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Photo Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t Overlook Oilers Defence

Through their magical five-game winning streak much of the focus, understandably so, has been on James Neal’s goal scoring and the one-two offensive punch of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. All three have been excellent, but they have all produced offence before. It isn’t much of a surprise McDavid leads the league in scoring with Draisaitl one point behind him, and leading the NHL with nine EV points. Even though Neal is off to the best start of his career, him scoring goals isn’t that new, unless you reside in Calgary.

Those three deserve their accolades, but we shouldn’t overlook how good the Oilers blueline has played.

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Oscar Klefbom has been outstanding thus far. He has logged 24:58/game, 11th most among NHL defenders, and he’s done it mainly with a rookie partner. Of his 87 5×5 minutes he’s played 54 with Joel Persson and 15 with Ethan Bear. He’s faced quality opponents and has positive possession numbers despite the inexperienced partner. He also leads the Oilers D-men in PK and PP TOI, and both units are second respectively in the NHL, with the PP clicking at 41.2% and the PK at 94.1%.

On top of being sound defensively, he has been excellent offensively, sitting third among NHL defenders with seven points.

Matt Benning has been extremely solid in the third pairing. The main goal in hockey is to outscore the opposition and Benning hasn’t been on the ice for a goal against this season. He is one of only three D-men in the NHL who have played at least 50 minutes at EV and not been on for a goal against, joining Cam Fowler and Ryan McDonagh.

Benning doesn’t play against top lines, but that shouldn’t diminish his play thus far this season. He played his best game yesterday in New York, and it coincided with Jim Playfair playing him a season-high 16:48. I know the giveaway/takeaway stat in the NHL isn’t the most accurate all the time, but Benning only has one giveaway in five games, and having watched all five games twice, I think that is pretty bang on.

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Benning has been steady, and he leads the Oilers at +5 in GF-GA and is +6 overall, tied with Zack Kassian for the team lead, and second overall in the NHL behind Dougie Hamilton (+7) in Carolina.

Bear has been the most pleasant surprise on the Oilers. He came to camp in great shape, and it is noticeable on the ice. He is so much quicker than he was two years ago in his 18 games with the Oilers. What impresses me most about Bear is his poise with the puck. He isn’t panicking, and this play on the Oilers first goal against New Jersey sums up his season quite well. He makes a great play defensively, wins the battle, takes a few strides, and makes a deft pass to McDavid in flight, who rushes up the ice. Two passes later, Draisaitl scores.

Many astute stats guys like Woodguy (Darcy McLeod) argued against the stats people who ripped on Russell. Mcleod accurately pointed out how Russell on his left side is much better. Well, the Oilers are playing him there and he’s rewarded them with solid play. He’s played almost exclusively with Benning at EV and they have been a very reliable pair. Russell has been paired with Klefbom on the PK, and those two have played the most PK minutes and Russell hasn’t been on the ice for a powerplay goal against.

Defence coach Jim Playfair wants his D-men to stand up teams at the blueline, and Russell has listened. Often in the past he would give up the blueline easily, and rely on blocking the shot. Not this season. He is using his speed more, is more aggressive and is making zone entries for the opposition much more difficult. And because of this new approach, he isn’t blocking nearly as many shots at EV.

Over the past two seasons, Russell led the NHL with 408 blocks. Only 11 other skaters had more than 308. This season he only has nine blocks in five games. Fewer blocked shots is also due to the opposing team having less puck possession in the offensive zone due to Russell making more plays with and without the puck.

Darnell Nurse has played mainly with Bear after Adam Larsson broke his fibula in game one. Nurse has logged 100 EV minutes, most on the Oilers. He is facing top opponents every night, and while the possession numbers aren’t great, Nurse is even GF-GA at 5×5. He also continues to add offensive punch at 5×5. His four EV points are tied for sixth among NHL defenders. His importance to the team is significant.

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Joel Persson hasn’t done a whole lot to get noticed yet, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. For a rookie defenceman, Persson has been steady enough to be effective and I think that’s what you’d want from him. It will be interesting to see how Persson progresses as he gets more experience.

PARTING SHOT…

The biggest improvement defensively has come on the PK. The past three seasons the PK has been atrocious. They allowed one goal every four kills. This season they’ve only allowed one PP goal in five games. They’ve killed off 16 of 17 powerplays, and we’ve seen noticeable differences in their PK. I outlined them here. They are more aggressive in the neutral zone and D zone and teams aren’t entering the offensive zone with ease like they did in the past.

I keep hearing the Oilers haven’t beaten a good team. It is important to note that Vancouver, Los Angeles, the Rangers and Islanders are a combined 8-4 in games they didn’t play the Oilers. Only New Jersey, 0-3-1, has a losing record. I don’t punish a team winning games, regardless of who they play.

I recognize it is very early in the season, but the improvements defensively are noticeable. Edmonton is eighth in goals against, a massive improvement over the past two seasons. Their offence has been excellent and deserves a lot of credit, but people shouldn’t be sleeping on the contributions of the defence thus far.

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