Troy Stecher facing surgery, further limiting options to revamp Oilers' struggling bottom four

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All season long, Edmonton Oilers heavily relied on the same six men to man their blueline. Among them, Evan Bouchard, Mattias Ekholm, Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais each played at least 78 games, missing just 12 among them. On average they played 26 hours of hockey, ranging from Bouchard’s 31 to Desharnais’ 20+.

Just two substitutes saw action, and only for about 2 hours each. Philip Broberg played 12 games and 139 minutes, most of that as part of a 7-man crew before Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson were let go on Nov 12. With the obvious lack of NHL-calibre depth at the position, GM Ken Holland added Troy Stecher at the trade deadline. Stecher saw action in 7 games, playing 112 minutes.

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Put another way, the primary sextet played over 97% of all minutes along the Edmonton blueline.

Make it 100% in the playoffs. The good news is that all have remained healthy, or at least, healthy enough to play all 15 playoff games to this point. The bad news? Three of them have been getting caved on the regular.

Worse news arrived on Tuesday morning:

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Finally, some hard news on Stecher, after whispered reports that he hadn’t been skating with the main group for some days now. And it’s “hard” news in both senses of the word. Somehow at some point he suffered an ankle injury. Perhaps he tripped over a curb on his way to the mail box? It sure didn’t happen in a hockey game, at least not in the playoffs.

Which severely limits Kris Knoblauch’s options to shuffle up the blueline group. Broberg is the only serious option, and he has played exactly 2 NHL games since late November. Namely, Games 81 and 82 while the Oilers were resting up a few guys while getting thumped 5-2 and 5-1 at Arizona and Colorado.

Noentheless, the young Swede’s availability might be an appealing option at this point.

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Fair to say that tinkering with the pairings may have worked here and there but has not stemmed the bleeding being endured by Desharnais, Ceci and especially Nurse. Oilers D by GA

Sorted by raw goals against at 5v5, it’s not pretty. To put Nurse’s 18 GA in perspective, his teammates/rotating partners Ceci and Desharnais are tied (with Esa Lindell and Charlie McAvoy) for second most in the NHL at 12 each, 6 fewer than Nurse.

What’s worse, the three defenders who have been out for the most goals against, have also been involved in the fewest goals for. Their combined deficit almost entirely offsets the positive outscoring of the other three rearguards.

I mean, look at those goal shares. Three guys at 60-70%, counterbalanced by the other three loitering in the 30% range. Essentially break-even hockey for the team as a whole, which until the current series has been masked by Edmonton’s superior special teams play.

Digging a little deeper, here are 5v5 goal shares for each defence pairing:

Oilers D pairs by GF-GA

The first pairing has been terrific and has been paired together almost constantly, e.g. Ekholm has played 248 minutes with Bouchard at 5v5 and just 18 minutes with other partners. Bouchard has had a few more minutes with other partners, notably an occasional shift with Kulak after an Edmonton penalty kill, a nice wrinkle given neither plays regularly on the shorthanded unit. Note that Bouchard’s GF-GA do not add up because twice he was the only d-man on the ice when Edmonton scored seconds after the end of a powerplay, both in Game 5 vs. L.A.

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The bottom four on the other hand have been mixed and matched more often. There we find that both righties, Ceci and Desharnais, have fared reasonably well when paired with Kulak, but both have been shelled when partnered with Nurse.

There is no hiding the fact that Edmonton’s highest-priced defender has been having a horrible time of it, and at both ends of the sheet. The 6-time 30-point scorer has managed just a pair of secondary assists through 15 games.While it remains subject to change as long as the Oilers stay alive in the postseason, his +/- of dash-12 currently stands as the second-worst playoff total of the current century, barely ahead of Christian Ehrhoff’s -13 during Vancouver’s run to the finals in 2011. For now.

The alert reader might be saying, “Gross totals aren’t fair to this player. Nurse plays big minutes, and the Oilers have played a lot of games to this point.” True to a point. Edmonton’s 15 GP ranked second to only Dallas (16), though Nurse’s 250 minutes at 5v5 rank twelfth in the NHL and fourth on his own team. In all situations he’s averaging just 19:48 per night, a 10% cut from a regular season which didn’t include any double-overtime games.

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One wonders, are his minutes being cut due to his poor results? Or is there some sort of physical issue he’s playing through that is driving both the reduction in minutes and those bad outcomes? Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.

Let’s parse those numbers again, this time on a rate basis. We’ve set the threshold at 150 minutes at 5v5 in order to weed out those teams that got eliminated in the first round. That leaves 43 defenders for the 8 squads who won at least a round. Let’s sort those 43 by Goals Against per 60 minutes:

NHL D GA 60

Egads. Nurse’s 4.33 GA /60 is far and away the worst among the final eight teams. His occasional partner Desharnais is the only rearguard within a goal. Just one more defender, Vancouver’s Carson Soucy, is as high as 3.00. Just nine others are at 2.5 or worse.

The case that Nurse might be, uhh, nursing an injury of some sort was strengthened somewhat with word that he missed today’s practice.

Practice lines May 28Nurse joined Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane and Adam Henrique on the “maintenance day” list. All three forwards are known to be coping with injury; seems likely Nurse is at well.

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In the absence of both Nurse and Stecher, Broberg was elevated into the top six for this practice, where he joined forces with his old AHL partner Desharnais, though likely not on the “second” pairing as shown.

The only way Oil fans are likely to see these pairs on Wednesday night is if Nurse is unable to play. For all his struggles, the alternate captain seems a highly unlikely bet to be healthy scratched.

Broberg does bring a skill set that differs from those of Ceci, Desharnais and (the current version of) Nurse. The 22-year-old Swede is highly mobile and can skate or pass the puck out of his own end with alacrity. While his NHL exposure was limited this season, he got a ton of work in Bakersfield, where according to AGM Keith Gretzky he was logging as many as 30 minutes in some games, playing all situations.

This would be a highly-leveraged time to to put him in the pressure cooker of the NHL playoffs, but many observers would agree the status quo is not a winning formula. Might Knoblauch go to Woodcroft’s old blueprint of 7 defencemen? Might one of Desharnais or Ceci sit out? Might Nurse??

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All we know for sure at this moment is that Troy Stecher isn’t an option. But Philip Broberg sure is.

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