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.
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.
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.
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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