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Photo Credit: Walter Tychnowicz/USA TODAY Sports

Is Oscar Klefbom good enough to lead a championship defence?

2016-17 Edmonton Oilers: No. 77 LD Oscar Klefbom

Oscar Klefbom was the Edmonton Oilers’ second first-round pick in the 2011 Draft, taken 18 selections after first overall choice Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Six seasons later, as Nugent-Hopkins searches for a niche on the Oilers roster, Klefbom has established himself as the team’s top defenceman.

Klefbom was his coaches’ first choice for ice-time, playing in all situations and leading the team with an average of 22:22 per contest. He dispelled concerns about his durability, becoming the team’s only defender to play in all 82 games. His long dormant offensive side awoke, too, as he led the Edmonton blue line in goals (12) and points (38).

Those stats might have come as a surprise to a fan following the Oilers at the midseason mark. In an interview with 630 CHED’s Bob Stauffer on December 30, Edmonton coach Todd McLellan splashed cold water on the idea that Klefbom was even firmly established as a top pairing guy:

It’s interesting again, people talk about Klefbom, and he’s been okay—he hasn’t been great yet, but we expect him to get there. But he’s played maybe the fewest games of a lot of defencemen on our team, and we talk about him like he’s a No. 1 or a No. 2. He’s got a lot of work to do to develop. He’s that young right now that he’s going to get there, but the experience, especially on the blue line is so important.

The coach’s pessimism was born out in his usage of the player. From December 1 through to that interview, Klefbom had played 13 games for the Oilers, averaging just 19:56 per game. He’d been used extensively in November, but that was a rough month for Edmonton and one of the ways McLellan and his staff responded was by cutting into his ice time.

This, though, was a temporary state of affairs.

From the time that interview aired through the end of the regular season, Klefbom played 45 games. He averaged 23:11 per night, picked up 26 points (after posting just 12 in his first 37 contests). In the last half of the season, he would play less than 20 minutes only once – on March 14, in a 7-1 win over Dallas that was over by midway through the second period.

When McLellan was asked in July about the possibility of splitting Klefbom from Adam Larsson as a way of managing the absence of Andrej Sekera, the coach made it clear he was reluctant to move away from a pairing he had come to rely upon:

In an ideal world we’ll keep [Klefbom and Larsson] together. I thought they really grew up as a pair throughout the regular season that could be counted on in a number of different situations, whether it was the need for offence or a shutdown-type situation.

The underlying numbers certainly seem to support that statement. Klefbom ranked second on the team by on-ice Fenwick percentage and Larsson third; only Matt Benning ranked ahead of them and unlike the Swedish duo he wasn’t really used in a shutdown role.

There’s an additional element to Klefbom’s game that makes him valuable: He doesn’t take penalties. To some degree penalties are a byproduct of playing a nasty physical game, but for defencemen they’re also often a sign of losing positional battles – an opponent gets a half-step lead or overpowers the defender, and to prevent a good chance against the defenceman hooks or trips or holds. Klefbom’s exceptional mobility means he rarely finds himself in that position, and the strength that comes with his 6’3”, 215-pound frame means he’s awfully hard to brush aside.

He’s a very good player, and in the judgment of the coaching staff he’s the best defenceman presently on the Oilers roster. Is he good enough to lead a championship defence? Answers may differ on that; my personal response is that it depends on a lot of factors. Klefbom’s continued development, the potency of the forward corps and the cast around him on the blue line are all going to determine how far Edmonton can go with Klefbom leading the way on the back end.

Bottom line: Klefbom is young, capable, and signed to a cheap long-term contract. Few players were more consequential to Edmonton’s success in 2016-17, and given Andrej Sekera’s injury his importance is likely to rise next season.

Previous year-end reviews:

      • Redbird62

        Schultz was leading the Pens in ice time per game in the playoffs until he got injured and he played hurt in the finals. He was also 2nd behind Letang in TOI per game from December 1 onward (EV, PP and Total). No he is not a shut down guy, but Pittsburgh clearly thinks highly of him now @ $5.5 million for the next 3 seasons. I trust this Edmonton regime is less likely to screw up the young defensemen they have now than the previous regime was.

  • OriginalPouzar

    Klef should have been in the top 5 for Lady Bing last year – d-men are severely underrepresented in that category historical.

    Klef will never be an “elite first pairing d-man” but he has already show to indeed be a first pairing d-man. His offence should continue to spike as the defensive group as a whole is able to transition the puck better and Klef gets even more comfortable on the PP1.

    I’d like to see less chaos in his defensive game but its already declining and should continue to do so.

    Lets not forget, Klef is only at 189 NHL games played – still development to come.

    • Jonathan Willis

      Thanks for making the Lady Byng argument – I’m right there with you, especially since it’s so much harder for defencemen to play a clean game.

  • OriginalPouzar

    To answer the direct question – well, Klef led the defence last year and I think an upgrade on 2RD (maybe Benning in the future) provides a championship level defence so, the answer is, yes.

  • OriginalPouzar

    If only we still had Jeff Petry. The following is a championship level D:

    Klef/Larsson
    Sekera/Petry
    Nurse/Benning

    (Gryba, Simpson, Stanton, Auvitu)

    I didn’t include Russell as he wouldn’t be here if we still had Petry.

  • Roberto

    Klef and Larsson are a formidable pair. The D core looks good now, and there’s potentially 2 or 3 difference makers in the system. I’m hoping/expecting Nurse to take a big step one of these years as well.

  • Roberto

    I think the D core was good enough last year to win. McDavid will be better, Drai should be, Ebs won’t cost games in playoffs and as a whole the team should improve just by being a year older. As long as Talbot is as good as last season (which will be tough to do), the team should have a shot to beat anyone come playoffs. I don’t think we’ve seen McDavid beast mode yet….. In Junior, he dominated his 3rd year in the league. I expect the same. Drink the Koolaide, brother.

  • Kr55

    He’s definitely dreamy enough!

    Seriously though, he is definitely trending to be a top end quality D. He’s still not that experienced in the NHL, but it really putting it all together already.

  • Rusty

    Ok you make the point he’s the Oilers best defenceman (which i agree with). but where is his comparables around the league. Who in the league is good enough to lead a championship defence? How does Klef stand up against that? Does it fit the team? You don’t even offer your own opinion on the question YOU asked. I know its summer and things are slow. I just find this weak writing regardless

    • FlamesRock

      Complaining about an article, and criticizing the writer, you choose to read on a free website is really kind of disgusting! I am not an Oilers fan bit I still find these articles and many of the comments very interesting!

    • Jonathan Willis

      From the article:

      ” Is he good enough to lead a championship defence? Answers may differ on that; my personal response is that it depends on a lot of factors. Klefbom’s continued development, the potency of the forward corps and the cast around him on the blue line are all going to determine how far Edmonton can go with Klefbom leading the way on the back end.”

  • ponokanocker

    Prior to Pittsburgh winning the cup without an elite D, I would have said no. He isn’t anywhere near top 5, and I have had a hard time including him in top 20 in the league. He might get there, but not yet. His defensive play and puck handling, at times, are too erratic. What Pittsburgh showed us though is that you don’t need an elite 30 min/game D to win a cup. I think the Oilers can win a cup with Klefbom as our #1D.

  • EastVanOilFan

    I think Klefbom and Larsson have potential to be one of the better pairings in the league next year. By the end of last season and into the play offs you could see how both those players were learning from each other. At that time Klefboms defensive prowess and grown considerably, and Larssons offensive ability also saw a little jump. Im willing to bet most of Larssons points came in the latter half of the season when Klef settled in more. If next year they can both each improve marginally i could see that pairing making another big stride in their game.

      • Spydyr

        Who would you rather go into the corner against or battle in front of the net with? The guy with a mean streak that likes to hit or the Lady Byng candidate? Who would fair better if the other was injured Larsson or Klefbom ?

        • Shameless Plugger

          All you ever preach is the ability to be stronger than the other guy. The Oilers drafted a bunch of really strong guys in the past ten years. How did that pan out? The ability to play the game is just as important as being bigger and stronger and meaner. Look past 1987 and realize the game isn’t reliant on just being bigger and meaner anymore. Skate my skull and smarts is the utmost important. No debating those qualities (“truculence”) are a factor in a game but not to the amount they were in ’87. Klef is a stud, I remember Todd Nelson saying he could play the whole game if he had to, his stamina is second to none. Narrow minded judgment of players is the reason we routinely run good hockey players out of this town. The teams in the 80’s were the best, but comparing this era to that is just a recipe to be disappointed. Different game different era different type of player. The kid (Klefbom) is a beast like it or not. I love Larsson but to say he’s better than Klef is blind. One is apples the other is oranges. Like each for their own qualities as opposed to comparing one to the other.

        • Jonathan Willis

          Most people regard six-time Lady Byng finalist Nicklas Lidstrom as a pretty good defenceman. The idea that defence can or should be boiled down to hits baffles me.

          • Redbird62

            Willis was not saying hitting was a bad thing, he was just pointing out one example of a hall of fame defenseman not known for being physical. There are several excellent NHL defenseman who are not physical: Karlsson, Keith, Fowler and Josi to name a few.

      • ColoradOIL

        I know I’m going to get flak for this, but I think Russel is our best defenseman. I also think I’m the only person that liked the deal he got. I’m hoping by the end of the deal, Darnell has become the the best d man.

    • Roberto

      It is weird how the oil jumped 33 pts in the standings isn’t it. Didn’t he have a pretty good plus minus as well after playing against the best opposition in the toughest zone starts? A goal prevented is as good as one scored. That’s why ebs scoring won’t be missed…

  • Interesting question. It’s been nice seeing a guy be allowed to find his potential because he doesn’t have to make sure his partner isn’t a defensive liability all night. I do hope the coaches loosen the reigns a little on all the d men and their point shots. I think Klefbom, Larsson, and Nurse all have very big point shots.