Something’s got to give

Cody Ceci Edmonton Oilers
Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Laing
1 month ago
Ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline, I wrote about how the Oilers needed to make an addition to their blue line.
It came amid an arms race that broke out in the week leading up to the deadline following Vancouver’s acquisition of Elias Lindholm, Dallas’s pickup of Chris Tanev, Vegas’s nabbing of Anthony Mantha and Noah Hanifin, and Colorado’s addition of Sean Walker and Casey Mittelstadt.
The Oilers had already picked up Adam Henrique and Sam Carrick, but I felt more was needed.
Here’s some of what I wrote in that piece:
Holland must have his sights set on an addition greater than a seventh defenceman, something the Oilers haven’t ran with all year long. It’s not to say that adding a depth piece like that is unnecessary, but Edmonton must find a way to upgrade on Cody Ceci in their top-four.
A serviceable defenceman, Ceci has struggled in the playoffs in each of the last two years. With him on the ice at 5v5, the Oilers have been outscored 27-24, and in all situations, those numbers get even worse being outscored 41-28. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
These numbers again reared their ugly head and were on full display Wednesday night as Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse were outscored 3-1 at 5v5, and 4-1 in all situations in Game 1 against the Canucks.
Much was made about Ceci’s game in the Oilers’ first-round matchup against the L.A. Kings. The narratives were out in full force, highlighting tough matchups, how well-liked the player is, and how much the analytics can’t quantify what he brings to the ice.
Undoubtedly, there are elements of hockey that can’t be measured numerically. Heart, leadership, likability, the X’s and O’s and a willingness to go to battle can only be observed visually. While there isn’t one evaluation method that should be valued more than the other, it’s undeniable the role that analytics play in the game in 2024. Every team has access to a flourishing wealth of data and ever-expanding ways to quantify the game. Denying the ability for both modes of evaluation to be enacted is foolish.
Nurse and Ceci have struggled through the Oilers’ first six games of the playoffs. The defensive miscues are apparent, and their inability to make simple plays to clear the zone and transition the puck out of the Oilers’ end is concerning. The snowball of these issues is growing.
The pair have been on the ice for 113 minutes and have been outscored 9-4 for a 30.77 percent goal share. Among 28 pairings who have played over 75 minutes of hockey this post-season, only two pairings have allowed more goals against in Vladislav Gavrikov – Matt Roy (11-3) and Aaron Ekblad – Gustav Forsling (9-8). Even at 5v5, where they have been outscored 7-3, the only duo who have allowed as many goals against were Drew Doughty and Mikey Anderson, who the Oilers lit up in Round 1.
This isn’t a new trend for Nurse and Ceci, either. In the 2023 playoffs, they were outscored 12-6 (33.33 percent goal share), and in 2022, it was 24-20. Over the last three playoffs, they’ve been outscored 45-40 in 541 minutes. Their goals-against are nine (!) allowed goals more than the next pairing, and even if their 30 on-ice goals are the second-most of any pairing, it’s a moot point because they can’t keep it out of their own net.
This isn’t about expected goals, in which their numbers are worse, shot attempts, scoring chances, or whatever other statistic you want to look up. This is straight up about goals scored, and this duo is getting heavily outscored this post-season. They’re a gashed wound.
When we look at the last three years in the playoffs, Ceci is the common denominator in that pairing’s struggles.
The numbers highlight how much better the Oilers are when Ceci is off the ice, whether Nurse is, too or not. The truth of the matter is that Ceci is overmatched playing alongside Nurse, and as our own NHL_Sid wrote before the 2023-24 season even started, Ceci is more suited for a third-pairing role.
Edmonton tried to address this issue during the season. They were in talks with the Calgary Flames to trade Ceci and a draft pick for Chris Tanev, before he was sent to Dallas. They “took a long look” at Sean Walker, before he was sent to Colorado, as well as Nick Seeler before he re-signed in Philly.
Ultimately, the only defensive addition the Oilers made was to bring in Troy Stecher, who played in seven games towards the end of the year for the team, scoring two assists and looking sharp in the limited time he played.
Now, six games into the playoffs, the smartest roster move the Oilers may be able to make is to sit Cody Ceci and play either Stecher or Philip Broberg in his place. It’s not an ideal scenario, but the club may not have a choice if he and Nurse’s poor play continues.
We saw what elevating Vincent Desharnais to play alongside Nurse looked like this season, and he was in over his head doing so, outscored 7-3 in 181 5v5 minutes. Given their big minutes and dominance on the ice, the team likely doesn’t want to split up Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard, leaving Stecher or Broberg as potential replacement options.
Stecher has already succeeded with Nurse in their 48 5v5 minutes, outscoring the opposition 3-0 and controlling 59 percent of the expected goal share. The sample size is small, but the number is promising. Stecher may not be a big body, but he’s consistently punched above his weight class.
Broberg, meanwhile, could be an option, too. He and Nurse have a limited sample size of 50 minutes in which the goals were an even three for and against, breaking even in shot attempt share and expected goal share. He’s played on the right side in the past, and while it would be an adjustment entering the second round of the playoffs, his success this season at the AHL level — and his stint with the Oilers at the end of the regular season — show promise.
The Oilers, at least for now, don’t appear ready to make such a drastic change, as the only expected change in the lineup from Game 1 to Game 2 is Warren Foegele and Mattias Janmark swapping spots in the lineup. But one has to wonder how long the leash will be.
At the end of the day, something’s got to give.

Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at zach@thenationnetwork.com.

Check out these posts...