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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Deeper Blue

There have been more seasons than a few in the last decade when the Edmonton Oilers losing their top minute-muncher on the blueline would’ve represented a deficit they couldn’t overcome – at least not without a significant trade to fill the void – because they didn’t have the experience and depth to compensate.

This coming season is not one of those, despite the loss of Oscar Klefbom, who led the team in ice time in 2019-20 at 25:25. When I look at Edmonton’s blueline group without Klefbom, gone for the year with a bum shoulder, I don’t see worn-out veterans who’ll be forced into minutes they no longer can handle. I don’t see raw kids destined to drown because they’re not ready when thrown into the deep end. There is no Cam Barker or Nikita Nikitin here.

With Ethan Bear inked to a two-year deal at $1.5 million and $2.5 million for an AAV of $2 million, I see a group that looks good enough playing in front of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith and behind forward lines built around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl that gives the Oilers a chance. A blend of experience and youth on the rise that can get the job done – without Klefbom and without rushing a blue-chip prospect like Philip Broberg along before he’s ready, which has been a fatal flaw in the past.

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Projecting coach Dave Tippett’s top eight, I’ve got Darnell Nurse in one pairing with Bear, Caleb Jones and Adam Larsson, Kris Russell and Tyson Barrie and then newcomer Slater Koekkoek and Evan Bouchard vying for a seventh spot on the roster. While there is a range of expectations with this group that can be debated, there isn’t any one player, let alone two or three, I circle in the line-up and think “they’re screwed” if he has to play. It’s a balanced group, even without factoring Broberg or William Lagesson into the mix.

THE WAY I SEE IT

Dec 12, 2019; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jordan Greenway (18) fights with Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the second period at Xcel Energy Center.

Nurse and Bear are Tippett’s top pair going in. Nurse, 25, has 350 NHL games on his resume. He played 23:27 last season and is at 21:47 in his career. Bear, 23, has played 89 games. He logged 21:58 in 71 games last season and is at 21:18 for his career. Bear is a little bit short in total game experience for a first-pairing guy, but he’s smart and smooth and he produced points from the back end – 19 of his 21 points came at even-strength. With Nurse’s athleticism and aggressive play, Bear is an effective complement.

Jones and Larsson. Jones, 23, is a bit like Bear in that he lacks experience with just 60 NHL games, but he’s got 98 AHL games with Bakersfield in the books. He hasn’t been rushed and my sense is he’s capable of more than the 14:08 he played last season (it was 19:48 in 2018-19). If Larsson, 28, can return to the nasty shutdown form that’s been his trademark for most of the 547 NHL games he has played, this can be a really effective pairing if Tippett chooses to play them together.

Russell and Barrie. Russell, 33, is where he belongs, in the third pairing, at this point in his career. While Russell has averaged 19:17 through 846 NHL games, he averaged 16:47 last season. Unless injuries force otherwise, I can see his ice time staying about the same alongside Barrie. With Barrie’s 554 games, this would be Tippett’s most experienced pair by a bunch. Barrie, 29, eats minutes (21:53 last season/21:47 career), and, as usual, a big chunk of them will come running the power play. Barrie will lead the blueline in points, and by a lot.

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Koekkoek and Bouchard. They won’t play together, but they provide Tippett options and will likely platoon in the seventh spot, at least to start the season. Koekkoek, 26, can jump in and play third-pairing minutes. The bar is set higher for Bouchard, 21, taken 10th overall in the 2018 Entry Draft, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense for him to sit in the seventh spot if he can’t earn and keep a place in the top six. Fans want to see if there’s a payoff here, but it might be a season early for that despite some good results with Sodertalje in Sweden.

THE BOTTOM LINE

I know that people want to see Broberg and Bouchard because the hope is both represent the future, especially Broberg after watching him wheel around with Team Sweden here at the WJC. The reality is the Oilers’ ability to compete will be determined in large part by Nurse, Bear, Jones, Larsson, Russell and Barrie on the blueline and team defence and goaltending that has to be better five-on-five.

I think this group will be good enough even without Klefbom based on the blend of proven experience in Nurse, Barrie, Larsson and Russell and promising youth on the rise in Bear and Jones, but what I think doesn’t count even a little bit when the puck drops. We’ll find out soon enough, COVID willing.

Previously by Robin Brownlee