The Alan Parsons Project band had a few hits in the 1980s and early 1990s. Their most notable song, Eye In the Sky, is a fitting title for the news the Edmonton Oilers have signed free agent Swedish defender, Joel Persson.
You’ve taken lots of chances before
But I’m not gonna give anymore
Don’t ask me
That’s how it goes
Cause part of me knows what you’re thinkin’
The above words from Eye in the Sky ring true when you look at recent history of the Edmonton Oilers, as they try to improve their blueline via European free agents.
Persson is a smaller, offensive-minded right shot D-man. A few years ago, he was playing in the ECHL version of Swedish hockey and this past year he played in Sweden’s top league, SHL, and performed quite well, producing 6-28-34 in 51 games. When Vaxjo signed him, he was expected to be a seventh defender, but early in the year he was already quarterbacking their top powerplay and playing a fair amount at even strength.
Will it translate to him becoming an effective NHLer? The odds are low, but it is a low-risk bet by Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers. If he is the only D-man the Oilers sign or trade for this off-season, then Oilersnation could be frustrated.
The Oilers haven’t had a lot of success signing free agent D-men in recent years.
Yohann Auvitu was signed last year. He played 33 games. When the puck was on his stick in the offensive zone he looked great, but there were clear defensive deficiencies in his overall game. It was a low risk signing for one year, but it didn’t work.
Kris Russell signed a one-year deal worth $3.1 mill. It turned out to be a really good value contract. He played in their top-four all year. Last summer they signed him to a four-year extension worth $4 mill/year. He had a productive season at EV this year, especially early in the year when he played the left side. When Sekera returned, Russell moved to the right side and his play dipped a bit, which is expected for most who play their offside. Russell is a solid NHL defender. The Oilers’ issue is they have four left shot D and that means Russell has to play the right side. He can do it, but he is more effective on the left side. Next June he will have a list of ten teams tow which the Oilers can trade him. If he is in your third pair on the left side, you have a good D corps, but long-term I don’t see how the Oilers keep both Sekera and Russell.
Matt Benning was signed out of college after he didn’t sign with Boston. Benning had a strong rookie campaign and had a bit of a sophomore dip. I’m still a big believer he will be a solid NHL defender. He is smart, can move the puck and I like his ability to deliver a solid open ice hit.
Andrej Sekera signed a six-year deal worth $5.5 mill/year. Sekera was solid in the first two seasons, then he tore his ACL in the 2017 playoffs. He returned and struggled in 36 games this season. He and the Oilers are hopeful a full summer of training will allow him to come to camp and play without a brace. Sekera might start the season as the Oilers third pairing LD. If Darnell Nurse signs a bridge deal, which I expect he will, then having Sekera in the third pair gives them great depth on the left side regardless of his salary. On June 1st, 2019, his no-movement clause becomes a limited no-trade, and he will have submitted a list (by March 1st, 2019) of 15 teams he would accept a trade to. I will be surprised if he finishes his contract in Edmonton.
Nikita Nikitin signed a two-year deal worth $4.5 mill/year. Seriously, the Oilers felt this was a good move. He played 42 games the first season, and was in the AHL the next year. A disastrous signing.
Mark Fayne signed a four-year contract worth $3.625 mill/season. Fayne spent the first year in Edmonton. His second season he played 69 games with the Oilers and four in the AHL. The past two seasons he has played exclusively in the AHL, except for a four-game recall in 2017. He was a defensive defender, with very little puck moving or playmaking ability. The pace of the NHL became his biggest enemy.
Jordan Oesterle signed as a college UFA. His first contract was a two-year, two-way deal. He played 23 games in the NHL over his first two seasons, then signed another one-year deal. In hindsight, the Oesterle signing was the best bang-for-their-buck the Oilers had among these the defenders signed in the 2014.
Andrew Ference signed a four-year deal worth $3.25 mill/season. He played two years of the deal, before a hip injury put him on the IR for the final two years. He was a competitive, complementary defender, but Edmonton wanted him to be more than he was when they signed him. The worst mistake a team can make is sign a veteran player and expect him to be more than he had been previously.
Anton Belov was the D-man of the year in the KHL in 2012/2013. The Oilers signed him to a one year deal and he never looked comfortable in Edmonton. He played 57 games and returned to the KHL.
Brad Hunt. He played 21 NHL games over three seasons. He had 1-2-3, and while he was an excellent AHL defender, he didn’t do much for the Oilers. He then signed with St.Louis, was traded to Nashville and this year he played 45 games with Vegas. He is a fringe NHLer. He has NHL skill in the offensive zone, but his defending, the most important aspect of being a D-man, isn’t on a level which keeps him in the lineup regularly.
Justin Schultz signed with the Oilers out of college after electing not to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted him. Schultz had an impressive 27 points as a rookie in 48 games. He had 33 and 31 points the next two seasons. He was very good with the puck, but struggled when the Oilers tried to play him top minutes against the best players. He was traded to Pittsburgh and found a home in the third pair, rediscovered his confidence and is now a solid NHL defender. Schultz was a good signing, but the Oilers didn’t have enough quality defenders ahead of him on the depth chart to protect and develop him properly. He shares some of the blame for his struggles as well, but he did produce quite well in his first three seasons. His defensive zone play was the challenge.
Corey Potter signed a one-year deal on July 1st, 2011. He scored eight points in his first ten games with the Oilers. He has 16 points in 27 games and then on January 9th, 2012, Steve Tambellini signed him to a two-year extension. Potter produced five points in his final 35 games after signing his extension and then he played 33 games in the lockout shortened 2013 season, and 16 games in 2013/2014, before the Boston Bruins claimed him on waivers. He had 14 points in the 84 games after Tambellini jumped the gun and signed him to a two-year extension.
Note: If you are wondering why I didn’t include Philip Larsen, it was because he was acquired in a trade for Shawn Horcoff. He wasn’t a free agent signing, but Persson’s stature and style does remind me of Larsen.
You can argue the cap hit of Sekera and Russell, but they are proven NHL defenders and have played like it in Edmonton, excluding Sekera returning from injury. It wasn’t a surprise he struggled after ACL surgery, but he will need to play better this season. Benning and Schultz were good signings out of college, however, many of those other signings, albeit by different GMs, did not work out very well for the Oilers organization.
And those coming from Europe to the NHL for the first time haven’t panned out at all. I believe Persson was signed to replace Auvitu, and if he moves up the depth chart that is a bonus. The other factor is it could allow them to play Ethan Bear in the AHL, rather than rush him to the NHL.
Can Persson help the Oilers? Possibly, but I believe Matt Benning can help them more on the right side than Persson. Adapting to the NHL pace of play, the size of the players, the more physical style and the smaller rink is a challenge, and very few players come over from Europe and excel right away in the NHL. It is a low risk signing, but it also has a low percentage chance of working out.
Did the Oilers pull an Eye in the Sky and make a good call this time? We wait.
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