State of The System: The Oilers’ blueline is quickly becoming the organization’s strength

For the first time in as long as I can remember, the Oilers have a strong and deep pipeline of prospects on the blueline. Beyond the game-changing talent the Oilers have on the blueline in the system, there’s also a competent group of defenders at the big league level allowing prospects the opportunity to develop slowly.

It sounds strange to call the Oilers’ blueline a position of strength given how weak the organization was at the position just a few years ago. But after spending a couple of top draft picks on bluechip defencemen in Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg and hitting on some later picks like Caleb Jones and Dmitri Samorukov, the Oilers have a very strong pipeline to boast about.

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Right now…

Barring pre-season injuries and unforeseen changes, it’s pretty straightforward to pick the seven defenders the Oilers will carry into 2019-20.

Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson will be the team’s top pair while Darnell Nurse will anchor the second pair with either Kris Russell playing his off-side or natural righty Matt Benning. Caleb Jones was so impressive during his NHL cup of coffee last year that he made buying out veteran Andrej Sekera possible. The final spot will likely go to 25-year-old wild card Joel Persson.

Beyond those seven, there are a handful of prospects playing in AHL Bakersfield knocking on the door.

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Ethan Bear seemed poised to grab a spot on the Oilers last season but injuries got in the way of him taking that step. Still, he posted 31 points in 52 games for the Condors last year and owns a skillset the team covets. Though Evan Bouchard is the superior prospect, I imagine we might see Bear first in line for a call-up during the season. Bear has two seasons of professional hockey under his belt and the Oilers need to see what they have in him as a player. Of course, if Bouchard plays to the level he’s capable of, it won’t be easy to keep him in the AHL.

On the left side, Caleb Jones, as I said earlier, seemed to earn a spot on the team in 2019-20 thanks to his excellent 17-game showing during Oscar Klefbom’s injury last year. Behind him in the minors are William Lagesson and Dimitri Samorukov, two players who massively rose their stock last season.

Lagesson spent 2017-18 playing professionally in Sweden and came overseas in 2018-19. He quickly emerged as Bakersfield’s most reliable defender, leading the team’s blueliners with a 25 +/- rating. There’s a good chance we see him get a cup of coffee with the Oilers this year. Samorukov also put himself on the map last year with a very good season for the Guelph Storm. He was the top defender on the OHL Champs and will make his transition to pro hockey in 2019-20.

The future…

When you lay it all out, you can begin to see how the blueline has become a position of strength for the Oilers. While the NHL group might leave a bit to be desired, it’s competent when fully healthy. Beyond the already-solid NHL group are two defencemen with top-pairing upside and a few more depth defenders knocking on the door. With this in mind, how do the Oilers move forward?

Klefbom is the only Oilers defenceman locked up long-term. He’s signed at an excellent cap hit of $4,167,000 for four more seasons. Adam Larsson and Kris Russell will be unrestricted free agents after 2020-21 and both Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning will be restricted free agents after this season.

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When putting together Edmonton’s blueline of the future, things begin with Klefbom. When he’s healthy, he’s a top-pairing defenceman and he’s locked up to an incredibly reasonable deal. Every other decision comes down to how these aforementioned prospects develop.

Larsson could certainly be signed to a new contract after his deal expires as he and Klefbom become the team’s veteran top-four pair. Benning is an under-the-radar depth defenceman who could stay or go depending on how the likes of Persson, Bouchard, and Bear perform. Russell will be in his mid-30s when his deal expires and likely won’t be back. He could be pushed off the roster as soon as 2020-21 if Jones and Lagesson play well.

Nurse is the question mark for me. His two-year bridge deal expires at the end of the 2019-20 season and he’s in line for a big payday. If Nurse scores 40+ points again this season, he’ll command a deal well north of $6 million. If Caleb Jones hits the ground running, William Lagesson impresses during a potential call-up, and Samorukov has a smooth transition to professional hockey, do you consider selling from a position of strength and moving Nurse to help up front?

Another key name I haven’t really talked about here is 2019 first-round pick, Philip Broberg. He’ll spend the year playing professionally in Sweden and will then likely head over to North America to join the Condors. If all things go according to plan, he and Bouchard are a lefty and righty top-four pairing of the future.

Not every player will pan out, but, for the first time in as long as I can remember, the Oilers aren’t just desperately banking on one guy to come in and be the saviour. The Oilers have a wealth of skill and depth coming up on the blueline and a competent group to ensure they earn their roster spots. This affords them the opportunity to take a wait-and-see approach with prospects rather than throwing them into the deep end and it gives them the chance to potentially sell from a position of strength in order to address other issues on the roster.

  • billsbills

    Wow, for the last time, if you trade Nurse now, you’re not selling high!! He hasn’t reached his potential, he’s getting better every year and if his progression stays at the same rate as the last three years, he will pass Klefbom on the depth chart before the end of this season.

    And you think trading him is a good idea? Maybe you’re the one selling high, what are you smoking?

    • crabman

      The thing with Nurse is he isn’t a great puck mover. But Ideally if he continues to develope he is/will be a top pair defenceman. If Bouchard developes as hoped he would be the perfect partner for Nurse on a top pair. Nurse could do the heavy lifting in the physical department and Bouchard could do the heavy lifting in the puck transition department. Nurse has shown he is a 30+ point defenceman at evens and that makes him very valuable. If Nurse plays on the top pair and earns $6-6.5M that will be good value. If he demands more that’s when trading him becomes a conversation for me. Anything in the $7M+ range is elite defenceman range and a higher offensive production would be expected. As well as Nurse has played 5×5 I don’t see him getting much PP time once Bouchard arrives limiting the amount Nurse can contribute offensively.
      For now talk about trading Nurse makes no senseand even with a big pay raise he will probably be good value. Klefbom at $4.17M in the 2LD slot would still be good value as well so Nurse getting a decent raise l, within reason, shouldn’t mess with the Oilers cap situation moving forward.

      • crabman

        @All Ice, having a durable top pairing defenceman is important if you want your team to be successful. I am a big Klefbom fan, always have been, but his biggest knock is health. A healthy Klefbom is a bargain at $4.17M. When he misses 20 games all that value is given back and the team needs to try and replace one of it’s best defenceman.

          • crabman

            like I said if they can get Nurse signed at $6.5M I think that will be good value. Klefbom’s $4.17M affords the team to pay Nurse the $6.5M and if Klefbom can play 70+ games that would be very good value at the 2LD slot. Hilding breath and fingers crossed for good health.

    • Chitikas

      @billsbills, I agree plus you are always going to need the big strong defender to go into corners and clear the front of the net (not comparing the players) kind of like Pronger did for us.

  • Arfguy

    I’m so psyched to see Samorukov, Bouchard, Jones and Broberg make the NHL. I have a feeling that both Samorukov and Broberg will be something really special. I am loving every highlight I have seen of Broberg and Samorukov looks like the most complete defenceman in our system.

    • Watching highlights of Samorukov, and he seems like what Nurse “should” be. Hits hard, advances the puck well, and chips in some nifty goals. He could stand to be a step quicker, but otherwise I think he looks almost ready. A few months of seasoning in the AHL, playing against grown men, and we’ll see him in Edmonton.

  • Jimmer

    Why stop here. Ristolinen for Larsson and a second round pick. They get a cheaper top 4 guy. Plus a mentor for Dahlin. We get a minute munching d-man with better mobility…and more offence.

    • RJ

      Cam, can you explain your love affair with Klefbom?

      I say only partially in jest that he must own a portion of ON, because this blog loves to anoint Klefbom as the 1LHD no matter he plays. The fact he’s made of glass is a tough break for him and the team, but I wouldn’t rely on him as a building block since he’s injured all the time. He’s supposedly an offensive defenceman but hasn’t broken 40 points (while Nurse has).

      If even some of the Oilers D were to live up to your expectations, then Russell, Benning and Klefbom are the most expendable (in that order).

  • HelpMeBabyJesus

    Given how terrible our defence has been this article reeks of over optimism. Can we improve…to be sure but a position of strength…not even close. Your idea of trading Nurse is a good one but it would have to be a sign and trade because no one will want to deal with that cap hit. If he were a right side damn I would be higher on him but we are overloaded on the left and this make him expendable.

    • All Ice

      First, the article acknowledges this. Thus the line “for the first time in a long time.” Second, mean D that put up 5×5 points are always in demand but that also why he should be kept

  • Boba The Fett

    The dark horse i am most intrigued about is Lagesson. Every team needs strong “Defenders” to anchor the blue line and handle the dirty work and I feel he could be that #4/5 for years to come. Essentially a Larsson but paid and positioned properly on the depth chart. By all accounts he plays tough, can skate and can move the puck. Gonna love watching these kids come along.

  • Abagofpucks

    7 of those dmen either have to be signed to minor contracts in the ahl or nhl by the end of the up coming season, or dealt away. it will be interesting to see who makes it and who doesn’t, but it’s a good problem to have, some teams like our ugly sister city to the south are in a hot mess.

  • The Perceptor

    I’m one of the bigger optimists regarding the Oilers, but even I won’t say that the Oilers blue line is becoming a strength. I’ve been a close watching fan for all the decade of darkness, and beyond. There was the HOPE campaign, all the draft parties, the “exciting” Canada Day free agent signings, and the many yet not enough, glimpses of bright futures yet to bloom. Some players did blossom, but the team was always incomplete. The way I see it, strength means good at the NHL level, and not much else.

    We do have an impressive amount of higher talent than normal prospects, but none of them are guarantees. The ones that are very close to sure things are still a couple years away. Defence will maybe be the Oilers strength in a year or two, but nothing has BECOME a strength, and so it’s not a sure thing it’s BECOMING one, even If 1 or 2 of these defensemen do become great players. This organization has found creative ways to drop important assets out of their hands, without getting value back, the value that is needed to ice a well rounded, competitive team. When or if the young defensemen turn great, will there be a talented older crop of defensemen there to round them out?

  • Redbird62

    First, it may be premature to call it a position of strength for the Oilers (maybe relative to their other positions, but not yet compared to contending NHL teams). The team and we have reasons to be optimistic that it will become a strength. It is reasonable to expect that Klefbom (if he can stay healthy), Nurse and Benning all continue to improve since they are all still young and that Larsson gets at least back to where he was in 16/17. We can now reasonably also have high hopes that among the prospects there are very at least a few solid future NHL defenseman and perhaps even a bonafide star or two. Things certainly appear rosier in terms of having both good looking prospects and perhaps a better environment to develop them. But this won’t be a strength at the NHL level until it actually happens on the ice.

    For that reason, I agree with Billsbills to not trade Nurse. Nurse seems well on his way to becoming what he was drafted for and should still be getting better. Don’t repeat the mistakes of the past of draft (or acquire), partially develop, then send off elsewhere. I can’t predict what contracts in general will look like next year, but based on this past year’s performance by Nurse and with normal progression, $6-$6,5 million would be a reasonable deal for both parties. The Rangers are grossly overpaying Trouba and if that’s what Nurse seems to be expecting, then maybe he should be traded. But since he is already a proven NHL player with expectations of upside, trading Nurse now or soon in hopes that one or more of the prospects can replace him (which we will not likely learn this season), would be very risky. I’d rather see them move on from Russell or Benning (who is older than Nurse) before sending Nurse out.

    • Oil Vice

      Yea this article is definitely heavy on the optimism. I agree we have better quality prospects at defence than we’re used to with a couple high end prospects and some sleepers that have improved greatly since being drafted but in reality it’s never a straight line to the NHL for players like this. There will be ups and downs. Reasonable to expect some plateaus and regressions for a few of these players. This is where the asset management comes in. We can’t use them all, something’s got to give, preferably before the plateaus and regressions

  • Larry

    I’m really high on Mike Kesselring. I’ve read he has an extremely high hockey IQ and his ability to stop at high speeds is second to none. I read that he could be the best dman in the league at turning right but he may struggle a bit at turning left. His draft prospect bio also said he may be one of the best at crossing the redline.

  • ed from edmonton

    Trading Nurse would follow an Oiler tradition of trading Dmen just as they enter their prime. One can make a strong case that Nurse has surpassed Klef, especially is Nurse can out up back to back 40 point seasons. Klef has never reached the 40 point plateau, in part because Klef has only played more than 70 games once in his career. If a young D are seriously pushing out vets within the next 12 months 1st man out is Russel, I believe his 10 team trade list expands to 20 next year and will be much easier to dump.

    • Arfguy

      Agreed. Do not trade Nurse. From what I am hearing, the new TV deal should play a big part in the cap in 2022. At best, the two years that Nurse’s contract may seem like an overpay will be a bargain…if he is going to ask for anything more than $7 million AAV.

      I understand Russell’s list is made up of 15 in 2020-21.

  • T Ambrosini

    Defensive depth is a good problem to have. Injuries will always be a thing and it’s great to have quality players who can step up and hold the line. I’m happy with the way things are shaping up.

  • KootenayDan

    Better drafting, better development, better team! nice to see some progression after years of bad drafting and poor development. The organization as a whole is getting better and adding Holland a smart patient and experienced manager to manage it all was a good move.The future looks better than it has in a long time.

  • OilCan2

    Wow. This is a total 180 from a couple of seasons ago. We lose Sekera and Klefbom to injuries early one season and everybody starts reading up on draft picks. Now we can watch a real bug tussle for roster spots and walk away with depth in the Condors waiting for a spotlight in the show. Given the contracts that are coming up soon we may have a lot of options at the trade deadline. When Ken signs Darnell I hope he stays true to form and keeps the NMC in his pocket.

  • crabman

    I don’t think it is a universal truth that Klefbom and Larsson are the Oilers top pair this year. I’ve seen and heard others that cover the team suggest the top pair being Nurse-Larsson with Klefbom anchoring the second pair. This makes a lot more sense to me moving forward. Nurse-Larsson get the defensive zone starts and toughest matchups and the Klefbom line getting the offensive zone push and the 3rd pair getting the easiest match ups. The Oilers don’t have a true top defenceman or a true top pair and until one developes it will be a defense by committee and putting each pair in a position to succeed will he one of Tippett’s biggest challange.

  • Elgin R.

    Defensemen generally take a long time to develop (300 games?) and are at their peak in their mid-to-late twenties. Trading a nasty, tough, smooth skating 6′-4″ 220 lbs defensemen who can and will fight to protect teammates (are you listening Roman Polack) who has played 279 NHL games is not a wise use of assets. The Oilers need to keep all of Nurse, Larson, Klefbom and Bouchard – the bottom pairing will work itself out with in-house assets. DO NOT TRADE any of the four main defensemen. Have an agreement with Larson that you will resign him the day after the Seattle draft and then we can keep these four and hopefully win a cup.

  • Kepler62c

    Enough with this talk of trading Nurse — We drafted him, developed him, watched him progress to a top 4 Dman (on any team in the league), and now we should trade him away to make room for unproven prospects? Crazy talk. Get good players, keep good players. Nurse should be an Oiler as long as management can keep signing him up.

    Management should write Klefbom, Larsson, and Nurse in pen as Oilers for another 4 years at least, hopefully they can convince Larsson to wait for extension after the expansion draft. It took all three 4-5 years to solidify themselves as top 4 D, poor management would be expecting Jones, Persson, Bear, Lagesson, Bouchard, Samorukov, and Broberg can all step in as top 4D without a couple years of 3rd pairing and some unforeseen hiccups.

  • Harry2

    Absolutely do not trade Nurse. He is a home grown defenceman. And multi dimensional to boot. Tough as nails can skate like the wind and is just starting to show a glimpse of offensive instincts. Why in the hell would Edm trade him? Makes no sense at all. Draft, develop keep. Top 4 dmen are more and more difficult to obtain. They must be homegrown these days.

    Trading Nurse = idiocy

    • Big Nuggets

      why? so you can sign an older and likely more overpriced defenceman than Nurse? Salaries have gone up, any good defenceman will cost over 6 million. Do you have something against good defencemen?

      • hagar

        Well he isnt a 7 million dollar defenseman right now.
        The way I see it, a contract should be negotiated for what you are currently worth, not what you hope you will be worth.
        Play a full season like a 7 million dollar dman, then sign a contract for 7 million.