Grading Oil 21/22: Part 2 Defence

Part 1: Intro and Goaltending

Part 2: Defence

Part 3: Forwards

Part 4: Coaching and Management

 

DEFENCE

 

As is always the case, any conversation about the Oilers blueline begins with Darnell Nurse. Last season he was even more incredible than usual, shooting at an elevated success rate including several OT winners. That level of “puck-luck” won’t happen every year, nor should we expect it to. Once again Nurse played an absurd amount of minutes, especially those in the most contested situations. Naturally the cap situation is top of mind when evaluating any player, but with a $9.5 million hit beginning next season even his elite play will come up against scrutiny.

 

Sure, at this point he may not provide the best value of the big money defencemen around the league, but it is also far from being the worst as well. Nurse is easily the 3rd most impactful skater on this roster, surpassed only by his MVP teammates. He’s smart enough to contribute in all facets of the game, fast enough to keep up with the top skaters, strong enough to contribute in heavy in-zone defence, competitive enough to battle through each and every whistle, committed enough to be an integral part of the team’s leadership, and skilled enough to be a vital contributor to the Oilers potent attack.

 

His value was felt in the playoffs, as what we learned to be a torn hip flexor clearly and understandably limited his effectiveness. Although the Oilers managed to win a couple rounds, one would think the team’s performance would have been much better were Nurse healthy.

 

There are few who possess as many tools, and while he continues to deliver such strong play he is no doubt deserving of his compensation. In short, he’s been everything we’ve expected of him, and would have been deserving of some consideration for a best-on-best team Canada. If his cap hit was a bit lower, say $7.5 million as opposed to $9.5 million, no one would have any issues with him or his play.

 

Darnell Nurse: A

 

Against a long, big money extension lots of doubts can creep into the spotlight. That said Nurse is virtually indispensable as the team’s top defender, capable of handling any situation. A well rounded top pair defenceman.

 

Next we’ll discuss Cody Ceci, Nurse’s eventual partner. The veteran had come off some up and down years with the Senators before starting to bounce around. Stops in Toronto and Pittsburgh saw some decent, if not ambivalent results, as fans of the Leafs and Penguins didn’t quite take to the player as much as his coaches and managers did. There were doubts heading into the season with how he would fit in or live up to expectations. All those expectations have since been shattered.

 

Most of the first half of the season Ceci was solid on the 2nd pair with Keith, providing a stable platform for Keith who had been struggling in Chicago for several seasons prior to this one. Perhaps the pair were being relied on a bit too heavily by Tippett, but under Woodcroft Ceci found himself moving higher into the lineup, logging huge minutes with Nurse on the top pair.

 

Like Nurse, he has the physicality to handle opponents, an important trait to have in the makeup of a strong blueline. He is probably best served to have a partner who is stronger at moving the puck than he is, which isn’t to say he can’t contribute in that area. The 3 seasons left on his deal is a long time, but for now Ceci is certainly outperforming his cap hit. Thanks to both his level and style of play he is likely to be a key part of this blueline heading into the near future.

 

Cody Ceci: A-

 

A relatively modest free agent signing, cap wise, especially considering that Ceci provided a high level of play consistently. A hugely valuable contribution. A top 4 defenceman.

 

Since we mentioned him and his prolonged struggles at the tail end of his time in Chicago, let’s talk about Duncan Keith. Keith has definitely bounced back, at least a bit, from those poor seasons, and has contributed a good level of play in some important minutes. He still has the ability to make strong passes in transition and is still a fierce competitor. There were certainly some lapses on his part, and it might be fair to hope the Oilers have better options to limit his role in the future.

 

The problem, however, lies in that which is beyond the ice. Sure, the value in the trade seemed unfavourable at the time considering Keith’s prolonged dip in play, large contract, and the fact that players with some similarities, Shane Gostisbehere for example, were acquired elsewhere around the league with draft capital as a sweetener, let alone a significantly cheaper acquisition cost.

 

It’s not necessarily fair to evaluate Keith’s contributions based on the trade, but it is fair to say his cap hit outweighs his role at this point. With one more season left on his deal it certainly doesn’t make things easier for the Oilers going forward, but it is manageable if Keith can be as good next season as he was in this one. Where he fits beyond this season is another question, but with one more year left in his deal there’s a chance he can play up to a similar level again next season.

 

Duncan Keith: B-

 

Keith logged consistent minutes all season and was a positive depth contributor, something one might not have been able to say about the end of his time in Chicago. The veteran is overcompensated cap wise, true, but authored a nice bounce back season. A puck moving, bottom pair defenceman.

 

While we are discussing offence leaning veterans we might as well discuss Tyson Barrie. It is no small feat for a defenceman to hit 40 points in a season, and no one is disputing the offensive contributions or capabilities of Barrie. The question is more about if your blueline can support his play from a stylistic standpoint. He’s settled into a sheltered spot on the third pair and spent a lot of time as the top power play option. It’s no secret that his shortcomings are on the defensive side of things.

 

It would be fair to characterize his cap hit and role on this team, as the Oilers have several other viable offensive options on the blueline in Nurse, Keith, and most importantly Bouchard, who seems poised if not destined to take Barrie’s spot on the power play at some point. At $4.5 million one would hope for a bigger role than the third pair as well, meaning it’s highly likely Barrie can live up to his cap hit outright.

 

In all, from a value perspective, Barrie is a bit on the luxurious or redundant side. From a strictly on ice perspective he does cement the Oilers blueline’s ability to move pucks. We might see a move in the future, or else his contract may force the Oilers into cuts elsewhere on the roster, but Barrie has been properly managed by the Woodcroft staff and has delivered in the minutes that he’s gotten.

 

Tyson Barrie: B-

 

A cumbersome contract and a questionable contributor to team defence, Barrie still possesses rare offensive ability, and has been effective with proper usage. A bottom pair offensive specialist.

 

I’ve put off talking about Bouchard long enough, and despite some ups and downs I’d say it was both a successful and promising campaign for the Oilers young defenceman. Early in the season he was playing top minutes with Nurse, which may have been a bit much, but he certainly showed that he might be able to grow into said role in the future. As Woodcroft took over, and honestly even towards the end of the Tippett era we saw his minutes scaled back.

 

Although setbacks can be frustrating it’s not always a bad thing. Bouchard looked comfortable on his pairing with Keith over the second half. He might never be as complete a player as Nurse, but there is a clearly evident quality to his game. With great puck skills, passing and shooting included, he should have a continued and growing impact on the offensive play of his team. From a defensive perspective we saw some positive signs including time on the penalty kill. He will likely never become a dominant physical defender but it is a good sign to see some value in this aspect of his game already.

 

Because of his skillset and handedness he does compete directly with Barrie for a great deal of opportunities on the team. On one hand it might hurt Bouchard not to have a clearer route to PP1, but on another having Barrie might give the Oilers a more consistent level of play as Bouchard finds his way in the league. It should not be overlooked that landing a talent such as Bouchard, as well as the high draft pick to select him, is not something easily afforded. Although he does make Barrie look exorbitant from a cap perspective, as he is already at least as good as his veteran teammate, it does both players a disservice to forget how unique a talent Bouchard is.

 

It is exciting to think that Bouchard is just starting to make his mark on the Oilers top 4, the beginning of what seems to be a years long run of play on a blueline that could certainly use it.

 

Evan Bouchard: A-

 

Continues to impress year to year with an increasing role, the uniquely talented defender saw top 4 usage most of the season. All but assured to become a core piece of the Oilers for years to come.

 

Beyond this point we start getting into role players. Kulak was a fantastic fit as a deadline acquisition, and the Oilers certainly appreciate his size and speed. Not that he isn’t without offensive contributions, but Kulak’s physicality alone makes him a good partner for all three of Keith, Barrie, and Bouchard, who could all use some muscle opposite. He can keep up with anyone as well as skate his way out of trouble, and can make some passes, but relative to the Oilers highly skilled defenders he is better served using his D partner for support when he can.

 

Brett Kulak: A

 

A deadline acquisition who outperformed expectations. A 4/5 defender who can spot start higher in the lineup.

 

Russell has been around a while, and Oiler fans know how much he can bring to the defensive side of things. Although undersized, in a sense, he plays with heart and reckless abandon as evidenced by the gaudy shot blocking totals in his career. He is strong at denying opponents zone entries and battles in the corners and at the net front. Although he missed time this year having him as an option headed into the playoffs diversifies the blueline’s skillset in a much needed way.

 

Kris Russell: B

 

Missed time, but ultimately delivered as expected. A 5/6 defensive specialist.

 

We saw some depth players fill in admirably at points this season. Lagesson played the best hockey of his career before being dealt for Kulak. Niemelainen played to his physical strengths and likely surpassed all of our expectations.

 

Markus Niemelainen: B+

 

A depth defenceman with physicality and a nose for hits.

 

Perhaps most noticeably Broberg got into some game action. It’s a bit much to question whether he should have been drafted ahead of x, y, or z at this point, he is younger than Bouchard. As a defenceman I think it’s even unreasonable to expect a player to make the NHL before 22 is asking a lot.

 

It was really encouraging to see him look the part in some NHL action, although it is for the best that he continues to play a big role in the AHL. With Woodcroft at the helm his chances of making the team in the near future are no doubt increased, as the coach relied on him in Bakersfield.

 

The Oilers have Nurse and Bouchard for the foreseeable future, not to mention the returning veterans. There’s a lot to work with, and Broberg should be free to work his way up the lineup at his own pace. At this point all he’s done is show us signs that he can become a regular NHLer in the near future.

 

Perhaps a bigger picture question, but if Broberg can reach his potential there’s no reason to think he could become a 2-way force like Nurse. He has all the tools of his Oilers teammate, which is an incredibly rare combination of traits. That is the endgame for the future of the Oilers blueline, a foundation that will empower McDavid and Draisaitl for years to come.

 

It’s been nice to see the Oilers let him play top minutes and work his way up the depth chart. Even if he spends all next season in the minors I don’t think it would be an indictment of him as a prospect. At least for one last season, the focus should be on getting Broberg as many minutes as possible, and if at any point he breaks into a regular role it will be a well earned and pleasant surprise.

 

Philip Broberg: B+

 

A prospect still not ready for full time action. With a broad toolset he can become a well rounded defender, similar to Nurse. Could be ready for top 4 minutes in the next season or two.