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The Day After -1.0: Oilers are hinting at a top pairing of Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard and that’s a good thing

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Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Laing
7 months ago
Sunday night, days after NHL training camps kicked off, the Edmonton Oilers kicked off their own pre-season with a 2-1 loss against the Winnipeg Jets.
No parade route planning yet for fans of the Copper and Blue, but the team is already hinting at what parts of the Oilers roster could look like.
When the Oilers’ lines released in the afternoon ahead of the game there was something that jumped out to me right away: Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard playing together.
It, along with the Oilers’ top line of Evander Kane, Ryan-Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman, were the closest hints at what we could see on opening night of the NHL season. By my eye, the pairing of Nurse and Bouchard is more telling for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, any iteration of that top forward line over the last three years that doesn’t include Connor McDavid has struggled to hold its head above water. That’s notable for a number of reasons, but the truth is that those three themselves haven’t played together, but given the individual combinations I don’t exactly see it panning out well for the Oilers. Besides, I think Kane alone is pencilled in on the top line alongside McDavid this season.
Moving to the blue line, there are lots of things to like about a potential pairing of Nurse-Bouchard in the long term, as Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft alluded to in Ryan Rishaug’s note above. When you think of the pairing, it’s easy to have your first thought be something along the lines of “well, neither of them plays defence so that would be horrible!”
You’re partially right in thinking that. In a vacuum, both players showed their defensive inefficiencies last season in their own ways. Nurse struggled with Cody Ceci, while Bouchard struggled before he found a home beside Mattias Ekholm, but what’s important to remember is that this doesn’t have to be the case.
What has caused Nurse to struggle on the Oilers top pairing? Last year, it was the fact he was trying to do too much covering up for a struggling Ceci, whose game took a nose dive last season. Nurse would jump up in the rush, and have to quickly make his way back to try and help cover up for Ceci. It would leave him scrambling often, and losing his positioning on the ice. While a healthier Ceci might help Nurse, it’s entirely possible — and in my opinion likely — that Ceci’s first season with Edmonton where he looked electric was just an anomaly.
While Nurse is someone who loves to play the offensive game, we’ve also seen him excel over the years when he is playing a defence-first game. He is, after all, a big-body in the defensive zone with plus-skating that can close gaps, box players out, and battle hard in the corners. For Nurse, he’s at his best when he’s focused in on one element of his game whether it’s playing an offence-first game, or a defence-first game. Think back to when he and Tyson Barrie would regularly control the goal share at 5×5.

THE DAY AFTER IS PRESENTED BY BETWAY


In the case of Bouchard, we’ve known for years he’s not exactly a defensive defenceman by any stretch of the term. Shocking, I know, but he’s able to more than makeup for it. He’s got an elite first-pass, is able to transport the puck out of the zone, and when he’s playing with someone who is more of a defensive specialist, his game flourishes. You might be surprised to know even before he played with Ekholm last season, he was having a really strong season.
For all these reasons, I think the pairing of Nurse and Bouchard could work well. Nurse would be able to hone in on the defensive side of his game more, while Bouchard could have a massive season on the top pairing playing an offence-first game helping McDavid et al.
And there’s evidence to support this pairing, too. Over the last three seasons, Nurse and Bouchard have played 697 5×5 minutes together controlling 58.22 percent of the shot attempt share, 55.84 percent of the scoring chances, and 58.46 percent of the expected goal share. They controlled just 47.46 percent of the goal share, but a 97.3 PDO suggests there’s more than enough room for it to rebound.
As Rishaug speculated above, it would make a ton of sense for the Oilers to play Ekholm and Philip Broberg together — something I suggested the team look to do when Ekholm was acquired last season. The two ended up seeing 13:43 in 5×5 ice time last season and their results were dominant. A 77.78 percent shot attempt share, 92.86 percent scoring chance share, and a 91.72 expected goal share all the while outscoring their opposition 2-0. Extremely small sample size aside, their game could complement each other in a similar way to that of Nurse and Bouchard.
Ekholm can be the strong defence-first player, while the Oilers could finally let Broberg loose to play his style of game — one where he can skate with the puck, transport it up the ice, and help generate offence for the team. This is something he’s done throughout his young career, and something he excelled at with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors over the last few years where he’s scored six goals and 27 points in 38 games. We’ve seen hints of it from Broberg at the NHL level, but the Oilers really need to see what they have in the player now.
To cap off what the Oilers’ defence could look like, Brett Kulak and one of Ceci or Vincent Desharnais could man the third pairing. Kulak and Ceci’s 174-shared 5×5 minutes haven’t been the greatest with a 49.86 percent shot attempt share, a 48.02 scoring chance share, a 57.3 percent expected goal share and 43.75 percent goal share (7-9), but it’s not unfathomable to think that in reduced minutes against lesser competition, they could make a formidable pair. Desharnais himself might fare better with Kulak, however, as the three have posted much stronger underlying numbers notably outscoring the opposition 13-9 with a 53.16 percent expected goal share.
All in all, this will be an interesting storyline to follow in the coming weeks and one that could pay off dividends for the team this season.

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@oilersnation.com.

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