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Photo Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

That Blueline…

“It all looks good on paper in the summer . . .”

Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett has been around long enough to know that liking the way his drastically revamped group of defencemen looks when he puts the names on the whiteboard in his office won’t necessarily translate to improvement when the gate swings open next season.

The changes we know. Adam Larsson, coming off maybe his best season with the Oilers, is out after signing with the Seattle Kraken as an UFA, leaving a big hole on the right side of Tippett’s second pairing. Ethan Bear, deemed expendable when Tyson Barrie re-signed after testing the UFA market, was shipped to Carolina for winger Warren Foegele. Caleb Jones was sent to the Chicago Blackhawks in the trade that brought in Duncan Keith.

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In are Keith, 38, a two-time Norris Trophy winner expected to play reduced minutes in Tippett’s second pairing, and UFA Cody Ceci, 27, signed to a four-year contract. As it stands now, Ceci will play right side with Keith. With GM Ken Holland likely looking at one more move for a veteran defender, it looks like we’ll see Darnell Nurse alongside Barrie, Keith with Ceci and veteran Kris Russell or William Lagesson with Evan Bouchard.

Is this group an upgrade on the one Tippett had at his disposal last season? I don’t know. It certainly is different. We know what we’re getting with Nurse, Barrie and Russell. We know Holland hasn’t replaced all the bite Larsson plays with by bringing in Ceci, but might he be a fit in a shutdown tandem with Keith?

For me, much of what might happen hinges on Keith. The Norris trophies, the Stanley Cups and the experience are great, but can he still play? Holland and Tippett are betting he can.

WHAT HE SAID

Apr 15, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) during the third period against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

“Duncan is, obviously, a proven winner, a Norris Trophy winner,” Tippett told Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer Tuesday. “When Ken reached out to our coaching staff and asked us about acquiring him, everybody knows how he’s played in this league. It was funny, after I started talking to him, I don’t know if I’ve talked to a player that’s more motivated to play well as this guy is.

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“He had a great run in Chicago and now he’s looking for a new challenge, the challenge to help our younger players take another step. It’s something he really is jumping into. He’s a motivated player. He wants to play and make sure our players take the next step. I think it’s a great add for our team.

“As we go through it, was not something we anticipated, but when it happened, we filled the hole with Ceci, a real strong defender, so I like the changes we’ve made this year. It’s some out of necessity, some out of really trying to improve our group. I like where we’re at . . . I think that we have a different look, and we could take steps forward with it.”

When the off-season began, many fans expressed concern that re-signing Barrie would hinder the development of Bouchard. He’d be buried on the right side. That was before Larsson left and Bear was sent to Carolina. To hear Tippett tell it, even with Ceci starting in the second pairing, Bouchard, 21, won’t be lost in the shuffle as a sixth or even seventh blueliner. That has to be music to the ears of the many Bouchard backers out there.

“Yeah,” Tippett said when asked if he’s got Bouchard pencilled in as a full-time player this season. “In my mind I see Evan as a player similarly to (Jesse) Puljujarvi last year where he’ll come in, he’ll hopefully have a really strong camp and, you know, take off. He’s a player I think is going to grow. He’s going to grow as the year goes on. He may start in the third pair, but I think there’s chances for him to move up. 

“I know he’s training with Darnell Nurse this summer out east and he’ll come in a very motivated player and a guy that I know is going to have a great year.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Mar 15, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett on his bench during a timeout against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome.

As always, we’ll have to wait to see how the pieces fit together and how things play out. What we know today is the Oilers lost a solid, tough player in Larsson, a promising but inconsistent offensive defenceman in Bear and Jones, a prospect-turned-suspect who never managed to do enough to stay in the line-up.

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They’ve brought in gamesmanship, leadership and experience in Keith, a future all-of-famer. In Barrie, they’ve brought back the guy who led NHL defencemen in scoring last season. We know what he is and what he isn’t. They’ve added Ceci, who’ll be the best pure defender on the right side. Last but not least, the door is open for Bouchard. All these changes to a group that will work behind a deeper and better set of forwards with the additions of Foegele and Zach Hyman.

It all looks good on paper . . . 

Previously by Robin Brownlee