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Can the Edmonton Oilers expect an improvement in overall team defence in 2023-24?

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
7 months ago
In 2022-23, the Edmonton Oilers averaged 3.97 goals per 60 minutes. In the past fifteen years, only one other team has managed to produce more goals per hour in a single season.
Their scoring rate slightly decreased to 3.63 goals per 60 in the 2023 playoffs, but it was an elite rate nonetheless, ranking third among all playoff teams. Last playoffs, their scoring rate was at an impressive 4.03. To put all of this into perspective, the past five Stanley Cup winners have averaged 3.38 goals per 60; the 2023 Golden Knights were at 3.93, the 2022 Avalanche were at 4.15, the 2021 Lightning were at 3.21, the 2020 Lightning were at 2.77, and the 2019 Blues were at 2.83.
Put differently, Edmonton’s offence at all strengths is at the caliber of a Stanley Cup winner, or perhaps even better
However, from a simplistic perspective, there’s one thing that has prevented them from winning it all; suppressing goals.
The Oilers averaged 3.07 goals against per hour in the 2022-23 season, ranking 17th in the league. Not bad, but there’s a lot left to be desired for a team that wishes to contend. In the 2023 playoffs, they allowed 3.34 goals per 60, while they were at 3.65 in the 2022 playoffs, a rate higher (worse) than any other team that won at least one playoff round that season.
For reference, the last five Stanley Cup winners averaged 2.36 goals against per 60. Specifically, let’s take a look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, the most successful playoff team in the past four seasons with two cups and three finals appearances. When Tampa won the cup in 2019-20, they allowed just 2.02 goals against per 60. The following year, they managed to improve to an outstanding 1.92. While they did worsen to 2.55 goals against per 60 the following year and lost in the finals to Colorado, it still remained the second-best GA rate among all playoff teams (note that overall scoring did go up in the 2022 playoffs).
Consequently, it’s evident just how important goal prevention is, especially for this team.
The question is, can the Oilers expect an improvement in overall team defence this upcoming season? Here’s a look at a couple of factors that will play a major role.
*All NHL stats via EvolvingHockey and PuckIQ unless stated otherwise

The goaltending situation

The Oilers ranked 22nd in the league in goals saved above expected in the regular season, and 12th (out of 16 teams) in the post-season. Improving goaltending is unquestionably a way to reduce their GA.
Arguably the biggest question mark heading in 2023-24 is Jack Campbell. Here’s a closer look at Campbell’s results throughout his last few seasons:
In the first couple of months of 2021-22 with Toronto, Campbell was outstanding and was likely even a contender for the Vezina at the time. However, since the start of 2022, it would be an understatement to say that Campbell’s results fell off a cliff. 
His struggles continued in his first season with Edmonton. In the past fifteen years, no Oilers goaltender with over ten games has a lower save percentage than Jack Campbell; that includes essentially every awful goaltender you can remember who played for the Oilers in the Decade Of Darkness.
One reason why one could expect Edmonton to reduce their GA next season is that Jack Campbell can’t possibly perform worse than he did last year, right? 
Many have pointed to his playoff metrics as a sign that he will bounce back, and believe it’s why he should’ve played over Skinner. However, the sample is merely 118 minutes, which is miniscule for a goaltender. While he did perform exceptionally well in a very important Game 4 against LA, it was simply one game. When he came in relief in the second round, Vegas would often run a 1-4, hardly pressing offensively and not actually testing Campbell with quality shots. This sample just isn’t large enough to justify how dreadful he’s been since the beginning of 2022. 
Still, it’s safe to say that Campbell should only go up from here. Not to mention, goaltending is often unpredictable, as we’ve seen plenty of goaltenders see their play significantly fluctuate year-to-year. While I’m highly doubtful he will ever be worth his contract, a bounce-back season in 2023-24 for Campbell certainly isn’t out of the question, and would be absolutely massive for the team.
As for Stuart Skinner, he ranked 11th in the league in GSAx (per EvolvingHockey’s model) in 2022-23. Skinner had a very strong rookie outing that earned him second place in Calder voting. 
Skinner did struggle heavily in the playoffs, but it’s worth noting Vegas had decimated every goalie they faced in the 2023 playoffs; Connor Hellebuyck had a 0.886 save percentage against Vegas, and Jake Oettinger was at a 0.877 save percentage. 
It’s reasonable to assume Skinner should progress and improve in his second full NHL season.

The defensive pairings

While Edmonton’s goaltending has a lot of room to improve, their defensive play is far from perfect, as they ranked 13th in the league in expected goals allowed per 60. Reducing scoring chances against is another major step the team must take in order to improve their GA, and that starts with a set of strong defensive pairings.
Generally, I think Edmonton’s LD core is quite relatively strong. Mattias Ekholm is a fantastic two-way defenceman at even-strength, and while I’ve been quite harsh towards Darnell Nurse’s contract in the past, there’s no doubt he’s a good top-four LD. Brett Kulak at 3LD is also an absolute luxury for the team; he’s historically produced superb results in that role, and he also has the ability to step into a 2LD role if needed.
It’s the right side that’s the major question mark.
Evan Bouchard is a very talented player, but an overall RHD core of Bouchard, Cody Ceci, and Vincent Desharnais doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
2023-24 will be a massive season for Cody Ceci. Until the Mattias Ekholm trade, the Nurse and Ceci pairing was deployed as the de facto top-pairing, predominantly playing against top opponents, but they struggled quite a bit. With the pairing on-ice at 5v5, the Oilers were out-scored 46 to 48 in the regular-season, and 6 to 8 in the playoffs. When your top-pairing consistently plays with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and yet the team is out-scored with that pairing on-ice, it’s safe to say that it’s a pretty significant issue.
If the Oilers wish to reduce their GA, the Nurse pairing will need to at least be a net positive, and I’m not so sure Ceci is the right partner for him (I dove into the exact issues with the Nurse – Ceci pairing after the Oilers were eliminated against Vegas). Nurse needs a defensive partner who can defend zone entries and effectively pass the puck, but Ceci has been subpar in these facets throughout his entire career.
One potential solution to Edmonton’s mediocre RD depth is playing LHD Phillip Broberg on his off-side, an option frequently discussed and suggested on OilersNow.
As he enters into his fifth year since being drafted 8th overall in 2019, Broberg hasn’t developed into an impact NHL player yet, while numerous players drafted after him, such as Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, and Matt Boldy, are already playing in major roles for their respective teams. This upcoming season will also be quite important for Broberg.
The Oilers desire to increase Broberg’s role and TOI this season, but with Ekholm, Nurse, and Kulak ahead of him on the depth chart on the left side, the only way Broberg could consistently obtain top-four ice time (barring injuries) is to play on his off-side. However, Broberg has seldom played on the right side in North America; he hardly played regular minutes at RD in Bakersfield, and aside from a few games on a pair with Duncan Keith or Brett Kulak, Broberg has predominantly played at LD in the NHL.
Most of Broberg’s meaningful experience at RD came in Sweden, when he played with the Skellefteå AIK of the SHL. This summer, I went back and manually tracked a few microstats in a couple of Broberg’s games in Sweden (in 2020-21). Here are his micro-statistical results at LD vs. RD, alongside his goal differential:
Unfortunately, Broberg did not have a strong season in the SHL two years back. With Broberg on-ice, Skellefteå was out-scored 22 to 26 at 5v5, while they out-scored opponents 80 to 48 without Broberg on-ice. That equates to a 46 percent goal differential for Skellefteå with Broberg, and a 63 percent goal differential without Broberg, an increase of a whopping 17 percent when Broberg didn’t play.
In games listed as an LD, Broberg held a 48 percent goal share, while he was at a brutal 40 percent goal share in games listed as an RD. Furthermore, in the games I tracked, Broberg’s DZ puck-moving worsened on his off-side, as he averaged fewer exits per 60 minutes of play, and his turnover rate significantly increased. 
When exiting from the left side on the ice, Broberg averaged 6.1 controlled exits per turnover, but it markedly declined to just 1.2 controlled exits per turnover on the right side of the ice. This lines up with a study from a few years back, which dove into how most defencemen were typically much weaker at zone exits on their off-side.
Note that Broberg couldn’t even beat out Vincent Desharnais for third-pairing minutes last season. I think it’s a lot to ask out of Broberg to effectively play on his off-side in a top-four role against top competition, especially due to his lack of positive experience at RD. 
I think the Oilers will likely start the season with the same pairings they ended 2022-23 with; Ekholm-Bouchard and Nurse-Ceci. If Ceci continues to struggle, I definitely expect them to try Broberg at RD. 
If the Oilers do wish to play Broberg in that role, I don’t have much confidence that he would excel alongside Nurse. Both of them are mediocre breakout passers, and both prefer to exit the zone by carrying it out instead. As much as I’d hate to split up the exceptional duo of Ekholm and Bouchard, I think Broberg has a much higher chance of excelling at RD with Ekholm as his partner. Note that Ekholm also has some RD experience with Nashville, so Ekholm could be the RD on that pair if needed.
If Broberg struggles, I’d then try Kulak at RD. Kulak did have some experience on his off-side in Montreal, and there is a chance he could be a decent stylistic fit with Nurse. However, if neither Ceci, Broberg, nor Kulak can effectively play in a top-four RD role, it’s clear a defensive upgrade will be required at the deadline, with Ceci likely on the way out to clear cap space.

Line match-ups

There’s another way Edmonton could reduce their GA, especially in the playoffs; proper line-matching. This was something that severely cost Edmonton in the playoffs.
The Oilers were out-scored 15 to 9 at 5v5 against the Golden Knights in the second round. Since Edmonton possessed the edge in special teams, that 5v5 goal differential is essentially what killed them. 
The Oilers actually out-scored Vegas at a ratio of 8 to 7 without Jack Eichel’s line on-ice at 5v5, but the major problem arose with the Eichel line on-ice, as they out-scored Edmonton 8 to 1. No defencemen played more against Eichel than Ceci and Nurse, and Nick Bjugstad wound up playing more time against Eichel than McDavid did. Moving forward, I believe Jay Woodcroft should not hard-match the Nurse/Ceci pairing against opposition top lines. 
I also believe Woodcroft should begin having more faith in Ryan McLeod to shut down top lines.
No current Oilers forward has been on-ice for a lower (better) number of 5v5 goals against per hour than McLeod in the past two seasons. When comparing all of Edmonton’s centers against elite opposition, McLeod possesses the best overall scoring chance differential. The Oilers have additionally out-scored elite opposition at a ratio of 15 to 7 with McLeod on-ice.
While the sample isn’t huge, this is an option at least worth trying for Jay Woodcroft. Using McLeod as a defensive shutdown center could help Edmonton decrease their GA, while it also opens up opportunity for McDavid and Draisaitl to do their thing against the rest of the opposition’s lines.

The bottom line

Last season, Edmonton allowed a total of 256 goals against. If they allowed about ~32 goals less, they would’ve ranked top-ten in the league in goals allowed per hour. If they allowed ~40+ goals less, they would’ve ranked top-five. 
Could the Oilers roughly limit at least around ~25-30 goals next season? That should be an achievable objective for Edmonton. 
Jack Campbell alone allowed nearly 20 goals less than expected; if Campbell plays at least at the level of a league-average goaltender next year, the Oilers already shave off around ~20 goals. Improvement and progression from Skinner should also help, and so would potentially playing Ryan McLeod as the shutdown center. Hopefully, one of Ceci, Broberg, or Kulak can play well as a top-four RD; if not, expect that area to be addressed at the deadline.
Note that Edmonton doesn’t necessarily need to be the best defensive team in the league to win a cup; recall that they already ranked second in the league in goal plus-minus this past season. With their elite offence, even simply placing within the top 8-10 in GA/60 would go a long way.
As we head into 2023-24, it’s clear that the Oilers are in a “cup or bust” mentality. In order for Edmonton to win it all, there’s no doubt limiting goals against should be a massive priority.
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