Well there it is. After a couple of trades on Tuesday, the Edmonton Oilers new acquisition Mattias Ekholm featured prominently in a knockout of a win in a heavyweight match between the Oilers and the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs. The early returns could hardly look better, and no doubt the very fabric of this Oilers team has changed to a degree.
We are merely in the early stages of seeing how the lineup takes it new shape. Ekholm is a quality player with a skill set that was much needed for the Oilers and his services will have cascading consequences throughout the lineup. On top of that, Tyson Barrie’s departure opens up a set of holes and opportunities in its own right. Minutes and situational deployment will both be in flux across the depth chart of the blueline. Ultimately, the very strengths and weaknesses that have defined the Oilers are up for re-examination.
How Ekholm can contribute to the Oilers
A steady, savvy, rugged defender, the left shooting Ekholm has said himself that he could play both the left and right sides. This flexibility is merely a bonus on top of the prime defensive usage Ekholm’s play will demand. The Oilers game plan of deploying seven defencemen will continue, and for now, with Ekholm on the left, this simply means have four left shots instead of four right shots.
One game into his Oilers tenure, Ekholm played on the left side with Evan Bouchard, in a clear second pairing role. Ekholm’s reputation, as well as his current season, have shown that he appreciates a partner who can handle the primary puck handling duties, just as Bouchard appreciates a partner of Ekholm’s ilk.
Ekholm has the skating, physicality, sense, and will to defend in any situation. He can control gaps, deny the blueline in transition, as well as handle the rigours of in-zone defending, breaking up cycles, clearing the net front, and blocking shots. Furthermore, he has consistently posted strong shot and scoring chance suppressing rates and will inevitably help further improve the Oilers overall performance in these even strength metrics.
The 32-year-old defenceman will almost assuredly take over top penalty killing duties on the left side. The Oilers have struggled in this area from a season long perspective, but have been improving. The good news is that the playoffs haven’t started yet, and the only thing that will matter for the Oilers is how they are performing at that point. How the penalty kill performed in the fall is no longer relevant.
What does this mean for the Oilers’ right side?
Starting with the most impacted, Ekholm’s current defence partner, Bouchard, is thrust into the spotlight, empowered and challenged to continue his coming of age. First, with Barrie no longer manning the top power play, Bouchard will have a chance to claim a coveted spot on the league’s best unit. Many fans have been ready to hand these reigns over to Bouchard since he stepped into the league, and visibly there are a lot of strong traits that Bouchard brings to the table, backed by results in a more limited power play role.
Moreover, Bouchard will be given more responsibilities at even strength. Barrie’s offensive lean absorbed minutes in volume and in leverage, enough that Bouchard was blocked from to an extent. Bouchard was also forced to spend the first half of this season proving himself with less capable defenders than Ekholm. Bouchard’s production rates, and possession stats have been quite strong this season in his more limited role. Many felt that he was deserving of more icetime since Brett Kulak was acquired, which helped to buoy Barrie’s viability as a top four defender on a contender. All indications are that Bouchard is ready for the opportunity before him, a fact that might help his career soar to new heights.
Elsewhere on the right side, Vincent Desharnais will be getting more minutes, at least for as long as all of Edmonton’s defencemen play their strong sides, as they are currently. Desharnais has been a revelation since his mid-season call up, providing quality play in defensive situations. Though he will never be a true puck moving, offensive option, Desharnais plays an effective game during in-zone defensive situations. He has been a reason for the improving penalty kill, and finds himself on the ice in key late game leads. While his situational deployment won’t change in nature, it will change in volume.
Under the current setup, Cody Ceci’s role and usage is likely to remain unchanged. Ceci seems less than ideal as a partner for Ekholm, except for perhaps the most obvious of defensive situations, given their collective limitations in moving the puck up ice.
Ekholm should help relieve Nurse’s minutes
The biggest adjustment on the left comes above Ekholm on the depth chart, with the Oilers best defenceman Darnell Nurse. Nurse certainly has the profile and the tools to be a great two-way defenceman, though from possession and scoring chance percentages his positive impacts come more from his offensive capabilities. Though Nurse won’t be winning the Norris Trophy this season, there is a lot to like about his game, and were his cap hit $2-3M less than it is, there would be little criticism about his play.
That being said, Nurse has been relied upon to an exaggerated extent over the past several seasons. Tasked with being a hopeful contender’s top defensive option is a hefty ask, and doing so with a partner that none would consider a true “top pairing defenceman” only makes the ask more unreasonable. In all fairness, Nurse (and Cody Ceci) have done well for themselves in handling a lot more than ideal.
Foremost, Nurse’s role on the penalty kill will be reduced. Proper slotting should help improve his effectiveness here, as well as decreasing his minutes, or at least opening up those minutes to be redistributed. The extra rest will help keep Nurse fresh for his leading even strength role, but should also give him a chance at getting some limited power play minutes on the second unit, at least.
The Oilers have been spoiled with a bevy of offensive defencemen over the past two seasons, quite frankly a surplus of power play worthy talent. Nurse has produced on the power play before, and could easily be effective on the top unit if need be. It is an understated truth that Nurse has sacrificed personal point totals for the past couple seasons, as any power play time would result in more points. Even still, he has produced at a strong rate over this time, but for those whose analysis and evaluation of players relies heavily upon point totals and cap hits Nurse’s reputation has taken a blow in favour of helping his team win.
Other defencemen will have reduced roles
Underneath Ekholm, Brett Kulak will see his role greatly reduced. Kulak proved a capable partner for Barrie, and did quite well in a top four role. That said, a slightly diminished role is a better slotting for Kulak. Kulak should still be a strong contributor at even strength and on the penalty kill, though his minutes will be decreased overall. In some ways this is a mirror opposite to the impact that Ekholm’s arrival has on Desharnais, again, at least for as long as all defenders play their strong sides.
By the same token, even lower in the lineup, Philip Broberg will be losing minutes and responsibilities as well. In the first game with the new blueline Broberg went from third pairing regular to extra defender, swapping minute totals with Desharnais overall. Broberg had been posting fantastic results with Bouchard, and the pair might well be reunited at some point in the future. The fact that the young duo proved themselves with each other instead of with established partners of their own proves that both are truly NHL regulars.
With the stakes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s primes in the balance, this optimistic projecting might well have been too flimsy for the Oilers to feel comfortable with. The good news is that whether Broberg is ready for regular duties in the playoffs or not, he will not be forced into that role. It will be solely on Broberg’s play that he will earn minutes, an ideal situation as the ante continues to be upped.
Broberg could feasibly be used as a penalty kill option, though the trio of left shots ahead of him are all capable in that role. Interestingly, Broberg might even get a shot on the team’s second power play unit, as Woodcroft enjoys deploying two defencemen as the penalty expires and teams return to even strength play. As we might see with Nurse, some offensive touches might help increase Broberg’s confidence overall.
Switching sides is a bonus from Ekholm
Ekholm is self aware in acknowledging that he can play his weak side, the right. If the Oilers do elect for this look, Ekholm would likely see himself paired with Nurse, or perhaps Broberg if the young Swede keeps rising up the depth chart. Kulak does bring some offensive contributions, particularly in moving his feet, though Ekholm likely needs more from his partner here than Kulak can give to be optimised.
Equally, Broberg has shown the ability to play his weak side, also the right side, at lower levels. Again, it might not be right away that Broberg can earn these responsibilities, and his play will determine whether or not it would even be fair for the Oilers to throw a rookie into a playoff series on his weak side. Of note, a second power play unit might feature both Nurse and Broberg, and the small glimpses Broberg gets in these spots might give the coaching staff enough of an excuse to give him bigger auditions.
For now it seems unnecessary for the Oilers to force someone to move from the left side to the right side, though another trade addition or internal audition will be entertained, even if for an experiment. The worry might be that Bouchard, Ceci, and Desharnais are a bit over their heads. We do know, and have seen, the best we will from Ceci, who has performed admirably and above expectations over his Oilers tenure so far. Desharnais seems ready for a regular shift, but is still relatively unproven at the NHL level. The same goes for Bouchard, who has shown signs that he is ready to push into the role of a top pair defenceman, but has not done so yet.
The Oilers have a more balanced group
As mentioned the Oilers have redistributed their talents, morphing their hyper offensive blueline into a more balanced group. The defensive play at even strength and while short handed will be improved, which will make the lives of Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell easier. Even though Skinner is clearly in pole position at this point, the starts will be split fairly evenly down the stretch of the regular season. We should expect that both goalies will see their numbers improve along with the team’s improved defensive performance, which should help stabilise the collective conscience of Oil Country at large.
Though losing Puljujarvi might’ve had a negative defensive impact, his limited role on the team sees that his departure will be more than offset by the addition of Ekholm. Barrie’s detractors might suggest his departure alone contributes positively to team defence, but his offensive contributions were notable nonetheless. Luckily, the Oilers should have enough puck moving talent to compensate and maintain their offensive prowess.
With Ekholm still playing at a high level and signed for three seasons after this one,— expiring the same year as McDavid’s current deal, the Oilers most literal championship window—the next two seasons with both McDavid and Draisaitl under contract is more optimised.
Did Holland make the right move?
It would be at that point, two seasons from now or 2025–26, that the outgoing Reid Schaefer or the prospective 2023 first-round draft selection would be having any significant impact on the the Oilers roster. For those worried about the overall prospect pipeline, more picks could yet be acquired, and the Oilers still boast some options on the horizon of that time frame.
With another year after this on his contract, Barrie’s cap hit might well have been cumbersome enough that fans would be dreaming up cap dump style trades this offseason, something that might’ve already been happening in the two seasons since Barrie signed his current deal. These hypothetical deals would likely require a draft asset as a sweetener, perhaps a value that the cap strapped Oilers would be happy to pay for the ever valuable cap space they would afford the team.
This must be a factor in evaluating the trades not made, namely a Jakob Chychrun acquisition, as taking back salary, especially in the long term, was clearly not an option for the Arizona Coyotes. Perhaps Barrie offloading might have been a separate trade, a precursor to a Chychrun deal, but with the trade deadline rapidly approaching, and prices for assets seemingly on the decline, the timing required to pull off the feat would have been incredibly tight. Even still, it is important to remember that the all important first-round draft pick the Ottawa Senators gave the Coyotes is a better pick than that which the Oilers could offer.
Without any further additions signed beyond this season, with Puljujarvi’s $3M gone, as well as Andre Sekera’s $1.5M buyout coming off the books, the Oilers should have more flexibility than thought in the immediate future.
One of the main anxieties about Ken Holland’s management has been his precarious relationship with the cap, including a number of contracts that are more inflated than ideal. Holland has, to his credit, signed a number of deals that seem like great values, as a whole counteracting each other reasonably. Yes, some criticism in signing these bloated deals in the first place might be warranted, but the consequences of Mike Smith’s extra year, Mikko Koskinen’s play up until last season, this offloading of Barrie, and to an extent even Zack Kassian’s garish deal have all been skirted before becoming nightmare-ish. Sure, he won’t go down as an avant-garde capologist, but Holland has continued to stay one swing ahead of the proverbial sword, all while seeing the team continue its general upward trend over his tenure.
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