The Edmonton Oilers were never going to be as good without their best Defenceman


The Edmonton Oilers’ Oscar Klefbom (77) faces the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place in this file photo from Nov. 30, 2019. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia, file

Article content

Why are the Edmonton Oilers struggling?

Because they’re missing their #1 Defenceman.

I can almost see the hands going up in the back. You want to point out that Oscar Klefbom was never a true, #1 NHL D-man. I don’t disagree. But Klefbom WAS the #1 on the Oilers roster. And when he’s not there you either replace him or deal with the consequences.

Ah, how soon we forget: Oscar Klefbom averaged 25:25 per game last season. A lot of them were tough minutes, too. And those minutes need to go somewhere.

Klefbom served 3:37 per game on the league’s #1 Power Play. He also contributed 2:29 per game on the league’s second-best penalty killing unit. What? Neither is going well? You don’t say.

Who takes those duties on in 2021 and can they be as good or better than Oscar Klefbom? Unlikely, as only Tyson Barrie and Slater Koekkoek were not already here last year. And Barrie’s resume is as an elite attacker but not a top-pairing defender. Koekkoek is neither.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

The decision was made by the Oilers to replace Oscar Klefbom “by committee”. As you’ll see in a few minutes, I don’t entirely disagree with the reasons for that. But that doesn’t change the fact that an awful lot of pieces still need to fall in place for the team to not fall off significantly due to Klefbom’s absence.

So, how’s all that going for you so far?

If you search the Internet, you’ll find somewhere around the time of the signing a quote from me that Tyson Barrie was 1st Unit attacker but a 3rd pairing defender. If you have watched this guy over his career at all, that shouldn’t surprise you. Yes, I am surprised that Barrie hasn’t performed better on the man advantage. Although scoring chances on the PP are not down. Shooting % is. Is that Barrie’s fault? He shares a portion of it but he’s also not shooting less than Klefbom did. And it typically takes a while to adapt to a new team. So, I’m not on the list of people writing Barrie off already. But I am one of the guys who answered the “Put him on the top pairing” demand back in the off-season with “be careful what you wish for”.

It is safe to bet that Ken Holland Dave Tippett hoped that Darnell Nurse would swallow up some of those minutes on the LHS. So far Nurse’s ATOI is 24:12, 2:20 per game above his career average. Tuesday night, Nurse played over 29 minutes. Yes, Nurse struggled defensively in the 3rd Period. But did you stop to consider that perhaps he was bagged? And when anyone’s tired they make physical and mental mistakes. I believe Nurse is as good as he’s even been. The criticism he has faced under the circumstances has been a bit much to me. If you run him out of gas you should expect him to sputter.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Ethan Bear is still not in mid-season shape. That doesn’t mean he didn’t show up in shape. But he wasn’t playing anywhere. And unlike in 2019 when he was taking part in the Captain’s skates early, Bear the RFA was without a contract this Fall and not skating with the team. To my eye his play is coming around. But his TOI also hit a season high last night. I thought the fatigue showed on him. I don’t blame either side more for the contract impasse. Bear didn’t have Arb rights, Holland didn’t have cap space. Hard to argue that both sides weren’t well within their rights to handle it the way they did.

I’m worried about Adam Larsson. I agree he brings the toughness and size versus the cycle that all teams need. He’s a good pro, a great teammate. But in today’s NHL if you struggle to keep up, you lose more and more puck races and as a result you are forced to defend more and more. When minutes start to climb, that problem is exacerbated. I don’t think Larsson’s career average of 20:45 is reasonable any longer. He had issues last year at 19:50. He’s struggling this year at 17:11. That’s not an encouraging trend.

Bets were made on Caleb Jones. I like Jones too. I suspect he’ll eventually be just fine. But prospects rarely develop in a straight line. If you weren’t expecting some wobble from Jones while he was attempting to take Darnell Nurse’s spot in the 2nd pairing, frankly? That’s on you.

Kris Russell has more-or-less delivery exactly as predicted. But at 33 I don’t think we should expect the 22-23 minutes per night that he could deliver in his prime.


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

Slater Koekkoek came in and over-delivered. Yet the one guy we can probably all agree has been consistent sat on Tuesday. That’s on the coaches.

The fact that Evan Bouchard has been absent is on the staff, too. A recent minor tweak aside, sitting a big, puck-moving, guy-with-the-big-shot right-side D-man with a blue-chip pedigree makes marginal sense. He and William Lagesson were the ONLY members of this D-corps taking a regular shift in pro hockey this fall. The. Only. Ones.

I’m cheering for Lagesson but he was never likely going to be more than a 7-8. Count on him for depth, sure. More, and you start to ask for trouble.

What should have the Oilers done differently?

Some of you would have liked the Oilers to go out and sign or trade for the player who would step right into Klefbom’s skates. Problems with that:

-You’re assuming “that guy” was both out there, and available and willing to come to Edmonton. And who just gives them up? Ken Holland can’t just snap his fingers.

-That player would cost $4-$6m/year. Meanwhile, Klefbom is still under contract with the club. And you assume this new person would sign a 1-year deal. Why would they do that?

-The club was tight to the cap as it was. Where did you think the cap space was coming from for this new #1 D-man and still fill all the other holes obvious to Ken Holland and the fans?

-You also must anticipate Klefbom coming off LTIR at some point. Then you have BOTH of these guys on your payroll.

-Meanwhile, organizational depth on D that the franchise hasn’t seen in 30 years is on the way. You sign these guys? You block those guys (who are on ELC’s).


Story continues below

This advertisement has not loaded yet, but your article continues below.

Article content

So, what’s the more immediate solution? What would I do?

-Nurse and Bear are your best bet for a 1st pairing. But you can only go to the whip so often with them.

-Insert Slater Koekkoek into the lineup and leave him there. Koekkoek can probably be a 1st Unit PK man and soak up 2nd pairing minutes 5v5. And he makes you bigger without losing mobility. Pairing him with Larsson gives you a version of a shut-down pairing without all the weight resting on Larsson’s shoulders. Barrie can sub for him occasionally.

-Rotate Kris Russell 2-to-1 with Caleb Jones on the 3rd pairing LHS. Jones gets more sheltered minutes, the veteran Russell doesn’t burn out. Run Barrie on the RHS, and slide in Bouchard when Barrie subs in for Larsson.

Yes…I would indeed keep sending out Tyson Barrie. He has a long, successful resume as an elite-level puck mover and play maker. Barrie didn’t just “forget how”. At his age, he should have lots left in the tank. And if Barrie turns out like I think he ultimately will, you’ll want to re-sign him. I can’t see how time in the press box would make him want him to do that.

In some ways, this approach probably feels a bit like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But this is what it is. It’s “Oscar-by-Committee”. And we should never forget that this team, like most clubs missing their best guy, was never going to be quite as good without him.

Find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins

Recently, at The Cult…

LEAVINS: Oilers blow 3-1 lead, lose 6-4 to Jets 

STAPLES: Puljujarvi has the game of his life

McCURDY: Russell, Jones, Khaira get a shot


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here