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Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Oilers Blueline Compared To Four Finalists

There are various ways to build a Cup contending team. There is no master blueprint that every team has to follow, but there are certain aspects that seem to show up on most Cup contenders and winners.

Vegas head coach Peter Deboer explained the challenges of the playoffs quite well.

“There’s not one standard way to win, the one consistent is that it’s very hard, and margins are razor thin. Intangibles are really important. You’ve got to get a belief, you’ve got to get on a roll, you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to win overtime games, you’ve got to get good goaltending,” he said.

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Winning two rounds in the playoffs is a huge challenge. From 2016 to now 15 teams have made it to the final-four.
Tampa Bay 4x
Vegas 3x
Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Jose and New York Islanders 2x
Washington, Anaheim, Boston, Carolina, Dallas, Montreal, Nashville, Ottawa and Winnipeg each once.

Chicago and the New York Rangers haven’t been in the final four since 2015.
Los Angeles 2014.
Arizona and New Jersey 2012.
Vancouver 2011.
Philadelphia 2010.
Detroit 2009.
Edmonton and Buffalo 2006.
Calgary 2004.
Minnesota 2003.
Toronto and Colorado 2002.
Columbus has never made it since entering the NHL in 2000/2001.
Florida 1996.

Getting half way to the Stanley Cup is difficult enough, never mind winning it. The Edmonton Oilers finally made the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years, but they didn’t win a round last year or this season, so they still have room to grow before becoming a true Cup contender.

There are many areas that need improving. Depth scoring is a must, but today I want to focus on the blueline and what needs to occur moving forward. Losing Oscar Klefbom was a major blow last season. The most important aspect for Klefbom is that he can live a normal live. I hope for his sake that occurs. And right now the best-case scenario for the Oilers organization is that before the expansion draft he tells general manager Ken Holland he feels good enough to come to camp and see how his shoulder feels. He hasn’t been able to train to the level NHL players need to be at to play in the league, but if his recovery goes well he could start training this summer.

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Either way, his return to the ice is uncertain at this point. It is a big loss, because he is a legit top-four defenceman. If healthy, he and Darnell Nurse would be great anchors on the left side, but without him Holland needs to find a second pair left defender this off-season. And the UFA market isn’t flush with second pair defensemen.

Alex Martinez, Mike Reilly, Jamie Oleksiak, Ryan Murray, Derek Forbort, Ian Cole, Dmitry Kulikov, Slater Koekkoek, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Zdeno Chara are likely the best candidates in free agency. Holland will sign one, but that signing won’t put the Oilers over the top. They will need growth from some returning defenders, and even then I’m not sure this D corps is built to go deep in the playoffs.

Let’s look the defenders on the remaining four teams. I included their total time on ice, their 5×5 TOI and their height and weight.

TAMPA BAY

Player GP Total TOI 5×5 TOI/GP H & W
Hedman 11 24:48 17:34 6’6″, 240
McDonagh 11 22:46 17:58 6’1″, 215
Sergachev 11 22:06 17:19 6’3″, 216
Cernak 11 19:38 15:19 6’3″, 230
Savard 8 14:46 13:13 6’2″, 225
Rutta 11 13:40 12:55 6’3″, 204
Schenn 6 7:55 7:46 6’2″, 233

Tampa is blessed with an elite defender in Hedman, and a solid mix of very good defencemen with different skill sets. I’d argue they have two top-pair defenders, but have the luxury of having Hedman and McDonagh on separate pairs. This D corps has an average of 507 NHL games played and measurements of 6’3″ and 223 pounds. They are experienced, skilled and big. Like last season, head coach Jon Cooper does like to dress seven D-men at times.

NEW YORK 

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Player GP Total TOI 5×5 TOI/GP H &W
Pulock 12 24:01 20:46 6’3″, 205
Pelech 12 23:47 20:39 6’2″, 215
Leddy 12 23:41 20:23 6’0″, 207
Mayfield 12 22:38 20:02 6’5″, 220
Greene 12 18:18 16:51 5’11”, 190
Dobson 12 14:09 11:49 6’4″, 195

The only team to use only six defenders thus far. They protect young Noah Dobson with limited minutes in the third pair and with veteran Andy Greene. Greene is the only D-man in the final four who isn’t at least six feet tall. This group averages 453 NHL regular season games played, and is, on average, 6’2″, 205 pounds. They lean on their top four very evenly as all of them play between 20:02 and 20:46 at 5×5.

Montreal

Player GP Total TOI 5×5 TOI/GP H &W
Weber 11 25:27 19:42 6’4″, 229
Chairot 11 25:12 21:21 6’3″, 234
Petry 10 23:51 18:18 6’4″, 208
Edmundson 11 22:18 18:34 6’3″, 227
Merrill 5 13:42 13:22 6’3″, 195
Kulak 10 12:49 12:21 6’1″, 192
Gustafsson 7 10:02 7:54 6’0″, 197
Romanov 1 9:27 9:18 6’0″, 208

Montreal will start its series without Jeff Petry and Jon Merrill. Both were in their top six when the playoffs began, and it illustrates the need for depth on the blueline. Petry’s absence will be felt as Montreal, like New York, plays its top four much more than the third pair. When Petry is in, Montreal’s top four is very experienced, skilled and huge, with an average height of 6’3.5″ and 224 pounds. Even with Romanov in the mix Montreal’s blueline still averages 443 games, 6’2″ and 211 pounds.

Despite some writing him off years ago when he was acquired for PK Subban, Shea Weber is still a force on the backend. especially in small area battles.

Vegas

Player GP Total TOI 5×5 TOI/GP H &W
Pietrangelo 13 23:59 19:28 6’3″, 210
Theodore 13 22:58 19:44 6’2″, 195
Martinez 13 21:14 16:48 6’1″, 209
Whitecloud 13 17:39 15:49 6’2″, 211
Holden 10 16:55 15:54 6’4″, 214
McNabb 7 16:26 14:42 6’4″, 216
Hague 9 16:01 14:23 6’6″, 230

Another hulking blueline that has a lot of talent. Pietrangelo is a legit top-5 D-man in the NHL, and when you have a guy like him everyone else’s job becomes easier. They average 422 games played, 6’3″ and 212 pounds. There isn’t much separation in minutes between their #3 and #7 D-men at 5×5. They have lots of experience being in conference finals and the Stanley Cup final.

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Overview…

With the injury to Petry, Montreal will be the only team that has two D-men under 200 pounds playing in game one. The skill among the top teams in the playoffs is much closer than the spread in the regular season, and often playoff games are decided more on will than skill. Battles in front of the net, along the boards become much more of a focus than the regular season and that is why the combination of skill, experience and size is crucial on the blueline.

Colorado lost to Vegas last night. And Colorado has a very skilled, young blueline. However, they only average 181 games of NHL experience, and 6’1″ and 196 pounds. And those were heightened mainly due to Patrick Nemeth’s 366 NHL games. He was their #5 D-man. Their other five defenders: Samuel Girard (273 NHL games), Devon Toews (190), Ryan Graves (149), Cale Makar (101) and Conor Timmins averaged 145 games, 6’0″ and 190 pounds.

Makar is an excellent defender, but Pietrangelo was better in the series. Give Makar some more time and he will be the best D-man in most series moving forward, but you can’t rush experience and history says it matters. So does size and strength when the skill level of most teams is very close. Sam Girard struggled in games 2-6 against Vegas. He was outscored 11-2 at 5×5 and outshot 70-42. Right now his lack of experience and specifically his size is a hinderance in the postseason. If the Avs want to take a real run at the Cup next year, I think Girard is better suited to be in their third pair.

In a few years he could be a second pair defender — Brian Rafalski and other smaller D-men have proven you can have success in the playoffs with smaller D-men — but Rafalski spent four seasons in Europe after graduating from NCAA before he joined a deep New Jersey team. He was 26 in 1999/2000 and got to play with Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. It can be done, but often smaller D-men need more pro experience and “man strength,” which they gain in their mid-20s.

OILERS BLUELINE…

How does the Oilers blueline compare to these teams? Here are the regular season totals.

Player GP Total TOI 5×5 TOI/GP H &W
Nurse 56 25:37 20:40 6’4″, 221
Barrie 56 21:23 17:08 5’11”, 197
Larsson 56 19:38 16:41 6’3″, 208
Russell 35 18:23 15:55 5’10”, 170
Bear 43 17:57 15:08 5’11”, 197
Kulikov 10 17:44 16:20 6’1″, 204
Bouchard 14 14:50 13:31 6’3″, 194
Lagesson 19 14:09 12:45 6’2″, 207
Jones 33 13:36 12:50 6’1″, 194
Koekkoek 18 13:09 10:55 6’2″, 193
Klefbom 0 0:00 0:00 6’3″, 216

Nurse and Larsson are the two defenders who fit inside the mold of the four aforementioned teams. Evan Bouchard has the skill and size to be that player, but he won’t have the experience right away. If Klefbom returns he checks all the boxes of a top-four D-man who has the skill, experience, size and strength to help you in the playoffs. Lagesson might become a steady third pairing guy, but he needs to get quicker and move the puck quicker. Russell and Koekkoek are solid veterans, but more third-pairing players. Jones still needs to establish himself as a regular NHLer.

Today, Ethan Bear would be a more of a third pairing guy on a Cup contender, not in the top four. I suspect he starts the season with Darnell Nurse, but I could see Bouchard finishing the year in the top pair. He has more skill and size. He just needs experience, and it is impossible to rush that. On the slim chance Tyson Barrie is re-signed, then Bear becomes a trade chip, but Barrie is likely to test the free agent market.

Edmonton should be able to improve its forward depth this off-season, but Holland needs to look at the left defence either via trade or free agency. Ideally he adds a defender with skill, experience and the size and strength needed to compete in the playoffs.

When I look at the Oilers blueline, compared to the top-four playoff teams, it is clear to me there needs to be upgrades this off-season.

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