Oilers Have Lineup Decisions to Make With Keith’s Return From Injury

Duncan Keith, the Edmonton Oilers’ second pairing defenceman, was placed on injured reserve (IR) on Feb. 10 with a concussion. He was projected to be out of the lineup for three weeks to recover, and as we near the end of that timetable, it looks like he will be suiting up for the Oilers again very soon.

Recent reports stated that Keith joined the team in Philadelphia ahead of Tuesday’s game against the Flyers. It’s the start of an important week for the Oilers against weaker teams, and the defence will look different from what we are used to seeing over the past few weeks. Since Philip Broberg and Markus Niemelainen were recalled when Keith got placed on IR, one or both will probably be sent back down.

On his return, the Oilers will be carrying eight defencemen that include mainstays Darnell Nurse, Evan Bouchard, Cody Ceci, and Tyson Barrie, as well as William Lagesson, Niemelainen, and Broberg who are on the active roster. This will create roster decisions for general manager Ken Holland and head and assistant coaches Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson because they have had a plan from day one, and it has worked for the most part. The team is playing better, and the defensive structure has also improved even with less experienced defencemen.

Do the Oilers Continue to Run 11-7?

It so happens that Keith was placed on IR the same time former head coach Dave Tippett was fired, so Woodcroft and Manson have yet to utilize Keith in the lineup or set up their lines accordingly. A big reason the Oilers have been running 11 forwards and seven defencemen is because they have three less-experienced defencemen on the left side after Nurse. Lagesson has 52 career NHL games, Broberg has 17, and Niemelainen has 16. Defenceman fare better when they are slowly acclimated to the speed of the NHL and not overplayed. The Oilers have done a perfect job of that, and it has allowed all three to really elevate their game.

Keith has averaged 20:22 of ice time per game this season, but remember, that was under Tippett. So far, we haven’t seen anything but an 11-7 lineup from Woodcroft to better utilize the defencemen and to allow for a little more time for his top three centermen.

Duncan Keith Edmonton Oilers
Duncan Keith, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins got injured against the Florida Panthers and missed the game vs the Carolina Hurricanes. Kailer Yamamoto also missed the game in Carolina, while Jesse Puljujarvi remains out. With these three key forwards out of the lineup, less talented players have been injected in to fill their spots. It also means the coaching staff will have to rely more heavily on players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Evander Kane, and Ryan McLeod to log minutes.

Since the Oilers’ coaching staff wouldn’t want to have too many mismatches against their team, the NHL-regulars and impactful players will be playing even more, and playing 12 forwards means they would have to insert another player into the lineup who normally wouldn’t be there. Until at least one or two of Nugent-Hopkins, Yamamoto, or Puljujarvi return, expect the lineup to stay with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.

Which Oilers Defenceman Gets Sent Down to the AHL?

If only one defenceman is sent down to the AHL, it will likely be Borberg. The assumption here is that the Oilers will continue to run seven defencemen for the time being. If more than one defenceman is sent to the AHL, add Niemelainen to that list, even though he has been better than Lagesson and Broberg in the role he has played.

Keith will slot back onto the second pairing. So, the decision will be whether Niemelainen keeps his spot on the third pairing, Lagesson shifts down to where he played when Keith was last in the lineup, or they alternate. Woodcroft has to like what he’s seen from his young defencemen considering they have all played in the nine games Keith has missed. But the ice time and situational playing time will speak for themselves. That is the biggest indication of who will stay in the lineup and with the Oilers.

Niemelainen has averaged 18 shifts a game since Woodcroft and Manson took over the bench, playing less than 12:30 in a game only once and over 17 minutes in a game twice. Lagesson has averaged 17.8 shifts per game, played less than 12 minutes in three games, and only topped 15 minutes of ice time in two. Lastly, Broberg has averaged 14 shifts per game, played less than eight minutes in three of them, and the most ice time he’s seen is 14:08.

Actions speak louder than words, and Broberg is the least refined for the NHL. He still needs more development in the AHL but will likely be back with the big club by next season. Broberg is only 20, and that is still a bit young for a defenceman to be impactful at the NHL level, while Lagesson is 26 years old and Niemelainen is 23.

Philip Broberg Oilers Draft
Philip Broberg, Edmonton Oilers, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

Niemelainen starts over 57 percent of his draws in the defensive zone, so it’s understandable that his Corsi is just 44.5 percent, meaning the other team is controlling the puck and getting more chances while he is on the ice. However, take into account that he is out there killing penalties and late in the game with a lead because of his size and defensive capabilities.

We’ve seen much less of Broberg, especially in tight and highly competitive games, as he didn’t play over 10 minutes against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Panthers, or Hurricanes. He is the same type of player Keith was in his younger days and still kind of is: gifted offensively and still working to improve his two-way game. With Keith’s return – and Broberg considered his replacement once Keith’s contract is up – it’s not the best use of the skill sets available to have both in the lineup together playing the same side (from ‘Will the real Philip Broberg please stand up? (Or maybe we should have a bit of patience),’ Edmonton Journal, Sept. 6, 2021).

Lagesson is the only one of the three defencemen in question that Holland and the coaching staff would be okay with scratching. He has grown out of the AHL but is still seen as a sixth or seventh defenceman. With his contract up at the end of the season, his future in Edmonton is up in the air. Lagesson’s recent play has made it more appealing to re-sign him as their sixth/seventh defenceman, but without standing apart from the next wave – which includes Borberg and Niemelainen – he will eventually be pushed to the side and used in a lesser role. He is the most all-around defenceman of the three and is best kept around so he can slot in when and where he is needed.

Related: Oilers Search for a Goalie at the Deadline Complicated With Lehner Injury

Keith has had an underrated season despite his injuries. Many defer to how much he’s making, but he and Ceci have been a solid shutdown pairing and should be used together again once Keith returns to the Oilers’ lineup.

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