The Edmonton Oilers’ pipeline of young defencemen looks very promising. They have drafted well to stock pile some solid prospects and current NHL defenders. Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones (2015 draft), Marcus Niemelainen and Vincent Desharnais (2016), Dmitri Samorukov and Phil Kemp (2017), @Evan Bouchard and Michael Kesselring (2018) and Philip Broberg (2019). Not all nine will play in the NHL, but three already have and I could see at least another three playing, possibly more.
But they won’t all play in Edmonton, not if the Oilers want to be a legitimate Cup contender in the coming years.
You don’t win Stanley Cups with a lot of youth on the blueline. I don’t see Edmonton winning next season if Ethan Bear (132 games), Caleb Jones (93 games) and Evan Bouchard (21 games) are all in the lineup. It isn’t a knock on their ability, just the harsh truth about how experience matters in the playoffs.
“A genius is the man who can do the average thing when everyone else around him is losing is mind.” Napolean.
I believe this quote is a perfect description of veteran defenceman and why many teams acquire a veteran, or two, when they want to make a push for the Cup.
Many aren’t flashy, but in the playoffs, when the chaos increases, they are often able to make the smart, safe play more consistently than a young player. The main reason I felt Vegas could beat Colorado was due to Colorado’s inexperience on the blueline. Also, their overall lack of size and strength was a concern, but mainly just their inexperience.
The Avalanche blueline averaged 181 NHL regular games played, 6’1″ and 196 pounds. Samuel Girard struggled and I think on a Cup finals team he is better suited to be in the third pairing, at least until he gains more experience.
To illustrate the importance of experience I have outlined the rosters of the Cup finalists dating from 2010-2020. I only included D-men who played at least five games in the postseason that year.
The Blackhawks blueline had more experience than some might think. Seabrook and Keith had 796 NHL games played, not to mention some playoff experience. Niklas Hjalmarsson only had 111 NHL regular games played, but he also played 100 in the AHL and a few years in the SEL in Sweden. Chicago’s blueline averaged 411 GP/player.
The Flyers relied heavily on four defenders in their playoff run with the third pair averaging less than 10 minutes/game. The Flyers averaged 491 GP/player mainly due to Pronger and Timonen.
A contrast in the health of the two bluelines. Boston basically used the same six D all playoffs, while the Canucks had to rotate their third pairing quite a bit and Hamhuis missed six games. Johnny Boychuk only had 125 NHL games played at the time, but he spent five seasons (378 GP) in the AHL and was 27 when the Bruins won the Cup. Their blueline averaged 522 GP even with McQuaid (who had 2 1/2 years in the AHL) and Boychuk’s low totals.
Vancouver’s “smallest” D-man, Keith Ballard was still 5’11” and 199 pounds. Their top-five averaged 6’2″ and 206 pounds and their entire group averaged 412 NHL games played.
The Kings remained healthy, which is always a huge bonus, and had a good mix of veterans and younger players. Voynov spent parts of fours seasons in the AHL (231 GP) before becoming a regular in 2012, so his pro experience was much more than the 54 NHL games played. Martinez had over 150 AHL games on top of his NHL games played. The Kings were one of the few Cup winners since 2010 who had an average GP lower than 400. Their group averaged 367 games.
New Jersey was an outlier. They didn’t make the playoffs in 2011, went to Cup Final in 2012 and then missed the playoffs the next five seasons. They got hot for one year, while most of the other Cup finalists had consistent playoff appearances before or after. They had a veteran group (413 GP average) who played a good system.
Two teams who had won a Cup in the previous three seasons. Chicago returned their top-three D-men and Oduya was a perfect match with Hjalmarsson. Boston’s blueline battled injuries a lot with only three playing all 22 games. A young Torey Krug played in the third pair, while another youngster, Dougie Hamilton, only dressed in seven games. Even with Krug, Bartowski and Hamilton the Bruins D corps still averaged 435 GP.
LA had five D-men from their 2012 Cup winning team and added a young Jake Muzzin and a veteran Robyn Regehr to the mix. Their D corps was huge, averaging over 6’2 1/2″ and 215 pounds. The Rangers had a very solid top four led by an emerging McDonagh.
Chicago still had their top-five defenders from 2013, and when Rozsival got injured in the second round they leaned heavily on their top-four the rest of the way. In 2010 the Hawks blueline averaged 430 GP/player, and in 2015 it was up to 612.
Jon Cooper has always liked to use seven D-men as Tampa dressed seven defenders in 13 of their 26 games that season. They had one giant defender on each pair (Hedman, Coburn, Sustr), and it is interesting to note how different their blueline looked five years later when they won in 2020. The 2015 team had three D-men who had played in a Cup final before and all among their top-five defenders.
Dumoulin was the rare top-pairing defender without many NHL games played, but he was 24 when the Penguins won and spent three seasons (188 GP) in the AHL before being a regular in 2016. He is an underrated defender, and many don’t realize he is 6’4″. Size and reach helps a lot in the playoffs when you have skill to go with it.
The Sharks had a solid veteran group with a good mix of good skaters, passers and physical defenders. From 2004-2016 they played the second most playoff games (138, only trailing Detroit’s 140) and had the second most regular seasons wins as well (544 to Detroit’s 547), but they just never found a way to win a Cup.
The 2017 Penguins are the only cup winner not to have a legit top-end #1 defender. Letang got injured midway through that season and didn’t play in the playoffs. The Penguins did have five defenders from their 2016 winning team and added veteran Ron Hainsey. Hainsey was very solid for them, but Dumoulin was their best defender and is probably a bit underrated for how good he was during their back-to-back cup wins. They played six D-men quite evenly between 15:30 and 18:19 at 5×5. The previous Cup experience really helped them absorb the loss of Letang as this winning group averaged 419 games played.
The Predators relied heavily on their top-four defenders and you wonder if, like Philly in 2010, if having even a reliable #5 defender who they trusted to play 17-18 minutes a night might have made a slight difference and not taxed the Predators top-four as much.
The Capitals deadline acquisition of Michal Kempny turned out to be a huge addition. He paired up with Carlson and played in the top-four at 5×5. Kempny had 103 NHL games, but he was 27 and had played seven years pro in the KHL and Czech leagues. Orlov is one of those rare shorter players, who is very stocky and strong at 211 pounds. He and Niskanen faced many of the tough matchups.
Vegas was unable to finish their Cinderella expansion season, but their group of misfits played hard and were a long, rangy D corps that averaged 6’2″ and 204 pounds.
The Blues were an experienced group (504 GP average), with big men who were excellent skaters in Pietrangelo, Parayko and Bouwmeester. Their entire group was huge averaging over 6’3″ and 220 pounds. It was difficult to win battles in front of the net and along the boards consistently against them.
Boston only had two defenders from their 2013 team (Krug and Chara), but a young Charlie McAvoy gave them a dynamic presence on the backend. The Blues relied heavily on their top-three defenders, while the Bruins played their top-four a lot.
Again, Tampa dressed seven D-men in eight of their playoff games. Their blueline had great skill, lots of experience (504 GP average) and they were huge at 6’3″ and 216 pounds. Cernak only had 125 NHL games, but he is a physical specimen. So powerful and strong. Adding veterans like Bogosian and Schenn gave them more options in their third pairing. They weren’t flashy, but were very steady.
Dallas was a surprise finalist, but with Klingberg and Heiskanen their blueline should be solid for years. Dallas had loads of experience within their forwards, but like the 2012 Devils, Dallas missed the playoffs this season after their Cup run last year. Will they bounce back in 2022?
WHAT WILL HOLLAND DO?
The Oscar Klefbom injury is magnified when you look at the importance of skill mixed with experience and size. A healthy Klefbom, along with Darnell Nurse would give the Oilers two top pairing left defenders with 400+ games and both are over 6’3″ and 220 pounds. You could mix in a younger Bouchard and Bear in your third pairing, but now Holland needs to find a second pair left D with experience. Maybe Klefbom can return to play, but at this point that is undetermined.
With Bouchard, Broberg, Samorukov poised to play this season or next, Edmonton has some quality young players coming, but they can’t have all three in the lineup if they expect to compete for the Stanley Cup in the next three or four seasons. At least when you look at the importance of experience on the blueline.
Maybe Holland will just be patient and bring Bouchard this season and then one of Broberg and Samorukov in the following two years, but if that is the plan then he still need to find some quality defenders if the Oilers hope to win a few playoff rounds in the coming years.
The challenge for Holland is his best trade assets are on the blueline, so if he wants to acquire some legit NHL defenders, then a trade might be the most realistic path.
I could see two of the young blueliners traded within the next few seasons.
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