A deep dive into how Edmonton’s defensive pairs could be structured next season

Photo credit:© Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the Edmonton Oilers will begin the 2023-24 season with the same group of defencemen from last season’s playoff lineup.
Out of all the teams that won at least one playoff round in the past two years, Edmonton has allowed more goals per hour than any of them in the playoffs. Moving forward, limiting goals against is a crucial area for improvement. That begins with much better goaltending, but of course, they have room to improve at defending.
Mattias Ekholm, Evan Bouchard, and Darnell Nurse are locked in as three of the top-four defencemen, but it’s the fourth one that’s the big question mark. Cody Ceci was the team’s other top-four RD for essentially the entire season, but he struggled for most of it. On the current roster, Philip Broberg and Brett Kulak are the other possible options for that final spot. It’s highly unlikely the Oilers pursue a defensive upgrade until the 2024 Trade Deadline.
So, how should Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson deploy the defensive pairs with this roster? In this piece, I’ll address the major question marks surrounding the defensive core, and analyze the variety of different options the Oilers possess.
*NHL stats via Natural Stat Trick and EvolvingHockey, SHL stats via Pick224 unless stated otherwise

Can Cody Ceci improve next season?

For the first half of the 2021-22 season, Cody Ceci was primarily paired with Duncan Keith on the second pair. Following the mid-season coaching change, Ceci was deployed on the top pairing with Darnell Nurse. This was a role in which he initially thrived in.
Under Woodcroft and Manson in 2021-22, Nurse played roughly 51 percent of his time against elite competition, while Ceci was at 46 percent. For reference, no defender with at least 20 GP this year has averaged over 44 percent of their TOI against elites. Both of them were deployed in an extremely difficult environment, and yet they excelled, as the Oilers out-scored opponents 25 to 22 with Nurse and Ceci on-ice at 5v5. They also held a fantastic 62 percent high-danger chance differential, meaning their goal differential probably should’ve been even higher.
However, that success did not carry on through 2022-23. 
The Nurse – Ceci pairing was out-scored 46 to 48 at 5v5 this past regular season, and out-scored 6 to 8 in the 2023 playoffs, alongside an abysmal 43 percent high-danger chance differential. For a pairing consistently deployed alongside Connor McDavid and/or Leon Draisaitl, those results are simply unacceptable. I wrote all about their struggles a few weeks back following Edmonton’s loss to Vegas, as I believe their poor performance was a key factor in their playoff exit.
It was reported that Ceci battled a core injury throughout the season, but for me, this raises several questions. If Edmonton knew an injury significantly hampered Ceci’s performance, why was he never rested in the regular season? Since the pair was visibly struggling, why did the coaching staff never try another option? 
Instead, Ceci spent the vast majority of the season alongside Nurse, and was even hard-matched against Jack Eichel’s line in the playoffs, a line that out-scored Edmonton at a ratio of 8 to 1 at 5v5. If these reports are true, it makes Woodcroft’s decisions more confusing and concerning.
Still, let’s say we give Ceci the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say we believe he’s a better player than he was this past season. If he’s healthy in 2023-24, what are the odds he returns to his second-half 2021-22 form?
Here’s a look at Ceci’s on-ice results throughout his career:
While Ceci had plenty of experience against top competition with Ottawa, he doesn’t possess a history of exceptional on-ice results, at least at the level at which he played in the second half of 2021-22. It’s the only sample where he’s produced both a positive goal and expected goal share impact.
Nurse’s skating and puck retrievals are his greatest strengths, but he struggles at defending the rush and efficiently passing the puck out of the DZ. His ideal defensive partner is someone that ranks well in those areas. However, Ceci was Edmonton’s worst rush defender this year, allowing a higher rate of controlled zone entries (64%) than any Oiler defender. He also ranked last on the roster in DZ Pass-Outs per 60 in the playoffs.
Ceci doesn’t have a history of exceptional breakout passing nor strong entry defending throughout his career either, as shown below. He had a solid year in 2016-17, but ever since, these have not been notable strengths in his game.
On a contender, I think Ceci is a perfectly capable third-pairing defenceman. However, I have major doubts if he can be the 2RD on a cup-winning team, especially alongside Nurse, a player he simply doesn’t seem to stylistically pair well with. 

Can Philip Broberg effectively play on the right side in a top-four role?

Another option that’s been thrown around, and mentioned several times by Bob Stauffer on OilersNow, is playing Philip Broberg as the team’s 2RD.
Broberg, a left-handed defenceman, is entering the fifth year of his career since being drafted 8th overall in 2019. He’s spent considerable time on Edmonton’s roster in each of the last two seasons, but they’ve primarily been sheltered minutes on the third-pairing. 
Can Broberg step up in a top-four role on his off-side in 2023-24?
Broberg has hardly played at RD in North America. Aside from a few games with Duncan Keith in 2021-22, and some minutes as 3RD with Kulak in 2022-23, Broberg has exclusively played at LD in the NHL. With the Bakersfield Condors, according to fellow OilersNation writer Bruce Curlock (if you haven’t already, go check out his work), Broberg rarely played any regular minutes at RD.
However, he did have meaningful experience at RD in Sweden, playing on the Skellefteå AIK of the SHL. 
Unfortunately, Broberg’s on-ice results in 2020-21 in the SHL were far from impressive. With Broberg on-ice at 5v5, Skellefteå was out-scored 22 to 26, equating to a 46 percent goal differential, while Skellefteå out-scored the opposition 80 to 48 without Broberg on-ice. That season, Broberg was their only defenceman possessing a negative goal share. For comparison, Moritz Seider, who was drafted two spots ahead of Broberg, held a fantastic 61 percent goal share playing on the Rögle BK in the SHL that year.
Some will point out that Broberg sustained injuries that year in the World Juniors, which is a valid point. However, I’m uncertain to what extent injuries affected his play in the SHL. From September through December (prior to the WJC), Broberg’s GF% was an even worse 35 percent. This isn’t just bad luck either, as his xGF% also ranked at the bottom of the team. When he returned from the WJC, his minutes were limited, and his goal differential consequently improved. 
In games where he was officially listed as an LD, Broberg held a 48 percent goal share, but in games where he was listed as an RD, Broberg’s goal share dropped down to 40 percent. Considering that Skellefteå’s goal differential was 58 percent in the games that Broberg played, those results are quite unappealing, to say the least.
To dig deeper, I went back and watched some games myself. I obviously don’t have the time to go through an entire SHL season, but I watched a handful of games of Broberg playing both LD and RD, and I manually tracked several microstats, most notably zone exits. Here’s an insightful article from a few years ago, which dives into how NHL defencemen seem typically much weaker at breaking the puck out of the DZ when they attempt to exit on their off-side. I wanted to see if this was also true for Broberg.
Here are the results:
Again, I only tracked a handful of games. The sample isn’t huge, and the purpose of this data is simply to get an idea of Broberg’s play.
Nashville prospect Adam Wilsby was Skellefteå’s best puck-mover by a big margin. When listed as an LD, Broberg ranked second on the team in total and controlled exits per 60, but he had a lower (better) turnover rate than Wilsby, so Broberg generally ranked well here. However, in games where he was listed as an RD, Broberg’s exit volume significantly decreased, and his turnover rate went up. We can already see a difference in his quality of play when moving to his off-side.
Now, Skellefteå ran seven defencemen for the majority of the season. The pairings were often shuffled throughout games, so Broberg didn’t always play every shift at LD or RD in the games where he was listed as one. To solve this issue, I additionally tracked which lane of the ice an exit attempt from a defenceman occurred in; left, center, or right.
When exiting on the left side of the ice, Broberg’s controlled exit% was 59 percent, compared to 57 percent on the right side. Again, he shows up better on the left side, although there’s not a massive difference there. However, when it came to turnovers, Broberg averaged 6.1 controlled exits per turnover on the left side, compared to just 1.2 controlled exits per turnover on the right side. Put differently, this meant that Broberg’s ratio of controlled exits to turnovers on his off-side was significantly lower as opposed to his natural side. His overall turnover rate was below the team average, and a good chunk of his turnovers or missed passes occurred on shifts where he attempted breakouts on his off-side.
Perhaps the difference in his results from shifting sides wouldn’t be this substantial in a greater sample. But these tracked results, combined with his overall goal differential at RD, my own personal opinion from watching the games, and the opinions of other smart people I’ve talked to, suggest that Broberg’s play at RD was not particularly good in Sweden. 
Broberg is a player that tends to carry the puck out of the DZ as opposed to passing it out, and the same is true for Nurse. As a result, I’m unsure if they’d be a strong fit together in transition, as neither of them are exceptional outlet passers under forecheck pressure.
The chances of Broberg finding success at 2RD certainly aren’t 0%, as he’s a much better player today than he was in Sweden two years back. With proper guidance from Woodcroft and Manson, perhaps he could perform well. But due to his lack of positive experience at RD, I have major doubts if he can effectively step into a top-four role at RD next season.
Facing elite NHL competition on his off-side is a lot to ask out of a young defenceman, and I’m especially doubtful about his chances of success next to Nurse.

The alternative of splitting up Ekholm and Bouchard

Technically, the Oilers may not need to pursue an RD with strong breakout passing and entry-defending abilities for Nurse. They already have one; Evan Bouchard.
However, that would mean Edmonton has to split up their pairing of Ekholm and Bouchard, something I’m quite hesitant to do. Ekholm and Bouchard complement each other exceedingly well, dominating in the minutes they played last year. Separating one of the best defensive pairings the team has ever had in the past decade because their $9.25M defenceman can’t carry his own pairing would be a huge shame to me. Still, this could be their best option.
In both the regular season and playoffs, Bouchard ranked first on the Oilers in d-zone pass exits per 60 and entry denial rate by a good margin. The downside to a Nurse – Bouchard pairing is that both can be prone to costly errors, but Bouchard’s strengths generally cover Nurse’s primary weaknesses quite well. 
In the 524 minutes Nurse and Bouchard played together as a regular pairing in 2021-22, they held an exceptional 57 percent expected goal share. Their actual goal share was much lower, but it was the result of a very low 5% on-ice shooting percentage, which won’t sustain. Again, this pair would be shaky in their own zone, but it could be the closest we’d get to deploying a well-rounded Nurse pairing.
Ekholm can also play RD, but his experience is also limited. 
He played seven games on his off-side with Nashville last season. In the past three seasons, when playing alongside a left-handed defensive partner in Nashville, Ekholm posted a substandard 43 percent goal share, and a 49 percent expected goal share. When playing with a right-handed partner, his GF% and xGF% significantly improved to 61 percent and 53 percent respectively. It’s also uncertain if he can effectively play on his off-side.

Final Thoughts

In summary, I believe the Oilers possess five plausible options with their current defensive core.
The first one is to simply run it back, continuing with the top-four pairings of Ekholm – Bouchard and Nurse – Ceci. If Ceci can somehow play at or around the level at which he did in the second half of 2021-22, that makes this an excellent option, but the chances of that occurring seem slim to me.
The second one is to deploy Broberg at 2RD with Nurse, but this is the option I’m most hesitant about, as explained in detail earlier. If Edmonton wishes to go down this route, Broberg should begin the season playing third-pairing minutes at RD. Get him adjusted to playing on his off-side, and if he performs well in that role, Woodcroft can promote him.
If the Oilers are adamant about playing Broberg at 2RD, I have much more faith he finds success alongside Ekholm as opposed to Nurse, which is their next option. Perhaps Ekholm could help stabilize Broberg’s game, and Edmonton could also try Ekholm as the RD on this pair. This option would additionally result in a top-pairing of Nurse and Bouchard, and I believe Bouchard can complement Nurse well in several areas. Again, I prefer not to split up Ekholm and Bouchard, but if Broberg performs well on his off-side, this could be their best choice.
It’s worth noting that Brett Kulak also had considerable experience on his off-side in Montreal. Although he didn’t shine when he did play RD, Kulak is a strong rush defender and an above-average breakout passer. There is a possibility that he’s a solid stylistic fit for Nurse. If both Ceci and Broberg struggle at 2RD, this alternative could at least be worth a shot.
This fifth option is probably the most unlikely one, but the Oilers could explore Ekholm at RD with Nurse. Perhaps Ekholm could help Nurse form a shutdown top defensive pairing? That said, this option heavily relies on Ekholm’s ability to effectively play at RD in the first place, and if Kulak or Broberg can step up as a competent 2LD.
All-in-all, it’s evident that there are various question marks on this roster, and the Oilers have numerous options with their defensive core.
Woodcroft and Manson should experiment with a variety of different pairings to see what works and what doesn’t. This would grant Edmonton a much clearer idea of how to approach the 2024 Trade Deadline, and how to deploy their pairings come playoff time.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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