With almost a full week without an Oilers hockey game, it’s a good time to look at some of the larger picture issues the team has as it continues its transition from rebuilding team to Stanley Cup contender. One of those is on defence, where it isn’t clear at this point how Edmonton is going to assemble a championship-level defence.
Presently the Oilers have a competent defence corps, one that takes a by-committee approach to things. There isn’t a single offensive standout; rather Andrej Sekera and Oscar Klefbom handle the primary responsibilities in that role. Shutdown work is spread relatively evenly across the top-four with the stalwart Adam Larsson and pending free agent Kris Russell splitting the load with Sekera and Klefbom.
Teams have won with the by-committee approach in the past. To pick one memorable example, Carolina did it in 2006. Most recent winners though have one or more star defenders carrying much of the load: Kris Letang in Pittsburgh, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, Zdeno Chara in Boston and the formidable top-three in Chicago.
Thus it’s reasonable to doubt if Edmonton can turn itself into a contender without a player of similar caliber. Presently Sekera is the closest thing the club has to an all-purpose two-way defenceman, and while he’s done solid work in the slot nobody will mistake him for a Doughty or Keith or Letang.
There seem two obvious routes to take to address the issue.
Acquiring such a defenceman
There is a good reason the rumours last summer regarding P.K. Subban’s availability got so much attention in Edmonton. He’s the kind of player that the Oilers haven’t had on their blue line in years; he’d instantly have been the team’s best defenceman since Chris Pronger left town.
Subban checks basically the same boxes as Letang. He’s a right-shot defender who can soak up minutes in all situations. He’s a high-end offensive option. He’s physical. He’s also generally more durable than Letang, despite some injury issues this year.
The problems are two-fold. The first is that it’s incredibly difficult to find a player like Subban on the NHL trade market, especially one in the prime of his career and locked up to a long-term contract. The second is that the Oilers don’t have the trade pieces they did last summer.
My friend David Staples ran a piece last month asking whether passing on Subban was the “best Oilers deal last summer,” one which largely leans on Leon Draisaitl’s value as a player and how unfortunate it would have been to trade him. As much as I understand his views, I think they miss the larger picture.
It certainly would have been unfortunate to deal Draisaitl, who has had a phenomenal season and reinforced his worth. However, a deal centered on Draisaitl would have left the Oilers with one line built around Connor McDavid, one line built around Taylor Hall, and a defence corps anchored by an all-situations 26-minutes/night defenceman in the prime of his career.
Instead, the Oilers moved Hall for Larsson. They can still run those two forward lines if the coach opts to split the McDavid/Draisaitl duo, which is probably a good idea if only to see whether Draisaitl can get Milan Lucic firing at 5-on-5. Larsson though is a defensive specialist, very good in his role, but generally limited to 20-odd minutes/game split between 5-on-5 and the penalty kill. Edmonton no longer has an elite or potentially elite forward to shop, and it still lacks that all-purpose No. 1 defenceman.
That leaves the Oilers in the difficult position of either acquiring a defenceman in trade for a package of lesser players, or trying to lure a defenceman in via free agency.
This summer’s top defender is Kevin Shattenkirk, who is a lesser player than Subban and reportedly already expressed a lack of interest in going to Edmonton long-term. Tyson Barrie, often mentioned as a trade target, simply isn’t good enough in a defensive role to qualify.
Developing such a defenceman
With respect to Edmonton’s various defence prospects, the three players in the system that might plausibly emerge as a franchise-anchoring blue liner are already on the roster: Larsson, Klefbom and Nurse.
Larsson is 24. He’s big, strong and smart. The things holding him back from elite status are speed and comfort with the puck. In his public comments, Peter Chiarelli has generally suggested that Larsson probably isn’t going to develop into a true No. 1 defenceman but should be able to handle a top-pairing role.
“I feel like we’ve added a top-pair guy,” Chiarelli said regarding Larsson back in October. “Notwithstanding what the pundits say, Adam Larsson is a very good defenceman. He may not be a ready for primetime No. 2, but he will be in our time and I feel he can grow into that.”
Klefbom turns 24 this summer. He combines size and strength with high-end mobility and confidence with the puck. He has good possession numbers. He’s nowhere near as polished without the puck in the defensive zone as Larsson, though, a weakness that coach Todd McLellan pointed to in an Oilers Now interview in December:
We don’t run around as much, our panic point is lower.
We’re able to get the puck into what we consider our strength, our forwards
hands, a little bit better, and have them go the other way. It makes a huge
difference on the ice and off the ice. It’s interesting again, people talk
about Klefbom, and he’s been okay—he hasn’t been great yet, but we expect him
to get there. But he’s played maybe the fewest games of a lot of defencemen on
our team, and we talk about him like he’s a No. 1 or a No. 2. He’s got a lot of
work to do to develop. He’s that young right now that he’s going to get there,
but the experience, especially on the blue line is so important.”
One of the things I go back to with Klefbom is the way he adapted to the AHL. His first few months in Oklahoma were not good—he had the size and the speed but he was gaffe-prone both with the puck and in defensive coverage. He got used to it, and those weaknesses went away. The NHL is obviously a big step up, but he’s still a young player and one who has missed a lot of time in his early career.
I wouldn’t necessarily put “No. 1 defenceman” totally out of Klefbom’s reach, but at the same time it’s hard not to look at these elite players and compare. Doughty was getting Hart votes at age 20, Letang at 23. Keith, famous as a late-bloomer, was getting Norris votes at age 24 and was averaging more time on ice as a 22-year-old rookie than Klefbom is even now. That’s a lot of ground to make up.
That leaves the 21-year-old Nurse. Last summer I looked up a bunch of comparables and found a wide range of possible outcomes, from high-end top-pair guy all the way down to Luke Schenn I suggested second-pairing upside was the most likely outcome. He was trending upward nicely this season when he got hurt, though he still had his problems when matched against tough opposition. He has both the most room for improvement and the greatest distance to travel to be considered an elite player.
As much as I rate Klefbom, I’m skeptical that there’s a franchise defencemen to be found among that trio. All are good, useful NHL’ers, and along with Sekera provide the Oilers with a respectable backbone on the blueline. There’s a big step up from that to all-purpose, 25-plus minutes/game defenceman.
Unless one of them can make the jump, that leaves Edmonton with two realistic possibilities. Either the Oilers somehow find an elite defenceman somewhere else, or they go on trying to win without one.