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The Oilers defence continues to fail them

Edmonton Oilers Darnell Nurse
Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Laing
20 days ago
The Edmonton Oilers have a problem.
It’s not a new problem, though. It’s one that’s become a tale as old of time for this team: their blue line.  And on Monday night the struggles were on full display for the Oilers in a 5-3 loss to the Dallas Stars.
Simply put, the Oilers lost this game because they couldn’t stop the bleeding. After a torrid start in the first period running the defensive pairings we’ve seen since Game 4 against the Canucks, the Oilers were looking good. They were dominating the pace of play, and controlling it in any sense of the term.
The only problem is that the Oilers’ coaching staff felt the need to change the pairings in the second frame.
While the top pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard remained the same, Darnell Nurse began taking shifts with Cody Ceci, while Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais skated together again. The result? The Oilers looked discombobulated in their own zone, coughing up three goals against in a 3:33 time span.
Ekholm and Bouchard were caught out on the first two goals, while Darnell Nurse and Vincent Desharnais couldn’t clear the puck on Wyatt Johnston’s third goal. Adam Henrique managed to get one back late in the second, but come the third period, the dagger saw Ceci and Nurse left on their own islands as Robertson got down low banging a puck through Stuart Skinner’s pads.
Much can be said about the Oilers’ inability to score a fourth goal to regain the lead.
The common denominators are easily identified through many of the Oilers’ own zone woes. It largely comes back to Edmonton’s ability to clear the puck and exit their zone. Beyond Ekholm and Bouchard, all four of the Oilers have various limitations.
Ceci and Desharnais both struggle with the puck on their stick, and while Kulak and Nurse are the better of the four, they have their own problems, too.
At the end of the day, the Oilers $9.25-million man hasn’t played like a $9.25-million man. In fact, since his contract extension kicked in ahead of the 2022-23 season, his struggles have been significant. The hope was that Ekholm’s arrival in Edmonton would lead to better output from Nurse, and while his numbers in the regular season has seen him keep his head above water, that’s far from the case over the last two playoff runs for the Oilers.
To highlight this, here are the underlying numbers for Oilers defencemen across each of the last two playoffs, including their percentile’s among 48 blue liners with over 250 minutes over that time.
Edmonton Oilers defensive pairings, 2022-23 playoffs and 2023-24 playoffs, through May 27th, 2024. Data via Natural Stat Trick.
It can’t be overstated how much the pairing of Ekholm, Bouchard and Kulak has meant to this team. If not for them, we’re talking about two short playoff runs in Edmonton.
The other numbers are stark. Each of Nurse, Ceci, and Desharnais has significant struggles. While the latter of the three has caved in terms of goals, managing to keep treading water in other areas, the same can’t be said for Nurse and Ceci.
This duo is making a combined $12.5 million, accounting for 15 percent of the Oilers’ salary cap this season. They rank near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to playoff performers over the past two years.
And as Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli wrote Tuesday, something needs to change:
How do the Oilers solve their Nurse problem?
There is both a short-term and long-term problem. In the here and now, Nurse is seemingly at the center of everything bad happening in Edmonton’s end.
Nurse, 29, is a shell of the guy we saw in the West Final just two years ago. The simple play can be an adventure. He struggles with gap control on the rush, but he also routinely allows inside body position on the opposition forecheck, opening the door for chances against and further sustained pressure.
Sometimes, plus/minus is a poor indicator of play. Sometimes, it paints a very accurate picture, as it has for Nurse these playoffs.
Nurse is the leader for the Green Jacket in the playoffs with a minus-12 through 15 playoff games. That minus-12 is more than the minus leader from the other three still-standing playoff teams combined: Chris Kreider (-5), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (-4) and Joe Pavelski (-2).
Edmonton has been outscored 21-10, these playoffs with Nurse on the ice. He’s been on for 18 goals against at 5-on-5, while the next closest player in the playoffs has been on for 12.
What is he? The only clear answer to that question right now is overpaid.
Connor McDavid reminded after Game 3 that playoff series can be short. That is what the Edmonton Oilers are staring down now. It feels like we’ve arrived at a crossroads – in this series, in Nurse’s tenure in Edmonton. Adjustments are necessary.
The easy answer here is simple: Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci need to play better. The problem, as highlighted above, is that the simple isn’t always so.
It will be nothing short of fascinating to see what transpires today and tonight, as the Oilers look to even up their series with the Dallas Stars on home ice.

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.

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