On Wednesday, NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton appeared on Oilers Now with Brendan Escott and he offered an interesting thought on how Ken Holland might operate this off-season when it comes to his blueline.
“When you look at what [the Oilers] have in the cupboard, a position that hasn’t been a strong point for them soon will be.
So they’re going to do a little bit of what Toronto is doing [trading Kasperi Kapanen] and that’s projecting out and saying, ‘Could a (Evan) Bouchard or a (Philip) Broberg replace maybe somebody we’ve already got on the roster that is at full value in terms of what they’re being paid? So can we drop down from a guy that is maybe making $4 million and replace him with more of an entry-level guy that we think has the ability to step in and give us a close, maybe not the same, but a close effectiveness?’ That will be very interesting.
I would not be surprised if some of the veteran d-corp got moved. As a matter of fact I expect, in my opinion, that we won’t see two of the guys next year who played top-four this year. I have no knowledge of that. That’s just my opinion.”
The exclamation point of this statement, of course, comes at the end when Lawton suggests that he figures the Oilers could move two of their top-four defencemen. At a glance, it looks like that would mean two of Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Adam Larsson, as Ethan bear obviously wouldn’t fit into the category of a veteran defender you’re trying to replace with a younger player to get cheaper.
But while Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, and Bear was Edmonton’s top-four in terms of average ice-time, we also saw Kris Russell (who has the exact $4 million hit that Lawton mentions) and Matt Benning get time in the team’s top-four. So I imagine Lawton’s suggestion includes them as well.
Regardless, Lawton is presenting an opinion here rather than reporting a rumour. So, ultimately, the thing we can take from this sentiment is that, given the number of young defencemen Edmonton has knocking on the door, Ken Holland is in a position to sell from his blueline in order to fill holes elsewhere.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday FRIDAY EDITION question. Which veteran defencemen would you be comfortable with Ken Holland moving this fall?
It’s hard to envision a situation in which the Oilers move Oscar Klefbom and end up coming out better on the other side.
He’s the team’s No. 1 defenceman. He logged a team-leading 25:25 per game, he plays against the other team’s top competition, he spent the most time of any defenceman on the penalty kill, he quarterbacks the top power-play unit effectively, and he led blueliners with 34 points in 62 games. We’ve seen in the past just how difficult it is for the Oilers to compensate when Klefbom is out of the lineup.
Klefbom’s status as a top-pairing defender and his insanely team-friendly cap hit of $4,167,000 annually also means he would net the most of any Oilers blueliner in a trade. Unless Klefbom was dealt for an equally talented defender with a similar cap hit, this would be a move that fills one hole by opening another.
For example, if you move Klefbom for a quality young forward and sign Torey Krug as his replacement in free agency at a deal worth $5.5 million annually, that forward coming back would have to be on an entry-level contract or very cheap cap hit in order for the money to come anywhere close to working out.
Never say never, but, again, it’s hard to imagine the Oilers coming out on the winning side of a Klefbom deal.
Moving Darnell Nurse makes a bit more sense largely due to his contract.
Nurse is a good player. He logged 23:27 per game, the second-most of any Oilers defender, and he put up 33 points. He was just slightly in the red in terms of even-strength goal differential at 77-to-76 and he brings a nice skillset to the table, like the ability to rush the puck and play physically in the defensive zone.
But his $5,600,000 annual cap hit that walks him right to unrestricted free agency in two years isn’t favourable. The difference between Klefbom and Nurse is that with Nurse, you can move him for an upgrade elsewhere and replace his spot in the lineup through free agency with the cap room opened up. That aforementioned Krug flip works here.
I wouldn’t be in a rush to move Nurse, but the possibility of coming out on top is more likely than with Klefbom.
With Evan Bouchard seemingly ready to take the next step, Adam Larsson seems like the odd-man-out.
Despite being the one-for-one return in the controversial Taylor Hall trade, Larsson has been an effective player for the Oilers. When he’s at his best, he’s a very good shutdown defender. But with just one more year left on his contract and some concerns about his durability due to a history of injuries, I wouldn’t be comfortable giving Larsson a multi-year deal. Now might be the time to move on.
Larsson won’t command anywhere near as much in a trade as Klefbom or Nurse, but finding a swap that nets the Oilers a third-line centre would be huge. The team that comes to mind is the Nashville Predators, who have a need for veteran defencemen and a dearth of middle-six forwards.
Would a Larsson for Nick Bonino swap work?
Kris Russell is an effective player in his role as a veteran on the bottom pairing who can play both the left and right side and kills penalties.
But, at $4,000,000, he’s expensive for what he brings. Moving out that cap hit would be a no-brainer, but it won’t be easy given the fact he has a 15-team no-trade clause and many teams around the league are facing a cap crunch.
I wrote at length earlier this week about Matt Benning, who’s in his final year of restricted free agency before he can test the open market.
He’s a very solid two-way, third-pairing defender, but with Bouchard coming into the mix, Benning might end up being too pricey to keep around to sit in the press box, especially if there’s no taker for Russell. Holland’s best play with Benning might be to flip him to another team to recoup draft assets and find a cheaper veteran in free agency for the same role.
What does it all mean?
When you put it all together, if the Oilers were going to move on from two veteran defenders to cut costs, the obvious ones would be Adam Larsson and Kris Russell. They both carry fairly large cap hits and they’re both free agents at the end of the 2020-21 season.
In Larsson’s case, it’s reasonable to assume you can deal him and bring back a quality forward in return. With Russell, though, that probably isn’t the case. Finding a taker on a bottom-pairing defender that carries a $4,000,000 cap hit when he can reject a trade to half of the teams in the league won’t be easy.
So, with all that in mind, here’s my guess as to how things could shake out… Adam Larsson gets moved for Nick Bonino, Matt Benning gets moved for a second- or third-round pick, Kris Russell stays, and Dylan DeMelo is signed to a two-year deal worth $2,000,000 annually.
Bonino fills the role of third-line centre in the short-term, DeMelo is a capable Larsson replacement in the top-four so Bouchard isn’t in over his head, and it gives Holland another bullet at the draft.
Klefbom – Bear
Nurse – DeMelo
Jones – Bouchard
Lagesson – Russell
What say you, Nation? Which veteran defencemen would you be comfortable with Ken Holland moving this fall?