Defensive depth is an asset NHL teams require to continuously mitigate opposition chances up and down the lineup. At the beginning of the season, the Edmonton Oilers were faced with choosing which members from their defensive corps would fill the team’s need for a steady third pairing. Selecting between Markus Niemelainen, Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Ryan Murray proved a tougher-than-thought case as eventually Broberg was returned to the AHL, and the other three players were chosen to round out the bottom of the Oilers’ defence. However, due to Neimaleinen’s offensive deficiencies and Murray’s untimely injury, Broberg was recalled and has since excelled when paired with Bouchard.
Individually looking at the numbers
Heralded as an offensively gifted defenceman, Bouchard has been an efficient playmaker on the backend. Whether providing solid, crisp outlet passes to streaking forwards or the slapshot aptly known as a “Bouch bomb”, Bouchard’s rising recognition even led to trade speculation regarding Tyson Barrie.
Among Edmonton players, Bouchard ranks seventh on the Oilers in assists and points, collecting 15 and 18 in each category. Other conventional statistics imply Bouchard is active by other methods, notching 64 hits and 42 blocked shots, ranking third and fifth among Edmonton defencemen.
Underlying metrics further support the strong season Bouchard is sustaining. On the back end, Bouchard is on par with his expected goals. He has also positively impacted the expected goals for and against metrics, totaling seven more goals for, implying Bouchard controls chance quality when on the ice. Similar insights are further supported by additional advanced metrics, as positive expected goals for (XG%), corsi for (CF%), and high danger scoring chances (HDCF%), indicate Bouchard is above league average levels and borderline elite in shot quality generation, puck control, and mitigating high danger chances against.
Similar to Bouchard, Broberg is another high-potential, highly drafted defenceman. Although regarded as more boom or bust relative to Bouchard, Broberg has flashed the potential that enticed Edmonton to place a considerable value on his skill set.
Unfortunately for Broberg, more significant pressure is placed upon him by media and fanbase members due to the success of fellow draft picks within his class already succeeding, such as Moritz Seider, Trevor Zegras, or Cole Caufield. Broberg’s AHL stat sheet stuffing has yet to translate to the NHL level this season, as he has only recorded four assists. However, Broberg does lead all Edmonton players in shots blocked per 60 minutes.
The underlying metrics further strengthen the support of Broberg’s strong play translating to the NHL level. Individually, Broberg posts measurements similar to or greater than that of Bouchard. Broberg also records positive XG%, CF%, and HDCF%, implying Broberg plays above league norm and is borderline elite in metrics regarding shot quality generation, puck control, and winning the high-danger chance battle. Furthermore, Broberg ranks first among Edmonton defenceman in the statistical categories regarding puck control and expected goal quality generation.
Unit play at 5v5
Broberg and Bouchard have been matched together consistently by Jay Woodcroft for the last ten games, including when Edmonton chooses to go with the 11–7 lineup. This has unexpectedly yielded outstanding dividends for Edmonton. Elevating the backend and contributing to the Oilers posting, the last ten games played have a record of 6–3–1, which was helped by the elite levels of 5v5 play of the team’s bottom pairing.
Broadening the scope of analysis from five to ten games allows for increased data collection and more credible structural support for the argument to maintain this pairing. Not only has the Broberg-Bouchard pairing posted above league-average metrics, but this combination leads Edmonton pairings in most advanced statistical categories, including CF%, xGF, XGF%, SCF%, and HDCF%. Compared to the other NHL defensive pairings within the last ten games, Broberg-Bouchard has dominated at the NHL level, ranking second, 30th, second, third, and first, according to the above-listed metrics.
The pairing has further stepped up their defensive game as well. In the last ten games, the play of Broberg-Bouchard has the lowest expected against among all Oiler units, indicating the two are soundly mitigating the quality of the opposing team’s chances. A fact that is supported by the unit allowing the fewest scoring chances and lowest high-danger chances against compared to the rest of Edmonton’s defensive corps.
League-wide, Broberg and Bouchard rank sixth and second at suppressing the opposition’s chances, further strengthening the argument that the issue plaguing Edmonton at the start of the season may have been resolved depending on the continued development and utilization of this unexpected yet effective defensive pairing.
What lies ahead for the defensive pairing
Playing at such a rate may be due to facing off against less competitive teams, but still it can be considered trending towards a step in the right direction—especially with the team now deploying the 11–7 lineup and the call-up of Vincent Desharnais.
Sustaining this play may prove difficult due to regression and the opposing team’s film review, possibly exposing flaws in the bottom defensive pairing. Or it could be shaken up by acquiring another defenceman at the trade deadline whose primary focus is defensive shutdown capabilities, like Mattias Ekholm, Jacob Chychrun, or Joel Edmundson.
Nonetheless, the unexpected development positively showcases the talent of both players earning their roles and quieting doubters constantly, as placing within the NHL’s top five categories among defencemen league-wide is a step in the right direction.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire