Edmonton Oilers offseason outlook Volume #2: Defence

Following the loss on Monday this Oilers squad has a ton of work to do this summer, one thing would be the status of Evan Bouchard
2024 Stanley Cup Final - Game Four
2024 Stanley Cup Final - Game Four / Harry How/GettyImages
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The big ticket items will be the hot topic this summer prior to July 1st and beyond. Leon Draisaitl is entering the final season of his sweetheart deal and Evan Bouchard is likewise in his final year of the bridge deal he signed, and both are going to be getting substantial raises.

With the recent reports from insider Frank Seravalli suggesting that Leon Draisaitl's camp has indicated they want to sign long termas well as Bouchard's, this storyline is no longer as interesting to me as some others. What does interest me is that as of right now they have a mere seven forwards signed for next season and five defensemen, with 12.4 million dollars in cap space to work with according to spotrac.com.

Now, this is not the end of the world in terms of their long term outlook but, some of Holland's mishandling of the salary cap is going to come back to haunt them next month when it comes time to pay the piper. The potential Bouchard and Draisaitl extensions wouldn't kick in until the following season of course. But at that juncture, McDavid will also be due for a pay raise of his own which will most likely be the biggest contract in the salary cap era.

So what does that mean for next season?

Everybody is free to assess a hockey team in their own way of course, and during Ken Holland's tenure, there have been opinions a-plenty as to why the Oilers have not been able to get over the hump and win a title. When compared to the teams populated by other greats of the game, McDavid and Draisaitl should have at least one championship by now in the eyes of many, I happen to be one of them.

My assessment is not super sexy or controversial, and no I did not think this team needed to add Guentzel at the deadline to augment their depth scoring. Nor do I think they need Saros, Markstrom or any other seemingly available superstar goaltender. This is not to say that adding Guentzel would be a bad thing (more on that later), or that you can't improve your team in every way or any way that you can. But the biggest need it was not.

What this team needs is one to two consistent defenders who don't make mistakes. That's it.

In 2023 prior to the deadline, the Oilers were improving their place in the standings but we're still struggling mightily in two categories. Save percentage and goals against.

The diagnosis was met with a plethora of prescriptions to cure these ailments but none of the most discussed made a ton of sense to me such as getting Erik Karlsson, a better goalie, or more scoring depth. Scoring depth is something you obviously can't have enough of but the concern of not having it in Edmonton has been overblown the last three seasons.

The very glaring issue to me at the time, and has always been a simple tactical weakness this defensive group has not ever been able to execute as a unit, and that is puck watching in their own zone but particularly as the weak side defenseman. This has permeated throughout coaching changes dating back to Todd McLellan in the case of Darnell Nurse which tells us one of two things. Either these coaching staffs are not identifying this kink in need or ironing it out, or they are indeed and the player is unable to execute.

What's most frustrating for myself and Oiler fans alike is that this is a very simple objective that young players are taught early and execute on a regular basis at every level of hockey. The argument that "it's harder to do in the NHL" doesn't hold up either and here's why.

Number one is the obvious fact that many defenders in the NHL do it all the time and effectively, and moreover, the fact the league is the best in the world shouldn't impact your ability to turn yourself around and check the appropriate player you're assigned to.

February 28th of that season Ken Holland traded for Mattias Ekholm who has made a living eliminating opposing forwards with this technique and he fit like a glove as we all know. As a result, just with his minutes alone, the Oilers goals against dramatically decreased and Stuart Skinner and Jack Campbell enjoyed better save percentages and more success. They famously went 18-4 down the stretch of that season entering the playoffs. Edmonton would greatly benefit by adding another player like him. Not necessarily to his calibre as that's unrealistic, but someone who plays a responsible and positionally sound defensive brand of hockey specifically in the home plate area around his net.

Darnell Nurse is a great player and in my honest opinion gets a ton of undeserved flak considering the AAV attached to his name, and in turn doesn't get enough credit for the things he does well. One thing he does not do well though is protect the slot as the weak side defender. He is a frequent puck watcher and as opposed to taking the man or the stick impeding the net front player's ability to get a quality shot off, he elects to follow where the puck is and attempts to block the pass.

To me, this is a very amendable bad habit. He is an incredible athlete, tough as nails, and a smart player. He is hyper aware of when it's a good time to jump into the rush and is generally good at making reads with the puck. It's his play without the puck that tends to cost him and his line mates. Pinching isn't a strength of his either...

Cody Ceci is also a common offender of this same phenomenon which is why it's always so puzzling to us that even the new coach Kris Knoblauch will continue to go back to the well with this pairing when all of the statistical and video evidence tells us it does not help, it only hurts.