The Edmonton Oilers’ 2022–23 season has seen subpar defensive play, though it may have been expected and just not fully addressed this offseason. Although essentially returning to the player corps that helped take the team to the Western Conference Finals, the retirement of Duncan Keith, and the absences of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom are sorely missed. Expected contributions from veteran free-agent Ryan Murray, and youngsters Markus Niemelainen and Philip Broberg have been lacking, though the blame cannot entirely lay square on their shoulders. Lacking results from the entire corps has contributed to mediocre results from the backend and hindering the play of Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner.
Examining the defence pairings (minimum 40 minutes played)
|Pair||Min||Corsi%||XG%||XGF||XGA||XG Diff||XGF/60||XGA/60||XG/60 Diff|
Examining the defensive pairings based on a minimum of 40 minutes played together provides a sample size that establishes a benchmark for comparing the player combinations. Reviewing each defensive blend by Corsi% and XG% depicts the capacity for mitigating shot chances for and against, and the scoring chance quality. Of the nine pairings, only three combinations post above-league-average ability shot control, and only four produce league-norm shot quality share. Evan Bouchard is a part of every defensive pairing that supports positive play via shot share and quality control, whereas Cody Ceci and Markus Niemelainen post sub-league average in both metrics regardless of their defence partner.
Assessing XGF and XGF/60 provides metrics for which combination produces the best offensively. Reviewing the underlying metrics highlights the Oilers’ highest-paid defenceman is a part of both offensively leading contributing pairings. However, the other defenceman within each pairing is regarded as an established NHL offensive defenceman, Tyson Barrie, and a young Barrie 2.0, Evan Bouchard. Interestingly, it is not the primary shutdown defense pairing of Darnell Nurse-Cody Ceci that is mitigating dangerous shot quality chances. It is, in fact, the Nurse-Bouchard combination that has been the best at suppressing high-danger chances.
Additionally, the Nurse-Bouchard pairing has posted the differential in terms of shot quality, implying they are creating high-danger chances in the opposition’s zone and producing offensively while simultaneously limiting opponents’ chances. On the other hand, the worst pairing for this underlying metric has been Barrie and youngster Niemelainen, who has since been demoted to the AHL for Philip Broberg.
Who has been the best defenceman this season (minimum 100 minutes played)
Assessing the players as individuals provides further insight into the impact of each Oilers’ contributions. Reviewing conventional statistics, Barrie leads all Oilers defencemen with four, three of which have come against Florida, whereas Barrie and Nurse are tied for leading in points with 13. Nurse is the top of a variety of statistical categories amongst Oilers defencemen, including minutes played, assists, hits, and shot blocks. However, more than this may be needed to pass the eye test of Oiler fans.
As mentioned, Bouchard has been impactful when examining underlying metrics among the Oilers’ defensive pairings. Although Nurse and Barrie currently lead the Oilers’ defencemen in points, Bouchard sits third and is the definition of heating up, now on a four-game point, including the game-tying goal against the Florida Panthers in the dying seconds of regulation.
Further in-depth analysis of the underlying metric supports this as Bouchard ranks first for Corsi%, implying he is controlling the shot share at above an elite level (Corsi% >55%). He is also tied for the best by XG and is slightly below Barrie in XG%, though also at an elite level (XG%>55%). This statistic indicates that Bouchard is very good at creating quality scoring chances compared to the opposition and the rest of his teammates.
Although Broberg’s play at the AHL level provides the reasoning behind his recent call-up or draft stock, it may also be due to management viewing a much-needed change on the back end. Niemelainen play to date has been subpar contrasted to that of his teammates. Granted, Niemelainen projects as a defensive defenceman, and he did provide the Oilers’ defensive corps with lots of grit and physicality, ranking second among defencemen in hits. Still, he was at or near the bottom by most analytical standards. Niemelainen was the worst of the seven qualified Oilers defensive corps in terms of XG and XG% and second worst in Corsi, finishing ahead of heralded off-season signing Brett Kulak and the other top pairing defencemen, Cody Ceci – both of whom are tied for the least capable of mitigating shot attempts.
Between Kulak and Ceci, both of whom were counted upon to be significant contributors to the Oiler’s top four, the results have been less than stellar. Neither players retain league norm among Corsi nor XG%, nor are they providing much of an impact via conventional statistics. While Kulak has been able to rank second for takeaways, Ceci’s highest placement is in minutes per game. However, Ceci is continuously tasked with mitigating the damage from the opposing team’s top lines, possibly explaining the impact on his metrics.
Lastly, with the recent call-up of Broberg, this may come at the expense of Murray’s playing time. A player whose metrics indicate an unspectacular yet solid contributor who has slightly underperformed relative to the league average in a bottom-pairing role.
Bouchard comes out on top for the best defenceman
Depending on your evaluation method and possible argument, thorough evaluation provides evidence supporting Bouchard as retaining the title. Although the slow start to the season may still resonate sourly among Oiler fans, Bouchard’s recent play suggests he is regaining last year’s strong form and hopefully can continue to contribute effectively. Whether as an individual or as assessed as pair, Bouchard has posted strong play across the board when analytically evaluated.
Furthermore, for individuals who refer to traditional statistics, Bouchard (or the shin-pad annihilator, as mentioned by specific podcasts) ranks in the top three of almost every impactful category. A measure constituted by his ramp-up of intensity and results seen on the ice within the past 10-15 games.
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