Photo Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Acquiring Defence: Edmonton vs. Toronto

Edmonton and Toronto were in similar positions after the 2014-15 season. Both franchises were coming off poor seasons, finishing in the bottom five of the standings, and needed major changes on defence. How did they rebuild their bluelines over the next three summers?

Here’s what both teams dressed in game 82 of the 2014-15 season.

Edmonton Game 82 14-15 Toronto Game 82 14-15
Oscar Klefbom Justin Schultz Morgan Rielly Dion Phaneuf
Martin Marincin David Musil Jake Gardiner Tim Erixon
Brandon Davidson Keith Aulie Andrew MacWilliam Eric Brewer

Those aren’t playoff-caliber defenses.

Edmonton already sent away top-four, right-handed defenceman Jeff Petry at the deadline. Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne were looking like free-agent busts, especially Nikitin. Oscar Klefbom looked good playing 22 minutes a game in his 60 games, and at this point the Oilers were still all-in on Justin Schultz. Darnell Nurse was still in junior at this point.

Toronto traded Cody Franson and Roman Polak was injured so their right side was noticeably poor, like Edmonton. Stephane Robidas was signed the previous summer, but he was done and would be banished to Robidas Island. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner were both young defenceman playing 20 minutes a night, and looking going doing it. Phaneuf was playing too much and on a bad contract.

The Oilers hired Peter Chiarelli as general manager after the season, while the Leafs hired Lou Lamoriello later that summer. Edmonton won the McDavid lottery and moved up from third overall to first to draft the generational center. The Leafs remained at the fourth overall pick and selected Mitch Marner.

2015-16 featured some new additions for both teams.

Edmonton Game 1 15-16 Toronto Game 1 15-16
Oscar Klefbom Justin Schultz Jake Gardiner Dion Phaneuf
Andrej Sekera Mark Fayne Morgan Rielly Matt Hunwick
Griffin Reinhart Eric Gryba Martin Marincin Scott Harirington
Brandon Davidson Roman Polak

Edmonton still has the Klefbom-Schultz pair taking on a bunch of minutes, but Andrej Sekera is the big free-agent addition here. Sekera immediately gave them a reliable top-four option, and helped mend the hole left by Petry’s absence.

Griffin Reinhart was the other significant move. Chiarelli traded the 16th and 33rd picks at the 2015 draft for the defensive defenceman in what would turn out to be a disastrous trade for Edmonton.

Eric Gryba was acquired for the fourth-round pick from the Marincin-trade and occupied the right side on the third pairing.

Toronto still has Gardiner, Rielly, Phaneuf playing big minutes. Matt Hunwick comes in as Rielly’s partner and Marincin switches teams and plays up and down Toronto’s lineup.

The Leafs were still in a heavy rebuilding year and this group reflects that.

Edmonton Game 82 15-16 Toronto Game 82 15-16
Andrej Sekera Darnell Nurse Morgan Rielly Martin Marincin
Griffin Reinhart Jordan Oesterle Jake Gardiner TJ Brennan
Adam Pardy Mark Fayne Andrew Campbell Frank Corrado


Klefbom was done for the season with a staph infection, so Nurse moved up and played too much minutes. The Oilers finally gave up on Schultz and traded him to Pittsburgh at the deadline. Adam Pardy was claimed off waivers. He was another warm body to play out another lost season.

The need for a capable right-handed defenceman was even more apparent, but Sekera and Klefbom were nice building blocks on the left side, and one of Nurse or Reinhart could be expected to play on the left side of a third pairing next season.

Toronto’s pairings are one of a team that just clinched last place. Four of those defenceman are now in the AHL, but Dion Phaneuf’s absence is the most important thing. Toronto managed to move the overpaid defender mid-season to Ottawa for a collection of bad contracts that ended in the next couple years. Getting out from Phaneuf’s five remaining years was huge. That $7 million could be used on someone more capable of playing those minutes.

The Leafs also acquired Connor Carrick from Washington by taking on Brooks Laich’s salary and sending Daniel Winnik the other way. Carrick was a young, right-handed defenceman who had an impressive AHL resume.

The Leafs won the 2016 draft lottery and drafted Auston Matthews, while Edmonton moved down to the fourth spot and selected Jesse Puljujarvi. Both teams now had their young, star center and needed defence to supplement their young forwards.

Edmonton Game 1 16-17 Toronto Game 1 16-17
Oscar Klefbom Adam Larsson Morgan Rielly Nikita Zaitsev
Andrej Sekera Kris Russell Jake Gardiner Connor Carrick
Darnell Nurse Eric Gryba Martin Marincin Matt Hunwick
Brandon Davidson Matt Benning Roman Polak

The Oilers right side features two new additions: Adam Larsson and Kris Russell.

Peter Chiarelli chose to overpay for defensive defenceman Adam Larsson, trading Taylor Hall to New Jersey for him. Larsson’s a capable top-four guy, but not as dynamic or game-changing as a Hall. Chiarelli famously said “this is the price you have to pay” to acquire a defenceman.

Larsson gave Klefbom a capable partner on the first pairing, while Russell played with Sekera after being added later in camp on a one-year, $3.1 million contract.

Nurse is now in a more appropriate third-pairing role with Gryba, with Brandon Davidson and Matt Benning as the extras.

Toronto opted for a different route. Instead of moving a big name forward out, they signed 24-year-old Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev out of the KHL. Carrick’s here after being acquired the season prior, and other cheap options Hunwick, Marincin, and Polak round out the Leafs defence on opening night.

Edmonton Game 82 16-17 Toronto Game 82 16-17
Oscar Klefbom Adam Larsson Morgan Rielly Nikita Zaitsev
Andrej Sekera Matt Benning Jake Gardiner Connor Carrick
Kris Russell Eric Gryba Matt Hunwick Roman Polak

There’s little change from game 1 to 82, as both teams were headed to the playoffs for the first time in a while.

Nurse was out for rest, so Eric Gryba stepped in. Davidson was traded for David Desharnais. Benning had already passed Gryba, the only noticeable change from Edmonton’s opening night roster.

The Leafs roster is roughly the same as well. Less Marincin and more Polak.

Both teams had successful seasons, but needed to build off them and improve on defence.

Edmonton Game 1 17-18 Toronto Game 1 17-18
Oscar Klefbom Adam Larsson Morgan Rielly Ron Hainsey
Kris Russell Matt Benning Jake Gardiner Nikita Zaitsev
Darnell Nurse Eric Gryba Andreas Borgman Connor Carrick
Yohann Auvitu

The Oilers and Chiarelli brought back the same six defenceman from last season, even with Sekera’s torn ACL from the playoffs. Kris Russell was re-signed to a four-year $16 million contract. Yohann Auvitu was added as a depth option. Griffin Reinhart was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft.

The Leafs looked elsewhere again, rather than trade a top forward after missing out on Travis Hamonic. Ron Hainsey signed as stopgap for two years and $6 million. Zaitsev returns with a seven-year extension. Andreas Borgman, another signing from Europe, makes it on the third-pairing.

Edmonton Game 20 17-18 Toronto Game 20 17-18
Darnell Nurse Adam Larsson Morgan Rielly Ron Hainsey
Oscar Klefbom Matt Benning Jake Gardiner Nikita Zaitsev
Kris Russell Eric Gryba Andreas Borgman Connor Carrick
Yohann Auvitu Roman Polak

Nurse has stepped up in Sekera’s absence. The gritty defenceman is playing over 20 minutes and looks like a legitimate top-four guy for the first time in his career. Larsson’s logging minutes.

Russell’s minutes have been reduced playing behind Benning and Nurse as the team’s fifth defenceman. He’s signed for three more years at $4 million per after this season, which already looks like a poor contract.

Hainsey’s been a reliable stopgap alongside Rielly on the Leafs’ top pairing. The 36-year-old is also playing almost five minutes a game on the penalty kill, the most in the league.

Zaitsev and Gardiner have struggled as a pair, but Borgman has been solid on the third pair.

2018 Onward

Oct 24, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at PPG PAINTS Arena. The Penguins won 2-1 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Both teams still need help.

Edmonton has Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera, and Russell signed until 2020. Nurse and Benning need new contracts in the summer, too. The Oilers still need a right-handed defender who can move the puck in their top four, after passing on players like Jason Demers, PK Subban, and Travis Hamonic, and they’ve already traded Taylor Hall.

The Leafs have been more patient. They’ve invested in European free agents and veteran stopgaps like Hainsey and Hunwick, and they’re continuing to go that route. Toronto is clearly waiting for the right deal, and it’s a hard strategy to argue with considering their record and the wealth of forwards they have. Drafting Timothy Liljegren doesn’t hurt either.

Toronto’s in a good position to acquire a top-end defenceman, even if that means parting with one of their highly-skilled forwards. Edmonton’s situation is trickier. They have a lot of money committed to defence, with Nurse and Benning needing new contracts, and less assets to part with than the Leafs.

The Oilers spent a lot of assets altering their defence, while Toronto’s additions have mostly come via free agency. Toronto’s being cautious. They’re waiting for the right deal, and so far it looks like it’s working out.

  • bonks4eva

    If you look at the current GM’s body of work it is not very glamorous I would be very worried about the current manager being in charge going forward.. I don’t think he will have a the position next season, and with that being said I don’t really want him to make any trades because they have been terrible! the only trade that worked in all areas was the Scrivens trade… that’s it!

  • CMG30

    Took the few top flight assets aquired from the DOD and cashed them for pennies on the dollar. PC is no genius, he’s a gambling addict at the casino who’s just lost his entire savings.

  • ifiwasgm

    I still can’t believe he was nominated for GM of the year.
    In my books Hall trade always was a failure. Look what Winnipeg got for Evander Kane who really is a cancer (maybe Hall was, maybe he wasn’t. Still lost trade terribly)

  • RJ

    Benning played well last year but he’s going through some challenges this year.

    The Bruins could have signed him. They would have seen him regularly given that he played his NCAA in a Boston-area University. Did the Bruins miss something? Was this PC trying to prove something to the Bruins?

    He’s got 79 games in his NHL career. Is he a future top-4 D, or is he now getting exposed?

  • Natejax97

    Mondays after a win are always more fun than Mondays after a loss. General philosophy is….Fire everyone, trade the whole team, and start all over again because the team is 7-11-2. Wow…

    • MrBung

      Do you blame people? After the DOD, and one good season, things are back to the way they were during the DOD. Also, an honest look at the team and the cap situation does not bode well. People are right to be critical. The Oil’s situation is not good if people choose to look at it objectively and without homer glasses on.

  • Natejax97

    I think IF the Oilers can keep the current group together for a few more years, they will be top 10 in the league. Klefbom, Nurse and Benning all have room to grow, good steady vets in Russell, Sekera. And Larsson is just as advertised, big tough mean minute eater righty D. Patience is hard, especially after 10 years of crap. But this D corp is well priced as a whole and can grow to get the job done. Doughty, Karlson, Subban…they ain’t coming to Edmonton. The only thing I was a bit disappointed about this summer is that we didn’t make a big (enough??) push for Hamonic. I still think he would have been a great Oiler.

    • Reinman

      The funny thing is, the flames have one of the better defenses in the league, and yet pretty much every year they make bold moves to improve theirs, and do a good job of it. I mean our defense isn’t terrible, but when you are missing a top 4 D-man, you need to make a move. Russell is a declining player, everyone knows this. We should not have expected him to play as well as last year, where he played reasonably well. It also needs to be noted that defensive pairings often hide the short comings of the weaker defense men in the pairing. Look at what Green did with Fayne, he made our management believe he was worth 4 million a season, and now Sekera has done the same to Russell, and we fell for it again.

  • Slipknot 8

    Draft a kid from Finland who was passed on by a Finnish Olympic executive who as intimate scouting details on the player and thus pass on a RH first pairing defensive prospect….. because Oilers…..

  • btrain

    Chia’s move for Larsson wasn’t just a bold move out of desperation to fix the D, this is simply how he does business. He gives offers that other GM’s and free agent players simply cannot turn down because they are too generous. I mean the guy comes off a second round game 7 after a 103 pt season with Connor McDavid leading the way and he still turns around and gives Draisaitl and Russell everything they could want. If there is ever a moment when a GM can play hard ball, its when he has a generational talent and what appeared to be a solid team to sell to the player and their agent. Then he ships off Eberle with nobody even close to a reasonable replacement. Perhaps the most frustrating move in my opinion was buying out Pouliot and taking the cap hit penalty. In what world is buying out a serviceable NHL caliber player, who can kill penalties and play up and down your lineup, worthwhile? Eberle would be 3rd with 7 and Pouliot would be 4th with 6 in goal scoring if they were on the Oilers today. Someone needs to relieve this man of his job before he messes this team up any further. I have 0 trust he can win a deal let alone come out even.

  • ubermiguel

    I am less worried about the defence than in years past. Once Sekera’s back and Klefbom gets back to playing how he should be playing everything will be ok on the back-end. I love the fact Nurse and Klefbom were drafted and developed within, that’s been a rarity around these parts. And Benning was a great find that cost nothing but a contract. I just hope Chia will stop over spending on D; Russell and Reinhart were expensive deals. I’m still ok with the Larsson deal.

  • Spoils

    brutal seeing it laid out like that.

    Edmonton’s chance to win is about getting a 3 line attack bolstered by a decent goalie and D by committee (like the Canucks had in their run).

    Are Nurse, Larsson, Klefbom, Russell, Sekera good enough? doesn’t look like it right now, but I think they are.

    For starters, let’s stop being one of the worst scoring team in the NHL… Let’s add a top pairing winger that consistently scores…

  • Randaman

    We aren’t dressing a play-off caliber defense now! This is obvious. Last year doesn’t matter.
    I’m tired of all the fair weather fans that think last year means this year they will be fine.

  • cgyearnall/edmfreeloaders

    Edm set its own trap regaurding poot trades..with soooooo many top 10 picks in every round for 10 years ..not just the first round…everbody knows you cant afford them..your in a crunch…no team would offer fair price…they dont have to…you needed to move players out to have cap room ..quit complaining bout poor trades..if they had done so ..you could never have afforded mc d and rnh…jeez

    • cgyearnall/edmfreeloaders

      If you kept hall etc ….connor would’ve been a goner….cant keep them all…cant afford it…couple years of fuhr like years in 2 different goalies..made them looook far better than they were …this isnt 1987 kids dont lead the learn and follow expierienced mature players…learn how to loose…get frustrated in others try and do it alone…skate off early (hull)and now mc d

  • For years now, one of the biggest gaps on this team is the 2nd line puck-moving Right Defense. Traded away (as fans pounced on) Petry then Schultz. Since then, temporary stop-gaps with left-shooting players has not worked as it also brings down the left-shot player (ask Sekera). Then with Sekera out, moving Benning up and temp-slotting in Auvitu is the answer?

    We all knew the biggest gap Chiarelli had to fill was 2RD. He didn’t do it and now the team is suffering. Him expecting young players to step up as not worked. Too much pressure.

    • Holly Wood

      Don’t get to hung up on what hand they shoot. Check out the Montreal D from the 70’s Savard ,Robinson, Lapointe, Awrey played all the minutes, righties were Vanboxmeer and I think Rick Chartraw but they didn’t play big minutes.If they can play is what matters. Yes there are times along the boards that being on your strong side is easier but then look at PP setups with off handed D and wingers being set up as the shooter.

  • cgyearnall/edmfreeloaders

    Edm set its own trap regaurding poot trades..with soooooo many top 10 jpicks in every round for 10 years ..not just the first round…everbody knows you cant afford them..your in a crunch…no team would offer fair price…they dont have to…you needed to move players out to have cap room ..quit complaining bout poor trades..if they had done so ..you could never have afforded mc d and rnh…jeez