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Big Decisions: The Blueline

We’re roughly six or seven weeks away from the NHL’s season resuming which means it is a perfect time to start dissecting what the Oilers lineup should look like when the puck drops in early August. Last week, I wrote about both the top six and the bottom six. Today, I want to focus on the best way to deploy their defensemen.

If I’m being completely honest, there really isn’t much of an argument to be made when it comes to the top four. For me, Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are this team’s top pairing. I’m confident in their ability to start shifts in every zone and they’ve proven that they’re more than capable of playing against the other team’s top players. The two Swedes are comfortable playing with each other and Dave Tippett should be more than comfortable with that as his top pairing.

For the second pairing, I think the majority of Oilers fans would agree that the coaching staff would be wise to keep Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear together. Those two defensemen played more even-strength minutes than any other Oilers defensemen and when they were together, there were pretty good results.

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Keeping the top four that way also ensures that the Oilers have a really solid puck mover on each pairing. That’s probably where the emergence of Ethan Bear has made the biggest impact for the Oilers. Throughout the decade of darkness, it seemed like we were always looking for a puck-moving defenseman that could handle playing in the top-four. Bear gives the Oilers that player and having both he and Klefbom healthy and ready to go for the play-in series will be massive.

Then pairing them with Larsson and Nurse is perfect for the playoffs. I know it’s a little old school to say this, but I really value having a pair of tough defensemen during the playoffs. Remember when Larsson broke his foot during the season opener and tried to stay in the game? I still want a player like that in my lineup when the games get even more intense.

Larsson started slow this season but as the year went on and he got up to speed, he started playing some really good hockey. As for Nurse, when he gets to be on the second pairing and isn’t asked to play over 25 minutes a game, he’s a damn fine defenseman. 

The Oilers actually have a pretty solid top four in my opinion and Tippett really shouldn’t have to think twice about his first two pairings. However, he will have some pretty interesting decisions to make when it comes to the third pair.

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On the left side, the options are Kris Russell or Caleb Jones. I have been really impressed at the progress that Jones has made this season and the fact that the Oilers have him under contract for the next two seasons with a cap hit under $1 million is mind-boggling. The play and contract of Jones is a huge reason why the Oilers will likely be trying to deal Kris Russell this summer.

But for the play-in series, I think Tippett will likely start by playing the veteran Russell. His on-ice possession numbers aren’t great but that could be a result of him usually starting shifts outside of the offensive zone. I think Tippett trusts him considering he played close to 800 even-strength minutes this past season and I would fully expect Tippett to keep him in the lineup during the playoffs.

On the right side, the options are Matt Benning and Mike Green, who should be healthy after suffering a lower-body injury right before the season was paused. 

In the few games that Green played with the Oilers, I liked his play. He moves the puck pretty well and that is an important element to keep in mind when you’re finding a partner for Kris Russell. Someone with some good offensive instincts who can move the puck could make that a very good third pairing that can be used in a handful of situations. On top of that, the experience of Green could help in the playoffs. He’s played in 76 career Stanley Cup Playoff games.

For Benning, while he struggled with injuries during the 2019/20 season, he was very good when healthy. Concussions can be a tough thing to come back from and I applaud Benning for finding a way to get back into the lineup. Also, when Benning played this year, the Oilers had a 25-12-6 record. You don’t need me to tell you that’s very good and I don’t think it’s just a coincidence. 

Benning and Russell also played 227 even-strength minutes together in 2019/20 so there is some familiarity there. That’s where I might give Benning the edge over Green. In a short series, coming off a short training camp, I would really value chemistry between linemates or d-partners.

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There are two (sort of) wild card options to consider as well. They could play one of Kris Russell or Caleb Jones on their off side or they could decide to play one of Evan Bouchard or Phillip Broberg, who will likely be on their 30-man roster.

I don’t think we’ll see Broberg get into a game and honestly, I doubt we’ll see Bouchard get into any game action either unless there are some significant injuries, which we saw the team go through the last time they made the playoffs. Tippett has a plethora of more experienced players he could choose from and I expect he’d rather play one of the eight defenseman that saw regular NHL minutes this season than either Bouchard or Broberg. I would love to see Bouchard play and I’m excited for him to be a regular on the Oilers blueline, now just isn’t the time.

As for playing Caleb Jones ahead of either Benning or Green and flipping someone to the right side, I’m not sure if we’ll see that either unless a player gets a little banged up or injured. At the same time, while I believe that Tippett views Russell/Benning as his best third pairing, I believe that regardless of injuries we will see both of Jones and Green work their way into the lineup at some point during the first two rounds of the playoffs. 

The Oilers could honestly play any combination of those nine defensemen (counting Bouchard) and I don’t think there would be a legitimate reason to be upset. They have some serious depth at the position and if they want to go on a long playoff run this season, they’ll need it.