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After the first few days of free agency, Edmonton’s offence remains strong, but how will their defensive play and goaltending fare in 2022-23?

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Photo credit:© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
4 months ago
With over 150 different signings, and still more to come, the initial days of NHL free agency have passed. For the Edmonton Oilers, their work isn’t finished, but their performance thus far has been fairly solid.
They’ve generally maintained the majority of the roster that brought them to the Western Conference Finals, aside from changing up their goaltending tandem with the signing of Jack Campbell
Evander Kane was re-signed to a four-year contract with an AAV of $5.125M, while Brett Kulak was also re-signed at four years, with a $2.75M AAV.
Although their forward core isn’t quite intact, as they have multiple pending RFAs in McLeod, Yamamoto, and Puljujarvi, their offensive talent remains strong.
Their forward core is quite similar to what they deployed last season, apart from the departures of Zack Kassian and Josh Archibald, who were ineffective fourth-liners that Edmonton needed to move on from. Adding another forward would further enhance their offensive potential, but they remain a quality offensive team either way. In the 2022 postseason, Edmonton ranked first in 5v5 goals per hour; offence certainly isn’t a concern.
However, the larger question heading into this off-season was Edmonton’s defensive capabilities and goaltending.
In the regular season, Edmonton ranked 19th in the league in 5v5 goals against and 21st in 5v5 expected goals against. Of course, they improved subsequent to the hirings of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson, but in the postseason, no team allowed 5v5 goals at a higher rate than the Oilers. They placed at an awful 3.3 goals against per hour.
Edmonton’s major issue against Colorado in the conference finals wasn’t scoring goals; it was preventing them. It was the main factor that held them back from a chance at the Stanley Cup, as Colorado scored 22 goals in their four-game sweep against Edmonton.
So, with the moves made thus far, have they improved defensively? Should the Oilers feel satisfied with their defensive core and goaltending tandem? In this piece, I’ll attempt to answer these questions, and suggest some reasonable expectations heading into the 2022-23 season.
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

How reliable can a tandem of Campbell and Skinner be?

For the past three seasons, Edmonton’s goaltending duo consisted of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner are projected to be their goaltending tandem in 2022-23.
Here’s a comparison of each goaltender’s results, in the past two years:
Note: I place more emphasis on GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected) over raw save-percentage. My issue with SV% is that it considers all shots as equal, and doesn’t adjust for team defence, meaning a weak point shot is equivalent to a breakaway. GSAx incorporates shot quality, and although it isn’t perfect in any sense, it’s a superior evaluation tool as opposed to SV%.
Whichever way you look at Smith’s regular-season results, they’ve been splendid. He’s saved nearly fourteen goals more than expected, and his raw SV% of 0.919 is quite strong. Of course, the primary issue with Smith was his wild inconsistency. On the other hand, Koskinen’s results have been disappointing.
As for Stuart Skinner, he was an above-average goaltender in the games he played in 2021-22, and it’s reasonable to expect him to perform as a reliable backup this upcoming season. 
Moving onto newly-signed Jack Campbell, his save percentage is satisfactory, but his GSAx is a net negative. In the regular-season, Toronto’s defence has been strong, allowing for Campbell’s raw SV% to rank favorably, but relative to his workload, he’s been slightly below-average. 
In fairness, public GSAx does contain some flaws, and it’s understandable if you’re somewhat wary or uncertain about this metric. 
However, proprietary statistics (that numerous NHL teams and GMs frequently utilize) have a similar stance on Campbell. Per Kevin Woodley of InGoal Magazine, who has access to these private metrics, Campbell’s team-adjusted SV% ranked around ~30-39th among all goaltenders. For comparison, publically available GSAx places Campbell 33rd among the 65 goalies that faced 1000 shots in the past two seasons. These aren’t the most appealing results for a starter.
To dive deeper into Campbell’s results, here’s a glance at his year-by-year metrics;
Campbell was marvelous as a backup in 18-19, below-average in 19-20, and quite strong in 20-21. In 21-22, his performance in the first three months was Vezina-caliber, but he massively declined from January through April. 
Campbell did play through a rib injury during his awful stretch, which undoubtedly hampered his performance, but once he returned in April, his GSAx remained a net negative (-1.92).
In regards to the playoffs, he was exceptional against Montreal in 20-21 and was not the reason for Toronto’s disappointing playoff exit that season. Against Tampa on the other hand, he posted a negative GSAx and a 0.898 SV% in the 21-22 postseason. 
Consequently, it’s quite clear that consistency is a major issue for Campbell. He often has fits of excellence followed by stretches of abysmal performance, and vice versa.
So, with all of this in mind, is Campbell / Skinner an upgrade over the past performances of Smith / Koskinen?
Skinner will likely progress next season, and he’s an upgrade on Koskinen. Smith and Campbell possess various similarities, as they’re both injury-prone and inconsistent. With that said, Smith was the statistically superior goaltender in the past two seasons by a solid margin, based on both raw SV% and GSAx. 
As stated previously, Campbell’s results are dragged down by an injury-riddled stretch, but nevertheless, his play remains inconsistent. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s yet to play fifty games in a season. Furthermore, Campbell had a 0.786 HDSV% (high-danger save percentage) in 21-22, ranking fifth last in the league. His HDSV% in the prior two seasons still ranked 40th out of 69 goaltenders, so Campbell does struggle with high-danger shots. There are some considerable risks with Campbell that should be noted.
In a hypothetical scenario, if I had to select between the tandems of Koskinen/Smith or Campbell/Skinner heading into 22-23, I would still certainly choose the latter.
However, it’s difficult to guarantee anything at this point or make any firm prediction or assumption in regards to their potential success. Can Campbell outperform Smith’s SV% and GSAx in the past two seasons?
Only time will tell.

Re-signing Brett Kulak

Here’s a list of the contracts at which other UFA defencemen were signed, this off-season:
  • Nikita Zadorov (CGY) signed at $3.75M x 2
  • Ian Cole (TBL) signed at $3M x 1
  • Jan Rutta (PIT) signed at $2.75M x 3
  • Ben Chiarot (DET) signed at $4.75M x 4
  • Erik Gudbranson (CBJ) signed at $4M x 4
  • Nick Leddy (STL) signed at $4M x 4
Meanwhile, Edmonton signed Brett Kulak to a four-year deal, at an AAV of $2.75M. This is a stellar deal by Ken Holland, in comparison to other contracts and in regards to the value he provides.
Kulak is an excellent fit on Edmonton’s roster for several reasons. He’s their best rush defender by a significant margin, firmly ranking atop the team in zone denials, and allowing the fewest amount of controlled entries on the roster. Kulak also suppresses scoring chances at a superior rate to 91% of the league.
He primarily played in a third-pair role with Edmonton, but with the retirement of Duncan Keith, he’s projected to be the left-defenceman on the second pair. Some are unsure if he has the capabilities to succeed in this role, but as I’ve mentioned in prior articles, I firmly believe he can.
Courtesy of PuckIQ, in the past four seasons, Edmonton and Montreal out-scored elite opposition (i.e. top forward lines and top defence pairs) at a ratio of 51 – 41 with Kulak on-ice in 1057 minutes. This is a sizeable sample, and it certainly suggests that he could reliably slot in as a defensively-inclined 2LD.
As explained in a piece I wrote back in January, although Duncan Keith was fairly strong defensively in his own zone, he was one of the league’s worst rush defenders. Among all defencemen with a minimum of 400 TOI in the past two seasons, he ranked bottom-ten in controlled entries allowed per hour and entry chances allowed per hour.
Kulak replacing Keith’s minutes in the top-four should result in superior defensive results for the team.

Can Philip Broberg achieve success alongside Tyson Barrie?

Nov 27, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA ;Edmonton Oilers defenseman Philip Broberg (86) warms up before a game against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Alongside Kulak, the top-four is projected to consist of Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, and Evan Bouchard. Aside from potentially signing a 7th defenceman, significant changes aren’t expected at this current stage. Philip Broberg and Tyson Barrie are projected to be Edmonton’s third pair.
Drafted 8th overall in 2019, Broberg has played 23 games in the NHL thus far. Would a defenceman such as Barrie be a good fit for Broberg at this stage of his early NHL career? Preferably, no.
Barrie’s defensive impact is quite awful, ranking near the bottom of Edmonton’s defence core in goals and expected goals allowed per hour in the past two seasons. 
The vast majority of rookie defencemen tend to be substandard defensively. Although Broberg will start in a fairly sheltered environment, deploying him alongside a high-event defenceman in Barrie could negatively impact his development.
Ceci could play with Broberg, but I wouldn’t separate the duo of Nurse – Ceci. That pairing performed exceptionally well when Nurse was healthy. In the regular season, Nurse and Ceci played nearly 50% of their TOI against elite competition, and still controlled 54% of the goals, and 62% of the high-danger chances when on-ice together. 
Deploying Broberg and Bouchard together could be a fine option, although this duo could be weak defensively. With that said, considering the success of the Kulak – Barrie pair, Edmonton could split the minutes evenly between that pairing and Broberg – Bouchard. This is an acceptable alternative.
Out of all these options, I would assume that Edmonton will realistically try Broberg – Barrie first.
Broberg does possess the potential to develop into a top-four defenceman at some point later in the season, but the rate and quality of his development and progression could rely on his defence partner. Edmonton could be setting Broberg up for failure if his most common teammate is Barrie.
Preferably, Edmonton deals Barrie and acquires a reliable defensive RD, but there aren’t many options available at this stage. I was fond of Mark Pysyk, a veteran UFA RHD who produced superb defensive results in a third-pair role with Dallas and Buffalo, but unfortunately, Detroit signed him. I’m unsure if he’s available anymore, but I’ve liked Carson Soucy for a while. UFA PK Subban is also an alternative, although I have mixed feelings regarding his defensive play.
Additionally, it seems highly unlikely that Barrie will be moved at this point, per Ryan Rishaug.

Final Thoughts

An underrated aspect that will affect Edmonton’s defensive performance next season is the future of Jesse Puljujarvi. I’ve mentioned this in the past, but Puljujarvi was on-ice for 28 goals against in 930 5v5 minutes this past season, equating to 1.8 goals against per hour. Since 2007, not a single Oilers forward has been on-ice for 5v5 goals against at a lower rate than Puljujarvi in 21-22 (for forwards with a minimum of 800 TOI). Puljujarvi also ranks atop the team in forecheck pressures, defensive zone retrievals, and successful zone exits.
Say what you want about Puljujarvi’s finishing and puck skills, areas that undoubtedly require improvement, but his status will have an impact on Edmonton’s defensive performance. The objective of defence is to prevent goals; losing the forward that best accomplishes this objective on the team, will not have a positive impact on Edmonton’s defensive results.
To summarize, it’s somewhat uncertain if Edmonton has improved defensively, overall. Considering Broberg’s potential, Kulak’s increased role, and the fact that Bouchard will progress, their defensive core will likely improve this upcoming season, but their rate of goal suppression significantly relies on Jack Campbell’s consistency.
I think Campbell can be an above-average starter for ~50-55 games, while Skinner can reliably play the remaining ~27-32 games, but there’s no guarantee. Campbell must also stay healthy.
Furthermore, as stated previously, Campbell struggles with high-danger chances, and Edmonton’s defence must do a proficient job at preventing them. Playing Kulak as the 2LD will assist in accomplishing this objective.
Hopefully, Nurse – Ceci can replicate their current results over an entire season, but if not, Kulak – Ceci would remain as a strong shutdown second-pair. Meanwhile, Nurse and Bouchard still posted an excellent 57% expected goal differential together, and Bouchard should improve defensively.
However, a third pairing of Broberg and Barrie doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Furthermore, this defence core does hold promise and potential, but is it enough to win a Stanley Cup?
To compare, Colorado’s defensive corps are at an exceptional level. Cale Makar is arguably the best defenceman in the league, while I’d argue that Devon Toews is superior to all of Edmonton’s current defencemen in regards to two-way performance. Alongside other talents such as Girard, Byram, and Manson, their defence is incredibly well-rounded, and notably superior to Edmonton’s. 
Ken Holland’s off-season has been quite fine thus far, and to credit Holland, he hasn’t made any abysmal decisions. Apart from Los Angeles, the Pacific Division has worsened, most notably Calgary, so another WCF appearance seems quite achievable again for the Oilers.
However, for Edmonton to surpass Colorado and potentially win the cup, more improvements on the defensive end would be beneficial. 
What are your thoughts on Edmonton’s defence and goaltending? 
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