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Nurse-Ceci pairing remains a major problem for Oilers


Entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was the Connor McDavid-led Edmonton Oilers who carried the shortest odds of ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought.

Fast forward three weeks, and the Oilers find themselves in a distressed position, trailing the division-rival Vancouver Canucks 2-1 as the road team in the series.

Despite lengthy stretches of high-calibre play in the second round (including Game 3, where the Oilers outshot the Canucks 45 to 18), the margin of error for Kris Knoblauch’s team has been greatly reduced.

This may be the last meaningful juncture for Knoblauch to tinker with his lineup. If Edmonton is going to salvage this series and season, I return to a critical recommendation: The team must split up the ghastly defensive pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci.

Nurse and Ceci have not been spared scrutiny over the years as the two veteran blueliners were spliced together and thrown into touch minutes. The gambit here is simple: if this duo can survive, the premium minutes for the more capable puck-carriers and transition players – like Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard – can feast in their minutes.

The problem is you need this pair to survive. They are not surviving.

Though this is a long-running problem, let’s put the spotlight on the immediate three games played against Vancouver and study the minutes with and without the Nurse-Ceci pairing on the ice.

At even strength, they have already played 50 minutes together head-to-head with the Canucks and have been outscored 5-1 (-4) in the process. Notably, the Oilers have outscored the Canucks 6-3 (+3) with them off the ice.

But this isn’t just about weak goaltending or poor shooting luck when they are on the ice – expected goal rates on both sides of the ice are grim and in line with the results Knoblauch’s team is realizing:

Nurse and Ceci’s matchups are scattered across Vancouver’s top three lines – the most common opponents they have faced so far include Conor Garland, Elias Lindholm, and Dakota Joshua. Quality forwards, but still a cut below the likes of Elias Pettersson and company. But Nurse and Ceci still aren’t winning these minutes.

One of the critical issues when you watch Nurse and Ceci is that they are the polar opposite of a pairing you’d want to play behind Edmonton’s blistering offence. They are both uncomfortable playing with the puck in recovery and transition sequences, and can become turnover machines against good forechecks. Relatedly, they appear more comfortable behind the run of play, off the puck and defending shooting lanes.

Not only does such a strategy lend itself to keeping the puck in your own defensive zone, it also throttles the offensive production of the forwards they play with to a meaningful degree.

And though Edmonton is getting meaningful outperformance when they are off the ice, it isn’t meaningful enough, in part because Nurse and Ceci play such heavy minutes. So heavy that their usage at even strength over the course of these playoffs is indiscernible from the team’s top pair – Ekholm’s 144 minutes of usage, for example, are just three minutes (effectively four total shifts) ahead of Nurse and Ceci.

I would be remiss to not acknowledge there are other areas to look at across the Oilers lineup with respect to underperformance. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a meaningful middle-six forward for this team, has been a total no-show in the series. And goaltender Stuart Skinner, who was sterling in the opening round against Los Angeles, has let in several bad goals versus the Canucks.

But this is already an Oilers team thin on forward depth, and there’s no reasonable second option in net behind Skinner. Knoblauch needs to bet on a performance rebound in these areas the rest of the way.

What I’m sure Knoblauch cannot bet on is the rest of the Oilers lineup being so dominant it renders the performance of the Nurse-Ceci pairing moot. The Oilers are already winning these minutes to a significant degree and are still down in the series.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the blueline heading into Game 4. I suspect the Oilers brain trust are seeing this the same way, and with last change in their favour, now is the time to make the change.

Data vis Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey,