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Blackhawks vs. Oilers head-to-head: Defensemen matchup

The forwards draw much of the attention on these two teams. What about the defensemen?

Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks team defense was a massive issue during the 2019-20 regular season. For frequent visitors to these site or frequent viewers of their games, this statement comes more as confirmation than revelation.

The good news? Chicago’s opponent in the upcoming series wasn’t much better.

Edmonton also ranked 28th in the league in number of five-on-five goals allowed (157) and were tied for 25th with a minus-16 goal differential at even strength, yet another sign of how dominant the Oilers were because their power play units turned opposing penalty kill units into Alderaan chunks.

A pair of homegrown talents were Edmonton’s most frequent pairing in the regular season, with Ethan Bear (2015 fifth-round pick) and Darnell Nurse (2013 first-round pick) combining for just more than 1,152 minutes of five-on-five ice time. Although just under the 50/50 line of possession with a CF% at 49.32, this duo was above the team rates across the board:

  • 2.21 above the CF% team rate
  • 0.86 above the xGF% team rate
  • 3.72 above the HDCF% team rate

What’s probably the Oilers’ No. 1 defensive pairing consists of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, the latter of which remains the answer to the question “What did Edmonton get in return for that awful Taylor Hall trade orchestrated by Peter Chiarelli?” Larsson and Klefbom skated 505 minutes of five-on-five time together with a 47.50 CF%. Although the quantity of possession isn’t there, a closer look suggests this pairing was better at preventing opponents from quality possession:

  • 0.16 below the CF% team rate
  • 3.45 above the xGF% team rate
  • 7.44 above the HDCF% team rate

Edmonton’s likely third pairing of Kris Russell and Matthew Benning. In 226:01 of five-on-five time together, this duo was ... fine:

  • 1.07 below the CF% team rate
  • 1.18 above the xGF% team rate
  • 2.45 below the HDCF% team rate

One name to keep an eye on is Philip Broberg, Edmonton’s eighth overall pick in 2019. With veteran Mike Green opting out, Broberg was among the 31 players on the Oilers “hub” roster and could be in the mix for his NHL debut should one member of that third pairing warrant replacement.

In-Game Matchups

An interesting wrinkle to watch in this series will be how coaches Jeremy Colliton and Dave Tippett deploy their respective team’s defense corps. The Blackhawks won the possession battle in all three regular season meetings, including the 5-3 Oilers win on Feb. 11 in Edmonton. Each game saw the Nurse/Bear duo as Tippett’s primary option to contain Patrick Kane. Since that duo will likely be focused on the defensive side, expect the Larsson/Klefbom pairing to be geared toward offensive chances, while Russell/Benning are kept away from Chicago’s top six as much as possible.

A similar approach would be wise for Colliton, although his preferences in postseason matchups are an unknown commodity as this is his first time venturing down this road. Injuries and other developments have caused some continuity issues, but the general theme has seen these three Blackhawks pairings:

  • Duncan KeithAdam Boqvist
  • Calvin de Haan — Connor Murphy
  • Olli MaattaSlater Koekkoek

At first glance, the second pairing appears to be the shutdown option (aka McDavid duty), leaving room for interpretation on how to deploy the other two pairings. Will Keith/Boqvist be featured in offensive opportunities, allowing them a chance to capitalize on Boqvist’s playmaking ability or will that duo’s skating ability prove a worthy foil for Draisaitl’s game? Should Maatta/Koekkoek be deployed consistently against the Oilers’ top two scoring lines, can they make up for a significant gap in pace?

In Chicago’s two regular season victories over the Oilers, it was a Keith-Murphy pairing that drew McDavid’s line. Back in October, that pairing — often skating behind the two-way forward line of Saad-Kampf-Kubalik — completely stifled McDavid. That same duo, with Saad-Toews-Kubalik in front, also contained McDavid in the Blackhawks’ March triumph over the Oilers. Should the Blackhawks fall behind early in the series, switching to a Keith-Murphy shutdown pairing — which would also create a well-balanced de Haan-Boqvist pairing — could be one of Colliton’s first big adjustments.