Diving Into Edmonton’s Defensive Struggles

Photo credit:© James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
After a brutal 7-2 blowout loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, the Edmonton Oilers have completed a little bit more than one-sixth of the 2022-23 season.
They sport an 8-7 record in 15 games, which just isn’t good enough, especially when considering that McDavid and Draisaitl have combined for 24 goals and 58 points over that span. It isn’t an awful record by any means at all, but it doesn’t reach the team’s standards either.
The Oilers rank 25th in the league in 5v5 goals allowed per 60 and 28th in 5v5 expected goals allowed per 60. For a team that wishes to contend, that just isn’t acceptable. 
In this article, I’ll dive into the primary reasons why Edmonton has struggled to keep pucks out of their net at 5v5 and how they could potentially improve.
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Jack Campbell’s performance has been abysmal

Nov 8, 2022; Tampa, Florida, USA; Edmonton Oilers goaltender Jack Campbell (36) makes a save against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
It’s safe to say that Jack Campbell has not been good this season.
With an awful 87.3 SV%, alongside a GSAx (Goals Saved Above Expected) of -7.8, Campbell is playing nowhere near his expectations. In comparison, Mike Smith had a 91.3 SV% and 6.76 GSAx last season with the Oilers, while Mikko Koskinen had a 90.3 SV% and a -2.2 GSAx
After being signed to a five-year, $25M contract, Campbell was meant to be an upgrade on those two, but thus far, he’s undoubtedly been the opposite of that.
Of course, the defence hasn’t helped, as Edmonton has allowed scoring chances at an exceedingly high rate this season. With that said, he’s facing an easier workload in comparison to Stuart Skinner.
So far, Skinner has had an xGA/60 of 3.6. Put in different terms, based on the shot volume and quality he’s faced, Skinner has been expected to allow 3.6 goals against per game. In terms of actual results, he’s allowed 2.6 goals against per game, meaning he’s performed much better relative to his workload. 
On the other hand, Campbell has allowed 4.3 goals against per game with a slightly lower 3.3 xGA/60, meaning he’s been expected to allow 3.3 goals against per game. So while the defence has to be better, Campbell has not made the saves he’s been expected to make.
Campbell has mightily struggled with high-danger shots this season with a 75.3% high-danger save percentage, ranking third last in the National Hockey League. This isn’t something new for him; last season with Toronto, he ranked fifth last in HDSV%. In the two years prior, he ranked 40th out of 68 goalies.
Signing Campbell was always a risky decision by Ken Holland, and I mentioned this back in July. His performance throughout Los Angeles and Toronto was quite streaky and inconsistent, and he’s faced career-long issues with saving high-danger shots. Furthermore, Campbell has never played over 50 GP in a single season nor has he proven to be an NHL starter. There was never any guarantee he would post superior numbers to Mike Smith.
Of course, Smith also had his own share of issues. He was also inconsistent, he often allowed weak and deflating goals, he struggled in the playoffs, and overall, he was a huge emotional roller-coaster. With all of that said, Smith still produced results: he ranked 6th and 8th in save percentage and GSAx respectively from 2020-21 – 2021-22.
Can Campbell perform at that level? Can he reach or even exceed Smith’s results? It’s quite uncertain, and it seems unlikely considering his dreadful start.
At the very least, Campbell needs to start saving more than he’s expected to. 

Darnell Nurse is struggling, and Cody Ceci can’t handle 1RD

One of the prime driving forces behind Edmonton’s success under Woodcroft and Manson in the second half of 2021-22 was the performance of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci as Edmonton’s 1st pair.
Typically, most top pairings play roughly 30-40% of their time against top opposition, but Nurse-Ceci played over 50% of their TOI against elite competition. In this difficult environment, they produced excellent results, with a 53% goal differential, 54% expected goal differential, and a 62% high-danger chance differential.
One of the major questions heading into this season was if that duo could sustain their performance or not over an entire season.
So far? That pair has been unexceptional at best. 
With Nurse and Ceci on the ice, the Oilers have been out-scored 5 – 8 at 5v5. Of course, goal differential can be quite volatile and unreliable, especially in a 15-game sample, but they also possess a poor xGF% of 42%. Nurse and Ceci are consistently getting out-scored and out-chanced. 
I’m a fan of Ceci, and he’s undoubtedly Edmonton’s best RD in regards to defensive ability (it’s a low bar though, to be fair), but as I wrote back in August, I’m quite unsure if he can handle the 1RD role over a full season. 
Ceci’s offensive on-ice results significantly increased under Woodcroft, and based on his track record, it was very unlikely it was ever sustainable. Furthermore, Ceci never played against elite competition to such a high degree in prior seasons. To possess the ability to consistently play top opposition with positive results is not the most common skill, and Ceci has never shown indications of this skill in his career aside from one 40 GP sample.
On a contender, Ceci is perfectly capable as a defensively-inclined #4-5 defenceman, but playing against top opposition on a nightly basis while on the top-pairing of a contender? I’m not sure if it’s a role that he’s incredibly suited for. 
With all of this said, it would be unfair to place the most blame for this pair’s struggles on Ceci, as Nurse needs to step up.
Here’s an early look at Edmonton’s entry defence results thus far (Note: most, but not all of Edmonton’s fifteen games have been tracked yet, so it’s not an incredible sample; don’t make firm or strong conclusions with it, but it’s certainly something worth bringing up, and the entire results are likely not far off):
Entry defence was an area Nurse has always struggled in throughout his career; however, he made major steps in this area in 2021-22. He ranked above average in essentially every entry defence microstat, including zone denial%, entry chances allowed per hour, and zone carry against%. It was an encouraging trend that I hoped would carry on for subsequent seasons, but thus far this year, he’s not off to a good start.
Nurse lies near the bottom of the list above. On 52 entry targets against tracked, he’s made merely 2 zone denials, equating to a 3.8% zone denial rate. For comparison, the league average is 10.9%.
This matches what I’ve seen on the ice throughout these fifteen games; Nurse’s gap control this season looks subpar. He’s consistently giving up the entry and failing to stand up the blueline. To my eye, Nurse has left Ceci out to dry on numerous odd-man rushes, and he’s one of many reasons for Edmonton’s poor defensive play.
Overall, Nurse has a substandard 39 GF% and 47% xGF%. When you possess a higher cap hit than Leon Draisaitl, alongside a $12M salary, the expectations will always be high. Nurse needs to improve.

Brett Kulak is not performing at his usual standards, and Tyson Barrie is an unpreferable fit on this roster

On the bright side, in the games that have been tracked, Brett Kulak’s entry defence results still rank above average. However, the rest of his performance is severely lacking.
Kulak ranks second last among Edmonton D in xGF% (46%), and has been on-ice for more scoring chances than any other Oilers defenceman. He’s allowing an alarming amount of chances around the front of the net.
Some have said that Kulak’s struggles are due to the fact that he can’t handle 2LD, but I disagree. In the prior four seasons, Kulak had a 55 GF% and 54 DFF% in 1000+ TOI against elite competition; put differently, both Montreal and Edmonton controlled play with Kulak on-ice against top opposition. I think this is simply a poor start for him, and I expect him to improve as the season progresses.
As for Barrie, I just don’t think he’s a good fit on this roster.
Finding a partner for Barrie on this roster without compromising other pairs is a significant challenge. Throughout the past five seasons, Barrie has posted below-average defensive results with every defence partner aside from Kulak. However, with Edmonton’s current LD depth, Kulak must play 2LD. This forces Barrie to either play in the top four, a role in which he struggles defensively, or it places him on the third pair.
If he’s 3RD, his options for a defence partner are either Niemeläinen or Murray, but he’s a poor fit with both. Even in a third-pair role, Niemeläinen – Barrie has been out-scored and out-chanced in the time they’ve played together, and considering Murray’s awful entry defence results both this season and in the past, he’s a poor stylistic fit with Barrie.
I believe this is a major reason for Edmonton’s poor defence. Using Natural Stat Trick’s defensive pair tool, Edmonton’s three worst defensive pairs in terms of xG% have all consisted of Barrie on that pair (Kulak – Barrie, Niemeläinen – Barrie, Murray – Barrie). That’s a very troubling trend.

The second line is bleeding goals and chances

As usual, Draisaitl has been excellent offensively, as he ranks second in total points, tied for first in total assists, and he’s first in primary assists. However, his line has struggled to keep pucks out of their net.
In 174 TOI, the second line has scored 9 goals, but they’ve been on-ice for 12 goals against. L2’s shot attempt ratio is 157 – 209, equating to a grim 42 CF%. So far, Connor McDavid’s line is the only one that’s consistently out-scoring and out-chancing the opposition.
A major reason for their struggles might simply be the fact that Draisaitl and Hyman are a poor defensive fit together. Including last season’s playoffs, here are their defensive results together in the past two seasons:
They’ve allowed an alarming amount of goals and chances against as a pair, while they allow considerably less without each other. Consequently, I think it’s time to split them up.

What next?

In regards to the goaltending situation, I’d give Stuart Skinner an extended stretch of games. After their game against Florida, they have a three-day break between their next game against Los Angeles, and then a two-day break between their games against Los Angeles and Vegas. This would grant a solid amount of rest for Skinner to start all three games, and I’d potentially even grant him the start against New Jersey after that.
Let Campbell take some time to rest, focus, work with the goaltending coaches, and figure out his game. On the bright side, Campbell’s metrics are unsustainable. He’s on pace to have the worst GSAx in the last 15 years; even Campbell’s harshest critics will agree that he isn’t that bad. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Campbell will eventually regress positively, it’s just a matter of when, but it would be highly beneficial for it to come soon.
In regards to the forward lines, I’d certainly split up Draisaitl and Hyman. Perhaps the best option is to simply switch Hyman and Puljujarvi. RNH – McDavid – Hyman have had some solid games together this season, while Puljujarvi could be a nice stylistic fit for Draisaitl and Holloway.
As for the defence, the answer is much more complex.
Nurse and Kulak must improve. If a team’s top two LD are struggling defensively, the chances of overall defensive success will obviously be substantially lower. I’d pair Ceci with Kulak, and shelter Barrie on the third pair to the largest extent possible.
That would leave Bouchard to play on the top-pairing with Nurse. This is a decision that many would disagree with, but there are several reasons why this may be the best bet.
Firstly, Edmonton doesn’t really have a ton of great options. Nurse – Ceci has struggled as mentioned above, and playing Barrie on the top-pairing will not improve the team’s defensive results in any way. Of course, Nurse – Bouchard would also likely struggle in their own zone, but with that said, they’ve still posted strong results together. In the past two seasons, the pair has a 58 CF% and 57 xGF%.
Furthermore, Bouchard’s underlying metrics this season have been quite good, as leads the team with a 56 xGF%. He’s been one of Edmonton’s best entry defenders this season, while Nurse has largely struggled in this facet, so Nurse could benefit from Bouchard in this way. Bouchard’s passing abilities could also complement McDavid’s game. Still, it isn’t the most preferable situation, as Bouchard has struggled in his own end.
While it would be fun to target a guy like Patrick Kane, this is why Edmonton’s top priority at the trade deadline should be to replace Barrie with a defensive RD. Currently, that seems like the only way to potentially deploy three balanced defensive pairs on this roster.
The sky isn’t falling, and with an 8-7 record, it certainly isn’t time to panic for the Edmonton Oilers. However, it’s indisputable that they have areas for improvement moving forward, most notably defensively.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...