Defence Conundrum

It appears that the Oilers have a conundrum on their hands this summer. The Oilers allowed 274 goals this season, which was 25th in the league. Coincidentally, that was exactly where they finished in the standings. There were several factors that went in to that stat, with inconsistent goaltending and injuries to Sekera, Klefbom, and Russell being the main ones. Koskinen is going to be the starter next season, but the team still needs to decide on a back-up. I’ll dive deeper into that search in a different article soon, but today I want to focus on the conundrum that the Oilers are facing with their defence this summer.

The same 6 defencemen that suited up at the end of the season are the same 6 that are under contract for next season as well. Here is how that group looks:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Russell
Sekera – Benning

The defence is good, but it could definitely be improved. There are two guys in their mid-20s that are both capable of getting 35+ points per season. This is the same group of 6 that the Oilers got within a game of the Western Conference Finals with two years ago; but this group struggles with offensive production, mobility, quick puck movement, consistency, and health.

The team wasn’t good enough last season, and the pressure is on from the fans and from people inside the organization to improve now. The problem is that they have 6 proven NHL defencemen under contract. If the group stays the same, then the group won’t improve.

In an ideal world, the Oilers would look to add a right-handed offensive defenceman. The problem with that is that those are expensive to acquire, and they carry high cap hits. The Oilers don’t have a lot of cap space to work with, so adding this type of player would be a challenge.

They also have prospects Joel Persson, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, and William Lagesson that could all legitimately compete for roster spots in September. Evan Bouchard could even possibly emerge as a surprise out of camp. The problem with that is even if any of these kids make the roster, we have no guarantee that the defence would be better after replacing veterans with these rookies.

If the defence stays the same, then all of these prospects would be in the AHL (unless the team decides to keep one as a 7D). Brandon Manning is also buried in the AHL. Bakersfield also has Keegan Lowe signed through next season. They could choose to re-sign any of Logan Day, Ryan Stanton, or Jake Kulevich as well. They will also have Dmitri Samorukov joining them next season. If Bakersfield doesn’t re-sign any of their impending UFA defencemen and no prospects make the Oilers roster, they could have as many as 8 defencemen that would need regular ice time next season.

Therein lies the conundrum. How can the Oilers improve their defence with their top 6 under contract, their cap issues, and their overflowing prospect pool?

If one new player enters the top 6, then a player that is currently in the top 6 would need to be moved out of the top 6. I know that’s a tough concept, but please try to keep up with me here! Let’s look at the options:

Moving Matt Benning:

Moving on from a young right-handed defenceman before his prime is something that isn’t unfamiliar to Oilers fans (Petry and Schultz are recent examples). However, Petry didn’t find his stride offensively until the age of 29, and Schultz benefited from being placed in a proper role in Pittsburgh. Benning is not of the same quality as those two players in my estimation. The Oilers could replace him with one of their rookies and save some money against the cap. The most likely potential right-handed rookies to be are Joel Persson and Ethan Bear. Persson might have a slight edge over Bear because of his age and the fact that the Oilers only signed him for one season to see what they have in him. Here’s how the defence would look after that move:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Russell
Sekera – Persson

The top 4 would stay the same, but that 3rd pair would really be able to move the puck quickly. 15 minutes per night might see a slight improvement in this scenario. This would essentially be a lateral move, but the cap savings would be the biggest reason to take this approach.

Moving Andrej Sekera:

Moving a defenceman that has endured two major injuries in the last two years that will be 33 next season might be a difficult task. That task would be made even more difficult because of the fact that his cap hit $5.5 million. The good news is that his NMC will be modified to allow for a trade after July 1; but he will still ultimately control where he plays. I do have some optimism that a team might be willing to take Sekera on if he can continue his solid play during the upcoming World Hockey Championships, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for a move here. The move would get rid of his $5.5 million contract and allow a rookie to get an opportunity, but his veteran presence and poise with the puck would be missed. Caleb Jones and William Lagesson would be the left-handed rookies that could fill Sekera’s roster spot. Jones would likely have the inside track on that spot based on his 17-game stint with the Oilers from this past season. Jones has played mostly on the right side in Bakersfield this season, but Trent Yawney had him playing on the left side while he was with the Oilers. Here’s what the group would look like after that move:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Russell
Jones – Benning

Once again, this move would add a bit more mobility to the bottom pairing and it would create some cap space. The cap space could certainly help improve the roster in other areas. However, this move also wouldn’t improve the defence group by all that much, if by any at all.

The other option that would be possible if the Oilers were to trade Sekera would be moving Russell back to his natural side. Here’s what the defence would look like in that scenario:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – ______
Russell – Benning

This makes for a good segue into the next possibility…

Moving Kris Russell:

This is where the possibilities start to get interesting. Russell is the 2RD at the moment. If Russell vacates that position (whether it be via trade or by taking Sekera’s vacated spot at 3LD), then the Oilers would need to find a suitable replacement to play the right side on the 2nd pairing. Sekera is not that guy. Benning is not that guy. None of the potential rookies are that guy right now. This capable 2RD would have to come from outside of the organization.

The UFA market for right-handed defencemen is pretty weak this season, aside from Erik Karlsson. Karlsson would be the best one available; but he will be too expensive, he is likely to re-sign in SJ, and he has expressed that he does not want to play here in the past. Besides him, Tyler Myers and Anton Stralman are the best right-handed UFA defencemen available this summer. Myers is tall and lanky. He moves decently well for a man of his size, but I feel like a team is going to over-pay for him and regret it. He might even re-sign in Winnipeg if they decide to trade Jacob Trouba. Stralman’s play has declined in the last couple of seasons. That could mean that the soon to be 33-year old could be had on a reasonable short-term contract. He could be a useful stop gap for the time being until Bouchard is ready, but so is Russell. I’m not certain that Stralman is an upgrade on Russell at this point. The Oilers might be better off exploring the trade market.

There was a recent report that suggested that Trouba might have played his last game as a Jet. Some folks on Twitter mentioned to me that he wants to play in an American market, but his name is out there. I think the Oilers should make Winnipeg an offer, but that trade seems unlikely. Looking ahead to the summer of 2020, the UFA market for right-handed defencemen will be much more appealing at that time. Alex Pietrangelo, Justin Schultz, Tyson Barrie, Mike Green, Jared Spurgeon, Zach Bogosian, Justin Faulk, and Chris Tanev will all be UFAs after next season. It is not uncommon to see players with one year left on their contracts get traded. I don’t envision Pietrangelo, Barrie, or Tanev being moved by their respective teams this summer. I don’t like the idea of investing assets in Schultz, Green, or Bogosian for varying reasons (been there and done that, age, and over-rated). That leaves Faulk and Spurgeon as the two players from this list that would be the most likely players to be targeted by the Oilers this summer.

I’ll dive deeper into this topic in an article in May, but I believe that Spurgeon would be the player to target because Minnesota GM Paul Fenton has not been shy about making major changes since he was hired, and the Wild already have Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba as RHD that are signed long-term. Spurgeon has a modified NTC, but he can only choose 10 teams to not accept a trade to.

Here’s what the defence would look like if Russell were to be moved out and Spurgeon were to be brought in:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse – Spurgeon
Sekera – Benning

If Sekera were to be traded instead of Russell, then Russell would be the 3LD instead of Sekera in this scenario. This is the first scenario that represents a significant upgrade to the defence. Spurgeon could even play on the top pairing with Klefbom, which would put Larsson in the 2nd pairing. The acquisition cost of Spurgeon would likely be Bear and a pick or a similar package in my estimation, but the upgrade might be worth it.

Moving Larsson:

I think there would be some reservations about moving Larsson because he was the return for Taylor Hall. He is the top right-handed defenceman on the team right now, so I don’t see this as being a legitimate option this summer; but here’s what the situation would look like if Larsson were to be traded:

Klefbom – ______
Nurse – Russell
Sekera – Benning

Russell is not a top pairing defenceman. If there isn’t a replacement for Russell as a 2RD in the organization right now, then there surely is not a suitable replacement for Larsson on the top pair in the organization right now. Bouchard will be there in 2-3 years in my opinion, but he’s not there yet. Once again, the replacement would have to come from outside of the organization. Let’s pretend Spurgeon is the guy here once again. Here’s what it would look like:

Klefbom – Spurgeon
Nurse – Russell
Sekera – Benning

That isn’t a bad looking group, but I would prefer to have Larsson in my top 4 over Russell. The argument for moving Larsson would be that he would yield a bigger return than Russell would. That’s a dangerous game to play from an asset management perspective after the Hall trade though.

Moving one of Klefbom or Nurse for a forward:

I’m merely throwing this scenario out there as an option because either one of Klefbom or Nurse would yield an enticing forward. I think there are other ways to get the scoring help that the Oilers need, but let’s play this scenario out anyway. I would trade Klefbom over Nurse because of how injury prone he is, so here is what the defence would look like if Klefbom were to be traded:

Nurse – Larsson
Russell – ______
Sekera – Benning

OR

Nurse – Larsson
______ – Russell
Sekera – Benning

OR

Nurse – Larsson
Sekera – Russell
Jones – Benning

The point of this is to improve the defence, not to make it worse. We all saw how bad the Oilers were without Klefbom last season. The Oilers also can’t afford to lose a 40-point defenceman like Nurse. We also have no assurance that Sekera can play in the top 4 at this point. He performed reasonably well on the 3rd pairing this past season, but he was sheltered from elite competition and he had limited minutes. If Sekera isn’t the replacement in the top 4, then the Oilers would have to trade for a top 4 defenceman, which would be a tough task after moving one out. There will likely be some level of temptation to use one of them to acquire a scoring forward this summer, but this would be a huge mistake in my opinion.

Going Crazy:

The Oilers could do themselves a lot of favours by improving the defence AND graduating some rookies from the AHL to the big club next fall. They could achieve both goals by moving more than one of the current top 6 defencemen. They could trade Benning and replace him with Persson, they could trade Sekera and replace him with Jones, and they could trade Russell and then go out and get Spurgeon. That would mean that 3 defencemen would get moved out, 2 young players would get opportunities on the 3rd pairing, and the top 4 would get a needed boost of offence. Here’s what the group would look like:

Klefbom – Larsson
Nurse- Spurgeon
JonesPersson

This group would be far more mobile, and Spurgeon would add another threat from the blue line that can play on the powerplay. The other benefit of this group over the current group is that it would be just shy of $4.5 million less of a cap hit. The only downfall that I could see is that the bottom pairing would feature two rookies. I think that Jones and Persson would be two solid rookies, but it would be a risk to slot them in together on the 3rd pairing.

There are certainly a lot of options for the new GM. I think that it is important to look further ahead than just to next season when deciding what to do with this conundrum. The contracts of Larsson, Sekera, and Russell will all expire after two more seasons. The question that the new GM needs to ask is what should the defence look like 3 seasons from now?

Klefbom is signed for 4 more years. Nurse’s contract only has 1 year left, but I can’t see the Oilers not signing him to a long-term deal. Evan Bouchard will likely be in the top 4 by the time 2 more seasons go by. He is definitely going to be a part of the core going forward. That’s 3 of the top 4. How will they fill out the rest of the group?

I can’t imagine the Oilers bringing Sekera back when they have lefties Jones, Lagesson, and Samorukov in the system. I can’t imagine the Oilers bringing Russell back either with Larsson being 5 years younger than him. Larsson could be a candidate to be in the top 4 for the long-term. However, we know that Larsson isn’t perfect. Let’s say that the Oilers were to move Russell and bring in Spurgeon or someone of a similar ilk this summer. The Oilers would then have a decision to make next summer: commit to Spurgeon long-term and look at moving Larsson next summer or risk losing him in free agency in 2021, or let Spurgeon walk after one year and commit to Larsson long-term. Signing both Spurgeon and Larsson long-term would be difficult, especially with Nugent-Hopkins needing a raise in 2021 and Bouchard’s inevitable raise coming shortly thereafter.

The other factor in all of this is the Seattle Expansion draft that is set for 2021; the same summer that the contracts of Larsson, Russell, and Sekera are set to expire. The rules for this expansion draft will be the same as they were for the Vegas expansion draft in 2017. Each team will be able to protect either 7 forwards, 3 defencemen, and 1 goaltender; or 4 forwards, 4 defencemen, and 1 goaltender. 1st and 2nd year NHL players will automatically be protected without having to use one of the allotted spots. Each team has to expose one defenceman and two forwards that are under contract through 2021-22 and that have either played in at least 40 games in the previous NHL season or at least 70 games in the previous two seasons.

Klefbom is the only defenceman signed through 2021-22 right now. He will definitely be protected. I can’t see Nurse not being signed through 2021-22 and being protected. That would leave one more defencman to be protected most likely. That could be Larsson. If that were to be the case, then the Oilers would need to ensure that at least one more defenceman that fits the criteria for exposure would be available. Since 1st and 2nd year NHL players are exempt from the expansion draft, players like Bouchard, Jones, Persson, and Lagesson will be exempt. They could bring in someone like Spurgeon either this summer or next summer and extend him, sign Larsson to an extension, and expose one of the two of them. It could mean re-signing two of Larsson, Sekera, and Russell and then exposing one of them. It could also mean signing Benning to an extension after next season and exposing him in the expansion draft. With all of that being said, the expansion draft is a bridge that can be crossed at a later date. It is something to think about this summer, but there are still a lot of variables that could change between now and 2021.

For the 2021-22 season, I want the top 4 to include Klefbom, Nurse, Bouchard, and one of Larsson or a 2020 UFA RD (Spurgeon potentially). The Oilers could probably maintain the status quo and wait until after next season to sign one of the UFA defencemen so that they save their assets; but there is no guarantee that any of those UFAs won’t re-sign with their current teams between now and next summer. If the option of acquiring one of those defencemen via trade is available to them this summer, then they need to do it because that would be the only way to significantly upgrade the defence this summer. If that happens, then I would expect Russell or Sekera to get moved out. I would expect it to be Russell before it would be Sekera because Sekera would be more difficult to move.

There is honestly merit in most of the scenarios that I mentioned above. Moving Klefbom, Nurse, or Larsson would be the ones with the least amount of merit in my opinion. Moving Russell only makes sense if there is a trade for a player like Spurgeon out there. Moving Sekera would create so much cap space, and it would allow Jones to crack the team; but subtracting an experienced puck mover from this group may not be a sound decision. Moving Benning out to make room for an unproven commodity is risky business, but it would open up some cap space. There’s even merit in just staying the course for one more season until there is more clarity in the prospect pool and the 2020 UFA season rolls around.
Whatever happens, I just want to see some improvement from the team next season so I can be a fan instead of writing articles about the off-season next April!

Next week, I’ll take a look at how the Oilers can create cap space without moving the immovable contracts.

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