Lowetide: Is Oilers’ Vincent Desharnais an NHL defenseman?

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Vincent Desharnais has been in the NHL for two weeks and has already gained legions of fans. His two penalties have been for interference and roughing, but were actually about being big and tall.

He is a big man (6-foot-6, 215 pounds), a rugged defender (just shy of a penalty minute per game in the AHL over 122 games) and he has zero hesitation to employ stick work if required in specific situations.

Oilers fans consider that kind of skill set both a team need and a major part of Oilers hockey going back to the 1979 expansion season.

The list of all-time favorite Oilers includes high-skill men like Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey, but also includes rough players Mark Messier, Dave Semenko and Lee Fogolin.

Long before Desharnais arrived in Edmonton, fans liked the idea of ​​Desharnais as an option on the modern blue line.

The question is this: Is Desharnais an NHL defenseman?

Jay Woodcroft

In the summer of 2022, Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft included Desharnais in a conversation surrounding prospects Philip Broberg, Markus Niemelainen and Dmitri Samorukov. Woodcroft addressed each of the prospects mentioned, and then brought up Desharnais unsolicited as an option.

“I think Desharnais has earned the right to be included in the (NHL) conversation,” Woodcroft told me. “I have a good understanding of each of those players and their capabilities. I have comfort in knowing I’ve seen each of these players in different situations, and I think each of them understand the opportunity that is before them. There’s a healthy chance to make the team in Edmonton.”

Injuries kept Desharnais from competing for a job in training camp, but the big man was on Woodcroft’s radar.

The AHL numbers

Desharnais is a shutdown, defense-first player who will make his living suppressing offense and playing a punishing style. He didn’t play his first AHL game until 23, meaning he was burning daylight as a prospect the moment he arrived at the highest level of the minor leagues.

Desharnais was able to quickly establish himself as a valuable player defensively. Consider his even-strength goal share compared to the Bakersfield Condors when he was off the ice.

Year Games Goal share w/ Condors w/o

2019-20

6

50

44

2020-21

37

50

52

2021-22

66

56

52

2022-23

13

54

49

The 2021-22 season was a breakthrough for Desharnais. While he was on the ice at even strength, the Condors were 68-35 in goal share over 66 games. That tells us two things: Bakersfield was good for a half-a-goal per game edge per game with Desharnais on the ice, and he was playing huge minutes (almost 1.5 goals per game equates to high time on ice) at even strength.

It’s rare for a pure shutdown defender to play over 20 minutes per game, but the evidence suggests Desharnais played that and more during his peak season (2021-22) with the Condors.

By any measure, he was a key figure for the team at even strength in his time in Bakersfield.

Desharnais is a strong penalty killer and has been deployed often in short-handed situations in the AHL. During the 2021-22 season, Bakersfield allowed 54 goals while on the penalty kill. Desharnais was on the ice for 31 of those goals, an indication of just how much he played in the game state for the Condors.

It was an effective penalty kill, the third best in the Pacific Division.

26 is the new 20

Desharnais was 26 years, seven months and 13 days old on the night of his NHL debut. It’s unusual for a rookie to be that age, but it does happen.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Radim Simek was 26 years, two months and 12 days old when he made his debut, and has now exceeded 195 NHL games.

Justin Holl of the Toronto Maple Leafs was 25 years, eight months and six days old when he played his first NHL game. Holl has now passed 250 NHL games.

Desharnais’ late arrival in the NHL has much to do with his skating, and that he made the NHL suggests plenty of hard work to improve a vital area of ​​the sport.

Watching him over his Bakersfield seasons, Desharnais has improved his positioning over the years along with more powerful skating. His stick is a small tree and he can get great coverage defensively, especially on quick plays where he needs a second or two in order to get into position.

Desharnais has improved his foot speed. He also used other tools available to suppress fast breaks by opposition forwards.

Early days in Edmonton

Through his first four games, Desharnais played 41 minutes at five-on-five, posting two assists. He isn’t known for offensive prowess, though he does have a good shot. His 2.86 points per 60 in the discipline can be considered an outlier and will not last.

His five-on-five goal share (3-1, 75 percent) and shot share (66 percent) are extremely unlikely to last, but the puck is going in a good direction when he’s on the ice. Desharnais is also showing an ability to be effective with all other defenders.

players minutes SA-60 GA-60

Darnell Nurse

17:19

3.46

0

Brett Kulak

15:15

39.34

3.93

Philip Broberg

7:31

23.89

0

Obviously a small sample alert, but the numbers are strong and Desharnais has played up and down the lineup in his four games.

Once again Desharnais was in the middle of the action, picking up an assist on the first goal of the game by Ryan McLeod.

He was also in great position and effective on the Tampa Bay goal by Brandon Hagel. He stopped Anthony Cirelli point blank but there was no one near hail who would cash on the play.

Desharnais had a couple of hits and got in the way of shots and passes, helping in suppression on a challenging night.

Is Desharnais an NHL player?

These are early days, and the coaching staff is bringing him along slowly. He is a talented defender and the Oilers badly need that element.

The answer remains unanswered, but with each passing game Desharnais shows his defensive acumen and that he can battle against NHL forwards.

An absolute long shot, he’s winning an NHL job and will stay as long as he’s effective.

Edmonton needed a player like Desharnais, and management will inform the situation with deadline activity. At the very least, Desharnais is giving general manager Ken Holland something to think about in the next few weeks.

Internal solutions, at a low cap hit, are ideal.

(Photo: Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

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