season’s failure on one thing it would be Talbot, Kelfbom and Larsen all regressing from A to C- this year. Russell is consistent like last year hovering around a B, Nurse is obviously an A… but Talbot, Klef, Larson are the big loses this year.

  • TKB2677

    I think the issue with Larsson is he has a back problem but he also played with Klefbom for the first 1/4 of the season. Klefbom has been a complete disaster this season and was especially bad in the first 1/4.

  • crabman

    Auvitu was supposed to play like cap and did. perfect lived up to expectations B.
    Larsson, who played primarily with Klefbom last year, has pretty similar shot metrics as last year. except he is getting killed in gf% still gets a B.
    Klefbom, who’s partner last year was Larsson, has pretty much the same shot metrics as last year playing with lesser partners than Larsson and is getting killed in the gf% but not as bad as Larsson gets a full grade lower dispite significantly more offense. C
    Benning at B- above average?
    Nurse and Russell are the only players to meet or exceed expectatio this year. Klefbom at C or C- sure but so is Larsson. If our expectations of Klefbom was top be a top pair guy because of last year’s performance I think it is only reasonable to think his partner from last year and the player we got for Hall would also be helping us win as a top pair guy.
    Benning and Auvitu have been bums.
    Talbot was very good last year and one of the worse goalies in the league this year. He is a D- at best.

  • Redbird62

    It is not clear to me if the grades are relative to the expectations for each player’s individual performance or against an average NHL defenseman. I would think that both Nurse and Benning would come down a notch each, if the grades are in comparison to all 273 NHL defenseman who have played this year, as opposed to just being compared against 2nd and 3rd year defensemen respectively. I would also lower Larrson to a B- or C+ if I was using the entire league performance as a bench mark. I would also note that both Larrson and Klefbom’s performance have likely been hampered by nagging injuries, though I would not change their grades for that, as grades should be based on actual performance whatever the cause.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    Gotta love you guys. As soon as things go wrong FIRE AND TRADE EVERYONE! Talbots having a down year? Trade him, he sucks. Draisaitl’s having a down year? Trade him, he sucks. If McDavid has a down year? Trade him, he sucks. Good lord you people sicken me. Why don’t you just WAIT and things will get better.

      • BringtheFire 2.0

        Leafs been waiting 50 years, Habs over 30, us over 30, Winnipeg since they were formed, St. Louis since they were formed, Chicago waited over 35, Boston waited 39…we’re all in the same boat.

        • In our case, its the non stop mismanagement and nepotism that is holding us back, and that does not appear to be changing any time soon. Check who Bennings relatives and friends are and we know why he is gifted ice time. Also have the Flames ever hired an assistant coach and then gifted a roster spot to his son at the expense of better players? When the Flames are mismanaged, (as with most franchises) people get fired. Oilers promote these people , that never should have been in charge in the first place. I would wager that no other team who has relieved their GM of his duties has forced the new GM to retain the former failed GM. Also our outstanding penalty kill , which is also a new league record for failure.(Again in other organizations people get fired for this) Been waiting thirty years for competence, never mind the Cup. I liken it to that jackass that bought the Stampeders years ago, so his son , who could not play quarterback, could be the quarterback. It was an organizational mistake and they corrected it. We just keep repeating the cycle ad naseum. Entire organization gets an F for failure.

    • Mc🙏

      I actually believe ( hate to even write this ) but missing the playoffs this year is probably a blessing in disguise for the next 8 years of having McDavid…… we have so many RFA’s that can be signed to less with missing the playoffs, and the potential to fill in some pieces with selling off the UFA’s that will not fit capwise.

      that being said I will gladly take a 14game winning streak and sneak into the playoffs, as I think this team can win in the playoffs

    • CMG30

      Well AlextheOilersFan, I don’t know how many years you’ve been an Oiler fan, but tons of oiler fans have been patiently waiting since 2006. These fans supported the team even when entire seasons were lost BY DESIGN in order to draft 1st overall. A few years go by and those players were then thrown away to build a ‘winning’ team. Fans were told that the team needed to ‘lose’ trades to build a winner. Now here we are 25th place in the league. How many more decades do you think Oiler fans should wait before things get better?

    • Peksisarvinen

      It’s not about Talbot having an off year. It’s about there simply being no reason for anyone to expect him to be better than what he’s showing right now. I don’t get why people thought he was going to be a bona fide #1 goalie in the first place. What evidence did he EVER present that supported this? Last year was likely a fluke, and now he’s back to his own level, or at least closer to it, if slightly below.

    • Snoop Scottie Dogg

      After a season like this there will be trades. The eternal problem is that we don’t have an abundance of prospects and we need entry level contracts to plug holes for the next eight years so we need our draft picks. So, the oilers will have to catch lightning in a bottle again to make the playoffs in the coming years. 🤬

      Wake me up when we’re in the playoffs again….I’ll be in an alcohol induced coma. 🤪

  • Glencontrolurstik

    Has anyone thought of trying Auvitu in a forward position?
    He can skate & seems to have good hands? With a great shot…
    Already he is a defensive player, & has good numbers when he’s on the ice… Could be a diamond in the rough? At least try him on the PP, couldn’t get much worse in that area… He’d need some coaching though for the jump to forward. But all the pieces seem to be there?

  • Spydyr

    Last season Talbot ” one of the most impressive seasons in Oilers history”.

    That is funny you make me laugh. Presents evidence of five Stanley Cup seasons being much more impressive goalie wise. Not to Mention Fuhr, Ranford or even Roloson and Cujo’s non Cup winning seasons.

    The problem with Talbot being over rated is the younger generation has grown accustom to below average goaltending .

    • Redbird62

      While Cam Talbot’s current season is below expectations (maybe not yours), it is not an probably not an overstatement (and definitely not laughable) to say last season was “one” of the most impressive. All of those goalies had excellent seasons with the Oilers and several had great playoffs, but of those you named, (plus Salo, who had a few very good seasons with the Oilers too), the only Oiler Goalie to ever finish higher than Talbot did in Vezina trophy voting in any one season while wearing an Oiler’s jersey is the hall of famer, Grant Fuhr (3 times). I’ll defer to the GM’s of the league over you on how good Talbot’s season was last year. His playoff save percentage is very comparable to Joseph’s and Roloson’s best seasons with the Oilers as well.

    • Dan 1919

      I don’t even know if it’s generation based or oiler fans in general. I remember saying they should trade Eberle back when he was a developing young “star” for a dman and everyone thought that was ludicrous. Which I think was more because of what you alluded to, if Oiler fans missed the Pronger cup run… many actually don’t realize how impactful a top tier dman is, that not only defends, but breaks out and starts plays repeatedly.

  • oilerjed

    The Benning and Auvitu grades are way out to lunch. Auvitu has been so bad that he can’t get in the line up 75% of the time on a team who has defenders that are struggling like they are.

    Benning’s numbers seem to be obscuring the fact the a large percentage of his gaffs have resulted in game winning goals for the other side. I don’t see either of them as even warranting a C grade IMO. Other then Nurse and Russel, maybe Larson, your grades all seem awfully generous. Wish you were grading assignments when I went to NAIT.

    • Rock11

      Yeah cause none of us can remember a Russell gaffe that ended up in a game winning goal. Scored it himself as I recall. If we are going to judge by single moments in time then Russell has had enough of those this year to earn an F. Which is why we don’t judge by single moments. We take the entirety of the play and factor those one off events in accordingly. Benning has been OK. Not great but not awful and as a cheap, RH, 2nd year pro I could argue he has been a greater “value” than anyone outside of Nurse.

      • oilerjed

        I’m not sure I follow your logic. Gaffs that cost us wins are a bigger deal then a gaff that doesn’t effect the end of the game. And I agree “as a second year pro” Benning would be playing ok in a third paring, 7th dman role. For a 2nd pairing role that he is playing he is clearly sub par. Personally, I would have him in the AHL for a while so that he can take his game from “OK” to better then average so he is actually a viable option for a NHL club.

        • Rock11

          A gaffe that costs a goal does not entirely wipe out what may be multiple games worth of stellar play. I’m not necessarily speaking about Benning here but just in general. If player X plays great for 10 games and is a significant factor in winning for all of those games then makes one brutal play it doesn’t mean that player is a “bad” player or that he has been a trainwreck. Again to use everybody’s favourite son(or whipping boy) Kris Russell. He has had a number of those brutal moments this year. The own goal against the Leafs, falling down and allowing a breakaway goal, etc. Nobody here seems to be claiming that those individual moments mean he has been a trainwreck. Why should Benning be treated any different.

  • TKB2677

    The B grade for Auvitu is baffling to me. The team knew prior to the season that one of their better dmen – Sekera – was going to miss almost half the season due to injury. Once he was back, it was probably going to take him another 10-15 games at least to maybe get up to speed to a point where he was somewhat decent. He got hurt in the playoffs. He missed an entire summer of training, all of camp and 1/3 of the season. Realistically, no player can be away that long and ever be fully up to speed. He won’t be the true Sekera until next year. Auvitu has played 20 games, one of which he was at forward. If the goal of Oilers management for Auvitu was to play mediocre offensive mins with close your eyes and pray it all works out defensive mins for 20 games, then the B grade is fair. But I doubt they made the Auvitu signing with the idea that he’d play 20 games in the season, then have to go out and pick up Davidson on waivers to move ahead of him as the #7. That is reality. Unless the Oilers suddenly start trading off dmen or they get a rash of injuries, I don’t think Auvitu sees the ice other than at practice.

    I would bet that if anyone offered the Oilers anything for Auvitu, they’d take it in a heartbeat.

  • I can’t believe that you are all just chopping Cam Talbot. How can you say he is over valued ? The team needs to mesh together and you all need to do is be patient. We will be fine.

    Need a bit more strength in guys like Maroon and Kassian and Strome. Don’t throw Cam under the bus.