While the Oilers have a clear need on their blueline, a puck-mover who can produce offence from the point, the team does boast a tremendous amount of defensive depth. As it stands, the team has a clear top-six with regular NHLers and a wealth of talented prospects in Bakersfield pushing for NHL gigs.
Ken Holland travelled to San Diego to watch the Condors play in their second-round series with Anaheim’s farm squad. He got a bird’s eye view of the Baby Oilers’ wild 7-6 win over the Gulls and spoke quite a bit about the team’s young defencemen.
“Obviously Evan Bouchard is here. I thought as the game wore on and the team got behind in the third period, coach Jay Woodcroft played Bouchard almost every second shift. He can generate offence from the back end and you could see his confidence grow as he was getting out there more and more. I saw a lot of him in junior last year. I know he’s a real good prospect.
It was my first look at Ethan Bear. I thought he played well. He got hurt in the third period but he played well. Caleb Jones played well. He’s a mobile puck-moving defenseman and you could see what he has to offer.
I liked William Lagesson. He’s a good player. He’s maybe the most important defenceman on the team down here. He’s a 23-year-old. He’s at a good age. That’s young enough to have the upside yet old enough to have some experience.”
As we know from Holland’s days with the Red Wings, he has no issue with keeping players down in the AHL for longer than expected to hone their craft. That means we could easily see all four of Bakersfield’s current young blueliners, Bouchard, Bear, Jones, and Lagesson, back with the team next year rather than in the NHL.
But what the depth does is allow for Holland to sell from a position of strength, the blueline, in order to build a position of weakness, which is offence up front. So, with that in mind, how should the Oilers navigate their logjam on the blueline?
Oscar Klefbom: Signed for four more years at $4,167,000. Klefbom is the team’s best defenceman and he’s locked into a very team-friendly deal. We all saw what happened to the team when he got injured last season. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the Oilers are better off without him.
Darnell Nurse: Signed for one more year at $3,200,000. Nurse enjoyed a breakout season for the Oilers, putting up 41 points over 82 games. He’s got one more year left on his bridge deal, and if he has another season like he did last year, he’s going to command a massive raise.
Andrej Sekera: Signed for two more years at $5,500,000. Sekera has missed the majority of the last two seasons due to injury. When he made his return last season, though, he was rock solid. Though Sekera is pricey at his current cap hit, he proved he’s still a capable veteran defender.
Kris Russell: Signed for two more years at $4,000,000. The controversial Russell continues to be solid for the Oilers in a defensive role, but he’s overpaid at $4 million annually as a third-pairing defender.
Brandon Manning: Signed for one more year at $1,175,000. A strange pre-deadline acquisition by Peter Chiarelli, Manning was buried in the minors just a few weeks into his Oilers career. If he isn’t bought out or moved, it’s safe to say he’ll be buried again.
Caleb Jones: One more year on entry-level deal. Jones came up last season and was impressive during his cup of coffee. He’s spent two full years in the AHL and seems ready to make the jump to the NHL.
William Lagesson: One more year on entry-level deal. Lagesson played his first season in North America this year and his strong play put him on the map as a top prospect. Though Holland really praised Lagesson, I would imagine he’s behind Jones on the depth chart.
Adam Larsson: Signed for two more years at $4,166,666. While the price to acquire him was massive, Larsson has been a rock on the right side of the Oilers’ top pair. He and Klefbom form a very solid pairing.
Matt Benning: Signed for one more year at $1,900,000. While Benning gets a lot of criticism, he’s a thoroughly solid bottom-pairing defender. He thrived last year when his role was limited to ~15 minutes a night and had the best plus/minus on the team.
Joel Persson: Signed for one more year at $1,000,000. An out-of-nowhere signing, Persson has put up prolific numbers in the Swedish Hockey League in back-to-back seasons. It’ll be interesting to see how he transitions to North America next year.
Evan Bouchard: Three more years on entry-level deal. Bouchard is Edmonton’s best prospect right now. He looked solid in the NHL before getting sent back to the OHL, he dominated in Junior, and now he’s played a key role on Bakersfield. It’ll be hard not to have him on the team next season.
Ethan Bear: One more year on entry-level deal. Bear dealt with some injuries this year, but he perfectly profiles as the offence-producing defenceman the Oilers need. He put up 31 points in 52 games for Bakersfield in his second professional season last year.
What does it all mean?
As I said, Holland isn’t the type who’s itching to get all of Edmonton’s prospects into the NHL as soon as possible. The team has a very clear top-six blueline right now featuring Klefbom-Larsson, Nurse-Benning, and Sekera-Russell, which gives the organization an opportunity to allow all of Jones, Bouchard, Bear, and Lagesson more time to develop in Bakersfield.
Still, while that’s a valid strategy, the Oilers have an opportunity to solve some of their problems up front by using their defensive depth as an asset. Ideally, you can move out Russell or Sekera to free up cap room to help make additions up front. But if that isn’t possible, the Oilers can explore moving one of their other defensemen for quality forwards.
Evan Bouchard, Ethan Bear, or Joel Persson might be the player right away to fill into the role as the puck-moving defender who can produce offence. If that’s the case, it makes Matt Benning available to trade. Benning isn’t spectacular, but he’s a capable bottom-pairing, right-handed defender. Surely you could find a team willing to swap a middle-six forward for him.
The more interesting one to think about, though, is selling high on Darnell Nurse. He’s coming off a career year and is in need of a new contract next July. If he has another 40-point year, he could easily command more than $6 million on his next deal. With depth like Jones and Lagesson behind him on the left side, it’s feasible to deal Nurse for a high-quality forward. While Benning may not net you much in return, Nurse should return a good, young, established NHL forward.
While there’s certainly merit behind standing pat to let the prospects develop, the Oilers might be best to sell high on some of their blueliners in order to solve other issues on their roster.