Breaking down the right-handed defencemen that the Oilers could look to trade for

Photo credit:© Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
With Leon Draisaitl and Evan Bouchard’s contracts both set to expire in two years, this is an incredibly important season for the Edmonton Oilers — and management must be actively pursuing significant upgrades.
Last Saturday, I wrote about Edmonton’s current defensive core and why the Oilers could largely benefit from an upgrade on Cody Ceci in the top-four.
In this piece, I would like to outline some potential replacement options for Ceci at the right-handed defenceman position that the team could make ahead of the trade deadline, which is just one month away. 
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick, EvolvingHockey, and PuckIQ, all microstats via AllThreeZones/Corey Sznajder unless stated otherwise

What should the Edmonton Oilers look for in a right-handed defenceman?

Edmonton’s objective should be to acquire a defenceman who can fit well alongside Darnell Nurse.
Following Edmonton’s loss to Vegas in the second round, I wrote a similar article regarding potential RHD targets back in May. I established five different criteria for what Edmonton should look for in an RHD trade target, which I will continue to use:
      1. Strong impact on even-strength goal differential
      2. Strong impact on even-strength expected goal differential
To win hockey games, you need to out-score your opponent. As a result, you need players who can help you achieve that objective, which is why having a positive impact on goal differential is crucial.
However, xGF% is also important to consider for defencemen, as many defencemen’s on-ice goal rates can often be influenced by the finishing talent of the forwards they play with, while their GA rates can also be heavily affected by the goaltender behind them. It is important to consider both actual and expected goal differential to obtain a better understanding of a player. To measure this, I will be using EvolvingHockey’s RAPM tool.
      3. Plenty of experience against elite competition
This one should be obvious. There is a long list of defencemen with exceptional underlying numbers in sheltered roles, but Edmonton needs a defenceman who has proven to effectively perform in a difficult top-four role. To measure this, I will be using CTOI% against elites from PuckIQ, a stat that measures the % of total TOI spent against elite competition.
      4. Effective at defending zone entries and the rush
      5. Efficient at defensive zone exits 
Edmonton should pursue a defenceman who can stylistically pair well with Nurse. He would largely benefit from a defensive partner who can defend zone entries and effectively pass the puck out of the zone, which are areas of weakness for Nurse, and areas where Cody Ceci has mightily struggled in (I discussed this in much greater detail in my prior article, linked above).
To measure this, I will be using microstats from Corey Sznajder’s AllThreeZones project to create an “Entry Defence” score, which will incorporate stats such as controlled entry allowed percentage, entry denial rate, and entry chance suppression. I will also create a “Zone Exits” score, which will incorporate metrics such as possession zone exits per hour, possession exit efficiency, and failed exit rate.
So, with all of that in mind, who could Edmonton potentially target?

Alexandre Carrier – Nashville Predators

Alexandre Carrier, a 27-year-old defenceman with the Nashville Predators, is a player Edmonton’s management should take a long look at.
For the past few years, Roman Josi has played the most total minutes in Nashville, but interestingly, he has not received the toughest match-ups. Before being dealt to Edmonton, Mattias Ekholm had played the most minutes on the roster against elite competition, but ever since the Ekholm trade, whichever pair Carrier is on has been trusted with the most difficult match-ups.
This season, Carrier has played 40 percent of his TOI against elite opposition, ranking first on the Preds and 21st in the entire league. In this role, Carrier has performed quite well. Carrier’s relative DFF% (on-ice dangerous shot differential) against elite competition is at +5.7 percent, good for 15th in the NHL, while he additionally holds a 9 to 8 on-ice goal differential against elites on a Nashville team that has been out-scored at 5v5. 
Furthermore, Carrier is an effective entry defender, with a 13 percent entry denial rate in the past two seasons (league average is ~10 percent), while allowing just 2.6 controlled entries leading to scoring chances per hour (league average is 3.7)
Zone exits are also generally a strength in Carrier’s game. While Carrier’s total exit volume could be higher, Carrier is efficient at exiting the zone with possession and does not make many turnovers, as he averages just 2.0 failed zone exits per hour, ranking in the 93rd percentile among the league’s defencemen. Additionally, Carrier leads Nashville’s defencemen in d-zone retrievals leading to exits per hour this season. He does well at moving the puck under pressure.
Of course, many will point out Carrier’s relatively undersized frame, as Carrier is 5’11 and weighs 174 pounds. This is something to note, as I believe there can be a correlation between size and the ability to defend aggressive, forechecking teams in the playoffs for defencemen.
However, considering that Carrier has consistently been deployed against elite competition in each of the past two seasons, with strong results to boot, is size a massive issue if he has proven to be able to handle the NHL’s best?
Keep in mind that Carrier plays more minutes against elites than Ceci, and unlike Ceci, Carrier does not possess the benefit of playing alongside Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. The point of pursuing an RHD is to acquire an upgrade on Ceci, and Carrier is precisely that, as Carrier’s results are significantly greater in a significantly tougher environment. Not to mention, Carrier is $750K cheaper than Ceci; trading for Carrier could still leave cap room to acquire another forward if Ceci goes the other way. 
On the Jeff Marek Show, Elliotte Friedman did mention Carrier as a potential option for the Oilers. Yes, size can matter, but ultimately, the results are the most important factor. Carrier should be one of Edmonton’s top trade targets for an upgrade at RHD.

Sean Walker – Philadelphia Flyers

The prospect of trading for Sean Walker has been a somewhat polarizing subject amongst the Oilers fanbase. Personally, I have mixed thoughts.
On the bright side, Walker is enjoying a strong season with the Flyers. His underlying possession metrics have been excellent, as he leads Philadelphia defencemen with a 55 percent unblocked shot attempt differential. Walker has generally played tough minutes, playing 35 percent of his 5v5 TOI against elite opposition, and Philadelphia has out-scored elites 15 to 9 in those minutes. 
His entry defence has been fantastic, as Walker is extremely aggressive at defending the blueline, ranking seventh in the league with a 19 percent entry denial rate. This aggressive playing style has paid off, as Walker has allowed just 1.8 controlled entries leading to chances per hour, less than half of the league average. Walker is also reasonably solid at entering the offensive zone and generating offence off the rush for a defenceman. All-in-all, this has been a very good season for him.
On the other hand, Walker does not possess an encouraging track record.
Prior to this season, Walker showed no indication of being a bonafide top-four defenceman. He spent the first five seasons of his NHL career in Los Angeles, but never managed to rank top-four on the team in TOI% against elites in any of them. In his final season with LA in 2022-23, Walker played a mere 17 percent of his time against elites, with negative relative metrics in those minutes.
Similar to Carrier, Walker is relatively undersized at 5’11, but unlike Carrier, Walker is quite a weak in-zone defender. He is not effective at defending the cycle. While I don’t believe size is a significant issue for Carrier, considering his strong defence against elites, it does seem that Walker’s smaller frame could be a potential factor in his mediocre in-zone defence.
It is worth mentioning Walker is not the first defenceman to excel under Tortorella’s system in Philadelphia. Rasmus Ristolainen had awful results throughout his tenure with Buffalo, but those results significantly improved with the Flyers under Tortorella. Arguably, Walker’s current metrics could be influenced by Philadelphia’s system to an extent.
In his latest 32 Thoughts column, Friedman mentioned that the acquisition of Jamie Drysdale could put Walker on the move, and Edmonton is among the list of interested teams. Walker is in the final year of his contract with a $2.65M cap-hit, which is a cheaper cap-hit than Ceci’s. However, the asking price for Walker is reportedly a first round pick
Is Walker truly worth a 1st after just half a season as a top-four defenceman? I am quite doubtful.
Walker is not a bad option by any means, as his current season should not be entirely dismissed. I believe Walker would still be an upgrade on Ceci, as Walker’s aggressiveness at defending the blueline and above-average passing abilities could benefit Nurse. But, considering the reported acquisition cost and an underwhelming track record before 2023-24, there are some notable downsides involved.

Chris Tanev – Calgary Flames

In terms of ability, Chris Tanev might be the best defensive defenceman available on the market.
Entry defence is not exactly Tanev’s forté (although it still ranks well); instead, what makes Tanev appealing is that he is one of the league’s best in-zone defenders. Tanev is absolutely fantastic at retrieving pucks under forecheck pressure, busting cycles, and defending the slot. In the past two seasons, Tanev’s impact on suppressing even-strength scoring chances ranks 10th in the NHL, and if you extend that sample to the past four seasons, Tanev ranks 2nd. He has accomplished these results when playing very difficult minutes in Calgary for the fourth consecutive season.
Furthermore, Tanev is a significantly better puck-mover than given credit for. Tanev ranks 8th among the league’s defencemen in possession zone exits per hour in the past two seasons, while at the same time, he hardly makes any turnovers. He could be an excellent partner for Nurse.
The main knock against Tanev is his age and injury history. Tanev is 34 and has played over 70 games just a single time in his fourteen-year NHL career. 
It does seem that Edmonton has shown some interest in Tanev, who is in the final year of a four-year contract with a $4.5M AAV. Pierre Lebrun has reported that Calgary’s asking price could be a 2nd round pick and another asset, which is fairly reasonable in my opinion, although it is worth mentioning that Edmonton may have to pay a little extra (since it’s Calgary).
Regardless, at the current moment, Tanev remains a very good defenceman, and is a solid option that Edmonton should strongly consider. It is worth noting that Tanev has missed just 20 games in his past four seasons.

Artem Zub – Ottawa Senators

I have not seen many reports implying that Artem Zub could be available, but if Ottawa is willing to move him, Edmonton should be all over it.
Out of every option listed in this article, no defenceman has played a higher percentage of his TOI against elite competition than Zub, and he has excelled in this role. Zub currently ranks first among Ottawa’s defencemen with a 55 percent expected goal differential, and is Ottawa’s only defenceman with a positive DFF% against elites.
In regards to stylistic fit, Zub is excellent at defending the blueline, with a fantastic 46 percent controlled entry-against rate (the league average is 57 percent). Zub is also a fairly solid puck-mover, with a 79 percent possession exit efficiency (82nd percentile), and just 1.9 failed exits per hour (97th percentile)
Of course, the major question is if Zub is available in the first place, as I have yet to see a reliable report suggesting that Ottawa is looking to move him. Zub signed a four-year extension at a $4.6M AAV with Ottawa in December of 2022, which comes with a modified no-trade clause. It is worth noting Ottawa currently ranks 28th in the NHL, and they possess a very underwhelming prospect pool, so perhaps Ottawa could be open to moving Zub for picks and prospects.
Zub is a player I would love to see next to Darnell Nurse.

Dante Fabbro – Nashville Predators

Another right-defenceman in Nashville whom Edmonton could target is Dante Fabbro.
Fabbro is one of the top puck-movers available, ranking in the 87th percentile in possession exits per hour, while he remains fairly solid at limiting turnovers. Fabbro’s goal differential impact ranks poorly, but this is primarily affected by the fact that Nashville has scored 58 goals on 78 expected goals with Fabbro on-ice, suggesting that Fabbro’s on-ice goals rate would significantly improve on a team with superior forwards (such as Edmonton).
On the other hand, my issue with Fabbro is that he does not regularly play top opposition at the degree of a typical top-four defenceman. In terms of percentage of time spent against elites, Fabbro ranks sixth among all defencemen who have played for Nashville in the past two seasons. Furthermore, Fabbro is a mediocre entry defender, as he can be prone to allowing quality rush chances.
What makes an option like Fabbro enticing is that McDavid and Draisaitl thrive alongside strong puck-movers, and with potential top-four pairings of Ekholm with Bouchard and Nurse with Fabbro, Edmonton would be maximizing McDavid and Draisaitl’s elite rush offence. He could be a significant upgrade on Ceci in that regard, and compared to Carrier, Fabbro is younger, making him a potentially superior long-term option. However, whether Fabbro has the ability to effectively defend against top opposition in the playoffs is a question mark.

Colton Parayko – St. Louis Blues

Colton Parayko is a more ambitious option.
The appeal to Parayko is that he plays big minutes, and remains an excellent puck-mover in terms of both zone entries and exits. There is undoubtedly some offensive upside there. However, Parayko’s overall on-ice results are underwhelming, as he plays an exceedingly difficult role on a mediocre Blues team. Parayko is fairly passive at defending the blueline, and as a result, he can be quite prone to allowing chances off the rush. 
The most significant downside of trading for Parayko is his contract, as Parayko turns 31 in May, and his cap-hit is at $6.5M for the next six seasons.
Parayko’s puck-moving could be a massive asset to Edmonton’s blueline, and perhaps his on-ice results improve in a relatively less difficult role with the Oilers, but considering his age and contract, he remains a risky option.

Other Options:

  • Matt Roy’s on-ice xG results have been excellent. However, considering his subpar entry defence/zone exit results, he may not be a great stylistic fit with Nurse, and there is no guarantee a rival team like LA would move Roy to Edmonton. But, if the Kings continue to slide and fall out of the playoff picture, could they be open to selling an expiring contract such as Roy for assets? Perhaps he could still be a solid option considering his on-ice impacts.
  • Trevor Van Riemsdyk has fine on-ice metrics, and is effective at both defending entries and exiting the zone. However, he does not have the most experience against top competition.
  • Sean Durzi and Matt Dumba are both RHDs playing in Arizona’s top-four, and are potential options, but both have mediocre on-ice impacts and possession exit results.
  • Adam Boqvist and Andrew Peeke are on TSN’s Trade Bait board, but I am not a fan. Both of their defensive results are poor, and both are extremely prone to defensive-zone turnovers.
  • Jamie Oleksiak has played difficult minutes with the Kraken, producing strong results, and while he is a left-shot defenceman primarily playing at LD, he does possess experience at RD. If Seattle is willing to sell at the deadline, he could be an option.

Final Thoughts…

An interesting internal option is deploying Vincent Desharnais with Nurse, which is what Edmonton may experiment with against Anaheim. This could be worth a shot, as Desharnais is better at moving the puck and defending the front of the net than Ceci, although I have concerns about Desharnais’ foot speed when playing in a top-four role in the playoffs.
Of course, RHD is not the only area Edmonton should consider addressing. Edmonton could certainly benefit from a right-shot top-six winger for Leon Draisaitl, and perhaps a more reliable backup goalie than Calvin Pickard. In a perfect world, Edmonton acquires upgrades in all three areas, but of course, they have limited cap and assets. 
In Pierre Lebrun’s latest column, he mentioned that Edmonton’s top priority is a top-six forward, but they will also attempt to add on defence by either acquiring a 7th D as depth, or by swinging bigger and targetting a top-four RHD option such as Walker or Tanev. The latter option would be more difficult, as it would require moving one of their current regular defencemen (likely Ceci or Kulak), but it seems that they are considering it.
It will be fascinating to see what Ken Holland and Jeff Jackson ultimately decide to do at the trade deadline. 

Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)
Updated with further links and context (2/9/2024) 

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