Oilers’ Suspect Defense Looking Solid After Two Games

There were two big questions coming into the Edmonton Oilers 2021-22 season. First, could the goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen hold up? Second, would the new-look defense be good enough to get the Oilers through the regular season and deep into the playoffs?

It’s early — the Oilers are 2-0 on the season — but the initial signs coming from this blue line and from Mike Smith are positive. We’ll save the Smith talk for another day, but the defense is worth taking a closer look at and there are some positive trends that should help put fans at ease.

Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci Pairing

Analytics supporters thought the sky was falling when the Oilers decided to trade for Duncan Keith. Then, when it was learned that Cody Ceci was being signed as a top-four defenseman to replace Adam Larsson and was going to be paired with Keith, that was all the ammunition the number-crunchers needed. Fortunately, early indications are that this pair won’t be a disaster as many might have believed.

Duncan Keith Blackhawks
Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks, Nov. 9, 2017 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ceci made a great pass to Jesse Puljujarvi to put the game away against Calgary on Saturday and Keith has looked calm and collected. Their starts have been a good sign that this duo could play well when not being inundated with minutes and both have shown signs they understand when to get in on the play and when to hunker down.

Keith took a nasty hit in Game 1 but didn’t seem phased. He came back in Game 2 and played just over 19 minutes. He’s constantly making the veteran play and one Twitter user wrote, “Duncan Keith must have been a bartender in an alternative universe. He’s always looking for a tip.” Ceci looks steady and poised.

This is what the Oilers wanted when they moved Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear. The idea was to trade some inexperience and inconsistency for veteran leaders who have been there.

Evan Bouchard Is Coming Along Quickly

There were a lot of people who had good things to say about Evan Bouchard. By most accounts, this was going to be his year. All that said, few probably figured he’d be taking the steps he is and this early.

In two games, he’s played 22:07 and 17:05. The coach had trusted him with big assignments and put him out on the penalty kill where he seems to be excelling. Bouchard has proven he’s going to offer the offense everyone expected to see, but he’s showing signs he’ll be so much more than that. He’s reading the game well, he looks wise beyond his years and he seems to be the type of player that the more he plays, the more he settles in.

Bouchard has shown his willingness to play smart defensively, block shots and play in multiple situations. That’s going to get him far on this roster with Tyson Barrie holding the top power-play spot. When he shut down Andrew Mangiapane on a rush Saturday night, that was a clear sign Bouchard isn’t just a shooter.

Darnell Nurse is a Horse

Speaking of guys who play well when they play a lot. What else can you say about Darnell Nurse so far this season? He’s been incredible and he’s already showing that his production last year was no fluke. He’s got an assist in each of the Oilers’ two games, but more than that, he’s playing huge minutes and never seems to slow down.

When the game got physical in Calgary, Nurse was in the thick of things but wise enough not to get suckered into a street fight. That’s what Calgary wanted and Nurse is one of the few guys on the Oilers who could go there. He knows he’s more valuable on the ice so his self-control was the stuff of a true leader.

Some might ask if Nurse should be playing this much and how that will affect him as the season rolls along. My counter-argument is to watch him in that triple-overtime game against the Winnipeg Jets last season. He’ll be fine.

Barrie Is Barrie

So far, Tyson Barrie hasn’t looked like the defenseman who led the NHL in points last season but it’s early and the Oilers haven’t had a ton of power-play time where he shines the brightest. Barrie has struggled a bit, but his story isn’t new. He’s good for points and he can play big minutes. He’s played 22:11 and 23:04 so far this season. The points will come.

The Oilers’ power-play is clicking at a 50% clip so far this year. It won’t stay there, but neither will the fact that Barrie has no points while the Oilers score when up a man.

So Far, So Good

The season is just getting going and it’s way too early to give grades on the performances of the team or the blue line. There will also be fans who point out that Calgary peppered 47 shots towards the Oilers goaltender on Saturday. Fair enough. I’ll argue many of those 47 shots weren’t high-danger scoring chances and that the fact we’re talking about how good the perceived weak links on the team have been in two games is a good sign.