Andrej Sekera will undergo surgery this morning to repair a torn ACL. He will be out six to nine months. Best case scenario sees him return November 18th, but he probably won’t be back until December. Even with the advancements in rehab and surgery, if often takes a player 12 months to return to the same level of play prior to surgery.
Sekera’s injury will impact the Oilers for much of the regular season, because when he does return to the lineup, it is highly unlikely he’ll be as effective as he was this season. He will join the team mid-season and he’ll have to play catch up the rest of the way. He won’t have the luxury of the preseason to find his timing. Teams rarely send a veteran coming off major surgery to the AHL for a conditioning stint, even though it would benefit them greatly.
There are rare exceptions of athletes who return from ACL surgery and immediately perform at their highest level. Adrian Petersen was one of the rare freaks. He was injured, tore both his ACL and MCL, in late December in 2011, but he returned in 2012 and rushed for a career-high 2097 yards. It was amazing.
Sekera is not a superstar like Petersen, but he is a very good defender and the Oilers will miss him. Who they use to replace him becomes the hot topic.
They have Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse to play the left side, and Matt Benning and Adam Larsson on the right side. All four are still young, but we saw improvements from all of them.
Klefbom had a career year. He was healthy for all 82 games and set career bests in goals and points. He played 79% of his EV ice time with Larsson. They were a very solid duo. Larsson emerged as an effective shutdown defender who played aggressive and smart. He also chipped in with 19 points.
Benning was the biggest surprise on the blueline. The rookie skated directly from the NCAA into the NHL and rarely looked rattled. He was poised with the puck, made good plays and was sneaky good with open ice hits.
Nurse missed 38 games with an injury, but when healthy he was effective. His skating allows him to do things most Oilers defenders can’t. He didn’t force plays as much as last season, and he was mainly in the third pairing, which allowed him to develop without being fed minutes and opposition he wasn’t ready for. His skating allows him to skate the puck more often than any other defender, and as he matures and learns to use that skill more often, he’ll become more dangerous.
However, I don’t think it would be ideal to have those four pencilled in the top four to start the season. I’d like a veteran to slot in.
The obvious choice is Kris Russell. The Oilers like him. He skates well, he is excellent at knowing how and when to block shots and he’s highly competitive. He won’t bring much offence, although late in the season he finally started to assert himself a bit more with the puck. His critics seem to focus on what he doesn’t do, rather than what he does well. Sure, he gives up the blueline more often than you’d like, but he often makes up for that by getting in the shooting lane and seeing the puck ricochet off him and into the corner. And giving up the blueline is too vague of a statement. Does he do it when there is back pressure or not? There are many other variables, other than just “He gives up the blueline” argument.
He knows the system, he can play left or right defence and that versatility makes him very valuable in my eyes. There are very few players who can play both left and right defence in your second pair. He and Sekera played about the same amount of time against top lines, close to 33%.
The issue with Russell is the term of his contract. How long and for how much? Three years around $3.5 million would be ideal, and I know he liked playing in Edmonton and the coaches and teammates liked having him. I’d be surprised if he didn’t return.
But even if he is signed, Peter Chiarelli still needs to sign another defender.
Today, the most likely player to be taken in the expansion draft is Griffin Reinhart. Maybe Chiarelli makes a deal with Las Vegas so they don’t take him, but regardless of whether he stays or not, I suspect the Oilers will still sign or trade for another veteran.
Trade possibilities are endless, so I’ll avoid those for today. Instead let’s look at who fits as a free agent.
The challenge for Chiarelli is he can’t sign Russell and another UFA for multiple years, unless one of them is around $1 million per season. Sekera is out for six to nine months, but he has four years remaining on his contract. If we presume Russell is back, then the other UFA signing, or trade, is likely as a stop-gap — a player on a one-year deal and, in an ideal world, who shoots right.
Let’s eliminate who isn’t signing here.
Kevin Shattenkirk. He wants to sign in the USA and likely out east. He will command huge money on a long-term deal.
Andrei Markov. He is 38 and shoots left.
Mark Streit. He is 39 and there isn’t much gas left in the tank.
Dennis Wideman. He is 34 and mobility is not his strong suit. Even on a one-year deal, I’d pass.
Dmitry Kulikov. He shoots left and will want a multi-year deal similar to his current cap hit of $4.5 million. He is not better than Klefbom or Larsson so paying him that would be foolish.
Karl Alzner. He shoots left and he’ll command a long-term contract over $4 million/season. Adding him doesn’t fit Edmonton’s puzzle.
Who might Chiarelli look at?
Michael Stone. He turns 27 in June and shoots right. He’d be a long-term solution, and if you signed him it is unlikely Russell returns on a multi-year deal. I suspect the Flames will re-sign him prior to July 1st, but if he makes it to free agency he’d be an option.
Most of the other UFA options fit into a short-term plan.
Cody Franson — sorry Lowetide, but no chance I’d sign him. Not a great skater, soft as butter and I’d rather let Matt Benning gain experience on the second PP unit. I know many like his analytics — they do look good — but I believe he is an example of where analytics overvalue his contributions.
Ron Hainsey has been asked to play more than he should in Pittsburgh in the postseason, but on a one-year deal to play in your third pair, he would be a solid option. He could move up to your second pair if needed. The challenge is he shoots left, so if you sign him then Nurse is for sure in your top four. I’m not opposed to that — I’m a big believer in Nurse’s abilities — just pointing out how it shapes the puzzle.
Michael Del Zotto. He had 16 EV points in only 51 games. He moves the puck well, but can be unpredictable defensively. He’s a risky signing in my eyes, and he shoots left.
Trevor Daley. He turns 34 in October. He has experience, is a decent puck mover, but another left shot.
Deryk Engelland. Big, strong and physical. He shoots right. Similar to Gryba, but skates better. He’d be a solid option on a one-year deal. He can play PK and third pairing at EV.
Matt Hunwick. He was forced to play too many minutes in Toronto, but he’d be a solid third pairing guy. He turns 32 on Sunday, shoots right and made $1.2 million last season.
Korbanian Holzer. He is 29, shoots right, is a decent skater and can play physical. If the Ducks trade Sami Vatanen, which I suspect they will, they might want to keep him as a cheap, third pair defender. He might want to go to a team where he feels he has a better chance to dress more often.
Possibly a European free agent. Jan Rutta, a Czech free agent, was mentioned by Darren Dreger. We could see the Oilers look that route, but hopefully they don’t sign another Anton Belov.
Or just re-sign Gryba for another season. You know what you have in Gryba. He is a solid 3rd pairing guy who can kill penalties.
During his end-of-the-season address, Chiarelli said this about his blueline.
“There’s still an element of growth in our D. If you look at Klef, Larss, and then you take out Reggie and Rusty because they’re older, then you’ve got Darnell and you’ve got Matt, you’ve got some young D who had a terrific experience in these playoffs. You saw Darnell move up with Larsson and I think you saw a good pair. You see some promise there. You saw Benning move up with Russell, you saw some good performances. There’s room for growth, we have to allow space for that. We made some major additions this past year. I’d like to let it evolve a little bit. However, I do see two of the best D cores in our conference, in the league, playing right now in Anaheim and Nashville. It’s fun to watch both their groups and it’d be nice to have a D of that level, but we’re not there yet.”
His line about letting the group evolve and “allow space for that” suggests he wants to see how far they can grow. The Sekera injury will allow for more opportunities for Nurse on the left side at EV, and for Benning on the PP.
Chiarelli has added four new D-men since he took over — Sekera, Russell, Larsson and Benning. He will have to add another, more so as a stop gap, but I suspect he will want to see how his blueline develops. If they struggle, I think we will see a move mid-season as opposed to a big splash this summer. Of course, he surprised everyone with the Larsson deal last summer, so we can’t rule it out, but with four young defenders, Chiarelli knows they need opportunities to show they can demand more icetime.
Sekera’s injury is not ideal, especially considering how long it usually takes for players to return to their previous level of play. The young defenders will see more ice this coming season, but I’m interested to see who Chiarelli looks to add as depth and insurance.
Who would you like him to sign?
I’ve done thousands of interviews over the years, and the Matt Hendricks podcast appearance was one of my favourites. I highly recommend listening to it. His path to the NHL was unique and it almost didn’t happen due to waiting for a contract that never came in the summer of 2010. Listen here on Itunes or here on Soundcloud.
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