In the early weeks of the 2022–23 season, the Oilers are rolling. Of course, led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the team is in good hands, but a big piece of the team’s strength has been the blueline.
Between the Darnell Nurse-Cody Ceci and Brett Kulak-Tyson Barrie pairings, as well as the ascending Evan Bouchard, there is a clear top five among the group. Sure, there might be more highly regarded defence groups across the league, but the quintet has more than held their end of the bargain over the Jay Woodcroft era.
For this reason, propositions such as a Chychrun acquisition, which seemed necessary for the Oilers to have any success at this time last season, have become much less pressing. Naturally, acquiring more talent would help, but the performance of these top five defencemen has been strong enough to all but quell the rumours, for now.
Likewise, the pressure is slightly relieved where it comes to the arrival of Philip Broberg. An Oilers team desperately reaching for upside might be throwing out a prayer that Broberg is ready, but the fully stocked blueline has afforded the prospect time to continue his growth.
The time will come when Broberg is thrown into the lineup, but until then the task for coach Woodcroft is to find a sixth defenceman to complete the lineup. For the time being, this is a spot on the left side with Evan Bouchard as a partner.
To this point, we’ve seen three different approaches to filling this spot. It’s a spot that also comes with limited demand for special teams contributions as a depth penalty killer. Let’s take a look at the options as well as how they have performed so far.
Markus Niemelainen is a big, physical defender with surprising skating skill. He’s able to control gaps, particularly in closing in on opponents. He is a fairly one dimensional player in that his play with the puck leaves something to be desired, but if he’s able to improve his breakout passes or rushing abilities there might be some limited upside here.
Niemelainen does bring a level of physicality to the lineup. Though the Oilers have their share of defencemen with a degree of physical prowess, size and mobility, Niemelainen does add a needed flair with his aggressiveness.
Playing just over ten minutes a night, Niemelainen’s usage is quite low for a defenceman. Niemelainen has seen more minutes with Barrie than Bouchard to this point, but no doubt in either case Niemelainen will not mistake himself for the puck moving option of the pairing.
Ryan Murray offers a more positional and cerebral approach to the game. However, he does not have the size advantage, a fact that limits his potential pairing with Barrie.
To continue contrasting Murray’s game against Niemelainen’s, Murray has more puck skills. Although he might never find himself on a power play, Murray at least has some abilities as a transition passer to a degree that Niemelainen might only ever aspire to.
As such, Murray has been used more often than Niemelainen when dressed, sitting at just over 12 minutes per game. This is still quite sheltered usage, proving that both are fighting for a distant sixth on the Oilers’ depth chart.
Their stats have been quite similar as well. Both have graded just above 38% in terms of expected goals, far behind the rest of the Oilers’ blueline. Murray has suffered a significantly worse PDO so far, roughly 10 percentage points behind Niemelainen’s, in large part thanks to his less than flattering results amid the Oilers opening handful of games.
Given Murray’s injury history, it is more unlikely than most players that he will remain healthy throughout the season. Over the course of the season, his missing games might see his grip on a regular spot thrown into question or at least offer others a bigger opportunity in his absence.
Woodcroft has been dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen
As Niemelainen and Murray have dressed in eight and seven games respectively, the solution to this point has been dressing 11 forwards and seven defencemen, a slight deviation from the standard 12/6 split. Going back to last season, Woodcroft and company have had success with the setup.
Of course this speaks to the willingness of the coaching staff as a whole to defy convention based on their specific personnel, but it also speaks to both Murray’s and Niemelainen’s willingness to accept their roles. The irregular manoeuvre leads to their diminished icetime, yet the duo remains focused regardless.
The abundance of defenders allows Woodcroft to get creative in deployment, allowing for alternate pairings out of special teams or circumstantially. Niemelainen has been used with Barrie, while Murray recently played with everyone on a rotation basis.
Though Murray and Niemelainen have not been playing many minutes, their contributions are more needed than that of a depth forward, say Devin Shore, would likely be. Though neither is the best option as a sixth defender, together they provide enough value to justify the seven defencemen lineup.
What about Philip Broberg?
Despite the patchworked confidence offered by the 11/7 lineup, not to mention the Oilers increasing quality of results, the elephant in the room is the arrival of Broberg. Some fans might be discouraged that Briberg is not an NHL regular yet, but there is still another season to go before any sort of disappointment or panic is warranted. For now, it is much more beneficial to Broberg to be playing big minutes in the AHL than the 10-12 games that are up for grabs at the NHL level.
As to when Broberg gets the call, there are several paths available to the left shot defenceman. First, the reality that injuries might occur can change even the best laid plans, and Broberg is likely the top call up option for the Oilers at this point.
But a true lineup spot lies beyond those temporary circumstances. With Barrie and Bouchard as his potential partners, there will be a big emphasis on Broberg’s defensive abilities. Barrie demands a partner who can lead the way defensively and physically, something Broberg is capable of, but it is a big ask for a rookie best known for his two way contributions.
The other option is a pairing with Bouchard, a young defenceman in his own right. To trust a contending team with such an inexperienced pairing is daring, at least, even if Bouchard’s defensive impacts are looking quite strong to start the season.
Given those options, it’s understandable that the Oilers want to take their time marinating their top prospect before throwing him into the fire. With waiver exemption, not only does Broberg have to be better than Niemelainen and Murray, which he very well might be, he has to be good enough to push for second pair minutes with either Bouchard or Barrie. In a sense, Broberg might have to pass or approach Kulak’s level of reliability to warrant his disruption of heavy icetime in the AHL.
Oilers will continue on with both Murray and Niemelainen
For now, the much more reliable option is to use a tandem of Murray and Niemelainen to fill the role of sixth defenceman. Barring any injuries, with Broberg hot on their tails it does not make much sense to force an acquisition either. The framework might be for Broberg to get called up late in the season, using the first two-thirds of the season to play top minutes and gain confidence. A running start to another 20+ NHL games would round out Broberg’s resume nicely, perhaps enough to earn the spot outright by playoff time.
Ultimately the best version of the Oilers will have the Bouchard and Barrie pairings pushing each other for icetime. The endgame with Broberg is to join Bouchard in keeping the Oilers’ blueline formidable enough to properly support McDavid and Draisaitl throughout their careers, as well as giving Nurse enough help in his living up to his eight-year extension. At least for the first half of this season, aiding Broberg’s development into such is more important than his being a slight upgrade on Murray or Niemelainen in less than 14 minutes a night.
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