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.