Oscar Klefbom is one of the Oilers best defencemen, arguably their best, and when he is out of the lineup the void is obvious.
However, the trend of him missing games is a concern, and yesterday’s report that Klefbom is considering surgery could have a massive impact on how general manager, Ken Holland, approaches the next week.
Prior to the Klefbom news, I discussed the need for the Oilers to change their blueline. Two sources confirmed the Oilers were looking to alter the makeup of their blueline, but the Klefbom potential injury might force Holland to take a different path than what he was originally planning.
Originally the plan was to change the right side of the defence. Matt Benning very likely won’t be qualified at $2m. The Oilers and his agent have discussed a lower salary, but so far no deal has been reached. Benning could test the free-agent market, see what is out there, and still re-sign with the Oilers. While much of the public discussion has focused on the Oilers need to improve their puck-moving, and that is valid, the main focus of a D-man is to defend. Holland would like to acquire a puck mover, but he also wants defenders who can defend. The Oilers have not improved their goals against at 5×5 in three years. They’ve allowed 2.14, 2.18 and 2.16 goals against/game at 5×5 from 2018-2020. They’ve had five of the same six defenders in that time, while changing up all the forwards except Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian.
The lack of improvement isn’t solely on the blueline, but changing goalies and forwards hasn’t led to much improvement. The mix of the blueline has to change.
Klefbom’s potential surgery creates some uncertainty. His shoulder issues date back to 2012/2013 when he only played 11 games for Farjestads due to shoulder surgery. He’s had some bad luck injury-wise, mainly with an unexpected staph infection in 2015/2016 which led to him missing 52 games. In March of 2018, Klefbom had shoulder surgery so he could be healthy to start the next season. He missed two months of the 2018/2019 season with a hand injury, and missed nine games with a shoulder injury this past season. In the last three seasons, he has missed 16, 21 and nine games.
It is a mixture of bad luck (staph infection), blocked shots (hand injury) and shoulder issues. “The best ability is availability,” is a famous quote, and it is relevant in hockey. Klefbom has a great contract, and he’s an excellent player, but over the past five seasons, he has missed 98 games. When you miss almost a quarter of each season, it decreases your value. It might not be fair, but it is the reality of the NHL.
Hopefully, if he goes through with the surgery (which is likely) it will fix his ailing shoulder and his injuries will diminish, but Holland can’t overlook the track record. It might be bad luck, or simply some players are more injury-prone than others, but his absence creates a ripple effect.
If Klefbom doesn’t play the Oilers still have Darnell Nurse, Caleb Jones and Kris Russell on the left side. Would Holland deal Russell and his $4m cap hit, knowing Klefbom could miss significant time? Is Jones ready to play more minutes? Could he play in the top-four? Maybe he can surprise, similar to how Ethan Bear excelled when Adam Larsson was injured on opening night and missed 20 games. Would Holland be comfortable with Nurse, Jones and Philip Broberg or William Lagesson on the third pair?
The Oilers interest in Oliver Ekman-Larsson is connected to Klefbom’s uncertainty as well, but it also creates a potential issue in the future.
If Holland acquires OEL, and doesn’t include Nurse, Klefbom, Jones or Bear in the trade, then the Oilers could lose Jones in the expansion draft. If Jones has a breakout season, that is not an ideal situation. If Jones plays well, but doesn’t stand out, then losing him wouldn’t be devastating. We saw Minnesota, Florida and Columbus over think losing one good player, and they ended up losing key players in the Vegas expansion draft. Edmonton needs to avoid over-thinking it.
The only potential negative I see in acquiring Ekman-Larsson, is the final two years of his deal. He is a legit #1 defenceman, and even if he starts to dip in those final two years, he’d likely still be a #2 defender. In the past 15 years, how many true #1 defenders fell off a cliff at 34 of 35 years of age? Acquring OEL would make all the other D-men better, because he’d reduce their play against tougher opponents.
The Coyotes have not been a good team for a few years, and I wonder how much of his play is connected to all the losing, but also him being named captain. A source very close to the team text me that Ekman-Larsson is better as a follower than a leader. He will play great on the ice, but the responsibility of being a captain doesn’t come naturally to him. He wants to be one of the important guys, but not “the guy.” With McDavid and Draisaitl in Edmonton, OEL could be one of the guys and not the main leader. You can’t change a player’s personality. Many great players didn’t wear the C, and if he performs better without one, I don’t see that as a negative.
When evaluating a player we have to look at everything, not just the stats and what we see on the ice. Often, there are things away from the game that can impact a player.
Klefbom’s injury, and how long he might be out, will have a significant impact on Holland’s decisions on the blueline.
I’ve said it since the season ended, but the Oilers won’t be qualifying Andreas Athanasiou or Matt Benning at $3m and $2m respectively. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t discussed signing lower contracts. They like both players, but with a flat cap, qualifying them at that price point doesn’t make sense. Benning will likely want to know what their plan is for him. Will he play on either special team unit? Players want to play, and Benning is capable of playing on either unit. Salary is one thing, but playing time is another factor free agents consider.
Athanasiou will test the market, but I suspect he will realize other teams aren’t paying him $3m either. His 30-goal season looks like the outlier at this point. He scored 18, 16 and 11 (in 55 games, which prorates to 16 in a full season) in his other three years. Teams won’t be paying him like a 25-goal man. I’ve argued when you look at the Oilers left-wing depth chart, and their top-two centres, I don’t see a better team where Athanasiou could play and have a bounce-back season. He might have to settle for $2m on a one-year deal.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the only hold up in the Oilers re-signing Jesse Puljujarvi was money. Puljujarvi’s camp was looking for more, while Holland has a number (between $1m to 1.25m, I believe) that he won’t go over. The only potential leverage Puljujarvi has is the expansion draft. The Oilers own his rights until he is 27, but they’d have to expose him in the expansion draft and could lose him for nothing. Even if he signs in Edmonton, he might be exposed, but if he wants to prove he can play in the NHL it will be on a one-year deal, and around the $1m mark. The potential for a trade does increase this week, leading up to the draft, but Holland has remained steadfast in not giving away Puljujarvi. He will make a deal, if it helps the team, but he won’t trade Puljujarvi just for the sake of it or for a second-round pick or mid-tier prospect.
Two non-Oilers management sources responded to me via text saying they don’t think Puljuarvi signing a contract would alter his trade value. Teams have seen his play in Finland. A young player, similar in age and experience, is the likely return. Although one source wrote, “I think it’s more likely he’d be a piece in a multi-player trade.” Interesting.
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