If that anyone would have told me two months ago that Cody Ceci would prove to be an adequate replacement for Adam Larsson and that Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner would step up big time in the event Mike Smith was injured, I would have been doubtful.
Yet this is what has come to pass.
Ceci is playing sound two-way hockey in a Top 4 role. He’s not the banger, hacker and hitter that nasty Larsson was on defence, but Larsson wasn’t the heads up passer that Ceci is.
As for Koskinen and Skinner, they’ve had many more good starts than bad ones, and have, on a slight majority of nights, outplayed the goalie in the opposition net.
I have all this in mind as I contemplate the loss of Darnell Nurse with a broken finger for two or three weeks.
Will the Edmonton Oilers be three times lucky? Can they continue to succeed as a team even without their No. 1 d-man?
On this point, I’m also doubtful but hoping to again be pleasantly surprised. I don’t expect things to work out, but if it does it might look something like this:
- Cody Ceci continues to play solid two-way hockey on right defence, but now playing top-pairing minutes.
- Tyson Barrie having a consistent run of play where he’s both moving the puck well and also making sound decisions on defence, not pushing things too much, not trying to force plays in the o-zone and n-zone. Barrie’s defensive play in the last five games has been more settled, but he’s going to have to find a way to stay settled without big Nurse at his side.
- Duncan Keith was Chicago’s #1 d-man last year. For two weeks or so, he’s going to have to act as Edmonton’s No. 1 left side d-man. Is the 38-year-old up to it? He still makes great plays with the puck, he battles hard and cuts out opposition attacks in the n-zone regularly. The head is there. The feet? The skating? He’s still quick, but he’s got to operate now at a higher level than we’ve seen so far this year.
- Kris Russell. He’s not a good partner for Barrie, as they’re both smaller players and tend to get pushed around a bit. But teamed up with Evan Bouchard? That might work. Russell has filled in well in the Top 4 ever since he arrived in Edmonton. He and Andrej Sekera formed a stellar top-pairing in 2016-17. But Russell has looked slower this year, less effective in the defensive slot, less able to command that space. In his most recent games I’ve seen signs he’s coming around, but now the Oilers need Russell to return to form and to do so fast. I’m betting this will happen and that he’ll be Coach Dave Tippett’s key man in taking some tough d-zone minutes that had gone to Nurse. Almost everyone is counting out Russell just now, but he’ll be an unexpected source of solid play in the new few weeks, I hope, I suspect, I pray.
- Evan Bouchard. He started out looking great, both on the attack and defence, but his defensive game has fallen apart too often in recent weeks. But it’s no time to wilt just now. I could see him and Russell being a fit together and getting the job done.
- Philip Broberg. He’s raw. He can skate as well as any Oilers d-man, and that includes Darnell Nurse. He’s got a decent shot and can make a pass. Could he and Barrie form a solid partnership? Both players can bring some chaos, but both can move the puck well. In sheltered minutes, it just might work.
- William Lagesson. Last year he stepped in and aced it for a handful of games partnering with Adam Larsson. Then Lagesson got hurt and stopped playing well. He’s a big body and a banger. He also makes sense as Barrie’s partner and might prove to be a better fit just now than Broberg. He certainly gives Tippett another option for the third-pairing with Barrie.
Is this going to work? It’s asking a lot to expect this group to keep it together in Nurse’s absence. But they have a chance, especially if Ceci and Keith step up with more ice-time, if Barrie can maintain his defensive consistency and Bouchard can restore his, and if Russell can come up big one more time in a cameo role.