Darnell Nurse in major defensive slump: Edmonton Oilers coach "open for experiments" for Game 2

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Edmonton Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch addressed the hot button issue of the Cody Ceci-Darnell Nurse pairing today, saying there may be changes for the defence pairings for Game 2.

Said Knoblauch: “As for our d-pairs going into Game 2, we are open for some experiments, changing things around a little bit but, as I said, we haven’t decided on anything yet.”

Added Sportsnet’s Mark Spector on social media: “Concern over Nurse-Ceci pairing, and perhaps more minutes for Broberg could lead to some Game 2 changes.”

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Spector asked Knoblauch about what Edmonton’s internal analytics said about Ceci and Nurse and whether would stick with them.

“They were out there for two goals against,” said Knoblauch. “We look at players involved in scoring chances for and against. If a player has a good game obviously they’re going to end up plus by quite a bit. And for a defencemen, both of them were involved in two scoring chances against and both they got scored against. I guess if you look at actually goals for and against it’s not favourable. The expected goals for and against, it doesn’t paint the same picture at all, completely different.

“And we are always balancing on what’s best for those two players, but also what’s best for all six of our defencemen. As a coaching staff we always have to make those decisions, it’s not easy. Sometimes you have to give a little to get something else. As for the match-up next game, we haven’t made any decisions yet.”

At the Cult of Hockey, our Game 1 video review of Grade A shots at even strength had Nurse making one major contribution to a Grade A shot, a stretch pass kicking off a Warren Foegele Grade A shot in the second period, and two major mistakes on Grade A shot against, both of them goals for Florida.

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Ceci made not one major contribution to a Grade A shot for, and two mistakes on the goals against.

Overall in the playoffs, both players have struggled, Nurse in particular, while Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm and Philip Broberg have excelled.

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Jeff Marek on the 32 Thoughts podcast spelled out the Game 1 issue with Nurse and Ceci in no uncertain terms: “Another story in this one was the defence pair of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci who on the two goals, the Verhaege goal and the Rodrigues goal, just flat out they got beat. They got beat with bad decisions. They got beat with puck-watching. They got beat losing battles. They got beat chasing. Those were the two that were exhibit A and B for the Edmonton Oilers. I know it’s to criticize defencemen when you don’t score any goals, I get it, but that was a problem on Saturday night.”

On the same podcast reporter Elliotte Friedman mentioned commentator Kevin Bieksa’s great breakdown of what went wrong on the two goals against Edmonton.

If you missed it, here is what Bieksa had to say after the second period: “You got to feel good if you’re an Oilers fan because they played some pretty good hockey, but I think these goals in particular are just bad reads and bad mistakes. It’s something you can clean up for sure by watching video. (On the first goal against) Ceci and Nurse have to identify this is straight 3-on-2 quick strike. So what they have to do is hold the middle and not allow themselves to get 2-on-1. When Nurse goes here (towards the boards and puck carrier) he gets 2-on-1 and when Ceci goes (towards puck carrier) he gets 2-on-1. And it’s great passing by Florida and it’s in the back of the net and Skinner can’t really save that. That’s all because they open themselves up. They got. to buy time. (On the second goal against) The coverage is good, the positioning is good here but just having your stick on the ice (which Nurse failed to do) is a key detail. I know you don’t think the pass is coming, and it’s kind of not really your guy, but just having sticks on the ice in the d-zone, those are two easy things to clean up if you’re the Oilers.”

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After the game, Nurse said, “There are a few things we need to clean-up.”

On the first goal against, he said, “They scored a nice goal off the rush, made two good plays.”

On the second goal, he said, “He wins a puck race and goes through my wicket. I got a piece of it.”

My take

1. This is the worst defensive slump in Nurse’s NHL career and it’s coming at a bad time for the team.  He’s usually more steady that this, sometimes far more steady. But he’s now leaking both Grade A shots and goals against.

In this playoff season Nurse has the worst official NHL goals plus-minus of any player this century at -15. The next worse is Vancouver d-man Christian Ehrhoff in 2011 at -13 in 23 games for Vancouver, then Marc-Andre Bergeron at -12 in 19 games for Montreal in 2011 and Esa Lindell at -12 in 27 games for Dallas in 2020.

Nurse has had a handful of good playoff games, in particular when he was paired with Brett Kulak, but overall he’s struggled mightily.

Together in 179 even strength minutes in the playoffs, Nurse and Ceci have been on the ice for 5 goals for, 14 against, a 26% Goal For Percentage.

Without Nurse in 154 minutes, Ceci is 3 goals for, 2 against, a 60% Goal For Percentage.

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Without Ceci in 155 minutes, Nurse is 5 goals for, 12 against, a 29% Goal For Percentage.

Without either Nurse or Ceci on the ice at even strength, Edmonton is 30 goals for, 19 against, a 61% Goal For Percentage.

With such numbers, there can be no denying and no question that the Oilers face a huge issue with the slumping Nurse just now.

dman pairings2. It’s perplexing why the coaching staff put Nurse and Ceci together for Game 1. I’ve yet to hear a reasonable explanation, though there may well be one.

It’s obvious that Nurse and Ceci now need to be split up.

What to do?

Ceci and Broberg did well together, 1 goal for, zero against in 33 minutes, so Edmonton could go back to them, pairing Nurse with Kulak.

3. It could well be, though, with the emergence of Broberg as a strong player and with his ability to play the right side, as seen in a solid Game 1 performance, that the best idea is to go with Broberg and Nurse on one pairing, Ceci and Kulak on the other, or Desharnais and Kulak on the other. I’d stick with Ceci over Desharnais, as Desharnias has struggled to move the puck and has had defensive struggles of his own these playoffs.

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4. Broberg and Nurse could work well, giving Nurse the ability to free-lance a bit more, with the big, fast and sound Broberg there to cover for him. In limited minutes, Broberg is excelling so far.

On the play of young d-man Philip Broberg, Knoblauch told TSN’s Ryan Rishaug: “Broby has been outstanding for us. We’ve put him in a lot of different situations… It comes back to the Dallas game (Game 4), where it was almost a must-win, and he was inserted in the line-up and plays a pretty good game. Since that game he’s just continually gotten better and better and better.”

Nurse? He’s leaking more goals against and Grade A shots against than any other Oilers d-men in the 2024 playoffs, according to video review of all Grade A shots and goals against by the Cult of Hockey.

The Oil’s defence is broken into three groups, the d-men who are crushing it in the playoffs, Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm and Broberg, those who are holding their own, Brett Kulak and to some extent Ceci (at least when Ceci is not paired with Nurse), and those who are struggling mightily, Nurse and Desharnais.

The job of the coach is to get the right players on the ice, which means maximizing the good the top performers can bring and minimizing the harm caused by struggling players.

Knoblauch had a major misstep in Game 1 but we’ll see how he does in Game 2, and whether or not he can get a good or great game out of Nurse and Ceci if they’re paired up with the right partners.

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