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Conference Finals Preview: Edmonton’s inconsistent defense

While solid in the regular season, their defense has been leaky in the playoffs.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Calgary Flames at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The first thought that comes to mind about the Edmonton Oilers is the offense. They have the unquestioned best offensive player in the NHL in Connor McDavid and a perfect complement near equal to his talent level in Leon Draisaitl—not to mention another two dangerous lines that can drive the play against anyone. Their back end has familiar names we also associate with an offense like Duncan Keith and Tyson Barrie. Those two are secondary and tertiary characters on a team with some very solid two-way blue-liners who have had some struggles this postseason.

Projected Defensemen

Darnell Nurse — Cody Ceci

Duncan Keith — Evan Bouchard

Brett Kulak — Tyson Barrie

Top Pairing: A Bit of an Enigma

Keith and Barrie are the most recognizable names on Edmonton’s back-line for most Avs fans. Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, and Evan Bouchard are by far their best defenders. Amongst defensive pairings who played at least 400 minutes together this season, Nurse and Ceci finished 25th in the NHL in Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 at 52.28%, ahead of every Avalanche defensive pairing other than Makar and Toews who finished fifth in this metric.

However, they have struggled to live up to their regular-season standard in the playoffs. Nurse and Ceci are 28th in 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage among pairings who have played at least 50 minutes together, clocking in at 48.06%. This means that they are allowing shots to be fired in Mike Smith’s direction more often than they are seeing their teammate's direct pucks at the opposing goalie.

The Oilers top defensemen proved that they were a two-way force to be dealt with in the regular season, but they have struggled to consistently match both Los Angeles and Calgary’s top lines in the playoffs. The Rangers’ Jacob Trouba and K’Andre Miller have yielded higher expected goals against than Ceci and Nurse’s 9.43 figure, per Natural Stat Trick. If that’s what they’re bringing to the table in this series against the Avalanche, McDavid will have to average three points a night just to keep up.

Second pairing: Maybe the best they have right now?

By Corsi figures, Keith and Bouchard have been Edmonton’s best defensive pairing at 5-on-5 in the playoffs, ranking 17th at 53.16%. In the regular season, this was also Edmonton’s most effective pairing at limiting high-danger chances, as they finished 17th amongst NHL defensive pairings in expected goals against. Look to this duo for any adjustments Edmonton may make as this series unfolds, as Bouchard and Nurse were the Oilers’ most effective pairing in the regular season, finishing 6th overall in Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5, just behind Cale Makar and Devon Toews. Duncan Keith is still an extremely dangerous quarterback on the power play, but it is clear that he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning of it at this point. The Oilers defense is a bit of a mystery, as they were very effective in the regular season but have struggled to varying degrees in the playoffs. That said, it’s clear they have a legitimate top four, and the Avalanche cannot take them lightly.

Third pairing: A familiar foe

The Avalanche’s war on their 2009 draft class continues, as they knocked out first-round pick Matt Duchene in the first round, then eliminated second-round pick Ryan O’Reilly in the second round, and now will they face their third-round pick in Tyson Barrie. Unlike the first two series, it is highly unlikely that the 2009 Avalanche draft pick will be their opponents’ best player in the series by a wide margin. Barrie’s offensively-focused game has aged poorly, particularly in the playoffs. Barrie and Brett Kulak have spent most of the postseason on their heels, producing a 42.02 Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5. These two were much better, but still exceedingly average in the regular season, both around breaking even at 5-on-5. This is no doubt the Edmonton pairing that Avalanche coach Jared Bednar is game-planning to target with his big guns.

Who Has the Edge?

If it’s the regular season of the Edmonton blue line, the Colorado Avalanche has the edge, but it is by no means a runaway. If it’s the postseason version, the Avalanche by several country miles. The perception of the Oilers is of a team playing a wide-open style that looks at defense as a secondary motivation. While their regular season results indicate that is far from the reality, their defensive playoff struggles in the first two rounds provide that perception legitimacy.

Los Angeles is far from an offensive juggernaut, and Calgary is a classic Darryl Sutter defense-first team, albeit one with a plethora of high-end offensive talent. It felt like McDavid was a 2-3 point per game player in the first two rounds, but he basically had to be with how his backline defended. If the Oilers struggled to keep those teams in check, it’s reasonable to wonder if they can handle the perpetual attacking machine that is the Avalanche offense.

As great as Nathan MacKinnon and company have been all year, the engine of Colorado’s dominance has been their blue line. Makar and Toews were arguably the best defensive pairing in the league this year, Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram have a very high ceiling, as demonstrated by being second in the NHL at Corsi for percentage at 5-on-5 in the playoffs. Since being traded to Colorado, Josh Manson has played like the player who became a mainstay of “most underrated” lists just a few years ago. The only hole in the Avalanche back-line is the one left by Sam Girard’s injury, as Jack Johnson is solid at best, but fairly limited in the twilight of his career. If you traveled to the future and told me that the outcome of this series will be entirely decided by the defensemen, I’d tell you Avs in 5.