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Assessing Edmonton’s defencemen, the young talent in the pipeline, and the veterans in need of new contracts

Over the weekend, I put together an overview of Ken Holland’s off-season and took a look at how he can use the Expansion Draft and the buyout period in order to create more salary cap room to work with this summer. This week, I’ll assess the Oilers’ roster, take a look at the players who are in need of new contracts, and how the team can be improved in free agency. Today, let’s talk about defencemen. 

It’s incredible how things have changed around here in the past half-decade.

If you had told an Oilers fan back at the 2015 draft that the team’s top priority six years later would be to add forwards to a group devoid of quality depth up front, they would have been shocked. In the same vein, if you had told them that the blueline would become a position of organizational strength six years later, they would have laughed.

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But that’s where we are. The Oilers have a quality group of NHL blueliners on their roster right now and they also have a deep pool of defenders coming up through the system. Ethan Bear, William Lagesson, and Caleb Jones have graduated to the big leagues over the past year and names like Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Dmitri Samorukov are on the way.

Depending on how things shake out this off-season, we could feasibly see the Oilers ice a blueline that was entirely drafted and developed by the organization. Again, could you imagine hearing that six years ago?

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s Edmonton’s contract situation among defencemen…

Under Contract: Darnell Nurse ($5.6M), Oscar Klefbom ($4.167M), Ethan Bear ($2M), Kris Russell ($1.25M), Caleb Jones ($850k), William Lagesson ($725k), Dmitri Samorukov (ELC), Markus Niemelainen (ELC), Filip Berglund (ELC), Phil Kemp (ELC), Mike Kesselring (ELC).

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Unrestricted Free Agents: Adam Larsson, Tyson Barrie, Dmitry Kulikov, Slater Koekkoek.

Restricted Free Agents: Theodor Lennstrom.

Ken Holland’s biggest challenge last off-season was navigating the loss of Oscar Klefbom, who underwent shoulder surgery and missed the entirety of the 2021 season. Klefbom’s replacement was Tyson Barrie, who was brought in on a one-year, show-me deal after a frustrating season in Toronto.

Barrie came in and did exactly what was expected of him and more. He was a bit of a mess in his own zone but he moved the puck well and helped generate offence. Barrie finished third on the Oilers with 48 points over the course of 56 games and was the league’s highest-scoring defender.

Given that outcome, somebody is going to give Barrie the payday he wasn’t able to lock down last off-season. Will it be the Oilers? That seems unlikely at this stage. The word is that Barrie is going to test the free-agent market and, given the holes the Oilers have elsewhere on the roster, handing out a big contract to an offensive defenceman doesn’t seem prudent. The Oilers also have Evan Bouchard waiting in the wings to take on Barrie’s role.

Edmonton’s other major free-agent defenceman is Larsson, who has reached the end of the six-year deal he signed with the New Jersey Devils one year before getting traded to Edmonton for Taylor Hall. Larsson looked healthy in 2021 for the first time in years and put together his most effective season since 2016-17. The numbers back up the eye-test as Larsson ranked 24th in the league among defenders in terms of expected goals against at even strength.

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Unlike with Barrie, the Oilers don’t have a young Larsson-type ready to jump in and fill his role as a tough, physical, shutdown defender who can play rock-solid in his own end. It appears inevitable that the Oilers and Larsson will reach a new contract, though it won’t come until after the Expansion Draft for obvious reasons.

What would Larsson’s next contract look like? Looking at deals signed by other veteran, shutdown defenders last off-season, we’re looking at a four-year deal in the same ballpark as his current $4,166,666 cap hit. I would say Brenden Dillon’s four-year, $3,900,000 deal would be the low end and Chris Tanev’s four-year, $4,500,000 deal would be the high end.

So, long story short, it seems most likely that the Oilers thank Barrie for his service and move on while bringing back Larsson for four more years. That said, the biggest contract that Holland will sign this off-season on Edmonton’s blueline likely won’t be a free agent. It’ll be Darnell Nurse’s extension.

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I mentioned above that Barrie was brought in to be Klefbom’s replacement, but it was ultimately Nurse who shouldered the load of Edmonton losing their top defender.

The 2021 season was Nurse’s breakout year. He did everything for the Oilers, logging big minutes, going up against the other team’s best players, and producing offensively. Nurse played an average of 25:38 per game, fourth in the league behind only Drew Doughty, Thomas Chabot, and Brent Burns. He also buried a career-high 16 goals and would have shattered his highest point total if the season went on a little longer.

It took a while to get here, but Nurse was the top-pairing defender the Oilers hoped he would become when they selected him No. 7 overall in the 2013 draft. Now, he’s going to get paid.

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The Oilers have never shown a willingness to commit to Nurse long-term. After his entry-level deal, he inked a two-year bridge contract in mid-September, just weeks before the 2018-19 season got rolling. Last February, Nurse signed a two-year extension that would walk him right to unrestricted free agency.

Signing Nurse to an extension will be a big priority for Holland this off-season. There’s some risk in paying Nurse after a breakout showing in a shortened, 56-game campaign, but there’s much more risk in him going into the 2021-22 season without a deal. If he has another huge season, he could walk right into free agency as the best defender on the open market.

The last time Nurse was looking for a long-term deal, his camp used Jacob Trouba, who signed a seven-year deal worth $8,000,000 annually, as his comparable. The pandemic has changed the landscape of contracts since then as teams are working around a cap that’s likely to stay flat for years. But even in the flat-cap world, we’ve seen Alex Pietrangelo ($8.8M for seven years) and Torey Krug ($6.5M for seven years) ink major deals in free agency.

I would guess Nurse again uses the Trouba comparable for his next contract. Whether he gets as high as $8,000,000 remains to be seen, but it’ll likely be somewhere in that ballpark.

Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Given the team’s desperate need for scoring depth and uncertain situation in net, it’s difficult to imagine Holland making a big splash on the free-agent market to improve the team’s blueline. If Holland does make an addition, it’ll likely be a contingency plan for Oscar Klefbom.

As mentioned earlier, Klefbom missed all of 2021 after undergoing shoulder surgery. Holland says that he expects Klefbom to be back for the 2021-22 season, but there’s no saying how effective he’ll be. We could get a fully healthy Klefbom for the first time in years or a shell of Klefbom’s former self. Who knows.

If Klefbom is back and effective, the Oilers could roll with their 2019-20 blueline, with Klefbom and Larsson and Nurse and Ethan Bear. That would leave Evan Bouchard in a more sheltered role on the third pairing alongside a veteran.

As of right now, that veteran would be Kris Russell, who’s inked for another season at a reasonable $1,250,000 cap hit. Given the fact Caleb Jones could be gone in the Expansion Draft, Russell isn’t an every-game player, and Klefbom is up in the air, adding another lefty would be an ideal move.

Here are some free agents who fit that profile…

  • Alec Martinez: 53 games, 9 goals, 32 points, 22:34 TOI
  • Mike Reilly: 55 games, 0 goals, 27 points, 19:17 TOI
  • Ryan Murray: 48 games, 0 goals, 14 points, 18:37 TOI
  • Jamie Oleksiak: 56 games, 6 goals, 14 points, 20:29 TOI
  • Derek Forbort: 56 games, 2 goals, 12 points, 20:45 TOI
  • Dmitry Kulikov: 48 games, 0 goals, 4 points, 19:10 TOI

I actually think Kulikov makes quite a bit of sense to bring back. He ranked 31st on that aforementioned list of defenders in terms of expected goals against and he won’t command much of a contract given he produces virtually zero offence. If Klefbom isn’t good, he can slide back with Larsson on the team’s shutdown pair. If Klefbom is good, Kulikov would be a fine, inexpensive veteran for Bouchard to play beside.

Regardless, Holland’s work on the blueline this summer will largely be housekeeping. He has to make decisions on Larsson and Barrie, he should be working on an extension with Nurse, and, ideally, he can find a cheap, reliable left-handed veteran as a Klefbom fallback net.

Previously in my off-season series…