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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Countdown to the season question 10: Is Sekera Replaceable?

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

Mar 30, 2017; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenceman Andrej Sekera (2) battles for the puck in front of San Jose Sharks left winger Patrick Marleau (12) and Sharks center Tomas Hertl (48) during the second period at Rogers Place. Oilers won the game 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

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?

Recently by Jason Gregor:

 

 

 

  • Jagrbaum

    Greatest concern is one of Benning/Nurse unable to fill his role in the top 4 adequately. They don’t have to be him per say, but they need to be able to hold their own.

    I feel like Sekera will take a good 20 regular season games to get back up to speed as well.

    I am most intrigued by what Peter Chiarelli will do with the LTIR cap space come trade deadline.

  • GriffCity

    While it’s good to be optimistic, I think the loss of Sekera will be significant. You say Klefbom is our best D-man and in many ways he may well be, he certainly emerged last season as a better player than he showed previously. Sekera has been clutch though many times for the Oil. His 3 on 3 overtime work has been spectacular, he eats big minutes but is almost always calm under pressure – making good plays with the puck, and he rarely gets exposed on the defensive side of the ice. We will almost certainly feel his loss early on as I dont really feel that Nurse nor Benning is apt to fill that role. Time will tell but those two players lack a great deal of polish in their games and sadly Nurse has been a downright liability in the defensive zone at times with Benning not being much better. Both players bring their elements but they are not Sekera yet. Its not all doom and gloom but if any of Klefbom, Larsson, Russell stumble out of the gate or go down with an injury, it could spell some nasty things for the Oilers on the back end. Lets hope we come out guns hot and uncle Rej is back in time for Christmas.

  • wiseguy

    Thanks for the update. I have found it curious how we have had so little information on Sekera’s progress since surgery save for the 3 quick comments – one each from the player, coach and GM.

  • Oiler Al

    Great to hear the reference to Penguins, winning the cup with a no-name defence! I have been whining about that all summer.The difference is in the system and coaching that Sullivan applies. They are an attack team and move the puck out effectively and quickly.McLellan has the laid back defense first style .Thats why he was stuck in the ditch all those years with the Sharks. Likwly to happen woith the Oilers. He is to conservative, thats why shot blockers [Russell] are his cup of tea.

  • El Connor mcdaddy

    The article says that we “don’t start playing top teams every night until 2018,” however in the month of October alone we play Winnipeg, Ottawa, Carolina, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Washington, and then Pittsburgh again, to start November. even though 4 of those teams did not make the post season last year; it is hard to see Dallas, Carolina, and Philadelphia, all with significant off-seasons, not being competitive for a playoff spot. i think the loss of Sekera will be felt, and it will be felt quick.

      • OilFarmer

        Once again Gregor takes criticism of his work personally gets upset and argues semantics. The guy is saying even though some of the teams we play didn’t make the playoffs they still won’t be easy games. Yes there may be the odd game that “should be” winnable, there aren’t many free spaces.

  • TKB2677

    The loss of Sekera will be a blow for sure. I do agree with Gregor that they can withstand it (i hope). But with Sekera being out until Xmas and probably taking another month to get up to speed, that is why it shocks me at the HATE of Russell and the signing. I am not a big fan of Russell but I don’t think he is crap. He came in and did a decent job as the Oilers #4 dman. The Oilers are supposed to be a cup team now. Many of the fans and stats guys all say that they need to make a run while he is cheap. People went so far as to say the Oilers should have waited one more season to trade Eberle to “go for it.” So how can fans say that, then condemn the Russell signing in the same breath? If you are supposedly a cup team and are “going for it”, how do go for it when you lose 1/2 of your second pairing for 40+ games due to injury, then let the other half just walk away? How are you “going for it” when your entire second pairing which helped you get 103 is GONE?

    Russell makes 4 mill. For a #4 that’s about right. Based on how much other guys who would be #4 dman as well (Alnzer 4.65, Smith 4.35, Kuikov, 4.33) you aren’t getting anyone even close for less money or less term. So your only alternative is to either hope and pray you have enough internally to manage, or you sign some slug like Wideman or Franson and pray they can play WAY WAY WAY above their heads. So how would that be “going for it”?

  • PJP

    So you are saying Sekera gets his name on the cup no matter when he comes back…right?…right? 😉

    And just to get all sciency, according to one study, “35 of 36 NHL players were able to return to the NHL the season after ACL reconstruction (after, on average 7.8 ± 2.4 months)….player performance was not significantly different from preinjury performance. [They ] played significantly more minutes, took more shots, had better shooting percentages, and scored more goals and points than did controls [i.e. Players who hadn’t had surgery]. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2325967114548831

    So there appears good reason to believe that if the team stays competitive, getting Sekera back will be like traded for a player of his caliber later in the season.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    Injuries concern me the most. I have a bit of faith in a few of the d down in the AHL in Simpson, Auvitu, and Stanton to help if one of the top 7 dman get hurt.

    What least concerns me is scoring from the forwards and how many games Talbot plays, I believe LB. can handle 20 games unless he pulls a Gustovson and disappears.

  • gordo

    well if everybody else in the top 4 stay healthy i think they should be ok. bigger issues are who is top 6 besides connor and drai. there are guys like strome and nuge who have a lot to prove; need more out of looch as well

  • Spydyr

    What concerns you most about the absence of Sekera? What concerns you the least?

    Injuries to other defencemen particularly right handed ones concerns me the most.

    Making up for his offensive contributions concerns me the least.

    • OriginalPouzar

      Exactly my thoughts.

      Sekera out for months.

      Although not serious, Slepy banged up.

      Although not serious, Khaira banged up and will miss the early preseason games.

      I’m fearing the Oiler infirmary will look like it did year after year prior to last year and that could mean missing the playoffs completely.

      • hendo

        i think that is years of a small team lacking in so many key areas suffering with any injurys haunting a complete season still haunting us fans. the right side fwd leaves alot of questions but the filler in those cases are not as seperated as past teams when for example souray demoted and our d already weak is searching for at best the 5th or 6th dman that at best is a 5th or 6th dman on any including bad teams. we have more heart and more size now both uasually equate to less man games lost. my opinion only but it does seem like our c’s and goalies will drive us with a solid first pair d by compliment for now more than star power which to me is ok. this fwd group should be hi impact so if the d becomes the issue now thatcwe have a solid group of at least nhl quality then the jssue wont be sek but a issue in the style played with the assets we have.

  • madjam

    Oilers should be able to progress this year and cover the absence of Sekara , barring any other major injuries to more of the defensive core . We have some reasonable depth , albeit not quite as solid as Sekara provides . Someone has to step up and fill Sekara’s spot , plus someone new might have to fill the hole that defenceman is leaving to replace and take over Sekara’s spot , if we carry 7 defenceman . Relying on Gryba for entire season seems iffy . Whom might grab that extra spot ?

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    • hendo

      what team wont have a problem loosing there 1 or 2 dman early in season. d i believe is a part of the oiler game played by commity and with reasonable growth by benning and some growth curve for nurse to bring a bit more calm. and a few guys in ahl that can fill a 7 spot if all bump one we be ok

  • Svart kaffe

    Every team has to deal with injuries. Good teams find a way to keep rolling. That’s what concerns me the least and the most. We’ll see how good they really are. I think they’ll do fine and it could even be beneficial if either Nurse and Benning rises to the occasion. But then what if they don’t?

    But at least we’re not Ottawa having to thread water without Karlsson.

  • Randaman

    As long as we don’t have another significant injury on the blue line, I don’t see this a a huge loss. The shin pad assassin probably needs the time off to come back refreshed. He is older