For years the Oilers struggled to stock their cupboards with good, defensive prospects. They used high picks on forwards and all of their picks afterward usually flamed out within a couple of seasons. Now, it seems like things are finally changing for the better thanks to some strong drafting by Peter Chiarelli and his staff.
There are a handful of players currently in the AHL who seem primed and ready to push for an NHL job this coming fall while they also have a few players who spent the year in junior who also look like they are ready to become impactful pro hockey players at either the NHL or AHL level.
At the NHL level, the Oilers currently have six qualified NHL defensemen under contract for next season which is going to make things very interesting this offseason. We could very well see the Oilers move on from a veteran defenseman in order to make room for a younger option from the farm team. Even if they do that, I also think we could see them deal off one of their defensive prospects in a package for some immediate help.
To get a better feel on things, I took an inventory of what the Oilers have at every level of their organization.
LEFT SIDE: Right now, the Oilers have Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Andrej Sekera under contract for next season. Klefbom and Nurse will more than likely be back, but I’m not so sure about Andrej Sekera. The 32-year-old has two more years at $5.5 million, which is pricey for a third pairing option. At the same time, Sekera was their best defenseman back in the 2017 playoffs, which was also the last time we saw him healthy. I would be in favour of bringing him back and playing him on the third pairing with a younger option next to him.
RIGHT SIDE: The right side features Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, and Matt Benning. To be honest, I could see any of those three being moved out this summer. Russell and Benning could be dealt to shed some salary meanwhile Larsson would hold some value on the trade market and might bring back a decent young forward. It’s also worth noting that Russell is a left-shot defenseman who played the right side last year. The new Head Coach might not be a fan of that.
The other thing that complicates this is the fact that the prospect who appears to be most NHL ready, Caleb Jones, is a left shot. So if the Oilers moved a player from the right side and wanted Jones on the team, it would involve moving Sekera to his off-side, which isn’t the best idea.
LEFT SIDE: As I mentioned above, Jones is their most “NHL ready” defensive prospect. We saw him for 17 games at the NHL level this season and after starting with a few really strong games, his performance declined as he was pushed further up the depth chart. By all accounts, he went back to Bakersfield and dominated down the stretch. I believe he’s good enough to be in the NHL next season.
They also have William Lagesson in Bakersfield and some think that the 23-year-old could push for an NHL roster spot next season. I’m not sure if the Oilers will want him sitting in the press box at the NHL level, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s very high on their list of recall options in 2019-20.
Brandon Manning is also under contract, but I think he’s played his final game with the Edmonton Oilers.
RIGHT SIDE: Ethan Bear is in a very interesting spot. While I value Caleb Jones more than Bear, the fact that Bear shoots right makes him a prime candidate to be in the NHL next season. If the Oilers trade away Kris Russell or Matt Benning in the offseason to clear out some cap space, Bear could be given a chance to crack the NHL roster. The fact he’s a young right shot also gives him some trade value.
He played 18 games with the Oilers in 2017-18 but didn’t get recalled once this past season. Injuries hampered his ability to put together a really strong season in the AHL, but I heard he still took some positive steps forward.
LEFT SIDE: While Jones may graduate to the NHL level, the Oilers will be bringing Dmitri Samorukov up to the AHL level next season. He’s coming off a great season in the OHL and it’s actually led to some chatter about him being in the NHL sooner rather than later.
I know the plan in Edmonton is to have young players percolate in Bakersfield. But the way Dmitri Samorukov controls a game, he’s close to NHL ready. He won’t be in the AHL for long.
— AJ Jakubec (@AJonSports) May 12, 2019
Jakubec knows his stuff so if he is confident enough to tweet it, I’ll believe it. I don’t think Samorukov will start in the NHL, we could see him for 15-20 games at some point next season when injuries inevitably hit.
RIGHT SIDE: Even though it goes against their new strategy of “over-ripening” prospects, Evan Bouchard could very well be in the NHL to start next season. He played in eight AHL playoff games and produced three goals and five assists. There’s no doubt in my mind that he can dominate at the AHL level. I doubt we see him in the AHL all season. He needs to improve his skating, but I think that will come with time.
They also have Joel Persson who will be making the jump from the SHL to North America. While he could very well start in the AHL, I think the Oilers could have him pencilled in to be their seventh defenseman next year. He had 31 points in 50 games with Vaxjo this past season. Both he and Bouchard have legitimate chances to crack the roster.
THE DEPTH CHART
There are plenty of ways to rank the Oilers defensemen, but this is my depth chart:
|Oscar Klefbom||Adam Larsson|
|Darnell Nurse||Kris Russell|
|Andrej Sekera||Matt Benning|
|Caleb Jones||Evan Bouchard|
|Dmitri Samorukov||Joel Persson|
|William Lagesson||Ethan Bear|
That’s twelve defensemen who will all be looking to play prominent roles at the pro level next season. When you add in their AHL veterans like Ryan Stanton and Keegan Lowe and even Logan Day who was on an AHL deal this past year, it’s getting to the point where ice time could be tough to come by.
That’s why I think the Oilers could dangle one of their young options in a trade for a young forward. I’d consider moving one of Ethan Bear or Matt Benning from the right side. Bouchard is close to ready and the Oilers might be able to package Bear or Benning with a pick and get a young forward in return.
If they want to make a big splash, maybe they dangle someone from the left side, but I’d be hesitant to do that.
Ken Holland has some decisions to make when it comes to the teams’ defensive core. He has some young players who appear ready and some veterans on bad contracts. I think what he decides to do may surprise some Oilers fans.