After missing a couple weeks of action with a back injury, Adam Larsson is a game time decision to return to the Oilers on Thursday against the Nashville Predators. While we don’t have an exact date on when Andrej Sekera will return following off-season surgery, it’s likely the veteran defender will be back within the next few weeks.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday question. Who should end up on the outside of the Oilers’ numbers game when Larsson and Sekera return to the lineup?
When Larsson gets activated…
The Oilers currently have a full 23-player roster with Sekera and Larsson on the Injured Reserve. Cam Talbot, of course, is also on the IR, but it’s inevitable Nick Ellis, who doesn’t require waivers, will be sent down to AHL Bakersfield once the starting goalie returns, so there’s nothing to talk about there. The more interesting discussion is how the Oilers will handle the return of two top-four defenders, especially with the newly-acquired Brandon Davidson back in the mix.
When the team was fully healthy minus Sekera for the first 26 games of the season, Todd McLellan operated largely with Eric Gryba as the team’s sixth defenceman. Slowly, though, he began to use Yohann Auvitu more. Then, when Larsson was placed on the IR on Dec. 1, he rolled with Auvitu and Gryba as the third pair, which was predictably a disaster.
In five games without Larsson, Auvitu and Gryba played together twice, but Brandon Davidson has slotted in alongside the French defender in the past three games. It’s pretty clear based on usage before and after Larsson’s injury that Auvitu has passed Gryba on the depth chart.
With that in mind, you have to assume that when Larsson is activated, Gryba is the one who ends up on the outside looking in. He’s a right-handed shot like Larsson and has struggled to be effective in his tough, physical, shutdown role this season. With Davidson and Kris Russell more effective in a similar role, there doesn’t seem to be a place on the roster for Gryba.
Gryba will have to clear waivers if sent to the AHL when Larsson returns. He’s signed for this season and next at a $900k cap hit. He won’t have a buried cap hit while playing in the AHL if he clears. I have a feeling he would make it through waivers because I’m not sure if a team would want to make a year-and-a-half commitment to a fringe player, but you never know.
When Sekera gets activated…
This, of course, is the more difficult discussion. I’m operating under the assumption Gryba goes down when Larsson is activated, but that in itself isn’t even a certainty. I think it’s a reasonable assumption based on recent usage, though. Anyways, the Oilers have themselves a difficult decision to make when Sekera returns, barring another injury before the veteran defender is set to return.
The logical decision would seem to be putting Auvitu through waivers. The Oilers are activating a defenceman, so they should inevitably just send the seventh down, right? I’m not sure it’s that simple. I think you run a much greater risk of losing Auvitu on waivers than you do Gryba because he offers a more unique skill set, being an offence-driving defenceman. If you do lose Auvitu on waivers and, say, Oskar Klefbom goes down later on or Sekera struggles to regain form, you don’t have an immediate option to fill back in.
Could the team opt to run with eight defencemen and 13 forwards? Auvitu played as a defenceman/forward in Europe and has even seen time up front with the Oilers this season. Would the team rather try to sneak Nathan Walker through waivers instead of Auvitu? It’s a difficult decision.
Currently, the only players on the Oilers who can be sent down without requiring waivers are Darnell Nurse, Anton Slepyshev, and Jesse Puljujarvi. Obviously, Nurse isn’t going down because he’s the team’s No. 1 defender this season. I don’t see a reason to send back Puljujarvi, as he’s hitting his stride at the NHL level. Slepyshev has been in and out of the lineup, but has been a solid contributor when playing.
What say you, Nation? Who do you boot from the roster when Larsson returns in the near future? And then, who ends up on the outside looking in when Sekera returns? Does the team go out of its way to keep Auvitu around, or am I overestimating his value? Is there a clever way to manipulate the injured reserve to prolong this decision?