It’s been three weeks since Oscar Klefbom last played a game for the Edmonton Oilers. A couple of days after he was initially hurt, general manager Peter Chiarelli described the injury as “not serious” and said that the defenceman might play as quickly as the road trip the team was just about to set out on.
Now there’s been an update, and the news is not good. It appears that Edmonton will be without its No. 1 defenceman for the foreseeable future.
Coach McLellan says @Klefbom93 is dealing with both an upper-body and lower-body ailment, return not expected in the short term.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) January 1, 2016
Klefbom’s importance to the team is difficult to overstate. The 22-year-old veteran of just 107 NHL games already sits at the top of Edmonton’s defensive depth chart. He plays heavy minutes at even-strength, plays more than anyone else on the penalty kill and had been carving out a regular role on the power play.
Already, the Oilers found themselves five points back of a San Jose Sharks team for the last playoff spot in the Pacific, despite having played three more games than the California-based team. The long-term loss of Klefbom may be final blow to the club’s playoff hopes, hopes which had already been badly damaged by four consecutive losses to division rivals.
How should the Oilers proceed with their blue line in the absence of Klefbom?
Other Potential Exits
We should probably start by acknowledging the players who could be shopped between now and the trade deadline. At this point it seems highly probable that the Oilers will be sellers at the deadline, which means we’ll see more bodies shipped out. As I see it, the plausible candidates, ranked in order of most likely to least likely, look like this:
- Eric Gryba. Edmonton may want to re-sign Gryba as a physical element on the third pair, playing the same role for the Oilers that Adam McQuaid played for Chiarelli’s Bruins. However, he is a pending unrestricted free agent, and the return from moving him at the deadline is likely to exceed the price paid to acquire him (a fourth-round pick) at the draft. Edmonton also has a bit of a logjam in terms of bodies on defence and a need to add someone new at the top of the depth chart, so my guess is that Gryba is off to a playoff-bound team.
- Justin Schultz. The level of animosity towards Schultz online in my view far outstrips the player’s actual offences. Having said that, his cap hit if qualified is going to be in the $4.0 million range and that’s just too much money for what he brings. My guess is that he’ll have some value at the deadline as a rental player, as he’s mobile and has good offensive instincts (despite the disaster this season has been). If Edmonton determines not to qualify him at that figure, it makes sense to deal him for some sort of asset rather than just letting him walk.
- Mark Fayne. He’s cleared waivers because he’s on a long-term contract. So far he hasn’t won the coach’s favour and if the Oilers really want him gone they might be willing to take a bad contract back. If they do, it’s probably a summer move; my guess is that he sticks around through the deadline.
- Nikita Nikitin. His latest call-up probably blew any chance Edmonton had of moving him.
The Revamped Defence
The emergence of Brandon Davidson has been a key story for Edmonton this year, and he’ll play a big role on the blue line the rest of the way. With the current roster, he should probably anchor the second pair along with either Gryba or Schultz, both of whom he’s played well with. Since Schultz likely has more upside and more potential for his value to fluctuate between now and the deadline (Gryba is a known commodity) in the Oilers position I’d be tempted to run the pairings like so:
- Andrej Sekera / Mark Fayne – shutdown duties
- Brandon Davidson / Justin Schultz – all-purpose pairing
- Darnell Nurse / Eric Gryba – more of a sheltered role
Brad Hunt, despite his strong game against Anaheim, makes most sense to me as the No. 7 defenceman in an 11 forward/7 defenceman configuration.
My guess is that Gryba and Schultz will ultimately be traded, opening up two more spots on the blue line. Nikitin and Andrew Ference are both possibilities, but neither is in the plans and it’s a decent bet Edmonton would rather get a look at players who might be. That will likely mean the return of Griffin Reinhart at some point (unless the Oilers feel he needs AHL development minutes) and an opportunity for one of the club’s defensive prospects, with David Musil the likeliest candidate.
What would that look like? Not pretty, in large part because several players (Fayne, Reinhart, Musil) probably need to be played with a more capable puckmover. Something like this might ultimately make sense:
- Davidson / Fayne – shutdown duties
- Reinhart / Sekera – all-purpose pairing
- Nurse / Musil – sheltered minutes
This is a team that needs Oscar Klefbom. Things are not pretty now, and they’re likely to get ugly if Edmonton ships out bodies at the trade deadline.