Photo Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Strengths and Weaknesses: The Defence

Last week, I took a bit of an in-depth look at the Oilers forward group before the preseason began. It’s very clearly going to be the strength of this team as they head into the regular season. They have incredible top-end talent with McDavid and Draisaitl, Zach Hyman appears to be a great fit, and their bottom-six looks more well-rounded than it has in any of the past few seasons.

I am very confident that scoring goals will not be a problem for the Edmonton Oilers. I am not as confident when it comes to their blueline and the situation between the pipes.

Heading into the offseason, I was hoping the Oilers would bring back Adam Larsson, find a solid left-shot defenseman, and go find a better partner for Mike Smith. None of those things happened. While I give Ken Holland a lot of credit for how he built up the forward group this summer, I can’t give him the same credit for how he handled the two areas of the team that are responsible for keeping pucks out of their own net.

Larsson has been replaced by Cody Ceci and the solid left-shot defenceman is 38-year-old Duncan Keith, who’s coming off a couple of rough seasons with the Blackhawks.

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After having listened to people around the league talk about Keith, I think there is reason to believe that a change of scenery might spark him a little bit. Earlier this week on The Real Life Podcast, former NHLer John Scott said “a 38-year-old Duncan is like a 30-year-old everyone else.”

He went on to add that “he’s going to come into camp in tremendous shape, he’s very serious, he’s very work regimented, and he’s got a screw loose.”

He’ll need to prove it with his play on the ice, but after writing off a 38-year-old Mike Smith last season and being totally wrong about it, I’m going into this season with an open mind when it comes to Duncan Keith.

Aside from Keith, I’m pretty confident in the rest of the left-side. Darnell Nurse is a stud top-pairing defenseman and one of Russell or Koekoek will be able to provide solid third pairing minutes (my money is on the latter).

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On the right side, the Ceci situation scares me a little bit and while there is certainly pressure on Ceci to step up and perform, there is also pressure on the likes of Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard as well. 

What Ceci has shown throughout his career is that he’s a good NHL defenseman when he’s put in the right role. For him to be in a role that suits his abilities, the Oilers will likely need Tyson Barrie to show that he’s capable of consistently being a top-pairing defenseman that can handle the minutes that come with playing on a pairing with Darnell Nurse. =

With Bouchard, the Oilers need him to show that he’s at least capable of being an everyday NHL defenseman, which I believe he is. Last season, he played just under 200 minutes at even strength and in that time, the Oilers were outscored 8-6 and outshot 109-108. 

Considering his age and the raw talent he possesses, I think that it’s totally fair to expect him to take a step forward and when you listen to what those around the team, both coaches and his teammates, are saying about him, I think it’s fair to say that they have high expectations for the soon to be 22-year-old.

At first, hearing Bouchard described as the “key” to the Oilers blueline sounds a little extreme but I don’t think it’s a stretch. If Bouchard takes a big step forward this year and becomes a reliable top-four defenseman, then that will allow them to put Ceci in a better spot with less minutes and potentially give them three really good pairings. If Bouchard happens to struggle out of the gate, that means Ceci will need to take on a bigger workload and that likely isn’t a recipe for success.

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The other side of this is that the Oilers don’t have much for depth on the right side. If one of Ceci, Barrie, or Bouchard were to get hurt for a significant amount of time then that would likely mean that one of Kris Russell or Slater Koekoek would have to play the right side. Not ideal. The margin for error/injury on the blueline is razor-thin. There is pressure on all three of Ceci, Barrie, and Bouchard this season.

The Oilers need not just one or two of them to play as advertised or better, they likely need all three to have really good seasons and stay healthy. It’s a tall order and if that right side doesn’t hold up all year, it will have major implications on where the Oilers finish this season.

Ken Holland made some very interesting decisions this offseason when it comes to rebuilding the team’s blueline. Don’t this as me saying these bets won’t work, I’m just pointing out that there is some risk here. They’re going to be very good at moving the puck out of their own end, but I worry that when they do get hemmed in their own zone, things might get a little dicey.