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The Adam Larsson Conundrum

Over the weekend, I did a What Would You Do Wednesday post in regards to how to handle the lineup when Adam Larsson returns to action. Larsson, of course, has been injured since fracturing his fibula in the team’s season opener and is reportedly set to return sometime next week.

While the Oilers will be happy to have Larsson’s veteran presence back in the lineup, it isn’t exactly easy to determine where he fits right now. The Oilers have been rolling so far largely because of great play from their blueline. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom and been playing alongside two rookies in Ethan Bear and Joel Persson who have stepped up their games early on this year.

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The question posed about Larsson’s place on the team in the short-term also got me thinking about where he fits in the long-term. Larsson has one more season after this one with a $4,166,667 cap hit before he can hit unrestricted free agency. With a bevy of defensive prospects knocking on the door, is Larsson a part of the Oilers’ long-term plans?

As of right now, the Oilers have Oscar Klefbom only locked up long-term. He’s signed to a team-friendly deal worth $4,167,000 annually for three more seasons after this one. Darnell Nurse is a restricted free agent this year and will be commanding a big raise as he’s proved he should be a big part of Edmonton’s future the past two seasons. Kris Russell also has one more year left on his deal worth $4 million.

Beyond them, Joel Persson, Ethan Bear, and Matt Benning will be RFAs this summer. In the minors, Caleb Jones is pushing hard for a spot on the NHL roster, as is 2018 first-round pick Evan Bouchard. I imagine that Phillip Broberg, the team’s top pick in 2019, will be brought along slowly, and he’ll spend at least a full season in the AHL before we see him wearing an Oilers uniform.

What does that mean for beyond this year? We can safely assume Klefbom and Nurse will occupy Edmonton’s top spots on the left side. Larsson could be in the equation for the top-four, but Bear and Persson could push him out of that role. It’ll also be difficult to keep Jones and Bouchard down in the AHL for much longer, further crowding the Oilers’ blueline.

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Of course, it’s important to remember that as good as Bear and Persson have been as rookies in a challenging situation thus far, it’s been a very small sample size. Bear and Persson have played 20 and 10 games this season respectively. We don’t yet know if they’re long-term solutions. There’s certainly reason for optimism, especially with the former, but there isn’t enough track record to draw conclusions just yet.

Regardless, a year-and-a-half away from free agency, Ken Holland will need to start thinking about where Larsson fits with the team long-term. While Larsson might not be pushed out of Edmonton’s plans by younger defencemen immediately, there’s a tough line to walk here when it comes to asset management. Eventually, you have to assume Edmonton’s top-four will consist of Bouchard and Bear on the right side, meaning it likely doesn’t make much sense for Larsson to be re-upped when he can hit free agency. If that’s the case, Holland could look at dealing the veteran defender before losing him for nothing in free agency.

One thing we’ve talked about quite a bit this year is the difficult situation the Oilers are in when it comes to making additions. While Holland’s eyes are on the long-term, big picture, it’s hard to ignore the Oilers’ great start. The team badly lacks depth scoring and adding another top-six forward to the mix could be the difference between making the playoffs and not. That said, Holland surely doesn’t want to give up much prospect or draft pick capital in order to make it happen.

That’s where dealing a player like Larsson makes some sense. If you have players who are adequate right now and more promising prospects making their way up, Larsson could be the player dangled to other teams in order to get the Oilers that top-six winger they covet. For example, the Winnipeg Jets have a decimated blueline with Dustin Byfuglien considering retirement after both Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba left over the off-season. They could surely use a guy like Larsson and they have the forward depth to burn.

Again, as I said earlier, it isn’t set in stone. It might just be the best course of action to put Larsson back with Klefbom and hope we get the same pair we did in 2016-17. But if someone comes knocking with the right return, pulling the trigger makes quite a bit of sense.