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What can we learn from how the Edmonton Oilers deploy forward lines and defensive pairings?

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Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Sunil Agnihotri
2 months ago
Over the last twelve games under Kris Knoblauch, we’ve seen a lot of continuity and consistency when it comes to player deployment and line combinations at even-strength (5v5). On the back end, the same three defensive tandems have played about 83 percent of the Oilers total playing time (559 minutes).
Cody Ceci has played 85 percent of his time with Darnell Nurse, Mattias Ekholm has spent 90 percent of his time with Evan Bouchard and Vincent Desharnais has spent 82 percent of his ice time with Brett Kulak. These are all pairings that we’ve seen plenty of in the past. It’s a reasonable starting point for a new coach getting familiar with the roster and trying to build some chemistry as they chase down a playoff spot.
Up front, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have, for the most part, been on separate lines since the coaching change, with McDavid centring his line for 132 minutes, or 23.7 percent of the team’s total even-strength time and Draisaitl on his line for 121 minutes, or 21.7 percent of the team’s total ice time. Ryan McLeod has also seen regular deployment as a third-line pivot, having played 131 minutes under Knoblauch, or 23.4 percent of the team’s total ice time. Good sign for a young player who struggled to produce early on in the season. Should note that McDavid and Draisaitl have played about 54 minutes together (about 10 percent of the team’s total ice time), which translates to about a third of their own ice time.
With this much consistency in deployment, I wanted to understand how the different forward lines have been deployed with the defence pairings, and how well they’ve performed. This would include how well the team has done to generate scoring chances and increase their odds of outscoring the opposition. In a recent article, I also found that some key players, including Draisaitl and Nurse, were posting some concerning on-ice numbers since the coaching change, and I figured this might help uncover some potential underlying issues.
To gauge the Oiler’s performance, I used expected goal-share, a weighting placed on every unblocked shot based on the probability of the shot becoming a goal. This depends on the type of shot, location and uses historical shot and goal data to come up with the probability for the unblocked shot to become a goal. More on expected goals can be found over at Canucks Army.
The table below lists the three forwards when they have centred their own lines with each of three regular defence pairings over the last twelve games at even strength. For each combination, I’ve included the total ice time along with each combination’s expected goal-share – again, to get a sense of how well they’re performing, generating higher quality chances, and influencing their odds of outscoring opponents. I also included the even-strength time that McDavid and Draisaitl have been deployed together.
What becomes apparent is that McDavid has spent most of his ice time with the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing, while Draisaitl has spent most of his time with the Nurse-Ceci tandem. McLeod also gets to spend time with the top four defencemen and has done well with them, but sees most of his time with the third pairing. And when Knoblauch has both McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice together, he obviously prefers having them out there with Ekholm and Bouchard.
Looking at the expected goal-shares of each combination of forward and defencemen, the one item that really stands out is the Oilers performance when Draisaitl has been deployed as the sole centerman with Nurse and Ceci on the blue line. In 68 minutes, the trio has posted a 24.01 percent expected goal-share – a horrendous number, indicating that the Oilers are at risk of getting outscored at a rate of 3-1 if this continues. Right now, the trio is lucky that they’ve only been outscored 2-0 in these 68 minutes. It’s worth noting, too, that Draisaitl is in a bit of a personal slump at even-strength as he’s only posted five even-strength points since the coaching change, and his 1.68 points per hour is well below his career levels (2.38 points per hour). Considering how much money is being spent on Draisaitl, Nurse and Ceci, and the expectations for them to outscore opponents and win games, this has to be a spot of bother for the coaching staff.
Knowing that Draisaitl’s on-ice results and individual results are likely being impacted by the Nurse-Ceci tandem, it’ll be interesting to see what adjustments the coaching staff can make or is willing to make to help ensure the wins keep coming. There aren’t many deployment options for the coaching staff due to management’s poor roster construction. And it’s doubtful the coaching staff wants to disrupt the chemistry the other defence pairings have going for them. I do wonder if we’ll see Draisaitl’s line play more often with Ekholm and Bouchard, as McDavid has plenty of experience playing with Nurse and Ceci (and driving the results of others). It’s unfortunate that the team is experiencing this issue among their top players in a critical part of the season when the margin for error is very slim.
Data: Natural Stat Trick

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