January 18 2014 10:51PM
As he has far too often since the Edmonton Oilers drafted him, Oscar Klefbom spent time on the shelf this month due to injury. The coaching staff worried that the significant progress he’d made over the season might be set back, but judging by his play since his return there was no need for fear.
I thought Klefbom looked pretty decent in his first game back on Friday, though he wasn’t perfect; he had a couple of turnovers (one off a hard hit) but showed flashes of exceptional talent too. One shift in the third period on Friday where he held the blue line and dealt a punishing hit really stood out, but it was little things like his ability to skate the puck out of trouble in a hurry and his strength in puck battles that mattered more. Still, as we’ve noted, those were interspersed with some poorer plays.
He was significantly better on Saturday, showing the same ability to skate and move the puck and that same strength in the defensive zone. He was more solid defensively though, even bailing out David Musil at one point when his partner got into trouble. So I knew the answer was probably going to be ‘yes’ when I asked Barons coach Todd Nelson if he was happy with Klefbom’s play. What surprised me though was how enthusiastic Nelson was in endorsing the player.
“Absolutely,” the Barons coach said. “I thought Oscar tonight was probably the best player on the ice, or one of the best.”
According to the coach, it’s just the latest bit of good news in an encouraging run.
“Last night he was excellent,” Nelson added. “You’re always worried about a guy coming back off injury, if he can get back to the level he was at just before he was hurt. He played three good games before he got injured, but tonight he was exceptional. Hopefully that continues and he has that consistency because he was a horse out there. I talked to Gerry and we both agreed ‘let’s put him out there as much as we can, because he’s playing so well and he’s a horse and he can handle it.’”
How much ice-time did he get?
“I’m sure he got at least 20 minutes. When he plays like that if we’re not giving him at least 20 minutes than we’re not doing our job right.”
Why This Is Surprising
In my experience Nelson’s generally supportive but understated in describing his players. Several times this year he’s acknowledged the struggles and weaknesses of certain individuals, even if he does take pains to stress what they’re doing well right after. He isn’t afraid to praise a guy who is doing well, but in this case his clear enthusiasm for Klefbom’s work stood out as unique.
Klefbom has had struggles this year, but it does seem like he’s turned a corner. No other player on the blue line, or even on the team for that matter, has a wider gap between where he was at the start of the year and how he’s played the last few games. Taylor Fedun has been excellent throughout, Martin Marincin has made progress and Martin Gernat and David Musil have both evolved, but only with Klefbom have the strides been so large.
Now the trick is consistency, as Nelson indicated. Klefbom has had strong games, even several of them consecutively, at other points in the season, but they haven’t lasted. If this one does, the Oilers are going to have little choice but to give Klefbom his first taste of NHL action.
It's not the only choice the team is going to be forced to make. Between Klefbom and Marincin and Fedun and Darnell Nurse, there are a lot of rookies vying for a spot on next year's team. There simply isn't room for all of them.