As far as big stories on defence go, Ethan Bear takes most of the spotlight in 2019-20. Bear is averaging almost 22 minutes a game and has five goals and 21 points playing in a top-four role with Darnell Nurse. Bear is logging big minutes and the Oilers do well with him on the ice five-on-five.
But Bear’s success can make some overlook a player like Caleb Jones. Jones hasn’t played as much as he did in 2018-19 when he averaged 19:48 a game and didn’t look out of place at all, but he’s seen an increase in time-on-ice with Oscar Klefbom injured. Jones played over 18 minutes twice before Klefbom went down with a shoulder injury. He’s played over 18 minutes in six of the seven games since, including 21:48 in Nashville. In those seven games, the Oilers get 55.86-percent of the shot attempts and outscored teams 9-4 with Jones on the ice five-on-five.
If we assume Bear and Darnell Nurse are getting the toughest matchups, Nurse-Bear played the most against the Mark Scheifele line against Winnipeg and the William Karlsson line against Vegas, then Jones and Adam Larsson are getting the secondary matchups. It might be time to give Jones and Larsson more responsibility. Since Klefbom went down, the Oilers have a 42-percent Corsi with Nurse-Bear on the ice five-on-five. They’ve been outscored 8-5 in those minutes too. Jones-Larsson is at 53-percent Corsi and 8-3 in goals since. Jones moves the puck and skates well. He’s a nice fill-in for Klefbom on that pairing with Larsson and succeeding in an increased role. Jones might already be one of the Oilers better puck-moving defencemen.
"I think I'll just pass this puck between the fore-checker's legs right on Drai's tape while he's in flight" – Caleb Jones pic.twitter.com/zCrMt1Vpha
— Woodguy (@Woodguy55) February 15, 2020
Increasing Jones’ role even more as the team waits for Klefbom’s return makes sense. The defence pairings are more complicated when Klefbom returns. The Oilers haven’t shown a willingness to healthy scratch Kris Russell in his Oilers career, but taking out Jones to keep Russell in the lineup would be doing the team a disservice. Jones deserves to play on merit and Russell isn’t necessary to the team.
Maybe Dave Tippett rotates Matt Benning and Kris Russell on the right side of the third pairing, but Jones and Russell haven’t been a stellar bottom pairing. Together Jones and Russell generate just 44.57-percent of the shot attempts and have been outscored 6-4 five-on-five. Since Jones played mostly third-pairing minutes before Klefbom’s injury, it’s reasonable to assume those were third pairing minutes as well. The Oilers can do better in those minutes.
With 17 games remaining, there’s ample opportunity to reduce Nurse’s minutes, ease Klefbom back from injury and give Jones an increased role. Nurse is only signed for two more seasons before he’s an unrestricted free agent. If he wants number-one defenseman money then it might be worth seeing what your young left-handed defenceman can handle. The Oilers also have to consider the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft for Seattle. Worrying about the expansion draft at this point in time seems a bit much, but it’s only a season away and the Oilers might have a glut of defencemen to protect.
Jones makes just $850,000 the next two seasons. An extremely reasonable amount for a player who does well in third-pairing minutes, and an even better deal for a player that can push for a top-four role.
Bear is a great story and looks like a top-four defenceman for years to come. Jones’ play recently is making a statement not to forget about him either. The Oilers have struggled to draft and develop defencemen for the better part of the last decade. Now defence might be one of their greatest strengths on the backs of young, puck-moving defencemen like Bear and Jones.