Edmonton Oilers

Oilers Sunday Census: The Edmonton Oilers’ top defensive pairing

One of the things that has held the Edmonton Oilers back recently is the lack of a high-end, top defensive pairing capable of handling the tough matchups, playing in any situation, and providing a stable presence from the back-end. They’ve tried plenty of players in this position. And maybe the closest they’d had was what Oscar Klefbom was developing into with Adam Larsson at his side.

Given the high expectations on the Oilers this season, they will need two defenders to step up and take on this role. But who will it be? We left it up to the fans to decide in this week’s Oilers Sunday Census.

We asked you, who should be on the top pairing for the upcoming season?

Want to take part in Sunday Census polls? We send them out every week on our Twitter at @oilrigEDM. Follow along or send in ideas for the next poll!

Ekholm and Bouchard are the clear winners

Gathering 88.1% of the vote, Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard are by far the favourites to be the top pairing of the Oilers.

And this comes as no surprise after how good these two were after joining up last season when Ekholm was acquired at the trade deadline. The team went 18–2–1 to close out the season, but beyond that, the performance of these two players was incredible.

According to Natural Stat Trick, at 5v5, the Ekholm-Bouchard pairing was fourth in the entire NHL in goals for percentage (77.1%) amongst pairings with a minimum of 200 minutes of time on ice. They outscored the opposition 27–8.

Additionally, Ekholm and Bouchard were eighth in Corsi for percentage (59%) and sixth in expected goals for percentage (61.3%).

As players on the ice, the two of them function extremely well together. Ekholm is a fantastic, well-rounded defender who is more than capable of covering Bouchard’s more offensive game. Ekholm has a great instinct on initiating the breakout with a strong first pass, while Bouchard excels at leading that transition and rush up the ice to get established in the offensive zone.

The vast majority of Oilers fans have their fingers crossed that once he is healthy, Ekholm is reuinited with Bouchard as the team’s top pairing.

Will this experimental top pairing work?

Finishing a distant second place with 7.1% of the fan vote is a bit of an experiment from the preseason. Head Coach Jay Woodcroft hinted that Darnell Nurse and Bouchard might get some time together during the season.

These two did spend some time together last season, and it did turn out fairly well. Possession-wise, this pairing’s CF% was a respectable 61.4%. Although they spent just 139 minutes on the same pairing at 5v5, they outchanced the opposition 92–56 and lead the team’s defensive pairings with a minimum of 100 minutes TOI in high danger chances for percentage with 69.1%

However, despite this, Nurse-Bouchard only outscored the opposition 8–6.

In terms of the composition of this pairing, it does raise some questions about their compatibility together. Although they’ve both made strides in the quality of their defensive game, Bouchard is still weak in the defensive zone and Nurse is nowhere near good enough to cover that and handle his own assignment. Not an ideal situation for a team’s top pairing.

Out of left field with this potential pairing

Has anyone ever thought of pairing Ekholm with Cody Ceci? Apparent a few people have, and they would give them a chance as the Oilers’ top pairing. In third place with 4.8% of votes is an Ekholm-Ceci top pairing.

Whereas the previous two options discussed had a track record of at least some success, Ekholm-Ceci has none. With a very limited amount of time together (just over nine minutes) on the ice at 5v5 last season, these two put up awful numbers.

Ekholm-Ceci had a CF% of just 30.8% and the two of them were outchanced 8–0 by their opponents.

Looking at their playstyles, the two of them do not really mesh well together either. Ceci is a defence first defender and has historically struggled to generate anything offensively. And although Ekholm is not terrible with certain aspects of the offensive side of the game, after all he has a career high of 44 points and a total of 21 points in 32 games with the Oilers. But it is not necessarily his area of expertise.

Putting these two together, especially as a top pairing, would not be a very good way to compose the roster. Ekholm-Ceci should probably not be an intentional pairing, even away from being the number one pairing.

Fans do not want to return to this as a top pairing

Recording an impressive zero votes in this week’s poll is a top pairing of Nurse-Ceci.

There may be a reason for this. These two were utilized as the Oilers’ top pairing for the past two seasons. The first season, Nurse-Ceci came together and were a surprisingly solid pairing. Although they were never amazing, the numbers they put up together were respectable considering the matchups and situations they were together for.

But we can sometimes have short memories, and after the struggles experienced by this pairing in the 2022–23 season, it would be best for the success of the team if these two did not take on a full time role as the top pairing of the Oilers again.

However, one fan on Twitter pointed out that maybe an ideal situation is where the team aims to have a 1A/1B set-up for their defence where the minutes are divided between Nurse’s pairing and Ekholm’s pairing, which makes sense to help ease the workload and balance matchups between the top two pairs.

Who would you pick for the Oilers top defensive pairing this season? Drop a comment down below or over on Twitter! Stay tuned there for next week’s Sunday Census poll.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Sean Laycock

Sean is a stubborn, lifelong Oilers fan who lives by the motto "There is always next year".

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