Ken Holland and Dave Tippett have an interesting problem on their hands.
Two rookie defenders, Evan Bouchard and William Lagesson, have proved early on this season that they’re capable NHL defenders. Bouchard looks poised beyond his years and Lagesson has shown to be quality in a shutdown role.
If the early read on Bouchard and Lagesson is accurate, this will be the second consecutive season that the Oilers have graduated a pair of blueline prospects to the big-leagues. Both Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear broke out as NHL defenders last season, with the latter playing a big role in the team’s success in 2019-20.
When Bear returns from the Injured Reserve (assuming there isn’t another injury, of course), the Oilers will have nine defenders on their roster. Five of them are veterans and four are youngsters with under 100 NHL games of experience pushing for playing time.
Of those nine defenders, only Bouchard can be sent down to the Taxi Squad or the AHL without being exposed to waivers. But Bouchard has been excellent since drawing in for the first time in early-February and it’s difficult to argue the team is better without him than they are with him.
That brings us to this week’s What Would You Do Wednesday SATURDAY EDITION question. Given Edmonton’s glut of NHL-calibre defencemen, should Ken Holland be looking to trade somebody to fill an area of need elsewhere on the roster? If so, who would make the most sense to move?
When everyone is healthy, the Oilers have Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear manning their top pair and seven other defenders in the mix for the rest of the spots. Even when going with seven defencemen on a given night, you can’t get everybody in the lineup.
One revelation for the team recently has been the Lagesson and Larsson shutdown pair. Through 70 minutes at even-strength, Lagesson and Larsson have been on the ice for only one goal against. Larsson was having a difficult run before being placed on this pair. Without Lagesson, Larsson had been outscored 10-to-6 at even-strength over 167 minutes.
If Nurse and Bear are the team’s top pair and Lagesson and Larsson are the third, that leaves Tippett with Tyson Barrie, Evan Bouchard, Caleb Jones, Slater Koekkoek, and Kris Russell as options for the second pair.
Barrie has pretty much come as advertised. He has his warts defensively but he’s producing at a good clip, with 12 points through 16 games. Bouchard, as I said above, hasn’t at all looked out of place and could perhaps take on a larger role. Jones filled second-pairing duty with Oscar Klefbom out last season but hasn’t played yet in February. Koekkoek has been decent but hasn’t found a consistent role. Russell has struggled this year but we know Tippett likes having veterans in the lineup.
The issue for Tippett is that the best two players out of that group, Barrie and Bouchard, are both right-handed, and playing them as the second pair probably isn’t doable. At some point, something’s gotta give. Either Bouchard goes down to the AHL, somebody goes on waivers, or there’s a trade. The team can’t operate with nine defenders on the roster all season.
In the short-term, I figure the play is to send Russell through waivers and to the Taxi Squad and to roll with seven defenders each night, with Koekkoek and Jones rotating in and out. But another thing to consider beyond deploying players this season is the impending Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Barrie, Larsson, and Koekkoek are free agents after this season but Nurse, Jones, Bear, and Lagesson are eligible to be exposed to Seattle. Oscar Klefbom, who’s currently on the Long-Term Injured Reserve after undergoing shoulder surgery, is also expansion draft-eligible.
It’s an interesting problem and a good one to have. For years the idea of the Oilers icing six NHL defenders was like climbing Mount Everest. Now the team has too many defenders and dealing somebody might be the best path forward.
I don’t think Holland should rush out and dump a defender somewhere just for the sake of doing so. But if there’s an opportunity to deal from this position of excess in order to fill an area of need, such as the third-line centre position, it should certainly be explored.
What say you, Nation? How should Tippett deploy his blueliners? Is making a trade the right move? If that’s the case, which defender would make the most sense to dangle in a trade?