How good is the Edmonton Oilers’ top defensive pairing?

Photo credit:© Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
10 months ago
We’re just a bit past the halfway mark of the 2022-23 season for the Edmonton Oilers. They’re currently coming off two strong blowout victories over the Anaheim Ducks and the San Jose Sharks, and place 5th in the Pacific Division.
Edmonton’s recent wins are certainly a step in the right direction, but it will be difficult to obtain a top-three spot in the division. The Seattle Kraken are on a seven-game winning streak, coming off a recent win in which they shut out the first-place Boston Bruins. The Los Angeles Kings place 6th in the league with a 7-2-1 record in their past 10 games, and the Vegas Golden Knights are 4th in the NHL. Tonight’s game against Vegas will be a crucial one.
It’s quite obvious, but their major area of improvement is their defensive play. A big question mark on their blueline remains the ability of their top-pairing: how far can the Oilers go with Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci playing the most minutes?
In this piece, I’ll dive into how Nurse and Ceci have performed, and why it would be significantly beneficial for the pair to be split up.
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick

Nurse and Ceci have disappointing on-ice results, and it stems from poor entry defence

Per Natural Stat Trick, the pairing of Nurse – Ceci holds a 47% expected goal differential. The team has been out-chanced at a ratio of 262 – 300 with that pairing on-ice at 5v5, and they’ve been a major drag on Edmonton’s top players.
With the Nurse-Ceci pairing, McDavid holds a 50% goal differential, and a 51% expected goal differential. With Nurse and Ceci off-ice, McDavid improves to 53% and 58% respectively in goal and expected goal share respectively. Draisaitl holds an awful 42% goal differential and 47% expected goal differential with Nurse and Ceci on-ice. Without them, Draisaitl markedly improves to 56% and 54% in GF% and xGF% respectively.
Safe to say, that simply doesn’t meet the standards of an acceptable top pairing in the NHL, a pair that’s been out-scored, out-shot, and out-chanced.
The primary issue with this pairing is entry defence.
The average shot off the rush/controlled entry is much more likely to result in a goal as opposed to the average shot off the cycle or off the forecheck. This is why many place a significant amount of emphasis on defending and preventing controlled zone entries against (carrying or passing the puck across the blueline). Per Eric Tulsky, controlled entries result in more than twice as many shots as opposed to uncontrolled entries (a.k.a. dump-ins). According to Cam Charron, controlled entries are roughly three times as likely to result in a scoring chance.
This season, I’ve manually tracked various microstats for the Oilers, which include zone entries allowed. I also track zone denials, plays where the defender forces a failed entry from an opposing forward attempting to enter the zone. Controlled entry against% is the percent of entry targets against a defenceman that result in a controlled entry, and denial% is the percent of entry targets that result in a zone denial/failed entry. Here’s how each Oilers defenceman has performed in these aspects:
Evan Bouchard has struggled with DZ puck management, and Kulak has struggled with DZ retrievals and puck battles, but they have been Edmonton’s best entry defenders this season, ranking well above league-average in zone denial% and controlled entry against%. On a team with considerable issues at defending the rush, Bouchard and Kulak are its bright spots. In a smaller sample, Broberg has also performed well.
On the other hand, Ceci and Barrie have struggled in this facet. The league-average controlled entry against rate is 57%, and the league-average denial% is 9.9%, and both rank below the average in both regards. Ceci is a decent bit worse at zone denials than Barrie.
Meanwhile, Nurse ranks last among Edmonton’s defence in both metrics by a considerable margin. His gap control has been a major weakness, as opposing forwards have had a much easier time entering the offensive zone with control against Nurse than other Oilers defender. Per AllThreeZones, Nurse also ranks last amongst the defensive core in chances allowed off entries against. With this in mind, it’s clear that this is a significant issue for Nurse and Ceci. Note that shots/chances off the rush are typically underrated by public scoring chance models. As mentioned earlier, Nurse-Ceci holds a 47 xGF%, and there’s a strong chance they’ve been worse than that.
Here are some video examples in recent games that showcase this issue (I apologize about the video quality in advance. The next time I make a video analysis, I will make the quality clearer):

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The first example is the Nathan MacKinnon goal against the Oilers a couple of games past. MacKinnon easily splits through both Nurse and Ceci, and scores a terrific goal. Of course, I won’t deny that defending against MacKinnon is a tough task, but both of them allowed MacKinnon to slip by pretty easily.

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On this play, Nurse allows a pass against from Makar at the blueline, and both Ceci and RNH can’t get to MacKinnon, who gets a Grade A shot.

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Nurse allows a carry against, and both Nurse and Ceci allow a cross-ice pass which results in another decent scoring chance.

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Ceci allows a controlled entry against, which leads to a scoring chance, and then a wrap-around attempt.

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Against LA this time, Nurse and Ceci both try to defend the two LA forwards attempting to enter the zone, but they enter successfully and fire a pass across, which leads to a shot. LA gets the puck against and fires two more shot attempts.

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The controlled entries that the pair allows don’t just often lead to chances, but they can also result in extended shifts in the DZ. Here, Nurse allows an entry against, and Seattle spends considerable time in Edmonton’s DZ. Ceci eventually breaks up a play, but fails to get it out. This is another issue; Nurse has a 73% zone exit success rate, and Ceci has a 71% exit success rate, while the league-average is ~76%.

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Going back to the Colorado game, this was another awful shift for the pair. Ceci allows an entry against Lehkonen, who fans on the shot, but immediately regains it back. At the 14:04 mark, Ceci eventually breaks up the cycle, but fails to clear the puck. Eventually, Skinner freezes the puck, and a faceoff occurs which Draisaitl wins, but Ceci subsequently ices the puck. This results in another faceoff which the Avs win this time. Ceci eventually clears it out of the zone briefly, but Colorado immediately enters the zone against Nurse, resulting in even more time in the DZ, and multiple shots and scoring opportunities against.
Of course, in some of these plays, you can also place blame on some of the forwards. Obviously, it’s also their job to help get the puck out and provide back pressure, but nonetheless, the common denominator in all of these clips is that the shots and chances Edmonton allow start from a controlled entry allowed against Nurse and Ceci.

Areas that Nurse and Ceci perform well in

Some other defensive microstats I’ve tracked include DZ puck retrievals. Specifically, I track all dump-ins and loose pucks retrieved under pressure from opposing forwards. 
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s defencemen and how well they rank in this facet:
Broberg has been excellent in this facet, but in a sheltered role, and in a very limited sample. Niemeläinen has also done well here, although again, the sample is small. I only track these stats for the Oilers, so I’m not sure what the league-average is, but I would say that ~50-52% is a solid mark, and Nurse is Edmonton’s only top-four D to rank above this.
This is Nurse’s major strength defensively, as he’s quite good at using his skating and strength to retrieve dump-ins efficiently and effectively. 
I’ve also tracked defensive-zone breakups, the total count of plays successfully broken up in the defensive zone. The difference between retrievals and breakups is dependent on opposing possession. Retrievals are only counted as dump-in or loose puck retrievals, whereas breakups are plays where the opposing team has full possession, and the player disrupts the possession. Plays, where a player disrupts a scoring chance, will also be counted as a breakup. Here’s how Edmonton’s D rank in this area:
Again, I only track this for the Oilers (Corey Sznajder did track this for the playoffs last season), so I don’t know the league average. It’s safe to say that none of Nurse, Bouchard, Barrie or Kulak are exceptional at breaking up the cycle, but Ceci ranks very well here. With all of this, although I try to be as objective as possible, there is a decent amount of subjectivity with a statistic like DZ Breakups. Still, per Corey Sznajder’s tracking in last season’s playoffs, Ceci also ranked first among Edmonton D in his manually tracked DZ breakups stat. 
With that in mind, it’s fair to deduce that breaking up the cycle is Ceci’s major strength.
To summarize the playing style of Nurse-Ceci; both players struggle at defending the entries and are often burnt off the rush. Nurse can retrieve pucks under forecheck pressure, and Ceci can break up the cycle efficiently relative to the rest of the team, but they still end up having consistency issues with breaking out of the DZ with control once they regain possession.
I think Ceci is fine as a #4-5 guy on a contender, but he just isn’t a top-pairing RD.
As for Nurse, to form a strong top-pairing, he needs a RD that can defend the rush, force dump-ins, break up the cycle, and exit the DZ with success at a consistent rate. 
This is another reason why Nurse’s $9.25M contract remains a glaring issue. I think Nurse is capable as a strong #2-3 guy making ~$6-6.5M, but the fact that he makes more than Cale Makar and can’t carry his own defensive pair is a problem.

So, what should the Oilers do?

After Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson’s arrivals, Edmonton’s rush defence had gone from 31st to 4th in the league. Woodcroft ran a NZ 1-1-3 in 2021-22, but this season, he switched to a 1-2-2, and it seems to have had a significant impact on Edmonton’s ability to defend the rush. 
Systematic changes could benefit Nurse and Ceci here, although with that said, Ceci has never excelled at defending against the rush, and Nurse has only had one strong season at entry defence in his career. 
Would changing the system help? Yes, I definitely think so. But would it solve the entire issue? Probably not. Regardless of the system, Ceci just isn’t a top-pairing defender, and Nurse needs a partner that can defend against top QoC.
There are three potential solutions.
The first solution is to split up Nurse-Ceci, and deploy Evan Bouchard with Nurse. As mentioned above, Bouchard is Edmonton’s best entry defender, far better than Edmonton’s other RD in Ceci and Barrie. Bouchard is very efficient at causing failed entries or forcing dump-ins, and Nurse is efficient at retrieving dump-ins. They could also fit well offensively; Bouchard leads Edmonton’s defence in possession exits per hour, while Nurse leads the defence in controlled entries per hour.
In the past two seasons, Nurse and Bouchard have posted a splendid 58% expected goal differential and 56% scoring chance differential. With these aspects in mind, they could be a very strong fit.
That said, they would still be high-event and flawed in the DZ. Both players have issues with puck management in the DZ, and neither defender is efficient at breaking up the cycle. Bouchard would assist with Nurse’s rush defence, but that pair’s in-zone defending would remain shaky, especially against top opposition. The other alternative is playing Barrie with Nurse, but considering that Ceci and Barrie have similar entry defence metrics with Ceci playing against much tougher QoC, Nurse – Barrie could be even worse at defending entries. 
Despite the potential negatives, I would still play Nurse – Bouchard for the time being.
Option 2 is to target a strong top-four LD. Nurse could be much better in a lower role, so acquiring a reliable LD that can reduce Nurse’s minutes could help. That said, one of the major questions would be; which LD is taken out of the current lineup?

Although Kulak hasn’t lived up to my expectations this season, he’s still a top-two entry defender on this team, and I would still like to keep him (the chances of Kulak being moved are quite low anyways). The best option would be trading Broberg for a guy like Chychrun, which would improve the team now, although Broberg has played quite well thus far, albeit in a sheltered and limited sample. I’d like to see how Broberg would perform in a higher role before deciding to trade him.
Option 3 is to target a RD instead. This would be the most preferable option in the scenario that Broberg proves himself in a tougher, higher role. One of Ceci or Barrie would be moved, and could ideally be replaced with a RD partner for Nurse. The problem is, there aren’t many great defensive RDs available on the market as of now with plentiful experience against elite competition.
These options all provide various pros and cons, but what remains evident is that Edmonton’s current top-pair is flawed. To improve this team’s chances at defensive success, Jay Woodcroft and Ken Holland should address this.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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