Even the best laid plans go awry, a common platitude proven true time and time again throughout all aspects of life, including within the world of NHL hockey. A game of chaos, every bounce can spawn dreams and dread, every player undergoing their own evolutions along their development path.
As much as we might try to boil things down to catch-all statistics or tidbits of wisdom, to project the outcome of a game is never certain. The same can be said for building a team, or even more so when projecting a player’s development. From draft grades to development reports, from personal quirks and qualities of a given prospect to the circumstances of the team that employs them, many things can factor into player growth.
High hopes for development
Most of the time we can see this as a negative, the uncertainties of player development, the pressures of expectations, the coming of age of a person. At the very least, we try our best to quantify and qualify the chances of each prospect. Within some equation of age, production, and experience, most will not make it to the NHL, much less to author a long and impactful career. The joyous hopes of projecting the best can often become lost within the chaos, as reality often does.
While this may lead one towards a cynical view of prospect tracking, there are always exceptions. Though the chaotic nature of player development and hockey itself can claim its victims, so too can it act as a ladder for outliers.
Among the most unlikely of NHL rookies to make an impact during the 2022–23 season is the Edmonton Oilers’ Vincent Desharnais. Let’s take a look at what Desharnais brings to the ice as well as what he might have in store for his sophomore season. While his journey has been an impressive showing of unexpected greatness and resilience, his journey upwards might not yet be finished.
Style of play
A seventh-round pick in 2016, Desharnais attended Providence College, playing four seasons for the school in total; three after being drafted by the Oilers. Desharnais hardly had the offensive totals to turn heads, but unquestionably his 6’6” size was always a factor in his hopes as a prospect. As a big, right-shot defenceman, Desharnais always had some coveted attributes.
During his final NCAA season in 2018–19, Desharnais produced his career high of five goals, hardly a dominating offensive presence. This has yet to turn around for Desharnais either, as he has scored but five goals in the four seasons since turning pro. Although 27 points in 66 games for the Bakersfield Condors during the 2021–22 season is nothing to sneeze at, this is hardly the barometer for success we should be using to measure Desharnais’ contributions.
Instead, Desharnais has risen to the world’s top league by virtue of his defensive abilities, particularly during in-zone play. Nicknamed “the Seaweed Man” by his longtime Coach Jay Woodcroft, Desharnais uses his frame to cover the net front. Like a thick reef, or a long rough, Desharnais slows down the opposition with great effectiveness, making it difficult for opponents to move the puck in the offensive zone. If the inner slot is the hottest club in town, Desharnais is the bouncer.
Fit on the roster
While this style of game might make it harder to get noticed from afar, it is clear that Desharnais has won over his coach. His effectiveness might have won over large portions of the fan base as well, thanks to the correlation of Desharnais being called up to the Oilers last season and the team going on a torrid run into the playoffs, going 9–0–2 in his first 11 games in the NHL.
While the Oilers turnaround can hardly be placed on Desharnais’ broad shoulders alone, he did fill a clear need for the Oilers. With Evan Bouchard and Tyson Barrie, at the time, behind Cody Ceci on the Oilers right side, the defence was lacking in defensive quality. This was particularly evident on the penalty kill as well. Upon his debut in the NHL, Desharnais seized full control of a featured penalty killing role. Meanwhile, the Oilers defensive metrics continued their season long improvement.
Though his unexpected rise to prominence was a delight across Oil Country, his time as an Oiler was not all sunshine and rainbows. Some of Desharnais’ flaws became more evident in the playoffs, where the quickened pace and raised intensity saw some human moments from the rookie. Anecdotally, Desharnais had some struggles defending elite speed in transition, as well as having some rough moments handling the puck. A complete player or a Norris candidate Desharnais is not, yet he still brings a lot of quality skills to a blueline that is in need of a defensive right shot.
A path forward
In some ways, Desharnais is already a great success story. Even in a limited and circumstantial depth role, a reprise of his play from last season would be appreciated. In fact, given his relatively advanced age as a rookie, now 27 years old, Desharnais might be written off as a player without much growth left in his game. This might not be the case though, after all, why shouldn’t Desharnais’ development path continue its unconventional trajectory.
In fact, we have seen defencemen of similar stature and style grow in effectiveness into their 30s. Though Desharnais is not the hall of fame level talent that Zdeno Chara was, it wasn’t until his late 20s that Chara became the elite talent that we remember today. Perhaps more appropriate is a comparison to Hal Gill, another obscenely tall defensive presence that was an impactful penalty killer into his late 30s.
As Desharnais has never been a scorer, he’s been able to slowly win over his coaches, gaining more and more icetime when given the opportunity. If nothing else Desharnais will be a bigger factor earlier on this season, meaning there might be more opportunities entrusted to him over the course of the season. It is quite possible that Desharnais continues the trend of surpassing expectations, now at the NHL level to start a season.
As for the aforementioned weaknesses in Desharnais’ game, these are areas that can either be improved upon or mitigated. It is likely that Desharnais will need to be paired with a defence partner who can handle a large majority of the puck handling duties. While Desharnais can improve in these areas, there should be very little expectation for his skills with the puck improving to another level. Some of the transition defending can be improved upon though, not through greatly improved skating, but rather with some experience and savvy.
Although Desharnais was an older rookie, his inexperience in dealing with the world’s best players might have led to some miscalculations. In this area, Desharnais will continue to improve with exposure to defending against the best players in the world.
Now having proven he is capable of playing in the NHL, Desharnais is all but written in ink for the Oilers blueline this upcoming season. That being said, there are still several possible outcomes for Desharnais’ developmental progression going forward.
Theoretically, the floor here might be close to what we saw from Desharnais in 2022–23, a sixth/seventh defender capable of handling defensive assignments. While his ascent to the NHL might have been surprising, there is not much reason to think that it was unsustainable, as Desharnais has consistently demonstrated his defensive abilities en route to his promotion. This would see Desharnais as a competent partner for Brett Kulak or Philip Broberg on the Oilers third pairing, as well as a role featured heavily on the penalty kill once again. Broberg in particular might benefit from Desharnais’ expertise as an in-zone defender, while Desharnais would have to lean on Broberg as the primary puck moving option.
The best case scenario would see Desharnais moved up the lineup, as he proves himself ready for more responsibility. Desharnais has always managed to earn more trust from his coaches when given the opportunity, and we might see this trend continue through next season. There is a chance that Desharnais can push Ceci for minutes on the right side, perhaps enough so that the Oilers consider switching off of the Nurse-Ceci pairing that has held up well in top minutes over the past few seasons.
Though Ceci has a more well rounded skill set than Desharnais does, Nurse would certainly appreciate some increased help with in-zone defending, something Desharnais is uniquely equipped to provide amongst Oilers defencemen. Nurse, meanwhile, might be the ideal partner for Desharnais as a left shot who can handle a large majority of puck moving duties. This arrangement would free up Ceci as an ideal partner for Broberg, giving the Oilers 3 very solid defensive pairings, perhaps even enough to vault the Oilers blueline to elite status league wide.
This level of blueline would provide the Oilers the support needed to match up against any team in the NHL. In back to back seasons, the Oilers have fallen to the en central Stanley Cup champions, and in both instances the biggest difference between the Oilers and their opponents was the quality of the blueline. Naturally, this would help support the Oilers goalies, but it would also maximise what the Oilers are able to get out of their forward group, headlined by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
Projecting the Oilers blueline to reach this level involves continued growth from younger players, Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard, but their prospects are more conventional. Broberg and Bouchard aren’t guaranteed to reach new heights, but their continued improvement is expected. Although less conventional, continued growth from Desharnais might well be the key to unlocking the full potential of the Oilers blueline in the 2023–24 season.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire