What are Edmonton’s ideal defensive pair combinations?

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
With a win against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday night, the Edmonton Oilers have begun the season on a positive note.
There are several things to be pleased about regarding that game. Connor McDavid had four points including a hat-trick, Leon Draisaitl had three points, Campbell was rock-solid for the second half of the game, and the special teams were excellent (as usual).
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect night, as their 5v5 play certainly needs to be cleaned up. Vancouver finished the game with the higher 5v5 goal and expected goal differential, primarily due to Edmonton’s poor defensive play in the first two periods.
Arguably the biggest question mark heading into this season was if Edmonton could reduce their total number of goals against. So, ideally, what should the defensive pairs look like?
*All microstats via Corey Sznajder, all other stats via EvolvingHockey, PuckIQ, and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

Who should Nurse play with on the top-pair?

Cody Ceci

Nurse’s current partner is Cody Ceci, and the duo has been a consistent pair since the arrival of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson. They held a 55% expected goal differential together last season, and the team out-scored opponents 25-22 with the pair on ice. This is more impressive when considering their deployment last season.
Under the new coaching staff, Nurse played 51.1% of his total time-on-ice against elite competition, while Ceci played 45.9%; put differently, Nurse was playing over half of his TOI against each team’s top forwards and defencemen on a consistent basis, while Ceci nearly hit the 50% mark as well. In comparison, most top-pairing defencemen like Makar, Hedman, Slavin, etc, see their TOI% range around ~35-40%.
Nurse’s major weakness is his play in his own zone, as he’s prone to simple, but costly errors, and his overall defensive awareness needs improvement. In-zone defence is an area that Ceci is quite good in, making him a very effective partner for Nurse. Ceci is also above-average at zone exits, while Nurse is excellent at entries, meaning both complement each other very nicely. The only issue with the pair is that neither of them are spectacular entry defenders, meaning they could be exposed off the rush against some of the league’s top transition teams. 
Nevertheless, as seen by their results under harsh deployment, the pros significantly outweigh the cons.

Evan Bouchard

Last season, Nurse – Bouchard’s results were actually quite good. Due to a low on-ice shooting percentage, their goal differential was subpar due to some poor on-ice luck, but the team out-shot and out-chanced opposition at a high rate with those two.
Nurse – Bouchard was especially good at generating high-danger chances, and the play-style chart above clearly reflects why. Both Nurse and Bouchard are excellent in transition and dangerous off the rush, while Bouchard is superb at supporting the forwards in the offensive zone.
The primary downside to this pairing is their defence. Bouchard is actually quite efficient at denying the zone; he allowed controlled entries against at a lower rate than every defenceman aside from Kulak last season. However, Bouchard still struggles with defending rush chances, and is very poor at preventing quality chances in the slot area. It’s safe to say that this pairing would be a very high-event one, and in general, Bouchard currently doesn’t seem equipped to handle top-pair minutes.
Their xG% results still indicate that it isn’t an awful idea to pair them, and Bouchard is expected to further improve this season, but Ceci seems like the better option.

Tyson Barrie

There’s one decent argument for why Barrie could play with Nurse.
Barrie’s poor defensive results suggest that he can’t perform well in a top-four role, while he’s struggled on the third-pair alongside every defenceman not named Kulak (who will play 2LD). 
As a solution, one could argue that “stapling” Barrie to Nurse and McDavid could be an option that could cover up and somewhat mask some of his 5v5 issues. Meanwhile, Kulak could form a solid second pair with one of Ceci or Bouchard, while the other RD drives a strong third pairing. 
That’s about the only argument I can think of, and it still isn’t a great one, because they’d still have major defensive issues (as they did in 2020-21). Ceci, or even Bouchard, remains the more logical option in my mind.

Who should Kulak play with on the second pair?

Cody Ceci

Kulak and Ceci have not played much together. However, several things suggest that they could be a reliable defensive pairing.
Kulak is Edmonton’s best entry defender, while Ceci is Edmonton’s best in-zone defender. When protecting a lead late in the game and/or during DZ faceoffs, it could be a fine idea to play Kulak-Ceci together, or they could be deployed as a “shutdown” pair. 
The downside to this is that the top pair would be much worse defensively, as Nurse would be paired with Bouchard or Barrie.

Evan Bouchard

Kulak – Bouchard have not spent significant time together either, but they do possess the potential to form a strong pairing.
Kulak isn’t strong enough in his own end to cover up Bouchard’s DZ weaknesses, but aside from that, they seem to complement each other well. Both excel at preventing controlled entries and exiting the zone, and Kulak’s defensive abilities would allow Bouchard to take more offensive risks and display more of his offensive skills.

Tyson Barrie

Kulak’s primary partner in Edmonton has been Tyson Barrie.
Last season, their results were excellent. They posted a 70% goal differential, and 56% expected goal differential. Barrie had never posted positive defensive results with any other defenceman in the past four years aside from Kulak; with Kulak, Barrie was on-ice for 1.7 goals against per 60. Without Kulak, Barrie’s GA/60 jumped up to 2.8.
With that in mind, there are some things to note. Firstly, their sample size last season was 177 TOI, which is a fairly low. Furthermore, the pair of Kulak – Barrie was exceedingly sheltered, playing just 21% of their TOI against top opposition. As mentioned earlier, there was a lot of reliance on Nurse-Ceci in regards to deployment.
On the current roster, Kulak is a lock to play 2LD, meaning that Barrie would be 2RD if he was paired alongside him. Note that no Oilers defenceman has been on-ice for more goals and shots against than Barrie when playing against elite competition, meaning that it just isn’t a wise idea to deploy Barrie in the top-four in the long term. On opening night, the pair of Kulak – Barrie were on-ice for 11 shots against, and not a single shot for, as they were Edmonton’s weakest pair.
Edmonton’s best option is likely to play Kulak and Bouchard together.

The third-pairing

Edmonton’s candidates to play 3LD include Ryan Murray, Phillip Broberg, and Markus Niemeläinen.
Prior to the season, Broberg seemed like a lock to play as Edmonton’s 3LD. During the summer, Ken Holland stated that Broberg would have to “play his way off the team.”
Murray was signed to a league-minimum contract by the Oilers on September 2nd and was referred to as “Broberg insurance” in this article. As for Niemeläinen, the former 2016 draft pick played 20 games for the team in 2021-22. 
On opening night, Murray was the 3LD playing alongside Bouchard, while Broberg was recalled to Edmonton’s roster on Friday after being sent down on Monday. Niemeläinen currently remains with Bakersfield’s roster.
So, what should the third-pairing look like?
The best choice for the 3RD spot seems like Barrie, which results in a top-four consisting of Nurse, Ceci, Kulak, and Bouchard. However, that does result in a Murray – Barrie pair, which may not be a spectacular idea. 
In the past two seasons, Murray has allowed scoring chances off the entry at a higher rate than every Oilers defencemen aside from Barrie; although they would be sheltered in a third-pairing role, that duo could be a disaster at defending the rush. Of course, you could still give that pair a try, but that’s something worth noting.
A Broberg – Barrie duo would be unideal for Broberg’s development. It just seems like a poor stylistic pair, and even if they’re sheltered, it’s likely an unwise idea to pair a rookie defenceman with one of the team’s worst defensive players. 
As for Niemeläinen, his entry defence metrics were excellent in a limited sample last season. He uses his size, physicality, and aggressiveness to consistently step up the blueline and deny opposing entries. He will likely obtain some chances in the NHL at some point this season, and perhaps he could be a decent fit with Barrie.
The best option would be to rotate each of the 3 LDs and see what they offer, but considering that Broberg has the best upside, alongside a high draft pedigree, I feel he should obtain the most opportunity (alongside the highest expectations).
This is a fascinating situation as it’s a bit difficult to make three reliable defensive pairs. The most ideal role for Barrie to play without negatively impacting the team at 5v5 is at 3RD with Kulak, but due to Edmonton’s LD situation, Kulak has to be 2LD. As stated previously, Kulak – Barrie as a second-pair would be unpreferable as history shows that Barrie can’t handle a top-four role without hampering the team defensively.
A breakout season from Broberg, alongside improvement from Bouchard, would be a solution. If Broberg can develop into a decent 2LD near the end of the season, it goes without saying that it would significantly benefit the Oilers.
This would allow Barrie to play 3RD with Kulak. Broberg could form a strong second pair with Ceci, while defensive improvement from Bouchard could make a top-pairing of Nurse-Bouchard much more viable. 
Of course, that’s something that may potentially occur near the middle/end of the season. For now, Edmonton should switch Barrie and Bouchard, and run something like this for the time being:
  1. Nurse-Ceci
  2. Kulak-Bouchard
  3. Murray/Niemelainen-Barrie
I don’t have much confidence in Murray-Barrie and their ability to defend the rush, but it’s worth trying out, and perhaps they perform well in a sheltered role. As an alternative, perhaps Niemelainen’s abilities at effectively defending the blueline make him a decent partner for Barrie.
However, Broberg is in his DY+4 season, and should be a full-time player in the NHL. With Broberg as a regular NHL player, a group of 6D could look something like this:
  1. Nurse-Bouchard
  2. Kulak-Barrie
  3. Broberg-Ceci
Currently, this would be the best option for Broberg’s development, and in a perfect world, Broberg can prove he can play 2LD minutes by the end of the season, allowing Kulak-Barrie to thrive in sheltered third-pairing minutes as they did last season. Since Ceci has proven that he can handle more minutes, you could always double-shift him by switching Bouchard or Barrie for Ceci during DZ faceoffs, while protecting leads, and in other difficult defensive scenarios.
Edmonton has a variety of different options with the current defensive core. What are your thoughts on the defensive pairs? How would you arrange them?
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out our YouTube Channel!

Failed to load video.

Check out these posts...