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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

WWYDW: Which defenceman steps up in the absence of Andrej Sekera?

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?

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    • Jonathan Willis

      Four guys improving and nobody taking a step back would certainly be an optimal situation for the Oilers. I would point out that improvement across the board is a pretty rare thing – in any given year there are generally steps forward and back.

      • nuge2drai

        Sekera take a step back due to his injury.

        Safe to say Nurse will take a step forward as he grows into that large frame.

        Klefbom and Larsson will take a step forward after a full season together under their belts.

        Benning is a wild card.

          • Spydyr

            So about the same time the team had playoff experience?
            The team took a big step forward last season. Outside of injuries why should we not expect the younger players mentioned to improve with another years experience (including playoff experience) under their belt.

            After a decade of darkness aren’t the fans allowed to have some optimism after the teams first playoff clearance.

        • Roberto

          Rule #5 is he who may comment shall be optimistic about the Oilers, and King Jung Lowe the 6th rings, but not overly optimistic. He shall treadith lightly on this fine line. He who speaketh negatively shall have his tongue removed, and banished to walk the streets to be jeered at by the other 3rd tier fans, and he who comments too positively shall belittled accordingly by Robinlee Hood Brown. We humbly speakith Master Katz name. From the book of Oil City, so sayith the Oil.

      • Almost everytime teams take a step back it’s because of players having miracle career years. If you look at the 14-15 Flames Hudler(normally a 45-50pt player) had 76pts in 78 games, Wideman had 56pts(has usually been a 20pt defensemen as a flame) and Lance Bouma had 34pts(hes combines for 14pts the last 2 years) or the 13-14 avalanche where guys like Jamie McGinn, Duchene, O’Rielly, Landeskog, and even John Mitchell had career offensive years. While alot of our guys had career years none of them had crazy explosions in fact some guys actually had down years (Looch, Ebs, Pouliot, Nuge). Everyone is developing at a proper rate and is just getting better.

        • Crazy Pedestrian

          I get what you’re saying… but by that Logic does that mean McDavid and Drai who have just completed miracle-like years will both regress? Let’s all hope that last years totals are the expected norm for the rest of their (Oiler) careers…

      • wiseguy

        10 years of statistical anomalies where every player that arrives on the team regresses with very few players improving. To regress to the mean, we now can have 10 years where every player improves with nobody taking a step back.

  • Nanook

    I would like to see Nurse get a chance. In junior he was a beast, and a huge thorn in McDavids side in their playoff round. I think he needs a chance to see if he can handle it. If we can get him resembling what he was in junior, then look out. He will strike fear in many forward lines for years to come.

  • Oil9744

    It’s gonna be Nurse no question, he was having a good season till the injury last season and he’s gonna come back even better next season, Nurse still has the potential to be the overall best defencmen on the team, They even had him playing with Larsson on the top line for some shifts in the playoffs

  • Roberto

    Hall, Ebs, Jultz, Yak all traded, Pouliot bought out and Fayner buried in the minors, and a large step forward for the team in the standings. Peter traded the mall, and was awarded accordingly. If Mac T and Lowe read the comment section years ago, playoffs wouldn’t have been a pipe dream for so long. The truth shall set you free.

  • NoBuBlackOPS

    Seeing as Reggie is a LD I would like to see nurse take a step forward and prove he’s a solid top 4 Dman. Ideally all the younger D improve and continue to grow. That being said one injury doesn’t have to be a major one can seriously alter a season for a player and his growth.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      slow and mediocre. there’s a reason why teams have avoided this guy this summer.we have players like Simpson, Ryan Stanton, Fayne and Gryba that will be able to fill in admirably until Sekera returns. we don’t need Franson.

  • OilCan2

    I like the top six we have. They will absorb the vacated minutes.

    This season should be interesting to see what Bear & Jones bring to camp. They would be called up if they showed well in their AHL pro debuts.

    • NoBuBlackOPS

      I’m very interested in seeing bear and jones in camp and what they could do. But in no way should they get any time in the NHL unless there are utterly dominant in the AHL. Two many times in the past this organization has rushed players to the NHL. We finally have depth on D where we can absorb a few injuries and not need to bring up first year pros who aren’t ready. I’m also ok with them getting a game or two at the end of the year. If we got a playoff spot locked up and they have had solid season in the minors. To give them an idea of what they can expect at the NHL level to go into the summer improve on certain aspects of their game.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        now that we are winning, players like Bear, Jones and Puljujarvi should be left in the AHL to properly develop. this has been one of the biggest complaints over the years with the Oilers….rushing players like Gagner, Nuge Leon and Nail. let’s not repeat what the Old Boys Club used to do on a regular basis.

  • OriginalPouzar

    I think a “must”, to the extent possible, is to have Russell play his natural side. Over the years, he has been a much more effective puck-mover from his left side (which makes sense).

    If he is going to play 20 minutes a night (and he will start the season doing so), he will continue to get much time with McDavid and the top two lines and we can’t have him stifle the transition and the offence.

    On the left side, he can be an effective 2nd pairing guy but, if he’s on the right side, he should be playing 3rd pairing ES minutes.

    We need a RHD to step up and Benning is my guy – development isn’t linear so, hopefully, he is able to run with it. If not, I think we’ll need to split up Klef and Larsson.

    • NoBuBlackOPS

      Disagree 100% only way rusty should play on the left is during the time Reggie is out. Are only other RHD options are fayne and 1st year pros I believe . We tried Reggie on the right it in the past didn’t work well. Splitting up kelf and Larson seems to be a big mistake seeing as they formed are 1st pair and don’t believe it’s in the teams best interest to play kelf on the right as I believe he never has at the NHL level. That’s a unnecessary learning curve for one of best D we don’t need! That leaves nurse who is still learning his way right now no need make that any harder than it has to be for him. Playing rusty on the left after Reggie comes back causes to many problems for the oil. By pulling to many players out of there position of strength to accommodate one player who has quite bit of experience playing the right side.

      • Shadesof97

        I believe this whole thing is simply while Sekera is out, otherwise Nurse-Benning form our 3rd pairing. I agree with him though, I would give Benning the push. Russell is a #4 in my eyes, a legit top 4D but not someone you want anchoring a pair in normal circumstances so you want to give him the best possible chance to succeed, thats on his natural left side, with a right handed partner in Benning. Benning has the better advanced stats and production, and is a better puck mover. The fit is more natural. Now if he takes a step back or Nurse forces their hands, then fine, but I would think Benning is going to get the push

        • NoBuBlackOPS

          I don’t disagree that Benning should get the shot on the 2nd pair right side he’s the best option to fill that spot I believe. After we get Reggie back I think it’s in the teams best interest to move rusty back to the right on either the 2nd or 3rd paring depending on the performance of the player that takes the 2nd pair spot. But to pull a player from his natural left side who has no experience on the right just to accommodate a player who has quite a bit of experience on the right just seems wrong to me. Especially since with nurse he’s still developing his game no need to make that harder than it needs to be on him. Than look at klef same thing with him he’s never played on the right at the NHL level. Why force him into a situation that doesn’t give him the best chance to succeed. Makes no sense to me to pull young still developing players from a position of strength to play them at a position they will struggle to adapt to. After Reggie comes back rusty should move back to the right and stay there barring any injuries on the left.

  • Shadesof97

    I would give Benning the push to start. He has the better advanced stats (as per puck IQ he has a higher CF% and DFF% both on average and against the “Elite”) and the better production (though very similar) and has a more natural fit (right handed, puts Russell in his natural position) and is a better pairing option as more of a natural puck mover. Nurse – Gryba had success if I’m not mistaken, although, you could run the 1st pairing hard and the 2nd and 3rd pairings more evenly if you wanted to have Russell babysit Auvitu and keep the successful Nurse – Benning pairing together and try them in a bit of a harder role

  • Klefbom – Larsson
    Nurse – Benning
    Russell – Gryba

    It’s not ideal, but Russell is more effective, like most defensemen, on their natural shot side, especially on top 4. Ideally, they’d bring in another vet right-shot D and put Russell on 2LD until Sekera returns.

  • Ever the Optimist

    I hope that Auvitu gets a good look.
    Klef-Benning
    Nurse-Larsson
    Auvitu-Russell
    seems to me at the very least in this arrangement there will always be a top 4 dman on the ice. Will also very quickly determine who among the young guys are ready for the step ahead in a contract year.

  • Pouzar99

    Benning on the right with Russell is the obvious choice. He looked very good stepping in with Sekera last year when Russell was hurt. If that doesn’t work the Nurse/Russell combo is worth a look. I can’t see splitting up Klefbom and Larsson.

    • Roberto

      If the Oilers had the same team as the Flames, they would have been swept first round. If anything, they got worse this offseason. Smith is equal to or less than as good as Elliot. Their D is pretty decent, but not good enough to shut down the best player in the World. Hamonic won’t make or break a team. Flames are about as good as last season, likely a playoff team but not a threat in the playoffs.

  • oldTymeOilerfan

    1. Klef + Larsson
    2. Russell + Benning
    3. Nurse + Gryba
    4. Auvitu
    The wildcard imo is Nurse. The ankle injury set him back last year, fair enough, but still I don’t easily envision him evolving into a top-4 D man. There is something lacking in his defensive game and/or his reading of the play generally. He’s got tools, but he strikes me as one of those rare guys who end up getting a long look at a different position, i.e. LW. He’s no Brent Burns or Dustin Buff, but those two set a precedent in recent years….?

  • toprightcorner

    I keep Klefbom and Larsson together, they will be even better together this year and you don’t want to mess that up. Russel and Larsson would be ab offensive desert.

    I start by putting Russel at LD and putting him with Benning. Nurse stays on the 3rd pair for 1 more year of development and Auvitu plays RD, he played some there in NJ.

    If Benning struggle, I put Auvitu at LD with Russell on LD.

    I refrain from moving Nurse to the top 4 this year, he took big steps this year and 1 more season in sheltered minutes will mold him into a much better top 4 dman. He has to get a bit of the chaos out of his game and stop putting it off the boards and out too quickly if there isn’t a play.

    I still think Nurse could be better then Sekera in a couple years, mainly due to his skating, and I love Sekera.