Can Vincent Desharnais be an effective defensive partner for Darnell Nurse in the Oilers’ top-four?

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 month ago
For most of the 2023-24 season, the Edmonton Oilers have deployed the same three defensive pairings. Edmonton is the only team in the NHL with three different pairs each playing 500 minutes together at 5-on-5.
Under Jay Woodcroft and Kris Knoblauch, Edmonton has primarily paired Mattias Ekholm with Evan Bouchard, Darnell Nurse with Cody Ceci, and Brett Kulak with Vincent Desharnais. 
However, on March 3rd, against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Knoblauch decided to move Ceci down to the third pair, and Desharnais was moved up to the second pair alongside Darnell Nurse.
Simply put, it is evident the Nurse/Ceci pairing has been quite subpar. While Nurse and Ceci do possess a net positive 51 percent expected goal differential, it is far below the team average (57 percent), and the two have significantly struggled defensively. Out of the 58 defensive pairs with a minimum of 450 minutes played at 5v5, the Nurse/Ceci pair ranks 52nd in on-ice scoring chances allowed per hour. Among all defencemen with a minimum of 150 minutes against elite competition, Nurse and Ceci rank dead last among all defencemen in the league in relative impact on preventing dangerous shot attempts. 
This pairing has been an issue for Edmonton in the playoffs. In Edmonton’s second-round series defeat against the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2023 playoffs, Ceci was on ice for 8 of Vegas’ 15 goals at 5v5, more than any other player on the team. Both heavily struggled to contain Jack Eichel’s line.
At this point, it is clear Nurse and Ceci are simply not a good fit together in the top-four. Edmonton’s coaching staff seems to finally agree it is time for a change. 
Roughly fourteen months ago, Vincent Desharnais made his NHL debut with the Oilers. Following his recall to Edmonton last season, the Oilers often deployed the 11F/7D setup and Desharnais was their 7th defenceman. Following the Mattias Ekholm trade, in which right-shot defenceman Tyson Barrie was shipped out, Desharnais became a regular NHL player for Edmonton on the third pairing. 
Now, Desharnais is deployed in Edmonton’s top four. Can he excel in a full-time role next to Darnell Nurse? Here is a closer look.
*All microstats via our tracking project (glossary for all stats tracked linked here), all on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick and PuckIQ unless stated otherwise

What does Darnell Nurse need in a defensive partner?

When it comes to defensive play, I often like to split it into two categories: rush defence and in-zone defence. I do not think Nurse is a bad in-zone defender; he’s far from perfect, but I believe he is better than given credit for.
However, Nurse’s rush defence may be his greatest flaw. 
This season, I’ve begun a manual tracking project alongside two wonderful other people to track data known as microstats, stats which are not publicly available. Using this data, here is a look at how Edmonton’s defenceman have performed at defended zone entries and the transition:
As seen above, Nurse is Edmonton’s worst defenceman at preventing controlled zone entries and rush chances. This is not just a byproduct of difficult quality of competition, as both Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard have played a higher portion of their TOI against elite competition than Nurse this season, and both Bouchard and (especially) Ekholm’s results are far greater.
Rush chances typically tend to increase in the playoffs. Teams such as Colorado, Vegas, and Dallas are all superb off the rush, which is why strong transitional defence is crucial for Edmonton to achieve playoff success. 
Consequently, perhaps the most important attribute in a perfect defensive partner for Nurse is strong rush defending. Unfortunately, as seen above, Ceci is just as subpar at defending controlled entries, which is a significant reason why the pairing has struggled defensively.
Furthermore, Nurse would heavily benefit from an effective breakout passer. One area where Nurse excels is carrying the puck, as he ranks second among Edmonton’s defencemen in d-zone carry-outs per hour (only behind Bouchard), and in the past two seasons combined, he ranks first in zone entries per hour. Nurse’s most valuable attribute is his skating.
But, Nurse’s breakout passing still leaves a lot left to be desired. In 2022-23, he ranked fifth out of Edmonton’s regular seven defencemen in d-zone pass-outs per hour, and this season, he ranks fourth out of six. Nurse isn’t a bad passer by any means at all, but when it comes to breaking the puck out of the defensive zone, he doesn’t excel at it. If Edmonton wants to maximize Nurse’s performance, and the overall team’s rush offence, he would be best suited next to an efficient breakout passer.

So, can Desharnais be the ideal partner for Nurse?

Here is a look at where Desharnais ranks among Edmonton’s defencemen in a couple of key microstats:
First, let’s discuss Desharnais’ strengths.
Only behind Ekholm, Desharnais ranks second on Edmonton in defensive-zone breakups per 60, essentially defined as instances where a player disrupts opposition possession in the d-zone (e.g. a pass interception, a stick check, etc). Furthermore, Desharnais ranks third in opposition dump-in retrieval success rate, behind Ekholm and Bouchard (side note: Ekholm has dominated every defensive microstat I have tracked).
Predominantly playing in a third-pairing role, Desharnais has been a fantastic in-zone defender. He can bust cycles, retrieve opposition dump-ins, and clear the front of the net using his big frame. His defensive play in his own zone is his most significant strength at the NHL level.
Desharnais has also been solid at zone exits, averaging 11.6 controlled exits per hour. For reference, Ceci averages 9.6 controlled exits per hour, ranking last on the team. Of course, Desharnais’ sheltered deployment likely plays a role, but it does raise some optimism that Desharnais could at least be an upgrade on Ceci in this specific facet.
However, Desharnais’ flaws raise some major questions.
Firstly, let’s discuss his foot speed and ability to defend the transition. On the bright side, Desharnais has been Edmonton’s best defenceman at suppressing scoring chances off controlled entries against (i.e. rush chances). If this sustains in a top-four role next to Nurse, that would be excellent news.
But can it sustain? I have some doubts.
In my experience, the amount of controlled entries a defenceman allows is generally not heavily impacted by the quality of competition, but there can be outliers. On the other hand, the number of chances a defenceman allows off those controlled entries is affected by QoC.
The league average controlled entry against rate is 56 percent. Desharnais is slightly worse than the league average at 57 percent this season, which does not seem like a major concern at a glance, but it could indicate his rush chance suppression would decline in a tougher role. Additionally, it is worth noting Desharnais was at 58 percent in the regular season in 2022-23, but then regressed to 64 percent in the playoffs.
Perhaps Desharnais’ greatest weakness is his foot speed and overall skating. This can be an issue against faster teams in the playoffs, potentially explaining his regression in the playoffs last season.
Furthermore, while Desharnais’ controlled zone exit rate is solid, defensive zone turnovers are a weakness in his game. 13 percent of Desharnais’ puck touches in the d-zone result in a turnover, the highest (i.e. worst) rate on the team.
Now, not all turnovers are equal, and Desharnais’ turnovers are not leading to high-quality chances at high rates, which is likely why this area of his game isn’t mentioned or discussed as often. It’s not as if Desharnais is making egregious giveaways to opposition players in the slot, as a significant chunk of his turnovers this season are simply failed clearing attempts. But, making turnovers to third/fourth-liners is not as consequential as turning the puck over to the opposition’s best players, which is why this flaw is certainly worth mentioning as he moves into a higher role.
Desharnais’ flaws were evident in the 2023 playoffs last season when the overall quality of competition increased. The average turnover rate among Edmonton’s defencemen in those playoffs was 12 percent, but Desharnais was at 16 percent. Desharnais was on-ice for 1.79 goals against per hour in the regular-season, but regressed to 3.12 in the playoffs.
Desharnais is a very good third-pairing defenceman, and has excelled next to Kulak this season. The strengths in Desharnais’ game suit him very well in a relatively sheltered 3RD role, while this role also makes his weaknesses less apparent.
But, if the Oilers decide to play Desharnais in a top-four role full-time, does he have the boots to keep up with the opposition’s best? Will Desharnais limit his turnover rate as the quality of competition increases in the playoffs? If the Oilers wish to go far in the playoffs, they are likely to face contenders such as Colorado and Vegas; can Edmonton trust Desharnais to play against Nathan MacKinnon or Jack Eichel on a consistent basis? These are some significant questions that could have a considerable impact on Edmonton’s playoff chances.
So far, Nurse and Desharnais have played 142 5v5 minutes as a pairing. In these minutes, the Oilers have been outscored 3 to 5 and out-chanced 55 to 59.
Of course, 142 minutes is a limited sample. We already know what the Oilers have with Nurse-Ceci, so it is still worth a shot to grant Nurse-Desharnais an extended opportunity before the playoffs to obtain a better understanding of how well this duo could perform.
It isn’t impossible for Nurse and Desharnais to excel together, but considering Desharnais’ microstats and the early on-ice results of the Nurse-Desharnais pairing, it certainly raises some doubts if Desharnais stylistically fits well with Nurse.

What about Troy Stecher? Or even Brett Kulak?

The Oilers recently acquired defenceman Troy Stecher prior to the day of the trade deadline. While Stecher played at left-defence in his debut with the Oilers on Wednesday night, Stecher is a right-shot defenceman who has primarily played his natural side. Deploying Stecher with Nurse is a possibility.
Last week, I wrote all about Edmonton’s acquisitions at the trade deadline, including Stecher and his results in the past two seasons. Just to recap my analysis on Stecher, here is a visual I used in that article:
Note: The microstats for Stecher are via AllThreeZones, while the microstats for Oilers players are via my own tracking.
Puck retrievals are Stecher’s most significant strength. This is an area in which Cody Ceci has mightily struggled; the average opposition dump-in retrieval success rate among Edmonton’s defencemen is 62 percent, but Ceci is at an appalling 49 percent. While Nurse is good at puck retrievals (Nurse is at a 64 percent success rate), Stecher could theoretically be a massive upgrade on Ceci in this specific facet.
However, Stecher has been an unexceptional breakout passer in Arizona. More prominently, Stecher has been far from good at defending the transition. Stecher can be prone to getting burned off the rush, as he ranks in the lowly 8th percentile in controlled entries against leading to scoring chances per 60 in the past two seasons, last on the Arizona Coyotes.
Stecher didn’t exactly play in a challenging environment in Arizona in terms of deployment, as he ranked fifth in percentage of TOI spent against elite opposition. Perhaps Stecher’s puck-moving improves on a better team, but ultimately, his blueline defence is my primary concern in regards to his stylistic fit with Nurse.
The other internal alternative is to play Brett Kulak with Nurse. Kulak is a left-shot defenceman who has spent the vast majority of his NHL career at left-defence but did spend some time on his off-side in Montreal.
Behind Ekholm, Kulak is Edmonton’s second-best rush defender. Even when he played 2LD minutes prior to Ekholm’s arrival last season, Kulak was strong at defending the transition. Kulak has the lowest (i.e. best) defensive zone turnover rate on the team, and while he isn’t an exceptional puck-mover by any means, he is an upgrade on Ceci. Theoretically, Nurse—Kulak could work.
However, this is no guarantee, as Kulak’s experience on his off-side at the NHL level is not significant. Even when he did play at RD in Montreal, his goal and expected goal differential declined. Again, this option also raises some question marks.
Furthermore, potentially deploying Nurse and Kulak could mean Edmonton would be forced to play Philip Broberg full-time in the NHL, as Stecher, Ceci, and Desharnais are all predominantly right-defencemen, and Broberg is the next natural LD on the depth chart. But, this is unlikely for now, as Broberg is in Bakersfield, and it seems that Edmonton prefers to keep Broberg as the 8D in the playoffs. I would be fascinated to give Nurse-Kulak an opportunity, but I am doubtful if it realistically occurs.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, Ken Holland’s decision not to add a significant RD upgrade is risky. Each of the most recent cup winners possessed two reliable top-four defensive pairings, and if the Nurse pairing struggles as it has in the past two playoffs, it is a major obstacle in Edmonton’s cup hopes.
Perhaps the solution to the Nurse pair isn’t a regular partner. Edmonton could potentially run with 11 forwards and 7 defencemen in the playoffs, and rotate Nurse’s partners depending on the situation. The Oilers could grant Desharnais shifts with Nurse when they’re starting in the defensive zone, while they could deploy Kulak with Nurse for a couple of shifts when Nurse is faced against someone like MacKinnon or Eichel. This option could even allow for a few shifts for Stecher with Nurse to get an idea of how they could potentially perform.
Deploying seven defencemen could grant the team much more versatility and flexibility with the defensive pairs in-game. It is an option worth considering if all else fails.
For now, I expect Edmonton to play Desharnais with Nurse as a full-time pairing for the time being, which I believe is the right choice. Again, I have doubts regarding this pair’s potential success, but at the very least, it certainly doesn’t hurt to see what they could provide before the playoffs. 
Edmonton will play the Colorado Avalanche tonight at 8PM MT. The Avs are a fast, skilled team and quite dangerous off the rush. This could be a big test for Nurse and Desharnais.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)


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