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What the Oilers should learn from the 2024 Playoffs, and where they must improve moving forward

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Photo credit:© Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
14 days ago
It was a fun ride for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2023-24 NHL season.
They began the season with a dreadful 2-9-1 record, the worst start in franchise history. But, following a coaching change on November 12, they would go on to qualify for the playoffs with a 46-18-5 record under head coach Kris Knoblauch.
The team eventually reached the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost the first three games to the Florida Panthers. But once again, they defied all odds and became the first team in 78 years to force a Game 7 in the cup finals after being down 0-3, with three straight wins from Games 3 through 6.
Unfortunately, they would lose 2-1 in Game 7. It is disappointing to see the team come so close to the Stanley Cup, just to lose by a single one-goal game. 
But if there is one thing this season has taught us about the Edmonton Oilers, it’s that you can never count out them out.
Free agency day will be on Monday, July 1, exactly one week following Game 7 of the cup finals. As the team begins to make moves in the off-season, this year’s schedule was much longer, meaning a much tighter gap between the finals and free agency.
With just seven forwards and five defencemen under contract for 2024-25, and multiple pending UFAs/RFAs, there are plenty of things for Edmonton’s management to do this off-season in a limited amount of time, and for now, they’ll do it without a general manager in place. The Oilers have officially parted ways with Ken Holland, and CEO of hockey operations, Jeff Jackson, will oversee the team’s moves for now.
Ultimately, these playoffs demonstrate just how close this team is to winning it all, and if McDavid and Draisaitl were 100% healthy, they would have likely won it all. But, they also showcased three key weaknesses that Edmonton’s new management should address. The team must do everything they can to win it all in 2024-25, which will be Edmonton’s final season with McDavid and Draisaitl making $21M.
Without further ado, here is what Edmonton can learn from the 2024 playoffs, and where they must improve.
*All stats via Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

It’s pretty difficult to win the Stanley Cup with only one good defensive pair

Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard had an outstanding postseason. With that duo on ice at 5v5, the Oilers out-scored opponents 22 to 12, equating to a superb 65 percent goal differential. They also held a 61 percent expected goal differential, with a total net rating of +34 in high-danger chances. 
Only Brian Leetch and Paul Coffey have produced more in a single postseason appearance than Bouchard did in the 2024 playoffs, with 32 points in 23 games. Meanwhile, Ekholm led the Oilers in short-handed TOI, significantly contributing to the best penalty-kill in the playoffs. 
With Bouchard and Ekholm’s performance together as a 5v5 pairing, alongside Bouchard’s power-play production and Ekholm’s work on the penalty kill, the Oilers truly had two legitimate top-pairing defencemen in this run. It’s perhaps the greatest difference between the current Oilers roster and less successful rosters of past years.
On the other hand, the team was out-scored 22 to 35 at 5v5 without Ekholm and Bouchard on-ice, holding a dreadful 40 percent expected goal differential.
Here is a look at the total results of Edmonton’s defensive pairs in the 2024 playoffs:
Ultimately, it’s extremely impressive how far Edmonton reached despite such poor play from their bottom two pairings, specifically the second pair. It’s a testament to just how good the Ekholm and Bouchard duo were, as Edmonton’s bottom pairs probably cost them at least a few games.
In a tight cap world, the best teams in the NHL are those with numerous players consistently playing at or above their cap-hit – when you’re paying $9.25M to a defenceman who was out-scored at a ratio of 2:1 on the second-pair, it’s safe to say it’s a pretty big anchor for your team. Heading into 2023-24, arguably the most significant area of improvement is finding a defensive partner for Darnell Nurse.
In these past playoffs, the Oilers deployed four different defencemen with Nurse on the second pair: Cody Ceci, Vincent Desharnais, Philip Broberg, and Brett Kulak. Here is a look at how each pair ranked:
Nurse and Ceci was Edmonton’s most commonly played second-pair, and they were an utter disaster. They were out-scored 5 to 12 and held an abysmal 35 percent expected goal differential. Their performance was a big reason why Edmonton nearly lost the first three games of the second round to Vancouver, as the Oilers would go on to win 3 of 4 games against the Canucks once Nurse and Ceci were separated.
Nurse and Desharnais held some decent results together in terms of driving expected goals. However, they were out-scored 2 to 7, and I would strongly argue that the duo allowed plenty of high-danger rush chances that public xG models often underrate (especially in smaller samples).
Nurse and Kulak may have been Edmonton’s best second pair. Kulak is naturally a left defenceman, but following a loss to the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of the WCF, Kris Knoblauch and Paul Coffey decided to try Kulak on his off-side alongside Nurse. While the pair was out-scored 1 to 3, they finally controlled shots, expected goals, and high-danger chances, unlike the other defensive pairs. 
Unfortunately, per Rob Brown on 630 CHED, Kulak was reportedly not as comfortable playing on his off-side. This is likely why Edmonton split Nurse and Kulak heading into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, despite winning three straight games in the WCF with that pairing.
As for Nurse and Broberg, they had interesting results. Philip Broberg is also a natural LD, but the coaching staff paired him at 2RD with Nurse in Games 3 through 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals due to a lack of options.
On the bright side, Edmonton finally out-scored the opposition with the second-pair on-ice, as Nurse and Broberg held a +2 goal differential (4 goals for, 2 against).
Unfortunately, Florida heavily out-chanced them. With Nurse and Broberg on-ice at 5v5, the Panthers held a 47 to 28 edge in scoring chances and an 18 to 9 edge in high-danger chances, a perfect 2:1 ratio. The pair’s goal differential was driven by a highly unsustainable 17 percent shooting percentage and 95 percent save percentage – don’t expect that to last. The pair struggled overall and had a lot of puck luck go their way.
With everything in mind, there is a powerful argument that finding a top-four right-defensive partner for Nurse should be at the top of Jeff Jackson’s to-do list. There are multiple trade and free agency RHD options, highlighted by players such as Alexandre Carrier and John Marino. Keeping Ekholm/Bouchard together as the top-pair and finding a 2RD for Nurse seems like the most obvious option right now for Edmonton’s defensive core.
That being said, could Philip Broberg still be an option for Edmonton at 2RD?
Broberg hardly played regular minutes on his off-side as frequently in Bakersfield. The vast majority of Broberg’s experience on the right side came in his time in Sweden, when he played on the Skellefteå AIK of the Swedish Hockey League. 
A few years back, a published study discovered that defencemen are far less effective at defensive zone exits when playing on their off-side (linked here). Last summer, I went back and watched a couple of games of Broberg at LD and RD in the SHL, and manually tracked his exit results at LD and RD. Here are the results:
As seen above, Broberg was much worse at exiting the zone on the right side in comparison to the left. Broberg’s overall 5v5 goal differential improved by a solid 8 percent when playing on his natural side.
His breakout struggles on his off-side is a critical reason why Florida’s forecheck decimated the Nurse and Broberg pair. Nurse already has troubles with breakout passing, and while Broberg is a fantastic skater, he struggles to move the puck out of the zone under forecheck pressure on the right side. If it weren’t for Stuart Skinner’s strong play in the final four games of the cup finals, that pair would have leaked a lot more goals.
If the Oilers are keen on trying Nurse and Broberg again, at the very least, they should begin the season with Broberg at 3RD. Get him adjusted to playing on the NHL level on his off-side, and if he produces strong results, you can bump him up alongside Nurse. If the Oilers prefer this option, they should still acquire a relatively cheap 2RD (e.g. Carrier) if Broberg struggles next to Nurse, which is not that unlikely. 
There is a third option as well. Last summer, when Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson were still on the coaching staff, Daniel Nugent-Bowman of The Athletic reported that Mark Stuart travelled to Sweden to work with Broberg and show him clips of his play on his off-side (linked here). DNB reports that Edmonton initially planned to pair Broberg on his off-side with Ekholm, while Nurse would play with Bouchard to start the season.
Unfortunately, those plans were ruined when Ekholm was injured in preseason. The Oilers never had the opportunity to try those pairs. Eventually, Woodcroft and Manson would be fired following Edmonton’s 3-9-1 start, and Edmonton’s new coaching staff ran Ekholm and Bouchard together for the rest of the season.
Heading into 2024-25, I wonder if Edmonton’s coaches will consider exploring this option. While I am not an avid fan of splitting up one of the best defensive pairings in the entire league, it could at least be worth a shot.
There is even a fourth option of trying Broberg and Bouchard as a pair while Ekholm plays on his off-side beside Nurse. I highly doubt Edmonton begins the season with these pairs, but it is an alternative worth considering.
With a variety of different options, I’m fascinated to see what the management and coaching staff eventually does.

Getting Leon Draisaitl a top-six winger is crucial

It was reported that Leon Draisaitl suffered rib and wrist injuries in the playoffs, which likely occurred in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks. The timing would make sense, as Draisaitl led the playoffs in points through the first two rounds, but had two goals and five assists in 13 WCF/SCF games, far from his lofty standards.
As such, Draisaitl struggled at 2C in the final two rounds. The second line was out-scored 13 to 17 in the playoffs overall. However, three key pieces of context must be kept in mind.
Firstly, as mentioned before, Draisaitl played through two separate injuries, which obviously had an impact on his play, especially his shot. When healthy in the regular season, without McDavid on the ice, Draisaitl held an exceptional 58 percent goal differential at 5v5. For reference, Nathan MacKinnon, who won the Hart this season, produced a 55 percent goal differential without Mikko Rantanen.
Secondly, it should be noted that Ekholm and Bouchard played much more with the McDavid line than with Draisaitl’s line. McDavid played 81% of his 5v5 TOI with Ekholm and/or Bouchard, while Draisaitl played 71% of his TOI with one of Nurse or Ceci, who struggled heavily, as mentioned earlier.
With Ceci, Draisaitl produced a horrific 29 percent goal differential. Away from Ceci, Draisaitl instantly improved to 62 percent. If Edmonton improves their bottom-two defensive pairings, the second line will immediately improve by default.
Finally, Draisaitl’s linemate quality must be mentioned. Draisaitl’s most common winger in the regular season was career third-liner Warren Foegele. In the playoffs, McDavid spent most of his time with Edmonton’s best wingers in Hyman and RNH, while out of Draisaitl’s regular linemates, the best player may have been Dylan Holloway – he has nine career NHL goals.
“You look at Leon’s linemates throughout the season – they’re good players – but they’re not the same calibre as some other superstars get to play with,” said Kris Knoblauch.
If Draisaitl can produce a 58 percent goal differential next to Warren Foegele, imagine what he could accomplish next to a legitimate top-six winger with scoring talent.
The Oilers are expected to make some moves to clear cap space in the coming days, one of which will likely include a Jack Campbell trade/buyout. Hopefully, they use some of that cap space to acquire a second-line winger for Draisaitl. One option could be Jake Debrusk, who the Oilers may potentially have interest in per Elliotte Friedman on OilersNow.

Edmonton’s depth players played a key role on the PK – but the bottom-six at 5v5 still needs to improve

Edmonton’s penalty-kill obviously had a massive impact on their deep playoff run, as they operated at a league-leading penalty-kill percentage of 94 percent.
Multiple of Edmonton’s depth forwards played key roles, notably Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown. With those two on-ice, Edmonton’s penalty-kill managed to out-score the opposition 3 to 1, which is an incredible feat. They had solid playoff runs, and I would strongly consider re-signing them for fourth-line roles in 2024-25.
But strictly at 5v5? Edmonton’s overall bottom-six still has much more room to improve.
For reference, here is how every cup-winning team since 2016 has ranked without their top-two centers:
Every cup-winning bottom-six in recent history has produced a goal differential of at least 51 percent or higher; some have even surpassed 60 percent. Meanwhile, the Oilers were below 42 percent in three of Edmonton’s final four years with Ken Holland.
Particularly, they need to find more skilled bottom-six players with finishing talent. Ryan McLeod spent a significant amount of time at 3C in these playoffs, but the Oilers were out-scored 2 to 11 with McLeod on-ice (and both McDavid and Draisaitl off-ice). In those minutes, they generated 79 scoring chances, and 9 expected goals, but just 2 actual goals.
Edmonton’s bottom-six has proven to be able to drive possession, but they need more shooting talent. This is an underrated area for improvement that I hope Edmonton’s management decides to address.

Final Thoughts – this team will be back with the right moves

Coming back from a 2-9-1 start to make the playoffs and then coming back from a 3-0 series deficit in the Stanley Cup Finals to tie the series is a great story and a very impressive feat. It was a thrilling and entertaining season all year long, with plenty of ups and downs.
But, the Oilers certainly felt the effects of consistently starting late.
Ultimately, Edmonton played well in their final four games against Florida. They won games four through six, and generated plenty of chances in game seven. But, winning four straight in the cup finals is an incredibly difficult task, and putting themselves in such a big hole at the start of the series eventually cost Edmonton.
It can be argued that their 2-9-1 start also hurt them in the end. That dreadful start caused them to lose home-ice advantage to key teams, including Florida. The Oilers out-scored Florida 16 to 6 in Edmonton, but scored just 2 5v5 goals in Florida. If Game 7 was in Rogers Place, and Edmonton had last change, this could be an entirely different story.
Edmonton has to learn a lesson, and start on time next year.
That said, the fact that the Oilers reached this far despite multiple roster flaws is extremely impressive. They spent $5M on a third-string goalie, their $9.25M defencemen went -12 on the second-pair, they had no true second-line winger, and it was reported that both McDavid and Draisaitl played through key injuries. Still, they were just a single one-goal game away from lifting the cup; it’s a testament to just how good their top players and their special teams were.
2RD, 2RW, and 5v5 bottom-six finishing are Edmonton’s greatest areas for improvement. If the management makes the right moves this off-season, and addresses these key holes, there is a very strong chance that the Edmonton Oilers will be back in the 2025 Stanley Cup Finals.
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