With Andrej Sekera out with a long-term injury, it appears the Oilers could be relying more on 23-year old Matt Benning, who is coming off a solid rookie season, and 22-year old Darnell Nurse to start the 2017/18 season. While both appear to be developing into NHL-caliber defencemen, it’s always a little risky betting, and hoping, on young players to take the next step. And it’s especially worrisome when teams elevate young players into top four defensive roles, and hope that they can come out on top on a nightly basis.
The good news is that the Nurse-Benning pairing was the third most utilized tandem by the coaching staff at even-strength (5v5) last season, only behind the Larsson-Klefbom and Sekera-Russell pair, and posted some decent numbers.
We know that the coaching staff deployed their top four defencemen (Sekera, Russell, Larsson, Klefbom) pretty evenly against the top competition and were very fortunate that they stayed healthy for the most part. This allowed for the Oilers to push their younger defencemen, including Nurse, Benning, Davidson and Reinhart, down the depth chart, and play them at their established levels. Now that Sekera will be out of the line-up to start the season, the Oilers could try to acquire a player through trade or they could try to sign a cheaper option in free agency to play top four minutes. Before doing so, however, it’s worth assessing if Benning and Nurse could serve as internal options to save the team some money and assets.
Below I’ve listed the three defence pairings the Oilers used last season and what the team’s Corsi For% was like when they were with the different centers. Note that I’ve combined McDavid and Draisaitl together and separated them from one another as well. What I wanted to see here was how the different defence combinations did against various levels of competition using the centers as a proxy.
Again, we know that Benning and Nurse didn’t get nearly the same amount of ice time as the other two pairings, and would also get much more favorable matchups and shifts. With that in mind, they still put up good numbers with the different centers, including a 58.5% Corsi For% with McDavid, and a 54.8% share with RNH, centermen who regularly took on top competition. With Letestu, the numbers weren’t great, but keep in mind that the bottom six was poor all season when it came to shot-share. Without Nurse and Benning on the ice with Letestu, the Oilers posted a 44.7% share of shot attempts, a whole other issue that really needs to be addressed this off-season.
Now is this enough to give Nurse and Benning a push and start them next season together as the second pairing behind Klefbom and Larsson? You have two young defencemen who posted good numbers in 246 minutes together, and weren’t a a significant drag to the centers they played with. And their ice time was distributed evenly across various levels of competition, with the team posting encouraging Corsi For percentages with them on the ice.
The issue here is that while you could bump up their ice time, and hope that they stay healthy, the team would be much better off with a safety net in case they struggle. Both Nurse and Benning dealt with injuries last season and showed their inexperience at times, especially when returning to the lineup. And if those issues were to arise again, it would be ideal to have an experienced defenceman who has played top four minutes and that could be moved around the roster as needed. Ideally, the acquisition cost should remain low, considering the limited dollars and assets available. If the Oilers do bet on their young defencemen to take the next step, they leave themselves open to a moderate level of risk, which really isn’t ideal considering the increased expectations for the team.
Data: Hockey Analysis