The Oilers took to the ice on Friday to officially begin training camp. On Monday, they’ll play their first game of the pre-season against the Winnipeg Jets. Hockey is officially back. Last week, I took a look at the group of forwards who will be competing for roster spots and playing time on the Oilers this fall. Today, we’ll talk about the defencemen.
The Oilers’ blueline is much easier to predict than the forwards. While the Oilers are top-heavy up front and have a bunch of scratch tickets competing for spots on the roster, the blueline is much more balanced. Still, there are a few interesting stories to follow heading into the season as the Oilers have a handful of promising rookies trying to break into the league. How is it going to shake out?
The obvious locks for the roster, pending injuries, are… Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell, and Matt Benning. Fighting for the remaining sports are… 2018 first-round pick Evan Bouchard, Swedish League standout Joel Persson, and members of last year’s Bakersfield Condors, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, and William Lagesson.
A couple of weeks ago, new assistant coach Jim Playfair suggested that he could roll with Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse as the team’s shutdown pair. If that’s the case, we’ll be seeing Oscar Klefbom play with a different partner than usual. Klefbom said that he expects it to be Joel Persson, but head coach Dave Tippett said there will be plenty of competition for that spot.
The Nurse and Larsson shutdown pairing is an interesting idea. The two have played together a little bit over the past couple of seasons but that was mostly in the wake of injuries to Klefbom. In 2017-18, Nurse and Larsson were excellent together, but the pairing struggled when reunited in 2018-19.
Regardless, with Nurse set to negotiate his third NHL contract this off-season, the Oilers need to figure out which role suits him best. Last season, he proved that he could be a big-time contributor offensively. He filled into Klefbom’s role on the first power-play unit and led Oilers’ defencemen in points by a mile. We have yet to see Nurse be the Oilers’ top shutdown defenceman, which is something he needs to prove he can be before being paid like a top-pairing defenceman this summer.
That brings us to Klefbom. By putting Nurse and Larsson together, the Oilers will be opening up their most talented defender to play easier offensive minutes. Rather than going up against the other team’s best players, Klefbom will be on the ice with the goal of carving up the weaker opposition.
There are three clear options to be Klefbom’s new partner. There’s countryman Joel Persson, top prospect Evan Bouchard, and Ethan Bear.
Persson produced major offensive numbers with the Växjö Lakers of the Swedish league over the past two seasons. There will be a bit of a learning curve for Persson as he adjusts to playing in North America for the first time, so it makes some sense for him to transition to the different ice surface alongside a veteran countryman.
After playing quite well during his call-up back in 2017-18, Ethan Bear didn’t get a chance to prove himself with the Oilers last season. After two seasons in the AHL, we’re getting to the point where Bear needs to be given an extended opportunity at the NHL level so the Oilers can see what they have. That’s why I imagine he would be more likely to crack the team than Evan Bouchard, who could benefit from some time in the AHL.
That would leave us with Kris Russell and Matt Benning as the third pairing. Russell played his best hockey when paired up with Andrej Sekera in 2016-17. Benning isn’t as good as Sekera was that season, but his ability to move the puck makes him an ideal partner with Russell on the third pair.
Caleb Jones likely has the inside track to be the Oilers’ seventh defenceman to start the season. He looked good in his 17-game cup of coffee last season in which he was thrown into the deep end to help an Oilers blueline decimated by injuries. I don’t think it’s advantageous to Jones’ development to have him sit in the press box every night, so he’ll likely compete with Persson and Benning for ice time up and down the Oilers’ lineup.
What say you, Nation? How should the Oilers organize their blueline? Should Nurse and Larsson be a pairing? Who should play alongside Oscar Klefbom? Does it make sense for Caleb Jones to be the seventh defenceman?