Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, and Russell are all logging over 20 minutes per night through the first 6 games of the season according to Hockey Reference. Bouchard is the next closest at 13:22 per night. That is a massive discrepancy in terms of usage between the top 4 and the third pairing. That confirms that there is quite a drop-off between the top 4 and the third pairing.
How big is the drop-off though? We need to turn to fancy stats to figure out how each guy is performing. I’ll start with the most familiar of the fancy stats: Corsi. For those that don’t know, this is the % of shots for while a player is on the ice. Here is how the defence stacks up so far:
By this measure, Bouchard and Garrison should be the top pairing. This measurement on its own clearly isn’t sufficient enough to measure a player’s performance. The next stat I’ll look at is Relative Corsi for, which is the difference between a player’s Corsi measurement when he is on the ice minus the team’s Corsi measurement when he is off of the ice. This is meant to show us who is making the biggest difference on the game in terms of shot creation.
Once again, it looks as if Bouchard and Garrison should be the top pairing by this measure. We need to take a closer look at why they are doing so well in terms of creating shots. The answer lies in their usage. Bouchard is starting in the offensive zone 64.7% of the time, and Garrison is starting there 60% of the time. It makes sense that they would be doing so well in terms of creating shots because they are in the offensive zone most of the time.
A coach gives a player more offensive zone starts because he doesn’t trust that they can defend well enough to warrant more defensive zone starts. Their limited ice time is more evidence that the coaches don’t trust them in their own zone. Bouchard is getting 12:11 of ice time at even strength, and Garrison is getting 9:07. Bouchard is -4 through 5 games, and he has looked lost on a few goals against. Garrison is -1 through 3 games. Garrison was -2 in the first period against Winnipeg, and he played a major role in both goals against. The fancy stats don’t outweigh negative contributions to goals against.
Garrison’s ice time has been significantly less than what Bouchard’s has been so far. Garrison got 11:11 of ice time in his first game against the Rangers, which is reasonably close to where Bouchard has been. His stat line had a lot of 0’s, which is good for a 3rd pairing defenceman. He played 8:53 in the Winnipeg game, and he played 8:32 in Saturday’s game against Nashville. He clearly hasn’t done enough to make up for the first period against Winnipeg yet.
Benning is getting a similar amount of ice time (11:31) to what Bouchard and Garrison are getting, but his Corsi performance has been awful. He is starting in the defensive zone 59.1% of the time, and his Corsi is 38.6%. I would expect his Corsi to be in the mid-40’s with that kind of usage, but it has been worse than that. Benning is at -4 for the season so far. It’s needless to say that Benning could benefit from more offensive zone starts whenever he comes back into the lineup.
Peter Chiarelli has been criticized for not being able to find a suitable replacement for Andrej Sekera after his Achilles surgery on August 14th. I want to dig into this a bit more.
Sekera’s numbers last year in his 36 games played were as follow:
Relative Corsi: 1.2
Offensive Zone Starts: 57.4%
Even Strength TOI: 14:05
Sekera wasn’t particularly good after coming back from his injury last year. Obviously, he was hindered by his knee problem. That being said, he was sheltered with a high % of offensive zone starts and he still finished with a Corsi below 50%. He also managed to be 2nd worst on the team with a -15 rating… in only 36 games!!
Benning was on the team last year, so we can’t count him as a replacement for Sekera. Sekera was getting a little bit more ice time and a slightly lower % of offensive zone starts, but I would argue that Bouchard and Garrison have been approximately as effective as Sekera was last year. Garrison plays on Sekera’s side, so I will examine him as the closest replacement for Sekera.
Garrison’s Corsi is better than Sekera’s was, and their Relative Corsi stats are essentially the same. Sekera was given a slightly lower percentage of offensive zone starts last year. The biggest difference is in ice time between the two. I can mostly attribute that to new assistant coach Trent Yawney, who McLellan has given full responsibility for in-game management of the defence to. Yawney has clearly been using his 3rd pairing less than what the coaching staff last year did. Matt Benning is the only player that was used in the bottom pairing last year and this year based on ice time so far. Benning got 15:50 of even strength ice time per game last year, and he is getting 11:31 this season. Benning has struggled this year, and he struggled at the start of last year as well. In his first 6 games last year, Benning got more than 14 minutes every game. Yawney is clearly relying on his top 4 much more this year.
We can reasonably assume that based on how last season finished for Sekera, his usage wouldn’t be all that much different than that of Garrison and Bouchard thus far due to the influence of Yawney. Sekera would probably be getting similar minutes to what Bouchard is getting. Garrison is not superior to Sekera, but the numbers suggest that Garrison is not an entirely insufficient replacement for the performance that Sekera had last season.
I will say that what Sekera provided last year wasn’t good enough. Yes, you can infer that Garrison’s performance hasn’t been good enough either by that logic. Don’t mistake my comparison of the two as praise for Garrison. Given the other available options, I’m not complaining about the Garrison signing though. Sekera went down on August 14th. Teams usually have their rosters completed for the most part by that point in the off-season. Here are the UFA defencemen that have been signed by NHL teams since August 14:
Jake Dotchin ($800k, basically fired by TB for reporting to camp overweight)
Luca Sbisa ($1.5 million, would not have fit under the cap BEFORE putting Sekera on LTIR)
Brandon Davidson ($650k, turned down a PTO offered by Oilers)
Michal Cjakovsky (who?)
Jakub Jerabek (we know what happened there)
Here are the UFA defencemen that are still available:
Sure, Sbisa would’ve been nice, but he was too expensive. Davidson rejected the Oilers because they wouldn’t offer him a contract, and he reportedly was close to getting a contract done with a couple of other teams. In the end, he had to settle for what the Oilers would’ve given him, but with Chicago. Chiarelli out the offer out there, and the player said no. That’s the player’s decision. The four available UFA defencemen have all played their way out of the league. I wouldn’t rather have any of them than Garrison.
There were rumours of the Oilers looking to trade for a defenceman upon putting Sekera on LTIR. The only trade involving a defenceman of any significance since August 14th was the Erik Karlsson trade. Karlsson didn’t want to be traded here, so any discussion about whether Edmonton should or should not have traded for Karlsson is irrelevant.
Yes, the Oilers could use the LTIR relief that they have for Sekera on a guy like Justin Faulk. The thing to remember about LTIR is that once Sekera comes back, then the cap relief that the team got disappears. They need to be cap compliant once Sekera is healthy. The Oilers were essentially right up against the cap before putting Sekera on LTIR. That means that the Oilers will have to move the basically the same amount of dollars out that they will spend on LTIR relief upon Sekera being reactivated. If the Oilers were to add Faulk’s $4.83 million cap hit to the roster, then they would need to shed $4.83 million to get under the cap once Sekera comes back. We would need to factor in the dollars going out in a Faulk deal, and the dollars going down to the AHL upon activating Sekera, but it would be a lot of money to have to move off of the roster upon activating Sekera. If Sekera comes back before the trade deadline, then it could be done via trade. It’s not likely that he will come back that early. If that were to be the case, the team wouldn’t be able to get under the cap if they had another big contract.
Chiarelli could add a cheaper defenceman; but by the time you factor in the cost of acquiring the player and the cost of removing dollars to get under the cap upon Sekera returning, that cheaper defenceman suddenly becomes pretty expensive. After looking at what UFA defencemen were available after August 14th, the trades that have happened since then, and the cap implications of trading for one, I’d say that Garrison was the best available option.
The Oilers also have Kevin Gravel, who was signed before Sekera was hurt. Here were his numbers from last season in his 16 games played:
Relative Corsi: -6.9
Offensive Zone Starts: 53.0%
Even Strength TOI: 13:09
His Relative Corsi is the only number that is slightly worrisome, but that stat is also highly dependent on his teammates. I would argue that Gravel’s teammates in LA last season were better than the Oilers have been so far this year. That low Relative Corsi number isn’t anything to worry about with Gravel. I liked how Gravel looked in LA at the end of last season, and I do think that he will be an upgrade over Garrison.
If that’s the case, then you might question why Garrison was signed in the first place. The answer is because Chiarelli was able to maximize the amount of LTIR space received for putting Sekera on LTIR by signing Garrison. I outlined the math in another article from earlier in the season, but the Oilers were $3500 away from the cap after sending Ethan Bear to the AHL and signing Garrison and Alex Chiasson. Gravel makes $50k more than Garrison. Having Gravel on the roster instead of Garrison would’ve put the Oilers over the cap before the LTIR move. Chiasson and Garrison have contracts for the league minimum. If Gravel would’ve been on the roster to start the year, then the Oilers wouldn’t have been able to sign Chiasson, and they would’ve decreased the amount of LTIR relief that they have access to because they would be further under the cap. Signing Garrison was the best financial decision, but whether or not it was the best hockey decision remains to be seen. It will depend on how well Gravel does.
Now that the season is underway and Sekera is on LTIR, the Oilers can afford to have Gravel up rather than Garrison once Benning comes back if they so choose. While Garrison has been a suitable replacement for what Sekera did last year, there is a chance that Gravel will be more effective than Garrison has been AND more effective than Sekera was last year.
The real issue with the defence is that the Oilers lost the 2016-17 version of Sekera, whose numbers were as follow:
Relative Corsi: -0.4
Offensive Zone Starts: 50.2%
Even Strength TOI: 17:15
PP TOI: 2:12
PK TOI: 2:01
Sekera did everything for the Oilers in their playoff year. He didn’t need to be sheltered like he was last year. His special teams time was cut in half last year. We can’t sit here and say that Jason Garrison isn’t as good as Andrej Sekera was in 2016-17, and then complain that the GM didn’t do a good enough job of replacing him when he got hurt in the middle of August 2018. The goal was for Chiarelli to replace the 2018-19 version of Sekera. Sekera isn’t the same player now that he was then. He is 32 years old. He is currently recovering from his second major injury in the last two years. Oilers fans need to accept that the Sekera that we once knew and loved is gone.
The game plan has always been for Klefbom and Nurse to pass Sekera on the left side of the depth chart during the term of Sekera’s contract. The unknown at the time was when exactly Klefbom and Nurse would pass him. Klefbom passed him in 2016-17; but he regressed last year, and he has yet to find that same form this season. Sekera’s injury, which was impossible to predict, aided in Nurse passing him last season. Nurse is not at the point where Sekera was in 2016-17 yet, and it could be argued that Nurse won’t ever have the same offensive impact that Sekera did. The cumulative effect of losing the 2016-17 version of Sekera, Klefbom’s regression since the playoffs, and Nurse’s progression has been negative to this point. THAT is the issue, and it is an issue that could still resolve itself this season through the natural development of Klefbom and Nurse.
The right side wouldn’t be any different if Sekera were healthy. The right side would’ve been Larsson, Russell, and Benning if everyone were healthy. Bouchard is getting an audition here, and he has out-played Benning to this point. That is on Benning. Here were Benning’s numbers from last year:
Relative Corsi: 1.6
Offensive Zone Starts: 56.7%
Even Strength Ice Time: 15:41
That is the Matt Benning that we need to play on the bottom pairing. If he can play like he did last year, then I have no problem with Benning.
Honestly, I have no problem with the defence as it is currently constructed. They simply need to play better. Klefbom needs to find his offensive game. Nurse needs to keep trending in the right direction. The team can’t afford for him to regress. Matt Benning needs to be better (once he returns). Garrison needs to figure out his defensive game. Kevin Gravel could potentially be better than Garrison, which would be nice. The Oilers are still missing that elite powerplay defenceman. Evan Bouchard is trending in that direction, but I don’t expect him to be that guy until next season. I’ll take my chances with Klefbom running the top unit until Bouchard is ready rather than making a big trade to acquire that piece. The defence group as whole hasn’t been spectacular to start the year, but I have faith that they will figure it out.
Thanks to HockeyReference.com for all of the stats that were used in this article, and to CapFriendly.com for the contract and salary cap information.