The Second Defence Pairing

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 2:15 am by Jonathan Willis

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The Edmonton Oilers entered the summer of 2016 with several
issues on the defensive side of the depth chart. Adam Larsson was deemed to be
the solution to the right side of the team’s top pairing, but there are still
questions regarding how the Oilers plan to approach some of the secondary
issues with the back end.

The top pairing is likely to include Larsson and countryman
Oscar Klefbom, and while not the focus of this piece it’s worth taking a moment
to look at that duo. Klefbom is a fantastic, well-rounded defenceman and will
be the key element on this pair. Larsson has history playing brutally tough
minutes and has been relatively successful with Andy Greene in that role. I’m
less certain of him being adequate in this role than I am of Klefbom, but he
seems a reasonable bet.

If we assume those two players are spoken for in the top
pairing, that leaves a question on the second unit. 2015 free agent signing
Andrej Sekera is likely to be the anchor piece, but who will he partner with?

Brandon Davidson

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Davidson enjoyed a breakout performance last season and
certainly belongs in this conversation. Playing largely in a third-pairing
role, he posted the best relative shot metrics of any regular defender in
Edmonton.

The trouble is two-fold. First, he doesn’t have a lot of
experience playing tough competition, though it’s hard to get experience
without being given a shot and based on his body of work last year he probably
deserves one. Second, he’s a left shot, and Sekera has historically
performed better
with righties.

He played 76 minutes at 5-on-5 with Sekera last season and
the results weren’t great, though not as bad as at first blush. The duo had a
46.2 percent Corsi rating together and fared a little worse in the goal
department (though goals aren’t predictive over such a short stint). The saving
grace is on the zone starts side of the equation, which we see when we look at
their numbers as a duo (via Puckalytics SuperWOWY tool):

  • 18 offensive zone draws, 32 defensive zone draws (a
    difference of 14)
  • 66 shots attempted for, 78 shots attempted against (a
    difference of 12)

I would guess that Davidson is coach Todd McLellan’s first
choice for this duty, and he’s probably a reasonable one. The shot metrics don’t
look that bad when we consider how often this pair started in the defensive
zone in its hour-and-change together.

Mark Fayne

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Fayne is a veteran defensive defenceman with long history
playing tough minutes. Unlike Davidson, he’s not a particularly well-rounded
player; he’s big and smart but needs help moving the puck. Playing with Sekera
(and with Andy Greene before that) he’s had that help and when he has it he’s
an effective complementary player. He is a righty, which helps his cause.

His performance with Sekera last year in a shutdown role was
reasonably impressive. The duo pretty much broke even by the shot metrics and
like most everyone in Edmonton had on-ice goal totals that were a little shy of
that.

Let’s give the 11 hours that Fayne and Sekera spent as a
tandem the same consideration we gave to Sekera/Davidson:

  • 200 offensive zone draws, 255 defensive zone draws (a
    difference of 55)
  • 604 shots attempted events for, 616 shots attempted events
    against (a difference of 12)
  • 22 goals for, 26 goals against (a difference of four)

Under the circumstances, those are pretty reasonable
results. We haven’t considered quality of competition, which requires a little
more explanation, but for a shutdown pairing on a team as poor as the Oilers
were last season that’s satisfactory. Fayne would be my first choice for the job
with Sekera next season.

Darnell Nurse   

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It’s impossible to rule out Nurse at this juncture. He’s a
raw talent with tremendous athletic gifts but who clearly needs polishing at
the NHL level. A big improvement year-over-year might have him in the conversation
on merit, but right now he has Davidson’s problems (inexperience, left shot)
without his solid on-ice results.

Unlike Davidson, Nurse spent a ton of time with Sekera last
year. In their more than six hours together at five-on-five, we saw a tandem
which was brutally ineffective:

  • 121 offensive zone draws, 135 defensive zone draws (a
    difference of 14)
  • 308 shots attempted for, 391 shots attempted against (a
    difference of 83)
  • 12 goals for, 18 goals against (a difference of six)

The Oilers clearly value Nurse, and given his on-ice
belligerence, size and speed it’s easy to understand why. Dan Barnes suggested
in passing
two weeks ago in the Edmonton
Journal
that Nurse may be a second-pairing option, and given the way
McLellan and his staff used him in 2016-17 it wouldn’t be at all surprising if
that was the plan. If Nurse/Sekera were to perform at all like they did last
year, that would be a costly mistake for Edmonton.

We will need to wait and see how the Oilers set things up
entering training camp. The team is still missing a true power play option on
the back end, and there are a number of events which could transpire over the
summer that might result in such a player becoming available. Barring that, the
second pair is likely to feature Sekera and one of the three players listed
above.

I’ve argued here that Fayne is the optimal choice, Davidson
a reasonable one and that Nurse would be a sizeable risk if employed in such a
manner. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS