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Can Vincent Desharnais be an effective full-time NHL player in 2023-24?

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Photo credit:© Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
8 months ago
Drafted 183rd overall in the 7th round of the 2016 NHL Draft, Vincent Desharnais making it into the NHL was an unexpected feel-good story for the Edmonton Oilers this past season.
Edmonton recalled Desharnais from Bakersfield on January 9, and he made his debut on January 11th against the Anaheim Ducks. He spent the rest of the season with the Oilers, playing 36 regular season games in total. 
Especially in the second half of the season, Jay Woodcroft often ran with an 11F/7D alignment, with Desharnais usually playing minutes as the 7th defenceman. For the most part, he played well in a sheltered role. When right-shot defenceman Tyson Barrie was dealt in a package to Nashville for Mattias Ekholm, Desharnais’ role increased. 
With Evan Bouchard promoted, Desharnais was primarily deployed as the team’s 3RD, and the team ran 12F/6D more often. It was Philip Broberg who usually had the 7D minutes when the team ran an 11/7 alignment after the Ekholm trade. Come playoff time, Desharnais was a full-time third-pairing defenceman for the Oilers. 
However, it’s safe to say Desharnais didn’t perform as well in the playoffs.
Among all of Edmonton’s defencemen, Desharnais had the worst 5v5 playoff goal differential. He was making several costly errors, and was noticeably at fault for several of Edmonton’s goals against. He most notably struggled in the first round against LA, and in Game 1 against Vegas. Although Desharnais did eventually calm his game down in the later half of the second round, the Oilers were eliminated in six games. 
As we head into the 2023-24 season, Edmonton is expected to carry seven defencemen on their opening night roster. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Desharnais will be on it. 
Here’s a deep dive into Desharnais, and if the Oilers can depend on him to be an effective full-time NHL player throughout the season and in the 2024 playoffs.
*All on-ice stats via EvolvingHockey unless stated otherwise

A detailed look into Desharnais’ 2022-23 season

This season, I began a manual tracking project for Oilers games, tracking statistics known as microstats. I ended up tracking about 68 regular-season games, and every playoff game. The purpose of this was to obtain more detailed data that would help us gain a more precise understanding of where a player specifically ranks well, and where they struggle.
Let’s start off with the good in regards to Desharnais’ play. In the regular season, Desharnais was a pretty effective in-zone defensive player. He particularly ranked quite well at defensive zone break-ups, which are assessed when a player disrupts the opposing team’s possession and successfully helps their team regain possession. Desharnais successfully broke up 6.2 plays in the DZ per 60, higher than any other Oiler defender, which includes Ekholm.
In fairness, this stat does have a flaw, and in a way, it’s similar to blocked shots. In a vacuum, it’s a good thing to break up a play in the DZ, but posting a high amount of breakups can be a byproduct of being stuck in your own zone for lengthy periods of time, in some cases. If you always have possession, you don’t need to break up as many plays. Preferably, you divide break-ups per TOI spent defending in the DZ, but that data isn’t available. The best alternative is to measure break-ups by dividing it per CA (on-ice shot attempts allowed) instead. Typically, being on-ice for a lot of shot attempts against indicates you spend a lot of time defending, and vice versa.
The good news is that Desharnais continues to rank well in this stat, as he broke up 10.4 plays per 100 CA, which again ranks atop the team. It’s safe to say this is a strength for him, as he’s generally quite good at using his size and physicality to his benefit by forcing opposing offensive players to turn the puck over. Desharnais also uses his long stick and reach to his advantage.
Puck retrievals in the DZ also seem to be a strength for Desharnais. Behind Ekholm and Bouchard, he ranked third on the Oilers defence core in retrieval success rate (60%) in the regular-season. In the playoffs, I modified my retrieval tracking, and specifically tracked how well a defender could retrieve pucks following an opposition dump-in. 
Desharnais actually ranked first among the defensive core in playoff dump-in retrieval success rate (67%). Of course, it must be mentioned that this stat is heavily impacted by quality of competition, and Desharnais was generally quite sheltered, but in the role he was given, he performed well.
Another strength of Desharnais is his penalty-killing. This season, he was on-ice for 6.9 goals against per 60, and 5.7 expected goals against per 60 on the penalty-kill; no Oilers defender allowed fewer short-handed goals or chances than Desharnais did. Edmonton’s penalty-kill was generally inconsistent throughout the season, but Desharnais was one of its bright spots.
With all of that in mind, Desharnais does have several notable flaws.
The ability to defend the rush is a huge aspect of a defenceman’s game, as roughly ~40+ percent of goals in the NHL today come off the rush or transition. By definition, a rush shot is a shot that comes directly off a controlled zone entry, so the best rush defenders are those that allow controlled entries at low rates. When targeted by an opposing forward attempting to enter the zone, the average defenceman allows a controlled entry ~57 percent of the time, and completely denies a zone entry ~10-11 percent of the time. How well does the Oilers defensive core rank here?
Even in a sheltered role, Desharnais struggled in this facet and was even worse in the playoffs. Opposition forwards would have a much easier time entering the zone with control when Desharnais was defending the blueline. 
Perhaps Desharnais’ greatest deficiency is his foot speed and skating. He simply doesn’t possess the boots to be able to keep up with skilled, fast forwards, and this weakness was most apparent in Game 4 of the first round, when Desharnais was on-ice for all three of LA’s goals in the first period. He was particularly exposed on the second one, where he got turnstiled by Viktor Arvidsson, leading to a partial breakaway. 
Turnovers were also an issue for Desharnais in the playoffs. Edmonton’s defencemen had an average 12.8 percent defensive-zone turnover rate, but Desharnais was at 16.1 percent, worst on the team. Decision-making with the puck under pressure seems to be another area of weakness for Desharnais.
Overall, Desharnais had a 64 percent goal share, and a 56 percent expected goal share at 5v5 in the regular season. Very good results, although he was exceedingly sheltered. Per PuckIQ, the average defender will spend roughly ~27-28 percent of their TOI against top competition, but Desharnais was merely at 14.5 percent (1st percentile).
In the playoffs, his goal share was a brutal 37 percent. He was unlucky, as his expected goal share was a slightly improved 58 percent, but that seems to be propped up by an excellent playoff performance from his most common defensive partner Kulak, who was at a considerably higher 68 percent.
Desharnais provides appeal and value as an effective “cycle-buster” with a big frame and the ability to kill penalties. However, lackluster foot speed and decision-making are pretty significant weaknesses for a defenceman to have in today’s NHL, and they can be exposed by faster teams in the playoffs.

A look into how Edmonton could (and should) deploy Desharnais in 2023-24

Woodcroft seems quite fond of the 11F/7D set-up, as the Oilers ran that alignment in eight of their twelve playoff games. This option grants Edmonton more flexibility with their defensive pairs, and allows them to double-shift McDavid and Draisaitl on the fourth-line. Right now, Desharnais seems projected to play 7D minutes when the team runs 11F/7D, and he would likely be a healthy scratch when the team runs 12F/6D with an entirely healthy roster.
The decision to run 12/6 or 11/7 could heavily depend on Desharnais’ play. If he performs well, 11/7 is probably the clear option, and Woodcroft likely prefers Desharnais in the line-up anyways due to his penalty-killing abilities. However, if he struggles throughout the season or in the playoffs, the decision isn’t as obvious, and it may be best to play a 12th forward instead.
Could Edmonton sign an RD to a PTO in September? I believe it’s considerably more likely they sign a forward or two to a PTO, but potentially signing another RD at league minimum to challenge Desharnais may not be a bad idea.
A huge question mark in general for the 2023-24 Oilers is their right-defence depth. Evan Bouchard is a fantastic player in my mind, but an overall natural RD core of Bouchard, Ceci, and Desharnais doesn’t seem particularly impressive, especially on the defensive side. 
However, there has been talk that Edmonton may try Philip Broberg on his off-side. Ken Holland has also mentioned that he would like to see an increase in Broberg’s minutes. Broberg has hardly played at RD in North America, but did spend considerable time there in Sweden. I dove into this topic in a different article a few weeks ago, and watched Broberg’s SHL games at RD, but from my findings, he did not perform well on his off-side.
Desharnais’ deployment could be significantly impacted by Broberg’s success at RD. If Broberg proves to be an effective impact player on his off-side, Ceci would be the 3RD. Woodcroft and Manson have always seemed to trust Ceci (no Oilers defender played a higher % of their TOI against elite competition than Ceci in 2022-23), so unless Desharnais takes a massive step and challenges Ceci, he would be limited to playing nothing more than 7D minutes.
However, if Broberg struggles at RD, that makes the situation more complex. Ekholm, Nurse, and Kulak are all ahead of him on the left side. If Broberg doesn’t prove himself, then the Oilers may continue deploying Desharnais ahead of him as they did towards the end of 2022-23, meaning Broberg would be the healthy scratch when Edmonton runs 12F/6D. If neither Ceci nor Broberg can be an effective 2RD, there is a slim chance Edmonton may even give Desharnais a chance at 2RD with Nurse until/if they find an upgrade at the trade deadline. The Oilers could try Kulak at 2RD with Nurse, although that may be unlikely as they never gave that option a chance last season.
Based on how he played in 2022-23, Desharnais can be a fine 7D. In a sheltered role, he can be a solid in-zone defender that can efficiently break up cycles and kill penalties. For Desharnais to be an effective and impactful full-time player for the Oilers in the 2024 playoffs, his decision-making and (especially) his skating must be improved.
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