The Edmonton Oilers could be one upgrade away from having among the strongest defensive cores in the NHL

Photo credit:© Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
There was quite a lot of doubt at the beginning of the season, but when healthy, this Edmonton Oilers team is a contender.
With a historic 16-game heater, the Oilers are just a single victory shy of matching the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins for the longest winning streak in NHL history. 
However, while their recent success has demonstrated the fact that this team is a legitimate contender, Edmonton’s management must still be focused on adding a significant upgrade(s) at the trade deadline. This streak should not be used as an excuse to pull back and do nothing; rather, it has bought them more time to make more moves.
While this roster has numerous areas of strength, there are a couple of areas that could benefit from an upgrade. This team has the potential for even more.
In this piece, I would like to focus on Edmonton’s defensive core, and specifically the quality of their right defence, which has been a somewhat polarizing subject amongst the fanbase. Here is a deep dive into why I believe an RHD upgrade could propel Edmonton to one of the best defensive teams in the league.
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick, EvolvingHockey, and PuckIQ, all microstats via our tracking project (glossary linked here)

The success of the Ekholm and Bouchard and Kulak and Desharnais pairings

Edmonton has essentially deployed the same defensive pairs for nearly the entire season, with Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard and Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci as their top-four pairings, while Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais are Edmonton’s third pair. 
Thus far, the Oilers are the only team in the league with three pairings, which have each played a minimum of 400 minutes together.
Per PuckIQ, Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm have averaged 5.6 and 5.4 minutes per game against elite competition, respectively, while Nurse and Ceci have averaged 5.3 and 5.2 minutes per game against elites, respectively. Both of Edmonton’s top-four pairs have played similar minutes against elite competition, and so they run more of a balanced top-four, rather than a distinct first-pair and second-pair. 
But, in technical terms, the Ekholm and Bouchard duo would be considered the top pair, especially considering they also spend more time with Edmonton’s top line.
On one hand, the Ekholm and Bouchard and Kulak and Desharnais pairs have played exceptionally well in their roles. Here are the top ten defensive pairings in the league this season at 5v5, sorted by expected goal differential:

Ekholm and Bouchard rank atop the entire league, sitting at an incredibly impressive 63 percent expected goal share, while still out-scoring opponents at an excellent ratio of 36 to 26 actual goals.
It was likely that Ekholm was not 100% to begin the year, and this was one of many factors for their brutal start. Since October, the performance of this defensive pairing has had a significant role in Edmonton’s resurgence. They have been nothing short of phenomenal at all ends of the ice.
Kulak and Desharnais rank fourth in the league, operating at a fantastic 59 percent expected goal differential. With this duo on-ice, Edmonton has produced 98 high-danger chances for, and allowed 50 against, nearly a perfect 2:1 ratio. Their net goal differential is even, but it’s primarily caused by a fairly low 6.7 on-ice shooting percentage that is unlikely to sustain (although less time with Edmonton’s top forward line likely plays a role in their oiSH%). Regardless, Edmonton has tilted the ice with this pairing.
In prior years, a player of Brett Kulak’s calibre would have spent the majority of his time in Edmonton’s top four. A big, physical, 6’7 defenceman like Vincent Desharnais would have likely obtained an opportunity in the top four at some point as well. The fact that both have spent nearly the entire season on Edmonton’s third pair is a testament to Edmonton’s improved defensive depth.
There has often been heavy criticism towards Edmonton’s defensive play, but ever since the coaching change, they have been one of the league’s top defensive teams, averaging just 2.3 goals against per hour since November 12, second in the NHL. Since the beginning of their historic sixteen-game win streak, they rank first, allowing a mere 1.5 goals per hour.
Of course, Stuart Skinner has played a massive role here. There is no doubt that he has played as a true NHL starter since the beginning of December.
However, Edmonton’s defence deserves significant credit. They remain the only team in the league with two defensive pairs in the top ten in 5v5 xG%. Ekholm and Bouchard are emerging into one of the league’s best defensive pairings, and while Kulak and Desharnais have been quite sheltered, can you ask much more out of a third pairing?
This defensive core does possess the potential to be one of the most well-rounded in the league.

The (continued) mediocrity of the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing

Oct 27, 2022; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) skates with the puck against the Chicago Blackhawks during the first period at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

On the other hand, the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing has not had nearly as much success. 
In regards to the list above, the Nurse-Ceci pair would rank 54th in the league in 5v5 xG%, at 50 percent. The raw metrics are certainly not bad, but relative to their other defensive pairs, it is underwhelming. Considering that the Oilers are currently the best team in the league in terms of 5v5 xG%, you would expect more. Edmonton’s scoring chance differential drops by a full 10 percent with the Nurse – Ceci pair on-ice.
The defensive stats, most notably against top competition, are more concerning. Overall, they rank 95th out of 102 pairings in on-ice chances allowed per hour. 
Amongst all defencemen with a minimum of 150 minutes against elite competition, no defencemen in the entire league have a worse relative impact on suppressing dangerous shot attempts (DFA/60) against elites than Nurse and Ceci.
Fortunately, the pair have still managed to out-score opponents 31 to 25. However, a major reason is that the Oilers have a 0.930 on-ice save percentage with the pairing on-ice.
Historically, only a few elite defencemen in the league possess the ability to consistently sustain a high on-ice save percentage (oiSV% is primarily influenced by goaltending and simple puck luck), and Nurse and Ceci don’t seem to be among that list, as their oiSV% has fluctuated throughout their careers. When you consider that the pair was out-scored in the 2022-23 regular season (46 to 48) and playoffs (6 to 8), it is quite reasonable to suggest their current goal differential may not be sustained, especially against more difficult playoff teams.
Put simply, Nurse and Ceci are allowing quite a lot of dangerous shots and chances, and history suggests their current (actual) goals-against rate is unlikely to be sustained. Considering that their mediocre results have continued for the second straight season in a row, this is a weak point, and an area that could certainly benefit from an upgrade.
A common argument I have heard is the fact that Nurse and Ceci have spent far less time with the McDavid line than the Ekholm and Bouchard pairing has, which is certainly true. 
However, the Ekholm and Bouchard pair operates at a 59 percent expected goal share without McDavid on-ice, while Nurse and Ceci is at a 48 percent xG%, being out-chanced 250 to 268 without McDavid. It is true Ekholm and Bouchard spend significant time with McDavid, and produce fantastic results with his line, but they can also perform well without him, unlike Nurse and Ceci.
Some may argue that zone starts play a role, but Ekholm averages the most defensive-zone starts per 60 among the team’s defenceman, at 8.8. In comparison, Ceci and Nurse are at 7.2 and 6.9, respectively (regardless, aside from some extreme cases, zone starts ultimately have a negligible impact on a player’s results as most shift starts are on the fly).
Not to mention, Ekholm and Bouchard average more minutes against elite opposition than Nurse and Ceci do, as stated previously. 
Consequently, the Nurse and Ceci pair’s play is not caused (or at least, significantly affected) by deployment. The performance of Edmonton’s forwards, combined with Skinner’s excellent goaltending, has helped mask some of the issues of this pairing, but the fact is, they have produced unsatisfactory results for two consecutive seasons. This is an area that has a risk of being exposed in the playoffs, and is a definite area of improvement.
So, exactly why is this pairing mediocre? What exactly are they doing wrong? I believe these questions can be answered by the stats in our microstat manual tracking project.
Firstly, a significant weakness of this pairing is their ability to limit zone entries and defend the blueline. A controlled zone entry is nearly three times more likely to result in a quality chance than a dump-in. As a result, the best transitional defenders are the ones who consistently limit controlled entries. Defending the rush is an extremely important aspect of defensive play, especially in the playoffs, as over 40 percent of 5v5 goals are directly off of a controlled entry.

On one hand, Ekholm has been fantastic at defending the blueline this season. Bouchard also ranks quite well. On the other hand, Nurse and Ceci are Edmonton’s worst defenders at preventing controlled zone entries, as opposing forwards have had a much easier time entering Edmonton’s defensive zone with possession when Nurse and Ceci guard the blueline.
This has led to more rush chances against, as Nurse has allowed 2.9 quality controlled entries against leading to quality chances per hour, the worst on the team by a decent margin. Additionally, not only does allowing more controlled entries often cause more transitional chances against, but it additionally results in extended O-zone possession for the opposition, which is a factor in their defensive results.
However, what happens when Nurse and Ceci do force dump-ins? Here’s a look at how effectively Edmonton’s defencemen retrieve opposition dump-ins.

Luckily, Nurse is quite strong at retrieving opposition dump-ins, but Ceci is Edmonton’s worst defenceman at retrievals by a massive margin. The rest of Edmonton’s defencemen retrieve dump-ins at a success rate higher than 62 percent, while Ceci fails to reach 50 percent. He has been consistently losing puck battles and being beaten to pucks by opposition forecheckers.
Finally, what happens when Nurse and Ceci do recover the puck in the DZ? How well can they move the puck up the ice? Here is a look at Edmonton’s zone exit results:

Bouchard has been Edmonton’s best puck-mover by a significant margin, while Nurse and Ekholm also rank fairly well. Credit where credit’s due, Nurse has taken a step forward in this area, and I believe Paul Coffey has likely had an effect here. But, again, Ceci ranks at the bottom of this list.
In regards to the Ekholm/Bouchard pair, Ekholm is the superior rush defender, and Bouchard is the superior puck-mover, but what makes this pairing so good is that both of them can defend the blueline, retrieve dump-ins, and move the puck up the ice at effective rates. Combine this with Bouchard’s elite offensive zone play, and Ekholm’s overall defensive smarts, and you have a truly dominant defensive pair.
On the other hand, both Nurse and Ceci struggle to defend the blue line, and only Nurse can effectively retrieve dump-ins and move the puck up the ice at a satisfactory rate. I have been quite critical of Nurse in the past, but he does a lot of the heavy lifting on this pairing. Playing Nurse next to a superior RHD could have a huge impact on his play.

With all of that in mind, let’s clear some things up…

May 3, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Cody Ceci (5) warms up before the start of game one of the second round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.

Is Cody Ceci a bad defenceman? Not at all. Ceci is not a bad player, but is simply an inadequate fit alongside Nurse in a top-four role.
Is it impossible to win with the Nurse and Ceci pairing? Certainly not, teams have reached the cup finals with worse pairings. 
Is a Ceci upgrade the sole difference between the Oilers and a Stanley Cup? Unless you’re acquiring a bonafide 1RD (a type of player that isn’t exactly available), probably not. 
Of course, the major question is who they should target as a potential replacement. This is an article I plan to write separately, but there are several options available. One of them is Alexandre Carrier, who has played tougher minutes in Nashville than Ceci has in Edmonton, and despite playing alongside worse linemates, Carrier’s defensive results are far greater. Chris Tanev has injury risks, but he is a clear upgrade on Ceci. If available, it could be a wise idea to target someone like Artem Zub. I’m not the most avid fan of Sean Walker, but he is also an option worth considering, and much cheaper than Ceci.
In a perfect world, the Oilers acquire an elite top-six winger, an RHD upgrade, and a strong backup goaltender, but Edmonton has limited cap and trade assets. As a result, there is a valid case against spending significant assets for an RHD upgrade, as it is quite reasonable to focus on targeting a winger or goaltending insurance instead. It is fair to suggest that a legitimate top-six winger, perhaps someone like Jake Guentzel, could make more of an impact than any other RHD available on the market.
But, in today’s tight cap world, the most successful teams are the ones with players consistently playing at or above their cap hits or teams using LTIR to exceed the cap in the playoffs. The value provided relative to cap-hit is significantly important.
Nurse and Ceci are Edmonton’s highest-paid defensive pairing, making a combined $12.5M. When you have a pairing combining to make the same amount as Connor McDavid, the expectations for their performance must be higher. Simply put, if the Nurse and Ceci duo are not performing at a level that justifies their cap hit, it weighs down the team.
As explained in detail above, this pairing has numerous flaws that could hurt them in the playoffs, and it certainly did in their series back in May, as they were out-scored 1 to 6 in the second round against Vegas. It is simply a risk to head into the playoffs with this pair for the third straight season.
With Leon Draisaitl and Evan Bouchard’s contracts expiring in about a year and a half, this is a critically important season for Edmonton, and they cannot stand pat at the deadline. Yes, the Oilers are on a sixteen-game winning streak, and Nurse and Ceci have played significant minutes, but teams serious about winning a cup should consistently pursue ways to improve their rosters and maximize their potential and chances of success.
Acquiring a legitimate top-four defenceman to play alongside Nurse could go a long way.

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