The big trade deadline move for Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland was acquiring defender Mattias Ekholm and a sixth-round pick from the Nashville Predators in exchange for Tyson Barrie, Reid Schaefer, a first-round pick, and a fourth-round pick.
On paper, this was a solid move, one that a good portion of fans approve of. Bringing in a versatile defender like Ekholm who can play both sides helps the coverage. He has great two-way instincts and a solid first pass so he helps the transitional game. And, his experience will help a younger blueline when the games get important come playoff time.
After his first five games in the lineup, how is the usual second pairing of Ekholm and Evan Bouchard performing? And how much has the power play been impacted since losing Barrie?
Mattias Ekholm’s impact on the lineup
The addition of Ekholm to the Oilers’ lineup accomplishes a couple of key things. First, adding a veteran defender with plenty of experience to an otherwise inexperienced group. And second, his playstyle matches what was a deficiency in the previous roster composition.
The value of Ekholm’s experience
Prior to the trade, the defenders on the Oilers’ roster had a combined 164 games (not including Barrie) of playoff experience and a sizable portion of that was in last season’s run to the Conference Finals. Outside of that, the number is 100 games. Ekholm alone adds 75 from his time with the competitive Predators teams at the end of the last decade.
His presence will give some stability and hopefully calm down what is otherwise a fairly young defence. After the debacle that was the defence and goaltending of last postseason, Ekholm will be relied on to teach the other defenders how to shut down and play playoff hockey.
How Ekholm impacts the roster composition
Despite being a team that thrives on the rush and counter-attack, the Oilers did not have a great transition game stemming from their defence. Ekholm fixes that.
A solid two-way defender, Ekholm has an excellent first pass and instincts on the breakout. As shown by his first shift as an Oiler, he ends up joining the rush.
This particular skill set meshes amazingly well with how the Oilers play. To have a defender who can get the puck and initiate a counterattack to his level should make an already potent offence even more dangerous.
One important consideration when having such a strong second pairing is the weight lifted off the shoulders of the first pairing. Less pressure on Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci to do everything will help them look better as well.
Before the trade, Nurse averaged 23:51 in ice time per game. Since Ekholm joined the lineup, he is averaging 22:27; almost a minute and a half less per game. That is significant for a few reasons.
First, it lets him conserve energy more so he can give it his all over less ice time instead of needing to find ways to last 25 or more minutes per game. Second, it means the team does not have to rely solely on him in any important situation. He won’t have to play the entirety of the end of games because there is someone else who can reliably play those minutes. And third, in terms of opponent matchups, the Oilers now have two pairings they can match up against the top lines of other teams.
The Ekholm-Bouchard pairing
Bouchard’s development into an Oilers regular has had its ups and downs. It took him a while to earn a regular place in the lineup. Until last season, that is. Playing mostly alongside Duncan Keith, he broke out in a big way offensively. It was his first full season in the NHL, and he had 12 goals and 31 points in 81 games.
In terms of offence this season, however, Bouchard had regressed significantly. After 66 games, he has just four goals and 25 points.
Interestingly though, he was still one of the better defenders in terms of underlying metrics and regularly found himself having majorly positive contributions while on the ice. According to Natural Stat Trick, Bouchard has an expected goals for percentage of 59.73 on the season, good for fifth on the Oilers. His 59.61 Corsi for percentage leads the team, and his 58.07 Fenwick for percentage sits second behind only Connor McDavid.
But the key element Bouchard was missing was having a veteran two-way defender by his side. Ekholm fills that role spectacularly.
In their first five games, the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing has spent 70:09 together at 5v5. So far, they have a 77.78 goals for percentage, with seven goals for and two goals against. The numbers might be slightly inflated, so expect a bit of an evening out over time, however, as the xGF% according to Natural Stat Trick is 60.64%.
This stat line is showing signs of being an elite defensive pairing. One that will have a considerable impact on the Oilers’ chances of winning heading into what will be some challenging playoff series.
These two have extremely complimentary styles. Ekholm fills the defensive side of the pairing, being a reliable and stable presence. His defensive IQ is high enough to handle those obligations. Bouchard, on the other hand, can handle the offence. After the break-out, that is, as the former is great in transition.
This dynamic on any defensive pairing is a good sign. We see it time and time again trying to pair a more offensively minded player with a stay-at-home or shut-down defender. When it works, the results are fantastic.
The impact on the Oilers’ power play
With a power play that is historically efficient, a major concern this late in the year would be making a change to one of the key elements. Barrie had been quarterbacking the top unit all season. And he was an important member of that, with him being above average at holding the zone and keeping the play moving on the cycle.
With Barrie gone, the top power play unit becomes Bouchard’s.
Though both are offensive defenders, they do have some key differences. Bouchard has a heavier shot and uses it more often than Barrie, who may have been a more pass-first style. How is the team adjusting to this change?
Well, on paper, when a power play line contains the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a change to the defender quarterbacking it shouldn’t be as integral as, say, the current one led by Erik Karlsson for the San Jose Sharks. The elite forwards remained the same, so the power play should not suffer too badly.
Thus far, however, there has been a slight drop in conversion rate and overall efficiency.
Although straight power play percentage does not factor in many variables that would impact the success rate, the Oilers’ power play before the trade was scoring 31.9% of the time. In the five games since, it has been 27.8%. A slight drop, but not overly significant. Neither number factors in who is on the ice, and who the opponent is, among other things.
The really telling numbers will be the scoring rate of the team and of the players. Barrie, over the course of the season until he was traded, had a 10.4 expected goals for per 60 on the power play, according to Natural Stat Trick. Bouchard, in the five games since taking over, has a 9.04 xGF/60.
The addition of Ekholm already showing positive results
The early results from the Ekholm trade are amazingly positive. The presence he brings to the lineup and locker room is incredibly valuable heading into the postseason. The type of defender he is meshes great with what the team needs, as well as as a complimentary piece and mentor to Bouchard. And the concerns about the impact on the power play, while they are valid, may not be as serious as once thought.
That being said, the team looks more ready than ever to compete with the trade deadline acquisitions.
How are you feeling about the short-term gains felt by the Ekholm trade?
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire