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What makes the defensive pairing of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard so good

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Photo credit:© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
2 months ago
One of the keys to a cup contending NHL team is a strong blue line. Without defencemen that can efficiently defend and move the puck in transition, a team will struggle to find success. For the Edmonton Oilers, their backend has been an area they’ve often looked for improvement in. 
The team came close to a well-built defensive core back in the season of 2016-17, with a minute-munching top pairing of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, alongside another underappreciated defenceman in Andrej Sekera. But with Sekera’s ACL and Achilles injuries, Klefbom’s shoulder injuries, and Larsson leaving in free agency, the team has faced some struggles in efficiently filling some of those holes. 
Ever since Klefbom’s shoulder surgery in 2020, Ken Holland has had trouble finding an adequate replacement. But that changed in February.
Over the past two weeks, a new pairing for the Edmonton Oilers has quickly shown signs of being one of the most well-rounded pairings that Edmonton has ever had in the past decade, and it isn’t Edmonton’s pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci. It’s the duo of newly acquired defenceman Mattias Ekholm and young Evan Bouchard.
So far, the team has out-scored opponents at a ratio of 11-2 at 5v5 with Ekholm and Bouchard on ice. That pairing additionally holds a superb 59 percent expected goal share, and a 61 percent high-danger chance share. Safe to say, the team dominates whenever that pairing steps on-ice.
Now, of course, the sample isn’t large, and no defensive pairing will ever sustain a goal differential of 85 percent. However, I believe there are numerous reasons why this pairing’s success isn’t going to stop soon.
This season, I’ve begun a manual tracking project for the Edmonton Oilers. I’ve tracked and noted down thousands of timestamps for thousands of different 5 on 5 events, such as zone entries, zone exits, puck retrievals, etc. It’s time-consuming work, but for me, this is extremely valuable data. This project has helped me have a better understanding of how defensive pairs can fit well together in a stylistic and statistical sense. 
Firstly, I believe a pairing should have at least one player that can defend the blueline well. On average, a controlled zone entry is two to three times more likely to result in a scoring chance than a dump-in, and the average shot off the rush is more dangerous than a shot off the forecheck or cycle. Consequently, it’s important to have defenders that can prevent controlled entries by gapping up at the blueline and limiting space for opposing players attempting to enter the zone.
Here’s how Edmonton’s defencemen rank at entry defence.
On the x-axis is controlled entry against%, which measures the rate at which opponents gain the zone with control past the defender (lower is better). The y-axis represents entry denial rate, which displays the percentage of entry attempts against that a defender completely denies. 
This has been the primary area of weakness for the Nurse-Ceci pairing, as they’re often getting burned off the rush. Ceci in particular has been extremely passive at defending the blueline.
On the other hand, Evan Bouchard has been Edmonton’s best defenceman at shutting down entries. On average, a defender will deny 10 percent of entry attempts, and allow a controlled entry 57 percent of the time. Bouchard is at a 16 percent denial rate, and allows opponents to carry the puck into the zone just 49 percent of the time. Ekholm is also above-average at entry denials, and even better at forcing dump-ins. He was solid in this area at Nashville as well, so this isn’t just a product of a small sample.
Here’s a video example of Bouchard and Ekholm denying consecutive entries against the Maple Leafs. They completely stall Toronto’s attempt to attack off the rush.

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With all of that said, it is statistically preferable to allow a dump-in over a carry-in, but your defenders need to be able to retrieve those dump-ins as well. 
While rush shots are the most dangerous kind on average, how valuable was the forced dump-in in a play where the opposition immediately recovered the puck back to establish possession? This season, Brett Kulak ranks well at defending entries, but he’s struggled with puck retrievals, and his on-ice results on the second-pairing have been subpar. Consequently, retrieving pucks is another important aspect of defensive play.
Here’s a look at Edmonton’s defencemen and how well they rank at defensive-zone puck retrievals under pressure.
Fun Fact: I actually had to move both the x-axis and the y-axis just to fit Ekholm on the chart.
One of Ekholm’s primary strengths is his ability to consistently retrieve opposition dump-ins under pressure and pass it with control. It was his forte back in Nashville as well. 
Per Corey Sznajder’s tracking, Ekholm’s defensive-zone retrievals per 60 in the past two seasons with Nashville ranks in the 96th percentile, meaning he was superior to 96 percent of the league’s defencemen at retrieving pucks. So again, I don’t think this is solely due to sample size, as this is an area he’s always shined at.
Now, make no mistake, Bouchard does well in this area as well, and he’s been flat-out superb at retrieving pucks since January. In the first three months of the season, Bouchard was at a slightly below-average 51% success rate with retrievals, but ever since, Bouchard is at an outstanding 68%.
So, we’ve established that forcing dump-ins and retrieving those dump-ins can lead to good on-ice results. However, that’s still not all; your defenders need to be able to move the puck in transition as well once they retrieve that puck. A zone exit can often single-handedly dictate which zone of the ice the puck will dominantly stay in for the rest of the shift.
A simple, uncontrolled dump-out is the safe play, and can temporarily relieve some pressure, but it often gives the opponent the puck right back, thereby granting them another chance to re-enter your defensive zone.
On the other hand, a controlled zone exit (i.e. carrying or passing the puck past the blue line with possession) has a higher possibility of keeping the puck away from the defensive zone for a longer period of time and additionally gives the team a chance to attack off the rush. Per Cam Charron, teams that exit the zone with possession will be the next team to enter the offensive zone 19 out of 20 times, in comparison to just 8 out of 20 times with an uncontrolled exit.
Here’s how Edmonton’s defencemen rank at zone exits.
On the x-axis is the controlled exit percentage, which measures the rate at which a player exits the zone with control. For example, if a player has ten zone exits, and six are with control, their controlled exit rate is 60 percent. The y-axis displays the total zone exits per hour.
This has been an area that Evan Bouchard has dominated for the entire season relative to the rest of the defensive core. Bouchard exits the zone at a significantly higher rate than any other Oiler defender and also exits at a higher efficiency. Ekholm ranks second on the team in both total and controlled zone exits per 60 as well. 
Additionally, Ekholm and Bouchard complement the forwards well in the offensive zone. While Nurse ranks first among defencemen in total controlled entries per 60, Bouchard ranks first in controlled entry percentage, while also leading the defencemen in primary shot assists per 60. In Nashville, playing with worse forwards than in Edmonton, Ekholm also ranked high in primary shot/chance assist rates relative to the rest of the league.
Let’s go through some more video. Here are a couple of examples of successful retrievals and zone exits from Ekholm and Bouchard.

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On March 6 against the Sabres, McDavid scored the game-winning goal, and it included a nice play by Foegele. However, it all began with a successful retrieval and zone exit by Ekholm. 

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Ekholm’s first goal as an Oiler had a couple of good plays involved. Nugent-Hopkins made a nice stretch pass, Yamamoto entered the zone with control, and Nugent-Hopkins also made a great play to keep the puck in, but the play all began from a loose puck retrieval and a controlled pass in the defensive zone by Ekholm. Bouchard also gets the primary assist.

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Here’s a nice dump-in retrieval by Bouchard, where he makes a nifty head-fake around the forechecker and successfully passes it to Draisaitl to exit the zone, and Edmonton then dumps the puck in. This zone entry all starts from Bouchard’s retrieval.

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Just a few seconds later, Toronto has another chance to move the puck up the ice and dumps it in, and again, Bouchard beats the opposing forechecker and successfully passes it to Ekholm, who then moves it out of the zone and Edmonton has an opportunity to attempt another zone entry. 

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Let’s take a look at a more offensive play from Edmonton’s most recent win against the Dallas Stars. Bouchard makes a nice outlet pass to Draisaitl, who enters the zone and fires an excellent pass to Nugent-Hopkins, who gets a good shot away. Draisaitl collects the rebound, and Edmonton starts a cycle. Ekholm makes a nice pinch to help keep the puck in, and Bouchard fires a beautiful slap pass to Nugent-Hopkins in the slot, and he makes an excellent cross-slot pass to Foegele who buries it. Again, a tape-to-tape outlet pass is the origin of the play.

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In Edmonton’s victory against the league-best Boston Bruins, Ekholm, and Bouchard were superb again. Here’s a nice play where Bouchard makes a good hit to separate the Boston forward from the puck, which ends Boston’s rush attempt, and the Oilers temporarily retreat back into their own zone. While absorbing a hit, Ekholm passes the puck to Bouchard, who carries it out of the zone under pressure and into the offensive zone, and the Oilers get a shot away. Good communication, and a good transitional play.
Some of these plays aren’t that impressive, and many will seldom show up on highlight reels, but it takes skill to consistently beat forecheckers to retrieve dump-ins, and then efficiently exit the zone. Ekholm and Bouchard accomplish this at a far superior rate than any other Oilers pair, leading to excellent possession results.
Prior to the arrival of Ekholm, I suggested pairing Bouchard with Nurse. Nurse retrieves pucks at high efficiency, but struggles with defending entries. This is where Bouchard would help; Bouchard is the guy forcing denying entries and forcing dump-ins, Nurse retrieves those dump-ins, Bouchard exits the zone. Nurse is also Edmonton’s best defenceman at zone entry volume, so in my opinion, this is a solid stylistic fit.
However, what makes Ekholm – Bouchard even better is that Ekholm retrieves dump-ins at a higher rate than Nurse, and he can defend entries.
I think Ekholm fits best with a strong transitional puck-mover. Looking back up at the zone exit chart, his controlled exit% is above average, but not great. Now, that doesn’t matter too much since Ekholm’s controlled exit volume and exit success rate are high, so don’t get me wrong, he’s still a strong outlet passer. But in my opinion, I think Ekholm works best when he further compliments a strong puck-mover in transition.
On the other hand, I believe Bouchard works best with a smart in-zone defensive player that can retrieve dump-ins. Bouchard is also fairly good in this area (especially since January), but he struggled in this facet in 21-22 and was OK in the first three months of this season. Bouchard’s ability with zone exits is maximized when his partner is the go-to guy retrieving pucks for him. This is why his on-ice results were great with Broberg, who also excels at retrieving dump-ins. Ekholm can perform even better in this facet than Broberg and in a more difficult top-four role. Not to mention, a calm presence like Ekholm can also cover up for Bouchard’s occasional defensive slips.
While both players complement each in these ways, this pairing is also extremely versatile in the sense that both of them can defend entries, retrieve pucks, and exit the zone at good rates. This is an exceedingly efficient pairing.
This article should display how underrated Evan Bouchard’s performance has been this season. In November, I wrote an article about how unlucky Bouchard was to start the year. In the calendar year of 2023, he ranks first among all Edmonton players in 5v5 goal differential, and ninth among all NHL defencemen with a minimum of 300 TOI. Ekholm has helped elevate Bouchard’s game, but Bouchard is a very strong defenceman in his own right. 
Against the Stars, Ekholm played over 22 minutes, while Bouchard was at 21 minutes. On the other hand, Edmonton’s projected top pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci both played around 18 minutes. When asked about this, coach Jay Woodcroft summed it up nicely. “People who earn the ice time get it.” 
The acquisition of Mattias Ekholm has been huge for this team, and he’s formed Edmonton’s best two-way defensive pairing with Evan Bouchard. This is a duo that could have a major impact on Edmonton’s potential playoff success.
*All Oilers microstats are tracked by me, all of Ekholm’s microstats from Nashville are tracked by Corey Sznajder, all other stats via Natural Stat Trick
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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