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Photo Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Driving Through a Patch of Ice

There are three things that I took away from Peter Chiarelli’s year-end press conference:

1) He acknowledges that the Oilers’ window is open right now.

2) He recognizes that the Oilers defence is not at the level of the clubs competing in the Western Conference Final.

3) Andrej Sekera is injured and will miss potentially half of next season.

Items one and two, I think, were pretty obvious after the playoff run the team just made. Item three is a major league curveball – the kind that can twist you up and make you look like an idiot if you aren’t prepared.

What I think needs to be addressed first are the implications of the Oilers’ window to win and the fact that the defence needs to be upgraded if it is going to reach the level needed to seriously challenge for the Cup.

The Oilers have to avoid knee-jerk reactions to the Sekera news because it is, in the grand scheme, a short-term problem. The impact of losing his minutes will be huge for the two or three months he will out, but the impact of improperly building a championship defence could be felt for years. It could be crippling to the Cup drives that McDavid’s Oilers ought to be on during these next several years.

Where the confusion comes in is that McLellan named four blueliners (Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, Benning) as key to the growth of the defence, then also said he would like to re-sign Kris Russell because of the way he conducted himself around the group. I can already feel the collective eye rolls of OilersNation when I mention Kris Russell, but bear with me for a moment.

This is the defence that was not yet championship caliber and not yet at the level of Nashville or Anaheim, per the General Manager of the Oilers:

Klefbom – Larsson

Sekera – Russell

Nurse – Benning

This is the defence next year if the Oilers re-sign Kris Russell:

Klefbom – Larsson

Sekera – Russell

Nurse – Benning

See the issue?

If the Oilers go down this route, then the only way they improve is if Klefbom and Larsson take another step forward as a legitimate top pairing duo. At the same time, they will need the development of Nurse and Benning to continue in a straight line without any hiccups. I’m not saying it cannot happen, because I like Nurse (probably more than a lot of bloggers) and Benning is dreamy by number and a smart player. However, that’s a big step forward if we are going to say that the Oilers defence in 2017-2018 is now on par with Anaheim or Nashville.

If we go back to worrying about how the Oilers are going to improve that blueline without wondering about the short term issues, there is a need to improve the top four and a member of that top four is potentially leaving via unrestricted free agency. The need to improve and the opportunity to improve is there. I think we have to acknowledge that Chiarelli rebuilt the right side of the Oilers defence in a summer, less than a year ago. Larsson, Benning, and Russell were added in that order and the team looks stronger moving forward for it.

The challenge now isn’t to add three pieces. It’s to find the right single piece. Russell as a stop-gap was fine, but with the change in expectations and the needs identified, it is difficult to justify going into the next year OR THE NEXT SEVERAL YEARS with this exact same defence.

And this takes us right into the Sekera injury. This is the kind of news that is pulling Edmonton into the wrong direction. If we can just start out by stating the obvious: Sekera is a massive loss to the club. He plays significant minutes at even strength, and on the penalty kill and power play. He was the second highest scoring defender on the team and was ranked 43rd in scoring by defence in the NHL. Those minutes and that offence will not be easily replaced. Even if we think Benning can play on the second unit PP, he’s never been a huge point producer.

The same instinct that causes us to stand on the brakes and go crazy on the wheel when we hit a patch of ice is also, I think, the same instinct that has made some people suggest that re-signing Russell is now necessary. Just like that patch of ice, if we navigate this with a cool head, I think we can make it through without sending this thing into the ditch. Here is the scenario laid out in point form.

  • Sekera is out for two to four months.
  • The Oilers will need someone who can provide cover for his work on the PP.
  • The Oilers will need someone who can provide his even strength offence/puck moving.
  • The Oilers will need someone who can provide cover for his stable defence.
  • The Oilers need to improve the defence long term to reach Championship Caliber™.

Russell is many things, but a replacement for Sekera he is not. The puck moving ability and offence is simply lacking. We might as well be asking Gryba to replace Sekera’s offence (actually Gryba and Russell had similar points per minutes last season). If the need for veteran leadership is the issue then I can vaguely understand that argument, but we keep coming back to the blueline still needing an upgrade even after Sekera returns from injury.

Should the unthinkable happen, and #4 is signed to a multi-year deal, then the pathways to improving the defence get bottlenecked. And that’s without getting into the cap implications for some of the AAV’s being floated around for Russell’s next Oiler contract. I’ve seen anywhere from $3.75 million to almost $5 million, none of which is reasonable for the performance delivered. It would be a nightmare in a couple years and the Oilers are already paying Fayne millions of dollars to not play for them, so lessons should have been learned.

But let’s say that the Oilers do re-sign Russell and it’s only for a single year. He is slotted onto his natural left side for at least two months and presumably is more effective onr it. The Oilers STILL need to find a right shooting defender to upgrade the team. That player has to be a genuine top-four defenseman. I’m fine with that player being a defensive defender, but they have to be better than Russell (otherwise just re-sign Russell and accept not being Championship Caliber™). Then when Sekera returns from his ACL injury he comes back to solidify a significantly improved second pairing and hopefully is back up to speed before the playoffs start again. This way the Oilers can take a better run at the Cup next season.

The Sekera news is the kind of thing that can make otherwise reasonable people make silly decisions. The long term goals of the Oilers are still the priority. The team wants to become a perennial Cup contender. A lot of the pieces are already in place, but the General Manager isn’t convinced that his defence is ready to contend. It’s just a few months without Sekera. It’s what happens after Christmas and into the coming years that matter most. Pro-Russell, Anti-Russell, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the blueline still needs to improve and his spot is the obvious solution now, just as it was before the Sekera news.

  • Is it April yet?

    So many possibilities with the expansion draft…I’ve heard Jason Demers’ name mentioned a few times as well. Interesting. Chiarelli is not going to be kicking himself in December, wishing he had picked up a solid D in the off season. Impossible to guess who he has his eye on but he’s predictable when it comes to doing what needs to be done.

  • @S_2_H

    My two cents; just because Chia said he was happy with the direction of the D doesn’t mean he’ll stand pat, especially since he’s acknowledged that their D isn’t at the level of teams still in it in the West. There will be a trade out there to be had at some point, at least I hope there will! I’m just happy that our D is no longer a weakness, it may not be a strength quite yet, but it’s definitely turning the corner.

  • SaskFan

    What I like about Lowetide and other bloggers is that they bring up discussion points, but offer their opinion or options. This article simply says that Russell is a bad idea if Edmonton wants to contend for a cup without offering an alternative.

    • @S_2_H

      Agreed. In a perfect world we land a legitimate top 4 guy, we sign Russell to another one year deal as a stop gap, but Nurse takes another step forward and passes Russell on the depth chart. This makes Kris a 3rd pairing guy and pk specialist, which is where he should be. This is ideal, unless they pay him more than 3-3.5 million per year, which I think he deserves based on his shot blocking efforts alone.

      • Yelak

        I think a prime player that we could use is Justin Faulk, seems pretty much like the perfect fit. Good player, great offensive player, good age and good contract. I also think Carolina would listen to offers to move him as they have a great young D emerging but he definitely wont come cheap. Nuge would have to be involved I would think but may be worth it. If Carolina would be willing to do it off prospects or draft picks I would be all in. Even if had to give up Puljujarvi. I think JP will be a great player but at this point it would definitely be worth it.

        • FISTO Siltanen

          Thing about JF that might make Hurricanes move him is that it is heavily backloaded. While he may have a $4M hit his actual salary is more like $6M. A deal might be there for the Oilers or another team to make.

  • Yelak

    Oilers need to add a defensemen, I think that much is known. There are a lot of options and possibilities out there right now but I don’t think trading Eberle to help the D is the right decision. I think we need to keep Eberle, at least for one more season, he could easily come back around and have a great year and we don’t currently have anyone to replace his offense. If he doesn’t he wont be too hard to move with only 1 year on his contract remaining next year. Heard lots of talk about Pysyk, Hamonic as possible trade options for oilers but a name I haven’t heard anyone talk about yet is Cody Franson. First of all he is a UFA and we wouldn’t have to give anything up to get him and he seems like he could be a good fit as a RHD#2. He’s got great size, plays some PP and has been a decent Dman while having to adapt and move around different teams. He has already been to free agency as a UFA before and he’s not a sexy name out there so I don’t his price will be driven up much. We could probably get him on a 2-3 year deal for like 3.5-4mil. We have time to wait on Russell decision so we should know exactly what we have before having to commit on him. Personally not a big fan, but I think with Sekera out I would look to bring him back on a 1 year deal. If not willing to do 1 year deal have to let him walk and replace Sekera from within for half a year. If we keep Reinhart through expansion, this would be a perfect opportunity to really see where he is at and if he has the chance to be the player Chia expected him to be.

    • Heschultzhescores

      I’m okay with keeping Eberle for the regular season, as it’s softer hockey, and then trading him at the trade deadline for a playoff type defenseman…but he would have to have 60 or 70pts before we could fool someone into that trade.

  • Hemmercules

    All I’m really getting from this article is that the Oilers need to add a puck moving offensive Dman and Henderson gets to remind us that he doesn’t like Russel. Two things all of us knew last summer.

    Chia will likely sign Russel because he wants to, not because Sekera is out. Im not a fan of some parts of Russels game but I still think he plays an important role. I really can’t see chia throwing more than 4 mil at him for 2 or 3 years but we will see.

    Building a team is never done. Chia will be working hard this summer looking to add the missing pieces as usual.

  • Ever the Optimist

    IMO resigning Russel is important on a short term deal that can be moved at deadline time once Sekera comes back. Add that to moving ebs for a rhd, sign a guy like hanzal and the oilers become a more difficult and balanced team.
    Maroon – McDavid – Draistl
    Lucic – RNH – Slepyshev
    Caggigula – Hanzal – Kassian
    Khaira – Letestu – Pitlick
    Klefbom – Larrson
    Russel (Sekera – Hamonic?
    Nurse – Benning

    This combination gives us a nice combination of size, speed and skill with each line and pair.

    • TruthHurts98

      No thanks for Hanzal. Always injured and disappears in the playoffs. Same with Shattenkirk and he struggles defensively in the playoffs every year. Thankfully PC is smarter and will add players that do something in the playoffs!

      • Ever the Optimist

        Out of the free agent class this year the top centers would be Hanzal, Thornton, Fisher, Boyle, Gagner or Bonino. To me the choice would be between Hanzal and Bonino if we want to add this piece without losing from anywhere else.

  • godot10

    Signing Mark Streit for one year is a fix for the injury to Sekera. He can take the PP time and most of the EV time. Nurse can take more minutes on the PK and more EV minutes.

  • Stack Pad Save

    I think the biggest problem facing Peter Chiarelli is how to improve this year? I really don’t think their is a top end free agent that fits for the Oilers. There are no obvious free agents on the defensive side to fit with what the Oilers need. I don’t see an established Defensemen, that can both run a power play and provide defensive capability other than Andre Markov. The problem with him and most of the other available free agents is his age. The rest are of the mold of a Karl Alzner and are more defensive defenceman.

    I wonder if Peter Chiarrelli was subtrefuging by stating he wasn’t going to make a big deal and actually is trying to work one. I don’t see any other way for the Oilers to substantially improve their back end for next year other than with a trade.

    Maybe Chiarelli can pull off a crazy deal to land Duchene and Barrie out of Colorado or Perrault and Trouba out of Winnipeg.

    I really think the playoffs exposed the fact that the Oilers have spare parts on the front end that they can trade for upgrades on the back end.

    • oilerjed

      I think the main improvement we see on D will be Darnel Nurse.
      I didn’t think we were as bad last year as we seemed, and injuries to Klef and McDavid hid a lot of promise the team could have shown had they been remotely healthy. Mostly it showed a lack of depth. I am not saying they would have breakout season like this year but they would have been much better then they showed. Obvious, maybe?
      The breakout season Klefbom had this year, while having a lot to do with Larsen of course, wouldn’t have seemed like such a leap if he had been able to play a full season last year, showing the developmental leap from the previous year.
      Darnell is in a similar situation after this season. While he had more than a few bumps in the road this year, he missed a significant amount of time and started pretty slow after coming bacl. By the end of the playoffs I think he had started to play a solid reliable game, and started to skate the puck up the ice again. That is two seasons’ now where he has played more games, late in the year and has gotten stronger each season. Another good off season for Darnell and he will become the formidable beast that we thought he might be when he was drafted.
      I am predicting a similar jump for Darnell next season that Klefbom showed this year. And the situation on defense is going to look significantly different.

  • oilerjed

    Can I just say that talking roster tweaks and pulling trade scenarios out of our butts is far more enjoyable in May after watching the Oilers hold their own (mostly) through two solid playoff battles.
    Looking forward to the many battles to come!
    Let’s Go Oilers!

  • Jason Gregor

    Chiarelli actually laughed at the guy who brought up the “window.” question.The suggestion their window to win takes a hit with McDavid entering his 2nd contract makes little sense to me based on the previous winners.

    The last Cup winner to have dominant players on their ELC was Chicago in 2010. With Toews and Kane in their final year.

    The 2011 Bruins had Seguin, but he wasn’t in their top-six.
    The 2012 and 2014 Kings best players were all in their 2nd or 3rd deals: Doughty, Kopitar, Quick, Carter, Richards, etc.
    The 2013 and 2015 Hawks best players were all on long deals: Kane, Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa, Hjalmarsson, Crawford and Sharp.
    The 2016 Penguins had Matt Murray, a surprise starter, but Malkin, Crosby, Kessel, Letang, Fleury had big tickets. Sheary and Rust were nice complementary players, but the past six winners, and looking at this year’s four finalists, the last seven winners their biggest contributors were not on their ELC.

    The Oilers are just now starting to lift the window off the ledge. They have lots of time.

    And the defence’s best improvement likely happens internally from Larsson, Klefbom, Nurse and Benning as they mature and gain more experience. Of course they weren’t a Championship defence. Those four had played a total of 5 playoff games prior to this year.

  • crabman

    So I get the worry about signing Russell to a long term deal. Personally I don’t think there is a long term roster spot for him unless it is a very cheap 3rd pair kind of deal. I do however see value in a 1 year deal or even a 2 year deal at reasonable money. He could replace Sekera short term and even on a 2 year deal if he isn’t too expensive he could be moved at the deadline next year or in the offseason before the McDavid contract kicks in or when we find a more suitable 2nd pairing guy.
    I think it is absurd to try and compair Russell to Gryba and just shows the real contempt Henderson has for Russell. You can’t just look at the points. Russell skates better and retrieves the puck better. Can make an outlet pass and skate it out of danger. Gryba is slow to the puck and off the glass and out. Fine as a 7th dman but would never play in the top 4 and have the success Russell did this year. Russell also looked better jumping into the rush late in the season and I think there is more offence there. After all he did score 34 points a few years ago when given an opportunity on the pp.
    And lastly I don’t think our D is that far off where it needs to be. If Klefbom stays healthy and progresses like he has he can be the big shot on the top pp and score over 40 points. As a whole I don’t think we are far off. We are a start defenseman away from being one of the best defense in the league. But we won’t be getting that player in FA or in trade. So for now letting the players we have develop and try and add some depth is the beat we can do. Signing Russell short term does this. I just don’t think he will be interested in short term. There lies the problem.

  • russ99a

    We don’t need another puck mover. Benning is a right hand D and plays a solid defensive game and has good puck skills and offensive chops, he can move up. Russell should be back, his defensive game can’t be easily replaced, and we can’t allow more goals in the playoffs next year. I’d like to see our addition be a better Gryba type or better yet a Jason Smith type with more of a all-around game and who doesn’t turn over the puck in our zone send blind passes everywhere.

  • If you’re Russell at his age and you’ve just come off what many think is a pretty good season, do you settle for a one year deal? THIS is the question we have to ask. My thought? No way he does that. This is the window for his last decent contract. If he doesn’t get it here I guarantee you someone else gives him one.

    We sign Russell and it’ll be multi year and it won’t be cheap. This will seriously hinder our chances to actually improve beyond player maturation. Let’s not forget that Sekera will be nowhere near 100% for most of next season too no matter when he gets back into the lineup.

  • toprightcorner

    I am less cncerend with the defense compared to RW and right shot 3C that can win faceoffs. The defense was not the reason they didn’t beat the Ducks, it was a 3rd line that couldn’t score, poor faceoff and scoring depth. Those should be fixed first, simply because they are the easiest to fix. There really isn’t any dman out there that is available that will make the team better than Russel did. Russel is not the best D out there, but his competitiveness was fantastic in the playoff and was a huge asset. With Sekera missing the first half of the season and then likely struggling the second half of the season, next year it ill be almost impossible to make the defense better than last year. If you focus on filling the needs up front first and they will still have a good playoff run. The n the following year, you add that 1 missing piece to the back end and you have a team that will push for conference finals every year for 10 years.

  • Anton CP

    A few things:
    1) This is the first time that Klefbom played a full season, so he still have lots of rooms for improvement.

    2) This is the first season of Larsson with the Oilers, he still have lots of chance to get comfortable in his role with the Oilers.

    3) Nurse missed majority of the season, he also have rooms for major improvement. With Sekera likely missing some major times next season that Nurse will get his chance to shine.

    4) Benning is a rookie, he also have lots of rooms for improvement.

    With that being said, why is having the same defensive cores are going to be the problem? Only Larsson can be seriously considered as veteran and it is only the first season for him with the Oilers. Having the same defensive groups that can only be getting better then without any major overhaul is improvement on its own. As much as that you are trying every means possible to discredit Russell that he was getting paid to do his job. You are going out of your way to pretty much suggested that the current group of defensemans cannot be trusted going forward because they will not be able to hold on and they will collapse defensively sooner or later. It is so cynical that I sometimes feel the DoD got to some of you that you cannot trust the Oilers ever.

    Here is the thing, Chiarelli will not going to offer deals that will be a long term to Russell anyway. Having Russell as emergency plan is not a bad idea. Besides, with Sekera will be gone for months that Nurse-Benning pairing will likely get some bump in minutes and mostly likely with Nurse, Benning, Russell sharing about the same amount of ice time that Chiarelli only needs to find a 6th d-man for short period of time before Sekera return to lineup. If everything goes well then Russell will only be given specialized role and it is nothing wrong with it.

  • copperjacket

    Wow big surprise here, another anti-Russell article from Henderson. I just lost 3 minutes of my life I’ll never get back reading this hack. Get over it, he’ll sign a 3 year deal and you’ll just have to accept it. Have you gotten over the yak trade yet??