There weren’t very many instances this season in which Dave Tippett has his entire blueline available.
Adam Larsson got injured in the team’s first game, Oscar Klefbom suffered a shoulder injury in February, and Matt Benning and Kris Russell both dealt with concussions during the season.
One benefit of the season being paused for over four months due to COVID-19 is that teams are going to be skating into the playoffs closer to full strength than usual. The pause gave everybody in the league time to heal their wounds and get healthy for this summer’s playoff push.
In Edmonton’s instance, Connor McDavid got a much-needed break to get himself charged up to go nuclear, and the team now also has a fully healthy blueline. Save for Mike Green opting out, Tippett can now deploy his defensive corps against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The top-four is already set. Oscar Klefbom will play with Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse will play with Ethan Bear. After that, Tippett has a few options for the third pairing. Kris Russell, Matt Benning, and Caleb Jones are all options for the third pair, while Philip Broberg, Evan Bouchard, and William Lagesson wait in case of an injury.
Here are all of the Russell/Benning/Jones options, based on their on-ice even-strength results as pairings in 2019-20…
- Russell and Benning: 226 minutes, 86 shots for, 85 against, 10 goals for, 3 goals against.
- Russell and Jones: 183 minutes, 84 shots for, 85 against, 5 goals for, 6 against.
- Jones and Benning: 98 minutes, 53 shots for, 50 against, 5 goals for, 2 against.
Jones enjoyed a nice breakout performance this season when given an opportunity in the wake of injuries on Edmonton’s blueline. He played a poised game and looked well beyond his year, moving the puck effectively and showing a willingness to both engage physically and get involved in the offensive zone.
Given his age, he’s likely jumped both Russell and Benning on the depth chart in the organization’s long-term plans, but, in the short term, he’ll likely be the odd-man-out in this trio to start things off. Jones was a late arrival to Edmonton’s summer camp because he tested positive for COVID-19. He also sat out of the team’s exhibition game against the Flames on Tuesday due to an apparent minor injury.
With all of that in mind coupled with the fact that Russell and Benning are more experienced players, it seems inevitable that they’ll make up Tippett’s third pairing when the Oilers take on the Blackhawks on Saturday.
Russell and Benning were an effective duo this season. Both players tend to get overwhelmed at even-strength when they take on a larger role, but playing on the third pairing is ideal for both players. Over the course of 226 minutes, the Russell and Benning pairing broke even on shots on goal and boasted a dominant goal differential of 10-to-3.
Another reason why Russell is a pretty sure bet to be in the lineup in the playoffs is his importance to the team’s penalty kill. Only Oscar Klefbom and Riley Sheahan logged more minutes on average on the penalty kill than Russell this season. While a Jones and Benning duo might move the puck more effectively and are likely to produce more offence, Russell’s key role on the team’s penalty kill makes him an important player for Tippett to have in the lineup.
So long as the blueline stays healthy, Russell will be able to play in his wheelhouse this summer, logging third-pairing minutes while blocking shots and being a pest on the penalty kill.