Why the Oilers cannot stick with the Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci pairing for next season

Photo credit:© Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
10 months ago
The state of an NHL team’s top-four defensive core is often critical to their success. Possessing two defensive pairs that can complement and elevate a team’s top forwards, while also consistently and effectively defending against the opposition’s best, goes a long way.  
On one hand for the Edmonton Oilers, the defensive duo of Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm played exceptionally well since Ekholm’s arrival in Edmonton, with the team consistently outplaying the opposing teams with that pair on-ice. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Edmonton’s other top-four pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci.
Following Edmonton’s playoff exit against the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round, there’s plenty of blame to go around with several reasons for their loss. I believe the performance of the Nurse – Ceci pairing is one of them. Let’s dive into the critical flaws of this duo, and why Edmonton cannot run with the same pairing for the third straight playoffs in a row.

The disappointing on-ice results

Simply put, to win hockey games, you need to score more goals than your opponent. When your top defensive pairing is consistently out-scored, you’ll have a difficult time achieving major success.
Throughout the entire regular season, the Oilers deployed Nurse and Ceci as their top-pairing, consistently granting them top minutes against opposing top lines. With that duo on the ice, the Oilers were out-scored 46 to 48 at 5v5. In the playoffs, it was Ekholm and Bouchard who led the team in 5v5 TOI per game, but the Nurse – Ceci pair was still out-scored 6 to 8.
It’s worse if you isolate the Vegas series, in which they were on the ice for just a single 5v5 goal and six against. In a series where the Golden Knights emerged victorious with a 15 to 9 edge in 5v5 goals, the Oilers actually out-scored Vegas when the Nurse – Ceci pairing was not on-ice.
One key matchup significantly cost the Oilers in this series; the Jack Eichel line. With Eichel off-ice, Edmonton was ahead 8 to 7 in 5v5 goals, but Eichel’s line out-scored the Oilers at a huge ratio of 8 to 1. Edmonton’s failure to contain Eichel was a major reason for their downfall. 
In that series, no Oilers forward or defenceman played more against Eichel than Ceci, who was on-ice for 5 of the Eichel line’s 8 goals (the only reason why Nurse was slightly behind in TOI against Eichel was due to his suspension for Game 5). When Eichel was on-ice against the Nurse – Ceci pair, 5v5 shot attempts were 16 to 34 and scoring chances were 7 to 17, both categories heavily in favour of Vegas. This isn’t just bad luck; the pair has been consistently out-shot and out-chanced. It’s clear Jay Woodcroft wanted this pairing to be matched against Eichel, and it’s safe to say it blew up in Edmonton’s face. 
Furthermore, the duo has been a major drag on both McDavid and Draisaitl’s numbers.
Now, some may argue that McDavid and Draisaitl spend more time against top competition with Nurse/Ceci, and when they’re playing with other pairs, they don’t play as much against elites, so it’s an unfair comparison. This is a good point, but according to PuckIQ (which splits quality of competition into three tiers: elite, middle and gritensity), Nurse/Ceci’s worst results strangely come against middle QoC (quality of competition).
I’m not sure what the exact reason for this is, but they still don’t perform that well against elites relative to the rest of the team, and they struggled against top lines in the playoffs. Additionally, QoC alone isn’t enough to explain that significant of a difference in these stats. Considering that McDavid and Draisaitl’s results improve with the Ekholm/Bouchard pairing, I think this is a reasonable argument against Nurse/Ceci.

Diving into the microstats and videotape

We’ve answered the question as to how they’ve negatively affected the team, but it’s important to also ask why they’ve struggled. What exactly is this pair doing wrong? Here, I’ll be using statistics from my manual tracking project for the Oilers.
Dynamic players that excel off the rush like McDavid and Draisaitl heavily benefit from playing alongside efficient breakout passers that can consistently spring them in transition. I also think McDavid and Draisaitl work well with defencemen that can defend the rush and shut down zone entries, giving them a chance to attack the other way. Unfortunately, these are not facets where Nurse and Ceci perform particularly well.
First, let’s begin with defensive zone breakouts. Now, Nurse’s skating abilities are his greatest asset, and he excels at carrying the puck out of the defensive zone. He ranked second in both the regular season and playoffs in carry-outs per 60 on the Oilers. This is a strength for him, but what about passing the puck out of the DZ under forecheck pressure?
(Side note: Evan Bouchard’s breakout skills are just fantastic)
Nurse is not as effective at outlet passes. Among Edmonton’s defencemen in the regular season, he ranked second last in pass-outs per 60, only ahead of Broberg. He saw a slight improvement in the playoffs but remained below the team average regardless. Meanwhile, Ceci was somewhat of the opposite, as he was OK at pass-outs in the regular season, and then substantially declined in the playoffs.
Another aspect used to evaluate DZ puck-moving is how often a player turns the puck over or ices the puck, which is also important. In the playoffs, Edmonton’s defencemen made a turnover or icing 15 percent of the time when they touched the puck in the defensive zone under some degree of pressure. 21 percent of Ceci’s puck touches led to a turnover or icing, while Nurse was at 17 percent. Not good. (In the regular season, I didn’t track all turnovers; instead, I tracked failed zone exits, but Ceci and especially Nurse were below the team average in this category as well). 
Controlled zone exits are quite important on both the offensive and defensive spectrum, as an efficient breakout pass gets you away from the DZ and towards an opportunity to score. Turning it over not only gives the opposition a quick chance to strike on the forecheck, but it’s a missed opportunity to move the puck up the ice to create offence. Ceci is quite subpar here, and while Nurse is not awful by any means, he could be much better.
Nextly, let’s move on to the rush defence. The average shot off the rush is more dangerous than a shot off the forecheck or cycle, and rush shots begin with controlled offensive zone entries. Typically, a controlled entry is about two or three times more likely to result in a scoring chance as opposed to a dump-in. Consequently, rush defence is important, and the best rush defenders are those who allow controlled zone entries at low rates.
On average, when an opposing player targets a defenceman at the blueline, they enter with control 56-58 percent of the time. When a player targets Ceci, they enter with control 64 percent of the time, while Nurse is at 61 percent. In the playoffs, Nurse was at 64 percent, Ceci was at 62 percent. For comparison, Bouchard was at a considerably superior 50 percent in the regular season and playoffs, while Ekholm was at 51 percent.
Both Nurse and Ceci have issues with gap control and defending 1v1. Relative to other defenders, they’re mediocre at defending the blueline, and it’s led to plenty of rush chances against. In the playoffs on average, Edmonton’s defencemen allowed 2.4 controlled entries leading to scoring chances per 60. Nurse was at 3.6, and Ceci is at 3.0.
Ceci isn’t targeted as often as Nurse is, so he’s a bit better, but considering his workload, 25 percent of Ceci’s controlled entries against led to a chance, compared to 21 percent for Nurse. Yet again, they’re considerably below the team average in both facets. 
Let’s go through some video. In this first clip, Vegas scores their first rush goal of the series against the Nurse-Ceci pair. It’s not a great backcheck by Draisaitl, but Nurse clearly overcommits.

Failed to load video.

In this second clip, Ceci loses his footing in the NZ, and Stephenson gets a breakaway. After Skinner’s save, Vegas’ pass attempt leaves the zone, but Vegas quickly regroups and re-enters past Ceci, generating another chance.

Failed to load video.

Here, Nurse and Ceci regroup in their own zone, attempting to start a breakout, but Nurse botches his outlet pass. This causes Vegas to immediately enter the zone past Nurse and Ceci, and generate a quality transitional chance.

Failed to load video.

In this fourth clip below, I really dislike RNH’s decisions here, as he drops too low into the slot and fails to block the pass. But the play begins with a controlled entry against Nurse, and he then fails to cover Marchessault in the slot, who scores.

Failed to load video.

Of course, not all of these examples can be solely blamed on Nurse and Ceci, as hockey is a team sport with 5 different skaters on the ice. However, it’s not a coincidence that many of the quality chances that Edmonton allows come with this pairing on the ice. There’s plenty more video examples in both the LA and Vegas series that I could include, but I think you get the point. 
Another aspect of both breakouts and entry defence is opposition dump-in retrievals. While it’s more preferential for a defencemen to allow a dump-in over a carry-in, you must also be able to retrieve that dump-in against an opposition forechecker looking to recover it back. Successfully retrieving opposition dump-ins on a consistent basis also gives you more opportunities to break the puck out. 
On the bright side, Nurse is solid in this area, and he gets the job done. On the other hand, the drop-off from the rest of Edmonton’s defencemen and Ceci is enormous. In the playoffs, when Ceci went back to retrieve an opposition dump-in, he was beaten to the puck by an opposition forechecker 13 out of 30 times, and in the 13 times he did win the race to the dump-in, he committed a turnover 6 times. Huge area of weakness for him.
All-in-all, it’s clear that this is a very flawed defensive pairing. Some will again point out their level of QoC, which is a valid point, but I have some issues with that argument.
Firstly, not all of these stats are heavily influenced by QoC. In the research I’ve done, the factor that zone entry defence is most reliant on is a team’s system, so here, it’s fair to compare Edmonton’s defencemen to one another. Additionally, there’s not a major statistical correlation between zone exits and QoC. However, I do believe dump-in retrievals are affected by QoC difficulty quite a bit (which explains why Desharnais is at the top of the list), and so are rush chances against.
Ceci’s struggles in these areas indicate that he just isn’t capable of this role, and I don’t think it’s entirely his fault. He simply isn’t a strong stylistic fit for Nurse, and on a true contender, his skillset is much more suited to a third-pairing role. I don’t hate Ceci as an individual player, I just heavily dislike him as a 1RD.
That said, Nurse is paid $9.25M. Simply put, this is the role he signed up for, and at age 28 with nearly 600 NHL games under his belt, he should be able to consistently perform well in this role. If you’re getting paid more than Leon Draisaitl, you should be able to drive and carry a strong top-four pairing.
Winning a Stanley Cup isn’t easy. If you want to significantly increase your chances, you need to find two competent top-four pairings that can perform well in a difficult environment against opposing top players. Considering that Bouchard and Ekholm have ranked quite well in most of these facets in their roles, I don’t think this is a valid excuse for Nurse’s play.

The bottom line

With the bottom six taking a huge step this season, I believe the next step for Edmonton is to maximize McDavid and Draisaitl’s 5v5 play. Their 5v5 goal differentials are positive, but I believe they can be even better. I don’t think the majority of the blame falls on them, as I believe they need better finishing from their wingers (which is an article for another time), and they also require Nurse’s pair to perform much better. Simply put, it’s a challenge to win when a team is paying that much to a pairing that makes a negative on-ice impact.
Fortunately, Nurse’s on-ice metrics do significantly improve away from Ceci, but it’s worth mentioning that he typically obtained several OZ shift starts with McDavid, Draisaitl and one of Bouchard or Barrie (prior to the trade of course) when the team needed a goal, so some of those offensive numbers away from Ceci may be a bit inflated. Not to mention, based on the individual microstats and video examples above, it’s fair to attribute a sizeable portion of blame for the pair’s lack of success to Nurse. To clarify, I still think Nurse is a very good player, and Ceci’s various flaws aren’t helping, but Nurse has struggled in some key areas.
The solution is easier said than done: Nurse simply has to play better. With seven years left on his contract at $9.25M, the Oilers don’t have much of a choice. As fellow OilersNation writer Bruce Curlock suggested, it may be best for the Oilers as a whole to return to a 1-1-3 NZ forecheck, and I think this could largely benefit Nurse’s rush defence.
Of course, the Oilers should also acquire a superior defensive partner for Nurse, someone who can defend well and efficiently pass the puck. Tomorrow, I’ll be releasing an article on RHD targets, and if/how any potentially available players could form a strong pairing with Nurse. There are some fine options out there, and at this point, it’s safe to say the majority of them are an upgrade over the current pair.
With teams tight to the cap in today’s NHL, every penny counts. When a defensive pairing is paid the same amount as Connor McDavid, and they wind up being outplayed by the opposition on a consistent basis, it will be a major hurdle in that team’s hopes for the Stanley Cup.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...