Edmonton and Toronto were in similar positions after the 2014-15 season. Both franchises were coming off poor seasons, finishing in the bottom five of the standings, and needed major changes on defence. How did they rebuild their bluelines over the next three summers?
Here’s what both teams dressed in game 82 of the 2014-15 season.
Edmonton Game 82 14-15
Toronto Game 82 14-15
Oscar Klefbom
Justin Schultz
Morgan Rielly
Dion Phaneuf
Martin Marincin
David Musil
Jake Gardiner
Tim Erixon
Brandon Davidson
Keith Aulie
Andrew MacWilliam
Eric Brewer
Those aren’t playoff-caliber defenses.
Edmonton already sent away top-four, right-handed defenceman Jeff Petry at the deadline. Nikita Nikitin and Mark Fayne were looking like free-agent busts, especially Nikitin. Oscar Klefbom looked good playing 22 minutes a game in his 60 games, and at this point the Oilers were still all-in on Justin Schultz. Darnell Nurse was still in junior at this point.
Toronto traded Cody Franson and Roman Polak was injured so their right side was noticeably poor, like Edmonton. Stephane Robidas was signed the previous summer, but he was done and would be banished to Robidas Island. Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner were both young defenceman playing 20 minutes a night, and looking going doing it. Phaneuf was playing too much and on a bad contract.
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The Oilers hired Peter Chiarelli as general manager after the season, while the Leafs hired Lou Lamoriello later that summer. Edmonton won the McDavid lottery and moved up from third overall to first to draft the generational center. The Leafs remained at the fourth overall pick and selected Mitch Marner.
2015-16 featured some new additions for both teams.
Edmonton Game 1 15-16
Toronto Game 1 15-16
Oscar Klefbom
Justin Schultz
Jake Gardiner
Dion Phaneuf
Andrej Sekera
Mark Fayne
Morgan Rielly
Matt Hunwick
Griffin Reinhart
Eric Gryba
Martin Marincin
Scott Harirington
Brandon Davidson
Roman Polak
Edmonton still has the Klefbom-Schultz pair taking on a bunch of minutes, but Andrej Sekera is the big free-agent addition here. Sekera immediately gave them a reliable top-four option, and helped mend the hole left by Petry’s absence.
Griffin Reinhart was the other significant move. Chiarelli traded the 16th and 33rd picks at the 2015 draft for the defensive defenceman in what would turn out to be a disastrous trade for Edmonton.
Eric Gryba was acquired for the fourth-round pick from the Marincin-trade and occupied the right side on the third pairing.
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Toronto still has Gardiner, Rielly, Phaneuf playing big minutes. Matt Hunwick comes in as Rielly’s partner and Marincin switches teams and plays up and down Toronto’s lineup.
The Leafs were still in a heavy rebuilding year and this group reflects that.
Edmonton Game 82 15-16
Toronto Game 82 15-16
Andrej Sekera
Darnell Nurse
Morgan Rielly
Martin Marincin
Griffin Reinhart
Jordan Oesterle
Jake Gardiner
TJ Brennan
Adam Pardy
Mark Fayne
Andrew Campbell
Frank Corrado
Woof.
Klefbom was done for the season with a staph infection, so Nurse moved up and played too much minutes. The Oilers finally gave up on Schultz and traded him to Pittsburgh at the deadline. Adam Pardy was claimed off waivers. He was another warm body to play out another lost season.
The need for a capable right-handed defenceman was even more apparent, but Sekera and Klefbom were nice building blocks on the left side, and one of Nurse or Reinhart could be expected to play on the left side of a third pairing next season.
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Toronto’s pairings are one of a team that just clinched last place. Four of those defenceman are now in the AHL, but Dion Phaneuf’s absence is the most important thing. Toronto managed to move the overpaid defender mid-season to Ottawa for a collection of bad contracts that ended in the next couple years. Getting out from Phaneuf’s five remaining years was huge. That $7 million could be used on someone more capable of playing those minutes.
The Leafs also acquired Connor Carrick from Washington by taking on Brooks Laich’s salary and sending Daniel Winnik the other way. Carrick was a young, right-handed defenceman who had an impressive AHL resume.
The Leafs won the 2016 draft lottery and drafted Auston Matthews, while Edmonton moved down to the fourth spot and selected Jesse Puljujarvi. Both teams now had their young, star center and needed defence to supplement their young forwards.
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Edmonton Game 1 16-17
Toronto Game 1 16-17
Oscar Klefbom
Adam Larsson
Morgan Rielly
Nikita Zaitsev
Andrej Sekera
Kris Russell
Jake Gardiner
Connor Carrick
Darnell Nurse
Eric Gryba
Martin Marincin
Matt Hunwick
Brandon Davidson
Matt Benning
Roman Polak
The Oilers right side features two new additions: Adam Larsson and Kris Russell.
Peter Chiarelli chose to overpay for defensive defenceman Adam Larsson, trading Taylor Hall to New Jersey for him. Larsson’s a capable top-four guy, but not as dynamic or game-changing as a Hall. Chiarelli famously said “this is the price you have to pay” to acquire a defenceman.
Larsson gave Klefbom a capable partner on the first pairing, while Russell played with Sekera after being added later in camp on a one-year, $3.1 million contract.
Nurse is now in a more appropriate third-pairing role with Gryba, with Brandon Davidson and Matt Benning as the extras.
Toronto opted for a different route. Instead of moving a big name forward out, they signed 24-year-old Russian defenceman Nikita Zaitsev out of the KHL. Carrick’s here after being acquired the season prior, and other cheap options Hunwick, Marincin, and Polak round out the Leafs defence on opening night.
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Edmonton Game 82 16-17
Toronto Game 82 16-17
Oscar Klefbom
Adam Larsson
Morgan Rielly
Nikita Zaitsev
Andrej Sekera
Matt Benning
Jake Gardiner
Connor Carrick
Kris Russell
Eric Gryba
Matt Hunwick
Roman Polak
There’s little change from game 1 to 82, as both teams were headed to the playoffs for the first time in a while.
Nurse was out for rest, so Eric Gryba stepped in. Davidson was traded for David Desharnais. Benning had already passed Gryba, the only noticeable change from Edmonton’s opening night roster.
The Leafs roster is roughly the same as well. Less Marincin and more Polak.
Both teams had successful seasons, but needed to build off them and improve on defence.
Edmonton Game 1 17-18
Toronto Game 1 17-18
Oscar Klefbom
Adam Larsson
Morgan Rielly
Ron Hainsey
Kris Russell
Matt Benning
Jake Gardiner
Nikita Zaitsev
Darnell Nurse
Eric Gryba
Andreas Borgman
Connor Carrick
Yohann Auvitu
The Oilers and Chiarelli brought back the same six defenceman from last season, even with Sekera’s torn ACL from the playoffs. Kris Russell was re-signed to a four-year $16 million contract. Yohann Auvitu was added as a depth option. Griffin Reinhart was claimed by Vegas in the expansion draft.
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The Leafs looked elsewhere again, rather than trade a top forward after missing out on Travis Hamonic. Ron Hainsey signed as stopgap for two years and $6 million. Zaitsev returns with a seven-year extension. Andreas Borgman, another signing from Europe, makes it on the third-pairing.
Edmonton Game 20 17-18
Toronto Game 20 17-18
Darnell Nurse
Adam Larsson
Morgan Rielly
Ron Hainsey
Oscar Klefbom
Matt Benning
Jake Gardiner
Nikita Zaitsev
Kris Russell
Eric Gryba
Andreas Borgman
Connor Carrick
Yohann Auvitu
Roman Polak
Nurse has stepped up in Sekera’s absence. The gritty defenceman is playing over 20 minutes and looks like a legitimate top-four guy for the first time in his career. Larsson’s logging minutes.
Russell’s minutes have been reduced playing behind Benning and Nurse as the team’s fifth defenceman. He’s signed for three more years at $4 million per after this season, which already looks like a poor contract.
Hainsey’s been a reliable stopgap alongside Rielly on the Leafs’ top pairing. The 36-year-old is also playing almost five minutes a game on the penalty kill, the most in the league.
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Zaitsev and Gardiner have struggled as a pair, but Borgman has been solid on the third pair.

2018 Onward

Oct 24, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at PPG PAINTS Arena. The Penguins won 2-1 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Both teams still need help.
Edmonton has Klefbom, Larsson, Sekera, and Russell signed until 2020. Nurse and Benning need new contracts in the summer, too. The Oilers still need a right-handed defender who can move the puck in their top four, after passing on players like Jason Demers, PK Subban, and Travis Hamonic, and they’ve already traded Taylor Hall.
The Leafs have been more patient. They’ve invested in European free agents and veteran stopgaps like Hainsey and Hunwick, and they’re continuing to go that route. Toronto is clearly waiting for the right deal, and it’s a hard strategy to argue with considering their record and the wealth of forwards they have. Drafting Timothy Liljegren doesn’t hurt either.
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Toronto’s in a good position to acquire a top-end defenceman, even if that means parting with one of their highly-skilled forwards. Edmonton’s situation is trickier. They have a lot of money committed to defence, with Nurse and Benning needing new contracts, and less assets to part with than the Leafs.
The Oilers spent a lot of assets altering their defence, while Toronto’s additions have mostly come via free agency. Toronto’s being cautious. They’re waiting for the right deal, and so far it looks like it’s working out.