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Oilers Blueline Needs Changes

The Edmonton Oilers had a solid 2019/2020 regular season. They were fifth in the Western Conference, second in the Pacific Division and had a 95% chance of making the playoffs when the season was postponed on March 12th. Over 71 games they showed signs of improvement, but when they soiled the sheets in their qualifying round loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, many of the positives from the regular season were forgotten and some actually wanted to blame Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the series loss.

Emotions run high after losses, but if you take a step back, I see no valid reason to suggest McDavid and Draisaitl’s play or leadership are the main areas of concern for the Oilers. Can those two make a few better reads defensively? Of course, but even if they do, that won’t increase the skill level of their teammates. The Oilers took steps in the right direction this past season, but general manager Ken Holland still has areas he must improve.

Holland inherited a mess. His predecessor, Peter Chiarelli, made five or six trades where he lost each one of them, often terribly, and severely downgraded the skill level of the team. Holland wasn’t going to be able to fix that in one year. It will take a few seasons, if everything works out right.

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You don’t have to win trades for them to work out, but you can’t consistently lose them. You want to make a trade that helps your team improve. The James Neal for Milan Lucic trade helped the Oilers. Neal was more productive than Lucic. Lucic has given Calgary what they wanted as well, so the trade helped both teams. It is rare you will completely fleece a team and win a trade (sadly for Oilersnation, their GM got fleeced a few times in the previous five years), but if the trades improve your team by a few % points it should be viewed positively.

IMPROVE 5×5 PLAY

The Oilers, as a team, need to improve their play defensively at 5×5. I don’t believe the Oilers defence is solely to blame, far from it, but it is clear based on the numbers below the team has not improved defensively at 5×5 over the past three seasons. And they’ve had five of the same D-men over that span. I believe as a group, they don’t mix well. They need different elements spread across the three pairs. Holland needs to switch up the D corps.

Edmonton’s goals against at 5×5 has not improved in three years — they finished 24th, 24th and 25th averaging 2.16 goal against/game. It isn’t all on the blueline, but considering five of them have played in 186 of the 235 games the past three seasons, while only five forwards (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Zack Kassian and Jujhar Khaira) have played that many games, I think it is time to re-construct the blueline.

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I see a few areas where the group, collectively, struggles.

Defending around the net. Don’t close off sticks consistently.
Patience in positioning.
Puck moving. Need more tape-to-tape passers.
Lack another defender like Bear, who is patient with the puck, will hold onto it under pressure, rather than just fire it away, until a play develops.

Today is part one of a series looking at the Oilers blueline. The following parts will look at options on who Holland should look at acquiring via trade or signing in free agency.

WHO GOES?

I don’t understand all the anger directed towards Darnell Nurse. He isn’t a #1 defender, but he has never been paid like one. Much of the anger doesn’t match the results. He doesn’t bring enough offence, critics say. But at 5×5 he has the ninth most points in the NHL among D-men the past two seasons. And that is on a team that is 24th in 5×5 goals the past two seasons. Nurse is not a dangler, or a dynamic player inside the offensive blueline, but he is the best transporter on the blueline and his speed creates offence.

I’d like him to improve some decision making defensively, but I would be hesitant to trade Nurse, unless I’m getting a true #1 defender in return. He is just entering the prime years of his career. I don’t see view him as a #1 defenceman, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t valuable. His partner, Ethan Bear, can be the passer of the group and Nurse the transporter. And if both continue to grow defensively, I like them as a pair.

Here are the numbers of the Oilers defenders the past three seasons courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.

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The other factor to consider with Nurse is he hasn’t missed a game in three years. Having players who play every night is a positive for me.

There isn’t much difference, stats-wise, between Nurse and Klefbom, except their GF%, where Nurse is at 49% and Klefbom is at 43%. If you are wondering, Nurse has played 38% of his 5×5 minutes in that span with McDavid, while Klefbom skated 34% of his with McDavid. I recognize Matt Benning has mainly played in a third pairing role, but you can’t ignore how he is consistently on the ice for more goals for than against. He is a solid third pair defender. If you play him with a speedy left defender — Caleb Jones perhaps — they’d complement each other quite well.

Now let’s look at the group’s production 5×5.

Nurse produces more offence than any other defender at 5×5. This season, he and Bear played 89% of their 5×5 time together and Nurse averaged 1.14 point/60 while Bear was at 0.87. Benning was second highest among the blueliners at 0.91. I’ve long believed Benning should have gotten more of a look on the PP. He has the best one-timer on the team, the hardest slapshot, and he is very good at getting pucks on net.

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If Holland can find a trade involving Nurse that makes the team better, then he should do it, but I think the odds of that are lower than moving other defencemen.

OTHER OPTIONS…

Oct 22, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Oscar Klefbom (77) passes during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

I like Nurse and Klefbom. They have different strengths and weaknesses, but I think they have a lot of similarities as well and at some point, maybe not this off-season, the Oilers will need to move one of them. Klefbom’s injury history is the one reason I’d lean towards dealing him, but he is locked up for two years longer than Nurse at a very good cap hit, so that makes him very valuable. If you made me pick today, I’d move Klefbom before Nurse.

There is a risk in trading either of them, but when I look at the numbers, I wonder if having your top-two left defenders having similar skillsets is conducive to becoming a Stanley Cup contender. A decision to move either one is what makes being a GM difficult.

Adam Larsson has one year remaining on his contract at $4.166m. When he is playing well he is a solid defender, who can break up the cycle, is good on the PK and competes. However, he doesn’t have a great first pass and when paired with Klefbom I think they move the puck laterally more than pushing it up the ice. Larsson can still play, and I believe he will have value around the NHL if the Oilers shopped him.

The issue is the Oilers don’t have much experience on the right side after him.

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Kris Russell can play both sides and is a solid #5 defender. His cap hit of $4m ($1.5m in actual salary owed during the upcoming season) is the biggest challenge. He moves the puck out, often just getting it out, rather than holding on to it, and letting the play develop. He and Larsson are quite similar in their competitiveness, but aren’t great at moving the puck out of trouble or quickly up to the forwards. You can have one in your top-five, but having two in today’s game isn’t ideal.

Benning needs to be qualified at $2 million. I don’t see that happening so either he signs at a lower salary, gets traded or tests the market. I like Benning more than most. He is a smart player, a good passer, has a great shot and is the best open ice hitter on the team. His foot speed is a challenge at times, but he takes good angles and rarely do we see him get blown by. However, with Evan Bouchard likely to the third pairing right defender, I’m not sure where Benning fits. Ideally, Holland is able to trade him for something, rather than let him walk as a free agent. I think Benning will have value because teams are always looking for right shot defenders, and on a team that was outscored 511-450 (-61) over the past three seasons at 5×5, Benning managed to be +19 (116-97). I see him as a solid third pairing defender, who could help out a PP if given the opportunity.

Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones are not players I’d consider trading at this point.

BREAKOUTS…

Some times you trade a player away because you need a better fit for your team. Many good players have been traded, and the Oilers have six proven NHL defenceman, but the group has too much of the same, and they lack diversity in their skill sets.

I believe Holland needs to move out two of the five defenders. Who would you move and why?

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Tomorrow we will look at some trade options.

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