Edmonton had a massive hole to fill when Andrej Sekera tore his ACL during the playoffs last season. Sekera played the second most minutes among Oilers defencemen behind Oscar Klefbom in all situations. Peter Chiarelli chose to re-sign Kris Russell and bet that Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning could take on more minutes, instead of bringing in another big-minute defender to fill that void.
Sekera is slated to return around December, so the idea was the Oilers would hold the fort until then. Russell would anchor a second pairing playing on his natural left side, while either Nurse or Benning assumed more minutes. It was an interesting plan for a team many had as contenders going into the season, and it almost worked as intended.
Nurse and Benning are playing more, especially Nurse, but Russell has seen his minutes heavily slashed from last year and the Oilers are 5-8-1.
Todd McLellan has leaned on his two young defencemen to replace Sekera’s minutes while moving Russell to the third pairing. Russell still ranks fourth in average ice time, but Benning has averaged more at even strength in his 11 games. Russell’s seen almost three and half minutes less per game this year, and that four-year contract is already looking ill-advised with both Nurse and Benning needing new deals this summer.
Nurse has seen a big increase in his minutes and good for reason. He’s played over 21 minutes the last three games alongside Adam Larsson, and the speedy defenceman is controlling play at an alarmingly good rate. His 7.7% corsi relative, shot attempts relative to the rest of the team when he’s not on the ice, is seventh in the league amongst defencemen with 200 5-on-5 minutes played, according to Corsica. That percentage is in range of players like Mark Giordano, Chris Tanev, Seth Jones, and not far behind Oliver-Ekman Larsson and Zach Werenski. Nurse has emerged as a legitimate top-four defenceman through 14 games, with his minutes only increasing.
Benning’s minutes have also increased as of late, though he played the least of the defense against the Islanders Tuesday. He’s still been in the the top four the past five games. Benning’s play hasn’t been at Nurse’s level, but he’s been better since the Russell-Benning pairing was broken up. A Klefbom-Benning pairing could be a real strength for Edmonton if Nurse is capable of taking on more minutes with Larsson.
Both Klefbom and Larsson are playing more this season. Klefbom’s 24 minutes a game are a career high, while Larsson’s 22 minutes are just behind his last season in New Jersey. The two have had some uneven moments so far, but it’s hard to fault them when they’re taking on as much minutes as they have. McLellan’s still had both Swedes firmly in his top four throughout the season.
Andrej Sekera is going to return. McLellan has wisely eased off Russell’s minutes in absence of Sekera, and Nurse and Benning have taken advantage, but it presents a dilemma for the veteran’s return. Eric Gryba is the obvious candidate to come out of the lineup. He’s consistently been the sixth defenceman.
All of Klefbom, Sekera, and Nurse play the left side, so maybe Sekera gets up to speed on the third pair with Russell if Nurse is still chugging along. Russell and Sekera as a veteran third pairing could provide Edmonton with three stable pairings, as Russell’s been McLellan’s fifth defenceman recently.
Replacing Sekera was always going to be difficult, but Edmonton could soon have three left-handed defencemen worthy of playing 20-minutes a game with Nurse’s emergence.
Who’s minutes should be slashed? Sekera could be eased back into the lineup with lower minutes than we’ve seen in the past, or possibly Klefbom could see a decrease as he hasn’t performed at the same level, especially defensively, thus far in 2017.