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Photo Credit: © Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Some thoughts on Edmonton’s crowded LD situation, and why their decision to play Smith over Skinner could cost them a playoff spot

The 2021-22 season has undoubtedly been an eventful one for the Edmonton Oilers. They currently sit 4th in the Pacific Division and 9th in the Western Conference; in other terms, they’re currently outside of a playoff spot. Ken Holland’s poor roster-building is the most significant reason for this, alongside the dreadful performance of Mike Smith.

However, they’ve also experienced a considerable amount of injuries, and consequently, a variety of different defencemen have been granted opportunities for Edmonton’s roster.

Courtesy of NHL injury viz, Edmonton ranks 7th in the league in CHIP, a per-game cap-hit charge of a player missing that game as the result of injuries/illnesses (higher CHIP = more injuries). In regards to defencemen alone, Edmonton is 2nd in the league in D-men CHIP, and they’ve lost a total of 133 defenceman man-games; the most in the entire league. A total of eight different left-defencemen have suited up for a minimum of one game this season.

Darnell Nurse is the obvious lock as the 1LD. For that reason, I won’t dive into his performance in this article (I also have plans for a specific, in-depth breakdown of Nurse’s play in the near future).

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So, as the trade deadline and the playoffs are near, which other LD should be permanent locks on Edmonton’s roster when the team is fully healthy? How much will this matter with the current goaltending situation?

*All stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

Duncan Keith

I wrote an in-depth piece about Duncan Keith a few weeks back, so I won’t go into extensive detail here, but Keith has exceeded my expectations this season, to an extent. To briefly summarize, Keith is a superb breakout passer and is generally solid in his own zone, but his primary weakness is his entry defence. 

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Keith is dreadful at suppressing chances when defending the blue-line, and a significant factor for this weakness is his declining foot speed. In addition, Keith’s performance against top competition is quite poor; he excels when playing against 3rd/4th lines, but his foot-speed and rush defence is exposed against top lines and top defence pairings, consequently leading to these numbers against elite QOC.

Edmonton’s NZ performance and rush defence have significantly improved under Jay Woodcroft, so I expect Keith’s numbers in this facet to improve moving forward, but I doubt any coach can entirely fix his foot-speed.

Nevertheless, Keith should still be in the lineup, preferably as a 3LD, but unfortunately, Edmonton doesn’t have many superior options over him at left-defence (besides Nurse, of course).

William Lagesson

William Lagesson is an intriguing player, and he’s likely Edmonton’s “analytical darling” for 21-22.

Lagesson is nothing extraordinary in regards to offensive performance, and he isn’t an active transitional player at all, but his defensive metrics are outstanding. He’s primarily rotated as a 2LD/3LD under Jay Woodcroft. His TOI rate against elite competition still isn’t very high, but his performance against elite competition is excellent in that limited sample. Lagesson’s entry defence metrics are also above-average.

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All-in-all, Lagesson should be a lock in the lineup, especially considering the lack of superior options.

Markus Niemeläinen

Niemeläinen is also a very fascinating player.

Before I dive into him, it’s worth mentioning that the microstats in the cards above are manually tracked by Corey Sznajder, who does a superb job. However, for obvious reasons, it’s essentially impossible and impractical for a single person to track every single game for every single team. Consequently, the sample size needs to be kept in mind. 

In addition, the “Overall” metrics should be used as the primary evaluation tool, while the microstats are shown to give an idea of a player’s play-style and specific strengths/weaknesses.

In this case, Niemeläinen’s entry defence metrics are phenomenal; his Entry Denial Rate ranks first on the Oilers, and it would rank 1st in the entire league. The limited sample size is obviously crucial here, and Niemeläinen isn’t this good at defending off the rush, but regardless, this is a very encouraging sign. Edmonton struggles in this facet as well, so Niemeläinen succeeding in this area is a very helpful skill for this team.

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However, nothing else about his results stand-out. Niemeläinen’s most significant weakness is his in-zone defensive play, as I’ve frequently noticed him out of position on goals and chances against. He’s also last on the team in failed/botched DZ retrievals, and he doesn’t really contribute much offensively.

Numerous people are fond of Niemeläinen due to his physicality. Personally, I don’t care much for hits and “grit” in general, unless it directly contributes to a player’s impact on goals and scoring chances. In this case, it seems like Niemelainen’s physicality helps him at defending the blue-line.

All things considered, I think Niemeläinen is fine as a 7D, but Edmonton could certainly have superior options.

Kris Russell

Russell’s metrics haven’t considerably changed over the past few years. A brief summary of Russell is he’s an offensive and possession blackhole with above-average defensive metrics. Unlike prior years though, he isn’t getting paid like a top-four defenceman, as his cap-hit for 21-22 is at $1M.

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Russell has also been extremely injury-prone; first, he left Edmonton’s game against Boston on December 9 after taking a hit from Bruins forward Erik Haula, and was subsequently placed on LTIR. About a month and a half later, he returned to Edmonton’s lineup on January 21, but was injured yet again during the game against Ottawa on February 1, and was placed on LTIR six days ago. Russell also dealt with two different injuries in 20-21.

I don’t think it makes a substantial difference if Russell plays in the lineup or not. He and Niemeläinen are essentially neck-and-neck, and I might slightly prefer Niemeläinen due to his entry defence results.

Slater Koekkoek

Slater Koekkoek’s player card shown above is hilariously bad. He’s essentially below-average in almost every aspect.

Koekkoek isn’t an active transitional player, he’s poor at retrieving and passing the puck, and it would be a massive understatement to say his entry defence results are abysmal. Koekkoek’s overall results are dreadful as well. 

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The reasoning behind his awful play is baffling for me, as Koekkoek’s numbers as a 3LD in Chicago were very solid; I’m exceedingly confused as to why he’s declined to this extent in Edmonton, even though his role hasn’t drastically changed.

Koekkoek cleared waivers in early February, and has played in Bakersfield ever since. With these results in mind, Edmonton shouldn’t even consider recalling Koekkoek.

Philip Broberg

Philip Broberg has gone up and down (like a toilet seat 😉 ) Edmonton and Bakersfield’s rosters this season; here’s a brief timeline for Broberg this season;

  • Recalled on November 19 after Darnell Nurse was out 2-3 weeks with a broken finger
  • Dropped down to Bakersfield on December 9
  • Recalled to the NHL on December 10
  • Sent down to Bakersfield again on December 14
  • Recalled yet again on December 26
  • Loaned to the taxi squad on December 29
  • Sent down to Bakersfield on January 1
  • Recalled on February 10
  • Sent down to Bakersfield on March 1
  • Recalled again on March 4 after Tyson Barrie’s injury

What an adventure, to say the least.

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Overall, Broberg has been OK in his NHL tenure thus far. He had an excellent start in his first few games in November, playing on a 2nd pair with Cody Ceci. He and Ceci had a 59 xGF% in Broberg’s first four games. Broberg even played 23 TOI against Vegas on November 27, in Darnell Nurse’s absence.

Ever since, he’s been practically unimpactful. He’s solid at retrieving pucks, but poor at defending the blue-line. His deployment has been quite favourable, with relatively sheltered quality of competition and solid teammate quality, but his overall on-ice results are roughly replacement-level.

Pick224 is probably the best publicly available website for minor-league stats, but their site has only recently updated their AHL totals on February 7. In that specific time-frame, Bakersfield has out-scored the opposition 24-10 at EV with Broberg on-ice; this equates to a goal share of 70.6%, and a relative goal share of +18.1%. 

I think it’s best for Broberg to spend more time in the AHL. He’s a wonderful skater and certainly has top-four potential, but I think it would be more beneficial for both the team and player for him to play in Bakersfield. 

Dmitri Samorukov

Samorukov was recalled to Edmonton’s roster on December 26, but had an infamous NHL debut against St.Louis. Dave Tippett played him a mere 2:28 after Samorukov made errors on two goals against. 

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Using Pick224’s data in the time frame mentioned above to evaluate Samorukov’s AHL performance, Bakersfield has been out-scored 18-22 at EV; a goal share of 45%. At glance, I’d assume his poor GF% is due to poor luck (I wish luck-based metrics such as PDO were available for the AHL), but given what’s available, there aren’t many metrics that are exceedingly encouraging for Samorukov.

Samorukov definitely has potential, but it’s practically a consensus that he requires more time in Bakersfield. 

 

Overall, Edmonton has an interesting situation with their left-defence. Personally, I feel Edmonton should run with Nurse, Keith, and Lagesson, and deploy Niemeläinen as the 7D, but having Russell or Broberg as the 7D isn’t an abysmal idea.

I wonder if Jay Woodcroft will continue running an 11F/7D lineup moving forward. Previously, McDavid and Draisaitl played fewer minutes and shorter shifts under Woodcroft, but Nuge and Puljujarvi’s injuries have caused them to play significant TOI again. The 11F/7D system certainly isn’t helping with their minutes either, and I’m very uncertain if this is a sustainable process in the long-term.

The Mike Smith Conundrum

Edmonton is in a very tight and rigorous race to qualify for the playoffs. They’re currently out of a playoff spot with a Points% of .571. 

Calgary, Los Angeles and Vegas are the top three teams in the division, with points percentages of .670, .598, and .589, respectively. The race to make the playoffs is exceedingly close, and (literally) every single point is crucial. 

Consequently, Ken Holland’s decision to play Mike Smith over Stuart Skinner is hampering Edmonton’s playoff hopes. Skinner, currently in Bakersfield, has an NHL SV% of 0.913. If Smith’s last eight starts were replaced with a 0.913 SV% goaltender, they would have allowed 8 goals less.  That’s likely a minimum of 2-3 more wins in just the last nine games.

In addition, Smith has allowed more goals than expected in 10 of the 15 games he’s played in this season, and he has a SV% of 0.891 this season. His SV% would be at 0.887 if you included the overturned offside GA in Edmonton’s game against Montreal last night. This is simply unacceptable for an NHL-caliber goaltender.

I like referring to the quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.” 

At this point, Edmonton knows what they’re getting with Smith in net, and repeatedly granting him opportunities is simply digging the hole even deeper. At age 39, it’s highly unlikely he’ll bounce back. 

The team is currently on pace for 93-94 points. Is this enough for them to qualify? There’s an exceedingly plausible possibility that Edmonton misses the playoffs by 2-3 points, and Mike Smith has likely cost them more than that.

Their next three games are against Calgary, Washington and Tampa, and it’s yet another difficult stretch for the team. Eventually, Edmonton might end up looking back with regret at the games Mike Smith cost them against weaker teams such as New Jersey and Montreal. Ken Holland is shooting himself in the foot, and it may end up (rightfully) costing him his job.

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)