Game 3 of the second-round series between the Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights ended in a Vegas win. Although the Golden Knights played a solid game and the Oilers didn’t, the defensive pairing of Cody Ceci and Darnell Nurse stood out worse than other Oilers.
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The Oilers’ so-called top pairing was on the ice for the first three goals against. Though it isn’t all on them, it doesn’t look good, either. It’s hard to overlook the poor play of Ceci and Nurse together while they are on for too many goals against. Evan Bouchard and Mattias Ekholm have played very well, but not all the pressure can fall on their shoulders, and they can’t be out for every shift.
Not only do the Oilers have to find a new combination for the next game and the foreseeable future, but Ceci has also become the most expendable offseason trade candidate to free up cap space.
Options if Oilers Split Ceci & Nurse Up
I don’t know if you can still call it an experiment since Ceci and Nurse have been together for so long, but it’s time to end it, one way or another. When there is a clear and consistent problem, it needs to be addressed. Ceci was never a top-pairing defenceman, but the options on the right side left the Oilers in a bind. Bouchard never meshed with Nurse, and Tyson Barrie wasn’t strong defensively, leaving Ceci as the only option.
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His contract suggests he would get better matchups on the second or third pairing. Since the Oilers can’t add anyone who would do a better job than Ceci until the offseason, I think that Bouchard and Ekholm must get the tougher defensive assignments, and head coach Jay Woodcroft must split Ceci and Nurse up more often than not. The Oilers are running 11 forwards and seven defencemen, so it shouldn’t be a difficult task.
I wouldn’t recommend that Vincent Desharnais play more than 8-10 minutes a night. He shouldn’t serve as anything more than the seventh defenceman, considering he hasn’t improved defensively and turns over too many pucks (from “Lowetide: Is Oilers’ Vincent Desharnais an NHL defenceman?”, The Athletic, Jan. 20, 2023). In that case, Brett Kulak, who has had a very good postseason, and Philip Broberg, who hasn’t made any glaring mistakes, should rotate between Ceci and Nurse.
While Kulak and Broberg are left-shot defencemen, they are accustomed to playing on their off side, something that will come in handy now. Now if Ceci and Nurse get easier matchups and different partners who have been solid in the playoffs, their success rate will surely rise. Down 2-1 in the series, it’s worth a shot.
Ceci Must Be Traded in the Summer
Though the Oilers will get a bit of cap relief from buyouts, and Milan Lucic’s cap will come off the books this summer, Stuart Skinner’s cap hit will rise next season, while Bouchard, Klim Kostin, and Ryan McLeod are restricted free agents (RFA). Then there are the unrestricted free agents (UFA) that the Oilers will want to bring back. All this must get done with limited cap space. Given Ceci’s underwhelming play in the playoffs, the decision to move him should be easier.
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As I stated, Ceci is paid a fair amount to be a second or third-pair defenceman, but that’s not the reality with how the Oilers are built. While Bouchard will get what he wants and deserves on his next contract, it means that some salary will need to be on the move. Once the trade deadline passed and Barrie and Jesse Puljujarvi’s contracts were off the books, that put the spotlight on Kailer Yamamoto, Kulak, and Ceci as the next options to be cap casualties this summer.
Yamamoto has dropped out of the top-six, and the only time he was noticeable in the postseason this far was when he scored the game-winner in Game 6 of Round 1 against the Los Angeles Kings. Kulak, on the other hand, has played himself out of the trade conversation. It may not be ideal to have four of the top six defencemen who shoot the same way as they do with Nurse, Ekholm, Kulak, and Broberg next season, but it’s not the worst idea either.
Ceci has a cap hit of $3.25 million for two more seasons. Whether or not the Oilers find a defenceman with a similar cap hit who is better defensively or can cover Nurse’s mistakes, a change needs to be made. The team is too good to be wasting an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup with the elite players they have because of some players’ poor play. Their playoff window won’t stay open forever, and general manager Ken Holland hasn’t been afraid to make changes to win throughout his tenure so far.