Early in game five of the Pacific Division Final on May 5th, Ryan Getzlaf hit Andrej Sekera just as he dumped the puck into the zone. It looked like a usual finish-your-check type of play, but it wasn’t. Sekera tore his left ACL and was out for the remainder of the playoffs. He had surgery on May 18th and is supposed to be out six to nine months.
Six months is November 18th, and the worst case scenario would have him return February 18th. If he returns on November 18th, which I highly doubt, he’ll have missed 19 games. If he returns December 18th it would be for the Oilers 34th game of the season. A January 18th return would see him play the final 36 games, and a February 18th appearance would see him play the final 25 games.
In an interview with Bob McKenzie last week, Peter Chiarelli was still using the six to nine months return date. That is classic Chiarelli. He doesn’t like to comment much on injuries, and this morning Todd McLellan said Sekera won’t be available until “quite a ways into the season.” Sekera, like every player, believes he’ll be ready by November 18th. In a July interview he said he was hoping to be back close to six months than nine. Sekera has been working hard in rehab and you want players to have a positive outlook, but I’d be surprised if he returns before December 1st. If I had to bet, I’d use January 1st as the return date, plus or minus ten days. I don’t see a need to rush him back. We’ve seen many players return from a torn ACL, and while they are healthy enough to play, they rarely return to the same level of play they had prior to the injury.
The Oilers main focus should be to have Sekera healthy for a playoff run. If he returns in January instead of mid-December, it shouldn’t matter. They should be able to compete in the first three months of the season without him.
Can the Oilers remain competitive without Sekera?
I believe they can. Here’s why.
Good teams remain competitive despite an important injury. Sekera is a valuable piece to their puzzle, but he isn’t their top defender. Oscar Klefbom is, while Adam Larsson is their best defensive D-man. Sekera played very well last year, and he and partner Kris Russell faced similar competition to the Klefbom/Larsson duo.
Matt Benning will replace Sekera on the second unit powerplay, and I expect Benning will be able to replace his PP production. I won’t be surprised if he surpasses it. Benning has excellent offensive instincts, and he is better at getting pucks through from the point than Sekera. Darnell Nurse is salivating at the opportunity to play more, and he will have an increased role on the PK to eat up Sekera’s minutes. He has all the physical attributes to handle an extra minute per game on the PK, and Sekera’s PK minutes should be manageable for Nurse.
Sekera’s EV minutes will be the challenge. He averaged 17:16 at EV last season, fourth most behind Russell (18:36), Larsson (18:22) and Klefbom (18:10). I’m sure for some it is interesting to note the Oilers finished with 103 points with Russell averaging the most EV minutes. He didn’t play the most minutes overall, because he missed 14 games due to injury, but the coaching staff has much more confidence in him than some statisticians do.
Unless something drastic occurs, it looks like Matt Benning will start the season on the second pairing with Russell. Todd McLellan wants to keep Klefbom/Larsson together and I don’t see one player filling the void. They will want all of them to share the load.
The Oilers blueline doesn’t have a big-name, legit top-15 D-man, but they can be successful as a group.
During the Decade of Darkness, I, and most of you, watched the Oilers ice a below average defence corps year in and year out. This group, even with Sekera, is not that.
Is this group comparable to the Penguins playoff blueline who hoisted the Stanley Cup in June?
The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup without their clear-cut #1 defenceman, Kris Letang, and I don’t see why the Oilers can’t withstand a Sekera injury for the first three months of the season.
The Penguins played 25 playoff games, all of them against very good teams.
Their blueline consisted of these six defenders.
Player TOI/game EV TOI/game
Brian Dumoulin 21:59 19:03
Ron Hainsey 21:06 18:47
Olli Maatta 20:36 17:34
Justin Schultz 19:44 16:16
Trevor Daley 19:06 16:16
Ian Cole 18:50 16:10
Letang averaged 25:31/game in the regular season and played 19:42/game at EV. He is an elite top-end defender and the Penguins survived without him.
Last season the Oilers blueline icetime was as follows.
Player TOI/game EV TOI/game
Oscar Klefbom 22:22 18:10
Kris Russell 21:13 18:36
Adam Larsson 20:08 18:22
Darnell Nurse 17:01 15:43
Matt Benning 16:36 15:29
Eric Gryba 16:08 14:48
Sekera averaged 21:28/game and played 17:16/game at EV. He played four fewer minutes than Letang, and isn’t in the same elite level.
When you look at the Oilers six compared to the Penguins Stanley Cup playoff blueline, do you see a major difference?
The obvious one is experience. Dumoulin, Cole, Maatta, Schultz and Daley won the Cup in 2016. Cole and Dumoulin were in their top-four in 2016, while Daley, due to injury, and Maatta and Schultz rotated in the third pairing playing 15, 18 and 15 games respectively.
Hainsey had played 907 regular season games, but was making his playoff debut and he was very good. Daley has 894 regular games, while Schultz (344), Cole (338), Maatta (220) and Cole (163) combined for 1065 games.
The Oilers blueline totals 1,618 GP, with Russell leading at 641, Larsson at 353, Gryba at 258, Klefbom at 189, Nurse at 115 and Benning at 62.
Outside of experience, do you see a major difference in skill level between the Penguins six defenders and the Oilers six?
The Penguins are a smaller group, who focus on puck movement. The Oilers have a much bigger, more physical group, who can move and transport the puck.
Pittsburgh’s D corps played within themselves, had a system fit to their skill set, and of course got the proper help from their forwards and goaltending.
The Oilers as a team aren’t in the same category as the two-time defending champs. They are hoping to build to that, but it is unfair to suggest they are equal today.
JUST BE CONSISTENT
The Oilers aren’t playing top teams every night in their first 39 games until the calendar turns to 2018. Their defence doesn’t need to be great, it just needs to be steady to absorb the loss of Sekera.
The top pair has continuity. Larsson and Klefbom played together all year and Klefbom told me last week he believes he will be able to do more this season, because he knows exactly where Larsson will be and how he reacts. Nurse and Gryba have played together for at various times the past few years. Russell and Benning have only played 56 minutes together, so they will need some time to adjust. But Russell and Sekera had never played together until last season, and due to Russell signing after the preseason, they never even had the preseason to familiarize themselves with each other’s patterns or instincts.
I expect McLellan to play Russell and Benning together a lot in the preseason, and most likely all of his pairs, although he will mix and match somewhat, just so they get a feel of different players in case of injuries, or if a player is struggling. Sekera was a calming, consistent force on the blueline, and there is no doubt he’ll be missed, but if the Oilers are truly a Cup contender like all the oddsmakers have predicted, then one injury should not derail their season.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins can absorb the loss of one of the top-15 defenceman in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup without him, there is no reason the Oilers shouldn’t be able to play 39 regular season games, 17 of them against non-playoff teams from last season, and skate away with a winning record.
The Oilers were 19-13-7 thru 39 games last season. They didn’t win half of their games. In their final 43 games they went 26-13-2. This team was significantly better in the second half of the season as their youth gained experience and got more comfortable.
This group should enter the season with a lot of confidence, but also a lot to prove. They want to show the league last season wasn’t a one-off, and the blueline can challenge themselves and prove to everyone they are a good group, even without Sekera in the lineup.
I see no reason the Oilers can’t win 19 of their first 39 games (up to end of December), and in fact, they should win more.
What concerns you most about the absence of Sekera? What concerns you the least?
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