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Discussing the Oilers Defence

After a decade of having no defensive depth, the Oilers finally have some and people are talking about trading them?

Why?

Trade talk is fun, but it is important to note that none of it is coming from Ken Holland. Holland won’t be trading one of his right shot defenders right now, because it makes very little sense today, due to the uncertainty of the future on the Oilers’ right side.

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Adam Larsson and Tyson Barrie are pending free agents. They are the Oilers’ top-two right shot defenders right now. Based on their skillset, and the organization’s depth chart, it likely makes more sense to re-sign Larsson, who is a rugged, defensive D-man, instead of Barrie, because Edmonton has Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard, who are more offensive-minded D-men like Barrie.

However, with Gary Bettman saying yesterday he expects a flat cap, or close to a flat cap for the next three or four seasons, UFAs likely won’t be landing big deals this off-season. If the Oilers could re-sign both Barrie and Larsson to fair contracts, then I could see both returning. But there is also the expansion draft to consider.

Trading Ethan Bear right now makes little sense to me for many reasons. The main one being the Oilers don’t know what their RD depth will be next year, so trading one of the players who is under contract isn’t smart. And it is why Holland isn’t even considering it (unless a trade offer arises he doesn’t expect). Full stop.

But also, Bear hasn’t had a great season, so his value would be lower. He wasn’t in peak condition when camp opened, and then he suffered a freak concussion when he was hit by a puck while sitting on the bench. He is now getting back up to speed. The past few games he has looked much better.

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It is important to look at the entire scope on the Oilers blueline.

I keep seeing people wanting to rip Tyson Barrie, because he makes some defensive errors. Yes, he does, but he is also an elite point producer. And please stop with the “He plays with McDavid.” Ethan Bear played 90% of his time with Darnell Nurse last season and a lot with McDavid and Draisaitl and Bear didn’t produce points like Barrie. Barrie is very good offensively. Barrie has 11 points at 5×5 in 28 games. Oscar Klefbom had 15 last year. The most he’s ever had in a full season was 20. Barrie is the best offensive D-man Edmonton has seen in many years.

Barrie and Nurse are the Oilers best pair right now, and I don’t see any reason to change them. Bear is not significantly better defensively, and he’s a downgrade offensively. So for now Bear is in the third pairing, which is a good thing for the organization because it means they have depth. I would argue that on a Cup contending team Bear is a third pairing defender, and that means you have a really deep team. It is how you win. Cup-winning, or Cup-contending bluelines are huge. You can have a small player like Torey Krug or Vince Dunn, but Dunn was in the third pair, and Krug plays big for his size.

Larsson is the oddity on the right side. He is the best defensive defender. He is big, strong, physical and can break up the cycle. He gets the tough minutes. Often a lot of defensive zone starts, and you need defenders like him to win in the playoffs. It is why I could see the Oilers re-signing him over Barrie, simply because Edmonton doesn’t have another RD like him in the organization.

Evan Bouchard is going to be a really solid NHL defender. In a normal season, he likely would be down in Bakersfield now that Bear is back healthy. But that isn’t possible this year. Edmonton won’t risk sending him to Bakersfield, because if one of their RD were to get injured, Bouchard would then have to quarantine for two weeks after being recalled before he could play. Barring injury, he likely won’t play regularly this season, but he will get some time in the lineup.

It isn’t ideal, but it will not halt or ruin his development if he only plays another 10 games this season.  He also played half a season in Sweden, unlike many younger prospects, so I don’t think a lack of games will hurt him long-term. The goal of the organization is to win games now, so when Bouchard gets in, he will have to out-play Bear if he wants to be a regular. It will be a good competition. This is a sign of a good team, where its young players have to come in and play well to stay in the lineup. Bouchard needs to improve his defensive awareness and his urgency. I believe he will, because he is competitive. I look forward to seeing how he responds the next time he plays.

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NOW v. FUTURE… 

Sep 17, 2019; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson (6) and Vancouver Canucks forward Nikolay Goldobin (77) reach for the puck during the third period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The main focus is to win games. The Oilers need to make the playoffs and then hopefully win a round or two. The focus of Bouchard’s development isn’t the main priority, and with Holland in charge the onus will be on winning. Of course he wants young players developing, but suggestions that Bouchard, Philip Broberg, Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway are going to be difference makers right away are premature.

I think Bouchard will play a much bigger role next season, but probably not before, unless there is an injury. And if he does play regularly I wouldn’t want him in a top-four role right now. I’d like him in the third pair, where he doesn’t have to face top lines as much and can have more success. Holloway is only 19. It is rare that 19 year olds come in and are difference makers right away. Edmonton is past the time where they have to hope youngsters will lead them to wins or push them over the top. Good teams win with experienced players leading the way, and sometimes a young player and come in and be a good supporting player.

The only way an Ethan Bear trade makes sense would be in the off-season and the Oilers had re-signed Barrie and Larsson. I think the odds of that are low, and why any suggestion of a Bear trade makes about as much as sense to me as those suggesting Edmonton trade Barrie. Barrie is an elite puck mover and transporter. Those skillsets are extremely important. I wouldn’t underestimate those skills.

I’m a bit perplexed by the angst surrounding the Oilers blueline. Edmonton is winning. Since February 1st Edmonton is tied with Boston for fifth lowest GAA at 2.47 goals/game. I don’t understand why people want to move out Bear or Barrie. The good news is that Holland doesn’t share those thoughts. He has no plans on moving either right now.

PARTING SHOTS…

Oscar Klefbom will be having surgery later this month in Cleveland. Holland said it is somewhere around March 25th. That will give the Oilers three months to have a better sense of Klefbom’s future. Klefbom’s health will have a major impact on the Oiler’s protected list for the expansion draft. Once the doctor performs the surgery, he might have a better understanding of the chances Klefbom will be able to play again.

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I’m told the doctor’s report will go a long way in determining how the NHL views Klefbom. If it is considered a possible career threatening injury, then the Oilers won’t have to protect him. He would go on the exempt list.

Even if the NHL doesn’t declare it a possible career threatening injury, the Oilers will have to decide if they want to protect him. What if they aren’t sure he can play long-term? Do you risk losing a younger, healthier D-man? That is a tough decision, but one Holland and the Oilers might have to make.

Holland also mentioned he is not interested in adding depth players at the deadline. “If there is a player out there who can have an impact more than depth, that is something I’d look at,” Holland said. Edmonton could use a top-six LW to play with Leon Draisaitl, assuming RNH is with McDavid in the playoffs. That is the one glaring weakness I see up front.

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