The Oilers announced that Andrej Sekera had surgery to repair a torn achilles tendon yesterday, and that he will be out indefinitely. He sustained the injury while he was training for the upcoming season. This is a big blow for Sekera, who missed about half of last season because of a knee injury that he sustained in the playoffs in 2017.
My Googling revealed that it will take 4-6 months for Sekera to be able to resume full activity after this surgery. We don’t know the extent to which the tendon was torn, which means that we don’t know how quickly he is likely to recover. Valentine’s Day will mark the 6 month mark from the day of Sekera’s surgery. He could presumably be back in time for the stretch drive, but the team will be short-handed without him in the lineup for such a long time. The absence of a healthy Sekera was felt in a big way last year.
Peter Chiarelli is faced with the same situation with Sekera once again this year. He knows that Sekrera will be out for the majority of the season. Last year, fans were critical that Chiarelli did not solve the problem by adding another veteran defender to replace Sekera despite having more than enough cap space to do so. Instead, Chiarelli made bets on the young defencemen that were in place already. He projected significant growth from players like Darnell Nurse and Matthew Benning. He wanted to give them an opportunity.
The scenario didn’t unfold as Chiarelli had planned. In April, Chiarelli was asked if he would handle the Sekera situation differently if he could do it again. His response: “Maybe if I had to that over, I would.” He admitted that he over-projected how good the existing group would be. Nurse had a nice season where he did show some development. Benning started off slowly, but he got better only after the Oilers were out of playoff contention. The fact that Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson had tough seasons as well didn’t help matters any.
The depth of the Oilers defence was tested last year, and it proved to be insufficient. The fact that Chiarelli was asked if he would handle the situation differently if he could do it again is interesting now because he has been presented with the same situation again.
The defence group has remained essentially unchanged from last season. The team lost Yohann Auvitu to the KHL, and Eric Gryba was bought out. The signing of Kevin Gravel offsets the loss of one of the two defencemen, but he hasn’t proven that he can be a full-time NHL defenceman for an 82-game season yet. Once Nurse signs, there will only be 5 proven NHL defencemen in the line-up.
After the way that last season went down, it seems like Chiarelli has no choice but to add another veteran defenceman to the roster before the season starts. Then again, things aren’t always as they seem.
This season is different because of two young right-handed defence prospects: Evan Bouchard and Ethan Bear.
Bouchard has proven that he can dominate at the CHL level after scoring 87 points last year. His early birthday means that he already has 3 CHL seasons under his belt, which puts him ahead of other prospects in terms of his development. Drew Doughty played 3 years of junior and then went straight to the NHL. Kris Letang also only played 3 years of junior before turning pro. Alex Pietrangelo played only 25 games in the OHL after being drafted. He’s been in the NHL ever since. Ivan Provorov only played 2 years of CHL hockey before making the Flyers. All I’m saying is it isn’t unreasonable to think that Bouchard could step in and play in the NHL right away. Some people thought that Bouchard would make the team on opening night before the Sekera injury.
However, I watched one of his games in the World Jr Showcase from Kelowna a couple of weeks ago, and he was not good defensively. He got burned by players with speed on the outside on multiple occasions, and he had a few terrible giveaways in his own zone. Coach Tim Hunter said that he would like to see Bouchard be more physical. You can’t judge a player on one game in July, but there were people that suggested that perhaps the Oilers should’ve drafted Noah Dobson instead because of Bouchard’s defensive shortcomings. You could also argue that he should go back to junior to sharpen his defensive game before coming to the NHL.
By now, we’re all familiar with how good Bear was at the end of last season. He didn’t look out of place in his 18 games with the Oilers. However, it was clear that he needs to work on the defensive side of his game. He has only played 37 games in the AHL. He could benefit from more time in the AHL before playing in the NHL full-time.
Both players offer a skill set that the Oilers really need on their roster: a right-handed puck moving defenceman. The Sekera injury has busted the door wide open for one of them to make the Oilers this season. There will be a lot of temptation to rush one of these two kids into the lineup right away based on the skill that they have. They could also provide Chiarelli will a true balance of lefties and righties on the blue line, which is something that he favours. Klefbom, Nurse, and Russell could play on the left; and Larsson, Benning, and one of Bouchard or Bear could play on the right.
Both players also come with a certain amount of risk. If either one gets rushed into the lineup and they underperform, then the optics would be brutal… especially in this market. Fans have criticized the Oilers for rushing too many young players into the lineup too soon during the team’s lengthy streak of futility. Another mis-step with a young player could cost Chiarelli his job in what is expected to be a pressure-packed season for the Oilers GM.
I’m going to be VERY interested to see how Chiarelli will handle this situation this summer. Will he stay true to his word and show that he learned from his mistake last year by adding a veteran defenceman via free agency or a PTO? Or will he roll the dice on the kids once again this season?
It’s your move, Peter.