The Edmonton Oilers will start next season without veteran defenceman Andrej Sekera, thanks to an injury suffered in the team’s second-round playoff series against Anaheim.
Sekera averaged 21:28 per game last season, the second-highest total on the team, and was leaned upon in all situations. He played critical minutes at even-strength, on the top penalty kill unit, spent time on the No. 1 power play and was absolutely dynamic in 3-on-3 overtime (More on Sekera’s season here).
Replacing a player like that is always difficult, and while Sekera’s recovery seems to be going well the Oilers will need to find an internal replacement for his minutes for at least the early part of next season. In this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday, we ask who that replacement should be.
The Incumbent Top Three
Edmonton took a by-committee approach to its top-four on defence last season, and three of those four players are still healthy:
LD Oscar Klefbom. Klefbom played more than 22 minutes per game to lead Edmonton’s blue line last season, including extensive time on both special teams. He’s big, fast and good with the puck, though still prone to defensive breakdowns. He supplanted Sekera as the team’s top power play option midway through the year.
LD/RD Kris Russell. Russell averaged 21:13 per game, and although a left shot spent most of last season as a right-side defenceman. He’s quick, gritty and excels at getting into shooting lanes, though his offensive dimension disappeared last season and Edmonton’s puck possession numbers take a dive when he’s on the ice. Controversial as he is with the fan base, there’s no question at all that coach Todd McLellan will lean on him out of the gate next season.
RD Adam Larsson. Larsson played 20:08 per game and was Edmonton’s No. 4 by ice-time. He’s big, intelligent and physical, with brains compensating for average speed. He’s a shutdown defenceman who can be trusted with tough minutes at even-strength and on the penalty kill.
Who Joins the Top Four?
LD Darnell Nurse. After averaging more than 20:00 per game in 2015-16, Nurse fell to fifth on the depth chart, with his ice-time cut by more than three minutes per night. The 22-year-old seventh overall draft pick has 115 games of NHL experience now. He’s big, fast, mean and confident with the puck, but his decision-making is still that of an inexperienced player and last season he repeatedly ran into trouble when taking on tough competition. Is he ready to step into the top-four and play the role envisioned for him on draft day, or will he be passed by another defenceman?
RD Matt Benning. Benning was a revelation last season, much as Brandon Davidson had been the year prior. With little fanfare, Benning came in and delivered a well-rounded effort, providing the Oilers with consistent puckmoving ability and a physical edge, too. His shot metrics (largely in a sheltered role) were outstanding and he has established himself as a contender for a more prominent role. Having said that, he took a step back late in the season after taking a hard hit from Viktor Stalberg, and of course there’s always reason to worry that a sophomore might not repeat his performance as a rookie, especially if that performance was surprisingly strong. Will he be a better or lesser player next year?
Someone else. Edmonton has some other options beyond the two obvious ones. Right-shooting Eric Gryba was re-signed and brings an uncompromising physical game to the blue line. Another right shot, Mark Fayne, is out of favour with the coaching staff but has long (and reasonably successful) history in tough minutes roles. On the other side of the ice, lefty Yohann Auvitu is a skilled puckmover, a dimension somewhat underrepresented on the Oilers’ back end.
Calling for Armchair Coaches
One could keep the Klefbom/Larsson pairing intact. That would likely mean pairing Russell either as a RD with Nurse (who would add some size to the tandem) or as a LD with Benning (the best pure passer of the three). Such an approach would likely deviate from last year’s by-committee approach, preferring instead to load the ice time on to that top pair.
Alternately, the by-committee approach could be retained if Klefbom and Larsson were split up. Benning had success with the all-purpose Sekera last season and Klefbom checks some of the same boxes; that pairing could be used in an offensive role while Russell/Larsson were entrusted with shutdown minutes. On the other hand, the same logic applies to Russell, and if he played with Klefbom that would reunite Nurse and Larsson, who had a pretty decent cameo together last season.
Lastly, the top-four approach could be extended into a top-six, with one of Klefbom, Larsson and Russell on each defence pairing.
What approach would you take?