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.
"At the end of the year, getting a chance to play playoff hockey (with the) @Condors, it's a year that I'm never going to forget."@EdmontonOilers prospect Evan Bouchard played for four teams last season and hopes he can stay with Edmonton this year.
— AHL (@TheAHL) August 5, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.