Two months ago, I would have told you that the Oilers top four was set. With Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, and Ethan Bear all signed or under team control, it looked like they had a solid group. Some people had said that they wanted to see the team go out and acquire another impact defenseman, but I didn’t agree with that idea. I thought a third-pairing that featured some combination of Caleb Jones, Matt Benning, or Evan Bouchard would be fine. Maybe a cheap veteran would have been smart to bring in as an insurance policy, but I didn’t think they needed to spend big money or significant assets on a defenseman.
The news that Klefbom will be out long-term and could potentially miss the entire 2020-21 season, whenever that starts, obviously changes that. Ken Holland absolutely needs to go out and find a top-four defenseman, preferably a left-shot, that can slide in to help replace what Klefbom gave the Oilers.
I highly doubt that the Oilers are going to go out and acquire or sign a defenseman who can play north of 24 minutes, run a powerplay, and effectively kill penalties. Yes, the likes Mikhail Sergachev, Aaron Ekblad, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and Matt Dumba are being thrown around the rumour mill but those players are going to be close to impossible for the Oilers to acquire for one reason or another. Instead, I think they need to focus on the second tier of available defensemen. The guys who can either run a powerplay or kill penalties well and also handle top-four minutes. They won’t go out and magically find a top-pairing defenseman to replace Klefbom.
So who are some potential fits? Here are some names that would interest me:
The Oilers aren’t in a position to give big money to someone like Alex Pietrangelo and it’s highly unlikely that they give Torey Krug big money on a long-term deal. When you consider the fact that they also need a goaltender, I just don’t see how spending huge money on a defenseman makes sense.
The next tier of free agent d-men is certainly in their range though. Tyson Barrie has been talking about a lot, but I don’t love the fact that he plays the right-side. He could absolutely help out on their powerplay, but signing him wouldn’t necessarily help the Oilers fill the hole on the left-side of their blueline. They might want a good veteran to play on the right side if Matt Benning doesn’t eventually re-sign with the team, but I’m not sure if Barrie is the right fit. You could say the exact same things about Kevin Shattenkirk.
Left shot defencemen Carson Soucy and Brendan Dillon would have been interesting fits, but they’ve both re-signed ahead of free agency.
Sami Vatanen would interest me. He’s a right-shot but has experience playing either side, which would give the Oilers some flexibility. He wouldn’t cost as much as Tyson Barrie and I like his even-strength game more than I like Barrie’s. Vatanen also has plenty of experience on the penalty kill. I think he’s the best fit on the free-agent market.
If they don’t get Vatanen, then they might need to go to the third-tier of free agent d-men and look at names like Mark Borowiecki, Jon Merril, or Ben Hutton. That’s not a great list of names so that means Holland might be forced to look at the trade market.
There are some interesting names reportedly available via trade and I’d expect Ken Holland to make some calls. It’s clear that they aren’t getting Oliver Ekman-Larsson, so we won’t even talk about that. Dougie Hamilton is reportedly on the market as well, but I’m not sure if the Oilers have the assets to make that work. Same with Matt Dumba out of Minnesota.
One name that really caught my attention was Alec Martinez from the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas needs to shed cap space and moving out Martinez and his $4.1 million cap hit would be an easy way for them to do that. Considering how tight Vegas is to the cap, they would only want picks or prospects in return and when you look at how many teams are trying to shed salary, Martinez probably won’t cost the Oilers very much.
On top of this, he only has one more year on his deal so the Oilers won’t handcuff themselves down the road when Klefbom returns to the lineup. He can kill penalties and he’s a very good top-four defenseman at even-strength. I think he’d be a solid addition to the Oilers top four.
There are other names that interest me like Brady Skjei, who has four more years on a contract that carries a cap hit of $5.25 million. He’ll cost more to acquire than Martinez, but he’s only 26-years-old, so there’s room for him to grow with the Oilers current core. His cap hit does concern me a little bit as well.
The list of capable, top-four defenseman that the Oilers could realistically acquire is not very long, so unless Ken Holland finds a player that we don’t believe is currently on the market, he needs to make sure one of these options doesn’t slip away.