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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The obvious play on the Edmonton Oilers’ blue line

The Edmonton Oilers shouldn’t have too much trouble stabilizing their blue line this summer, even if Andrej Sekera’s six-to-nine month recovery timeline comes in on the longer side.

It may not be literally true that an opportunity lies behind every difficulty, but at the NHL level that optimistic viewpoint usually has some validity. A veteran getting hurt is a chance for a prospect to shine, a salary cap crunch is chance to sign players to cheaper deals or grab talent from a team with less financial flexibility.

Similarly, this summer’s expansion draft, often presented as a challenge the Edmonton Oilers and other clubs must overcome, is likewise an opportunity. It’s certainly an opportunity to shed salary, and also a chance to pick up players from teams with overstrained protected lists.

For the Oilers specifically, there’s also an opening to make a deal with the Vegas Golden Knights for some of the talent they’ll be harvesting from the league’s other 30 teams.

The injury to Sekera which will sideline the veteran defenceman for at least the start of next season – and likely leave him well below his usual standard of play when he first returns – is a serious challenge to Edmonton.

Some have suggested it automatically means re-signing Kris Russell after expansion, but even if that’s true it leaves the Oilers in a position where next season’s top-four is going to be weaker than this season’s was. With Brandon Davidson shipped off at the trade deadline, the club already has fewer bottom-pair players capable of moving up the depth chart. If there’s an early-season injury on the blue line (as there was with first Davidson and then Darnell Nurse in 2016-17) it could kneecap the team out of the starting gate.

One solution to this would be to trade with a team at risk of losing a defenceman to Las Vegas. The problem is that this would leave Edmonton in the position of likely losing a defenceman, or alternately force the team to protect four defenders (which would increase the number of exposed forwards). That doesn’t mean this option should be counted out, but it does make it less appealing.

Another approach would be to wait until after the expansion draft, and then trade for or sign a defenceman. This is more problematic, because the list of free agent defencemen is extremely unimpressive and because teams aren’t going to feel much pressure to move defenders – especially if they’ve already lost one to the Golden Knights.

There is a third path, though, one which has been underexplored because it’s so difficult to get an accurate read on the post-expansion draft landscape: Trade with Vegas for one of the defencemen the Knights have selected.

Even if we assume that the biggest names out there – players like David Savard and Sami Vatanen and Jonas Brodin – are moved to teams with room to shield them, the Golden Knights are going to get a shot at some good defenders, and making a deal for a veteran No. 4/5 type shouldn’t be all that hard to do. Las Vegas is building with a view to the future, so waiver-exempt prospects and draft picks are almost certainly going to have more value to the franchise than a good mid-career depth defenceman.

Ironically, one option might be Davidson, who the Oilers traded so as not to lose him for nothing in expansion. Montreal probably can’t protect him, though he’s also young enough that Vegas might prefer to keep him rather than move him on down the line (assuming that they select him over other options).

Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli might perhaps prefer a defenceman he knows from his time in Boston, and the Bruins are going to expose several, with Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller potential candidates. Jason Demers has been mentioned as a trade candidate in recent days because Florida is in a real jam, one of the worst of any team when it comes to expansion; the Panthers can probably only protect one of Demers, Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic. The Isles are in a terrible spot, too, with a bunch of good defencemen potentially available. Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey are obvious candidates.

To this list we can certainly add Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Ottawa, Pittsburgh and Washington as teams that are going to have a real struggle to shield all of their difficult-to-replace defenders.

All of this is probably an argument for the Oilers to strike now, before the expansion draft, moving someone like Jordan Eberle (it’s much easier to protect forwards than defencemen) for a higher-end rearguard. The cost of such a move would be the exposure of a better forward – certainly Mark Letestu and Jujhar Khaira, probably Zack Kassian – with the knowledge that the trade they’re making is going to cover that sacrifice. If there’s one thing fans in Edmonton know, it’s how hard it can be to turn a pricey winger into a competent defenceman on the trade market. The opportunity presented this summer is unique.

Failing that, though, Edmonton should certainly be able to pick up a veteran depth option in the aftermath. It might cost a prospect the team doesn’t want to lose, but when a team wants to win the Stanley Cup sometimes it has to sacrifice the future a little for the present.

  • Oilerchild77

    Just to remind everyone. Willis is also the same guy that suggested trading Leon Draisaitl about a year ago. So I take his suggestions with a grain of salt.

      • Oilerchild77

        Yeah it is fair. This is pro sports. People get judged by the decisions they have made in the past all the time. And while trading Leon Draisaitl sounded dumb at the time, it sounds even more so now.

        • Ivan Drago

          @oiler77 no it’s not fair. Though I concede that is in fact what happens. However judging every thought someone has because you’ve been able to look at one, with the benefit of hindsight is a dumb idea. If the trade at the time had been Leon for Subban straight up, many ppl probably would’ve done it, but I’m not sure those same ppl would do it after this season.

          • Oilerchild77

            The trade you are referring to was never on the table. It would have taken a lot more than Draisaitl to make that trade happen. Enough to seriously cripple the team’s chances of success. Now I can’t remember the ecact trade proposal that was rumored, but it didn’t sound good from our end.

            By the way, please keep your condescension to yourself. We get enough of that from Willis.

    • Bubba Train

      Have you ever had an idea that didn’t work out? Can you predict the future? Make a suggestion today so we can judge it a year from now.

      You attack a mans work and then ask someone to hold thier opinion in regards to your post? Let’s be fair.

    • FISTO Siltanen

      Bang on. I only want to hear suggestions from commentators who are 100% right all the time.

      Some of the time doesn’t cut it with me either. Really don’t care if their ideas promote an interesting discussion. 100% right or shut up.

    • Jonathan Willis

      And I was mistaken on Draisaitl. He had a better season than I expected.

      On the other hand, it’s not like P.K. Subban is garbage either; it’s kind of interesting to wonder what the Oilers would have looked like with Hall and Subban instead of Draisaitl, Nurse and Larsson. Certainly Subban would have been Edmonton’s best defenceman.

      At any rate the discussion here is about handling expansion and the Oilers need for defensive help given Sekera’s injury situation. It’s entirely up to you, but if you’d like to make a contribution relating to the subject at hand, you could do that. Or you could just keep taking runs at the author every other article. That’s cool too.

      • Oilerchild77

        Ok. You’re right. I should stay on topic. Here’s what I think is the best course of action: put Fayne in the third pairing and re-sign Russell (who I suspect will be, but hopefully for not too much). Fayne is an expensive third pair guy, but its tbe final year of his deal, and its still better than adding another contract and even more money by signing a free agent who will likely not be any better anyways. He’s under contract already, so they might as well get some use out of him.

  • GCW

    While I like Eberle more than a lot of others these days, if the Oilers can flip him for a long term solution for the 2RD position due to the expansion draft, they should take a serious look. Thier 5 through 7 ranked forwards after an Eberle deal are not so special that they would be hard to replace.

    • Jonathan Willis

      Yeah, that’s how I see it, too. If you can lock down the right side of the blue line (Larsson, X, Benning) for the next 3-5 years, it’s worth dealing Eberle and potentially losing Kassian as well (though I’m not sure that I’d personally think playing Kassian in Las Vegas was that good of an idea). I’m a little leery of losing Kassian just because I think there’s more offence to be found there, but maybe there’s a deal to be had where the Golden Knights get a sweetener and take Khaira (who will be exposed in either scenario) instead.

  • OriginalPouzar

    While I’m not sure how they fit Russell in to the cap going forward, I’ve succumb to the fact that he will likley be re-signed.

    At the same time, the Oilers cannot make a long-term acquisition to cover-up a short term injury in Sekera, that will also cause cap problems going forward.

    We need to look internally and no farther that Mark Fayne.

    Although I would much rather pencil Benning in to 3RD than 2RD, for a few months, lets see how he does:

    Klef/Larsson
    Russell/Benning
    Nurse/Fayne

    Gryba/Simpson

  • Oiler Al

    Oilers seem to always be needing to have super star defense men.Look at the Penguins chasing the cup again with a miss-match depleted defence .Maybe Sullivan might have a better system .We already know he is a better coach than Todd McLellam [ more cups].

  • Simba99

    What we need to realize is we have to dump a whole lot of salary to keep 97-29 happy which is going to kill us for the future so we have to get draft picks and cast off for cheap to keep this team somewhat competitive no matter how you look at it and the expansion draft you either lose a player or your going to trade just to get the money off the books for the two players that’s going to cost us the future so we have one year to win it all

    • Mike Modano's Dog

      You’re right, poor us having 20-21 year old superstars that were the best 1-2 punch in the NHL this year and the envy of every team in the league. smh Don’t worry, we’ll make it work…despite what you are hoping for your own team.

  • Margret

    With the list of unprotected defenseman available, teams will be able to work out backdoor deals with Vegas. i.e. Let’s say Vegas is interested in Eberle, the Oilers can say, pick Demers (if he is available) and we’ll trade you Eberle for him, and they might throw in, “and don’t take Benning”. It will be interesting to see how things go down.

  • The Rookie

    Willis, a lot of teams are going to lose a lot of depth (Trade someone to not lose them, and then still lose someone to Vegas) when it’s all said and done could you see the Knights turning around and packaging some of that depth right back to someone for a bigger name? Like for example 2- 2nd pair D men for a higher end guy that someone might want to shed because of $$?

  • Johnny Stomper

    Maybe I’m on a island here but I really think Nurse is gonna step up and take that 2nd pair role on. He was very impressive to me in the playoffs. Sure some chaos there but he’s dynamic and still hasn’t grown into that frame of his. I think you see him but on some man muscle this summer and comes out next year and makes a statement.

  • 4000miaway

    Vegas already said themselves that they are open to picking players and dealing them to other teams. Even on request. If Edmonton can’t work out a deal with Florida for Demers for example, they could make arrangements with Vegas to pick Demers and then deal him to Edmonton.

    I guess that’s why experts talk about why Vegas should target value contracts on every roster. That way they could multiply their assets by dealing with other teams.

    They have also said they are open to getting incentives to pick a certain player over another. For example, Edmonton could give them a draft pick to choose Pouliot instead of whoever they would rather have. Every team has those bad contracts though and Vegas can’t take on every overpaid underachiever from 30 teams.

  • Hemi

    Considering the number of players that each present team can protect, all teams will unavoidable loose someone and chances are it will be a player whom, they want to keep. It will come down to which GM will convince McPhee to play ball. Secret hand shakes, back room offers, nudge nudge wink wink sort of thing.

    McPhee has the upper hand in any dealing with the other GM’s. His “pieced together team” may not be a team that will be cup contenders but I suspect it just may surprise the hockey world (NHL) a wee bit. Not every player going to the Knights will be a trow-away contract

    From the outside looking in, Oilers GM is probably in a better spot than some of his evuiqalents. I guess the bottom line is what does MePhee want?

  • ponokanocker

    I think it’s time to move on from Russell and I will be dissapointed if they bring him back. Once he lost Sekera as a partner, he got exposed bad. He is very poor at moving the puck out of his end while keeping possession. His typical move seemed to be to flip it out of the zone, turning it over. Sure he blocked a lot of shots, because he had to. Teams have continually moved on from him and for good reason. Now its time for Edmonton to do the same.