Potential 2021 Oilers D Deployment

I can’t post an article on this day without taking a moment to remember Joey Moss. He was a lovable fixture within the Oilers and Eskimos organizations. His passion was always evident, especially while watching him sing the national anthem at the top of his lungs before every game. The mere mention of his name would always bring a smile to any Edmonton sports fan’s face, and I’m certain that will never change. Joey will be missed by all of us. May he rest in peace.

Oscar Klefbom’s injury has created a hole on the left side of the Oilers defence. Tyson Barrie was brought in to fill his spot on the top powerplay unit, but he plays on the right side. It will be up to newly extended veteran Kris Russell and the up and coming Caleb Jones to fill Klefbom’s skates on the left side. The question I want to tackle here is which guy should play on the 2nd pairing. There are arguments to be made for and against both guys.

Most people seem to agree that the pairings should look as follows:

Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Caleb Jones – Adam Larsson
Kris Russell – Tyson Barrie

These pairings have one mobile puck mover on each pairing, which is something that the Oilers have not been able to say in quite a while. Most people seem to believe that Jones is ready for top 4 work, and they prefer the younger and more mobile Jones to Russell the stay at home defender.

I wanted to take a closer look at some numbers to see if these will truly be the best pairings for coach Tippett to employ for the coming season, and to see if they are properly slotted. The two numbers that I’ve examined here are each player’s deployment vs each type of competition last season, and their goals for % against each type of competition last season. All of these stats were found at PuckIQ.

Deployment last season:

Time vs Elite Time vs Middle Time vs Gritensity
Nurse 481.8 (35.6%) 456.9 (33.8%) 413.93 (30.6%)
Bear 468.42 (36.1%) 437 (33.7%) 390.72 (30.1%)
Larsson 287.43 (34%) 261.32 (30.9%) 297.65 (35.2%)
Jones 135.45 (23.8%) 193.43 (34%) 239.48 (42.1%)
Russell 200.75 (26.2%) 271.03 (35.4%) 294.13 (38.4%)
Barrie 306.3 (24.2%) 493.47 (39%) 459.85 (36.8%)

If we were to base this on last season’s deployment alone, Nurse and Bear were clearly the top pairing.

We have to remember that Jones was quite heavily sheltered last season and that his sample size is small. Jones played a staggering 42.1% of his time against low level competition last year, as opposed to 23.8% of his time against Elite competition. Russell’s minutes were a bit more evenly distributed, but his deployment was still heavily skewed towards low level competition.

Larsson’s splits are interesting. He played most of his time against low level competition, but he played only 10 fewer minutes against Elite competition. I would’ve expected Larsson to have spent more time against Middle competition as a 2nd pairing defender, but that’s not how it turned out. Barrie spent most of his time against Middle competition, and he spent a good chunk of time playing against low level competition. He played a surprisingly low percentage of his time against Elite competition (24.2%). Let’s see what the goals for % reveals.

Even Strength Goals For %:

% vs Elite % vs Middle % vs Gritensity
Nurse 58.1% (25-18) 38.9% (14-22) 41.5% (22-31)
Bear 56.8% (25-19) 34.3% (12-23) 46.2% (24-28)
Larsson 50% (10-10) 38.1% (8-13) 44% (11-14)
Jones 58.3 (7-5) 50% (9-9) 55% (11-9)
Russell 45.5% (5-6) 62.5% (10-6) 35.7% (5-9)
Barrie 41.2% (14-20) 44.4% (16-20) 58% (28-21)

Nurse and Bear’s performance against Elite competition was sparkling last season. I don’t think anyone would argue that anyone but those two should be the top pairing.

Jones’s goals for % against all levels of competition jump off of the page. He is the only Oilers defenceman to have a 50% or better goals for % against each level of competition. That is why so many Oilers fans have him playing in the top 4 and on their protected lists for the expansion draft. I’m still a bit hesitant on Jones. I have to use the sample size argument here. You can see that it was 7 goals for and 5 goals against against Elite competition. He more than held his own against Elite competition, but I need to see more of a sample size than 12 events and 135 minutes before I will feel comfortable anointing him as a 2nd pairing defenceman.

Russell’s 45.5% goals for % against Elite competition doesn’t look anywhere near as good as Jones’s 58.3%, but when you see that it 5 goals for and 6 goals against, it really isn’t upsetting to me. The thing that I noticed when looking at Russell’s numbers is his 62.5% goals for % against Middle competition. That is the type of competition that he would face the most as a 2nd pairing defenceman, and he was better against that type of competition than any other Oilers defenceman by 12.5%. The other thing I noticed about Russell is that his goals for % was actually the worst against low level competition. He is at his best against tougher competition.

Larsson (50%) was much better against Elite competition than Barrie was (41.2%). However, Barrie was better than Larsson against Middle and low level competition. Larsson was worse against Middle competition (38%) than Barrie was against Elite competition. It’s a bit of a coin flip between these two guys, but I would be trying to keep Larsson away from Middle level competition.

In all honesty, there are solid arguments to be made for either Jones – Larsson or Russell – Barrie being the 2nd pairing. The 2nd pairing is going to get a bunch of minutes with one of the McDavid or Draisaitl lines. The Oilers are one of the few teams in the league that can boast having two of the top 20 even strength point scoring defencemen from last season on their roster for 2021: Nurse and Barrie. I would do everything in my power to make sure that Barrie ends up on the ice with one of those two lines as often as possible because he will do a better job of getting the puck to one the big guys than Larsson or Jones possibly could. That and the fact that Russell plays his best against Middle competition and that he was only 1 goal away from a 50% goal share against Elite Competition last season would be why I would have Russell – Barrie as the 2nd pairing.

Jones’s performance was pretty stable across all levels of competition, but Larsson’s performance against Middle competition is concerning. I also think that lowering Larsson’s minutes a little bit will be better for his nagging back issues. I think that there is a reason that Jones’s minutes were so sheltered last season. I think that going from heavily sheltered 3rd pairing minutes to 2nd pairing minutes is a big jump. Having a 3rd pairing that can more than hold its own against Elite competition is gong to be a big luxury for coach Tippett and the Oilers.

Let’s take a quick look at the even strength ice time per game last season for these guys as found on Hockey Reference:

Nurse – 20:21
Bear – 19:22
Barrie – 19:10
Larsson – 18:11
Russell – 14:26
Jones – 13:59

If we look at the ice time this way, I see a clear top 4 here, but 3 of them are righties. Russell will get more time per game this year. Tippett has said that he thinks Jones is ready for a bigger role this year, but a bigger role could mean more ice time on a more oft used 3rd pairing. I see the Russell – Barrie and Jones – Larsson pairings being utilized pretty evenly, but I would wager a guess that Russell and Barrie will see fractionally more even strength ice time than Jones and Larsson in 2021.

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