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Decisions Looming on Defence

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With Justin Schultz nearing his return, a quick glance at how the Oilers did without him, and what the options will be on defence.

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Defenceman Justin Schultz is expected to make his return to the lineup during the current road trip after missing 12 games due to a back injury. Over the course of those 12 games, the club has shown some improvement, but remains at the bottom of the league with only 15 points (as of Wednesday evening).

The team is coming off of disappointing losses to the Capitals and Blackhawks this past week, games in which the Oilers controlled play for stretches and had good chances. What stood out, for me at least, has been the improved play of the defence, which has traditionally been a weak spot for the club. There are still some shaky individual performances, but for the most part, the team appears to be suppressing shots better, and limiting the scoring chances against. Worth checking out is Jonathan Willis' article following the Capitals game where he tracked the zone denials and zone exits of each defenceman. I thought this was very valuable insight using a microstat that isn't easily captured, so the effort on Jon's part is appreciated.

Two players who have shown reasonably well both by eye and by numbers are Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson. Both were given an opportunity to play important minutes for the club following Schultz's injury and have contributed as young prospects. Here's a quick glance at how the total ice time at even-strength was distributed among the Oilers defenceman before and after Schultz's departure (Source: War on Ice).

We know that Sekera was moved to the right side and paired with young Nurse after Schultz was injured, while Klefbom, who was regularly paired with Schultz before his injury, remained on the left side with a rotation of partners including Davidson and Fayne.

To get a sense of how the team did with Schultz in the lineup and without, I looked at a few of the key metrics used to measure team defence.

Schultz in the lineup Schultz out of the lineup
Team record 3-6-0 4-7-1
Goals for/against 14/19 22/27
Team Save% 91.3 89.9
Shots Against/60 31.1 27.8
Shot Attempts Against/60 57.6 51.4
Unblocked Shot Attempts Against/60 41.2 38.9
Scoring Chances Against/60 26.7 24.2
High danger scoring chances against/60 12.3 10.0

While the record is about the same and the goal differential at even-strength is -5, the rest of the metrics used here indicate minor improvement. I wouldn't go far as saying that Schultz was the problem. He's still a decent option to have on your blueline and can be productive if deployed strategically. What this does suggest is that the Oilers do have the option of easing Schultz into the lineup, say in a third pairing role, and deploy him in specific situations at even-strength and on the powerplay.

I don't think it would be wise of the coaching staff to split up Nurse and Sekera, who have regularly played against the opposition's top lines and done well. And I don't think Klefbom and Schultz need to be reunited, as they often struggled to move the puck out of their own zone earlier this year and late last season. Rather, Schultz should ideally be slotted into that third pairing on the right side, with perhaps Davidson. This would push Reinhart, who doesn't have to clear waivers, down to Bakersfield for development. and slot Gryba as the seventh defeneman to rotate in as needed.

As always, let us know your thoughts on the defence and what pairings you expect in the next week.