The Edmonton Oilers’ 2022–23 season has been a mixed bag of defensive play. Edmonton’s defensive play was subpar at the beginning of the season, as expected, and as it was not fully addressed this off-season. Although the team returned essentially the same player corps that helped take Edmonton to the Western Conference Finals, the retirement of Duncan Keith, combined with the absences of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom and subpar play from veteran free-agent Ryan Murray and youngster Markus Niemelainen led to mediocre results from the backend.
Since Christmas time and the subsequent call-up of Vincent Desharnais, and the emergence of the Evan Bouchard-Philip Broberg pairing, Edmonton’s defensive play has drastically improved. Due to the greater effectiveness of defensive zone against cycle breakups and mitigation of opposition high-danger chances, Edmonton has stepped up play within their end. Thus providing reasoning for analysis and discussion of who has been the key cog of Edmonton’s defense.
Edmonton’s defensive statistics
Below are some stats for each regular defender on the Oilers’ roster.
The best defender by conventional measures
Assessing the players as individuals provides further insight into the impact of each Oiler’s contributions. Reviewing conventional statistics such as points, Tyson Barrie leads all Oiler’s defencemen with 37, followed by Darnell Nurse’s 27 and Evan Bouchard’s 21. Barrie also leads Edmonton defenceman in goals with eight, again followed by Nurse’s six and Bouchard’s three.
Nurse is the top Edmonton defenceman in various statistical categories, including shots for and shot blocks. Compared to other Oiler defencemen, Nurse leads in the shot block category by roughly 25, ahead of Brett Kulak and Cody Ceci. Additionally, Nurse paces Edmonton in shots, leading by a wide margin over Bouchard and Barrie.
Unlike past writings, Nurse does not lead in hits, being surpassed by defensive partner Cody Ceci, though Ceci is only ahead of Nurse by one. This has been much discussed as an issue within Edmonton’s defensive structure, as the lack of physicality has hindered breaking up the cycle and clearing out the front of the net. Behind Nurse and Ceci is Kulak, though he is roughly 30 behind and is almost on par with Neimaleinen, who has played in nearly half the games.
Underlying metrics at 5v5
Further in-depth analysis of the underlying metric supports arguments for and against Tyson Barrie being the Oiler’s best defenceman. However, there is an argument for Bouchard and Broberg due to high-ranking metrics compared to other Edmonton defencemen. Still, they have yet to be facing the competition level as the other Oiler’s top four.
Edmonton’s best defenceman by Corsi is equal between the dynamic duo of Bouchard and Broberg, though only a few Oilers defencemen are achieving league averages within the puck possession category. After Bouchard and Broberg, Ceci, Nurse, and Barrie are the only individuals to reach the 50% benchmark. Implying only slightly above half of defensive corps are controlling the shot share, and only Bouchard and Broberg are doing so above an elite level (Corsi% >55%).
Assessing the result of the on-ice play, Broberg retains the most significant difference between goals for and against while at 5v5. In terms of total goals while present on the ice, that belongs to Nurse at 5v5, while Kulak maintains the lowest goals against players playing at least 50 games. The GF% measurement, which indicates positive metrics for individuals being on the ice at a greater rate than goals against, belongs to five of nine Edmonton defencemen, with Bouchard and Ceci falling below the threshold.
The last statistic that indicates quality scoring chance creation, and control compared to the opposition and the rest of his teammates belongs to Broberg and Bouchard. However, this comes with the caveat Broberg has played in fewer games, and Bouchard does not face the highest competition. In terms of total expected goals, Nurse again leads this category, but he also leads in most expected goals against, indicating his aggressive nature exposes high-quality chances both for and against.
Compared to the rest of the top four, Barrie has generated the second-highest shot quality generated, albeit behind Boucahrd, and is mitigated expected chances against at better rates than Ceci, Kulak, and Nurse. The XGF% measurement, which indicates positive metrics for individuals creating goals for more than goals against, belongs to six of nine Edmonton defencemen, with only Ceci, Murray, and Neimanlein below the 50% benchmark.
Between the depth defenceman, Murray has been serviceable compared to his contract as a seventh defenceman but has been moved to long-term injured reserve and surpassed by Vincent Desharnais on the depth chart. Niemelainen, who has since been returned to the AHL, was subpar contrasted to his teammates, especially in offensive skills. Granted, Neimalienen does project as a defensive defenceman, and he did provide the Oilers’ defensive corps with lots of grit and physicality, ranking fourth among defencemen in hits. Still, he was at or near the bottom by most analytical standards.
Which Oiler is the best defenceman?
As predicted, Broberg’s call-up did come at the expense of Murray’s playing time. Broberg does possess robust metrics that have translated to the NHL as indicated by solid underlying metrics, passing the eye test in a bottom-pairing role. Although Bouchard maintains strong metrics, the eye test and non-willingness and exposure in the defensive zone due to miscues indicate that he has not been the best. As stated, individuals who do not draw attention in the defensive area tell they are doing their job correctly.
The title of best defenceman belongs to Tyson Barrie from this quote and comparative metrics. Not only does he at least achieve league average in every NHL category, but he quarterbacks the league’s best power play, leads Edmonton’s backend in points, and mitigates both high-danger chances and shots effectively against stiffer competition than Bouchard and Broberg. Although he is not the most physical, he leads Edmonton’s top-four in shutting down expected and actual goals against and has gone unnoticed, indicating he is not creating egregious mistakes resulting in goals against.
Photo by Katherine Gawlik/Icon Sportswire