Deep Dive: Potential OEL Trade

There has been A LOT of discussion about a potential trade that would see Oliver Ekman-Larsson become an Oiler. The acquisition cost for OEL is unknown at this point, although it is believed that Oscar Klefbom or Darnell Nurse would have to be included as a part of the package going to Arizona. The rumours have been causing quite the stir on Oilers Twitter lately because OEL is a shiny toy that has a 55-point season under his belt and that has been a legitimate number 1 defenceman for quite some time. However, OEL has not played up to his normal standard for the past few seasons, and he will carry an $8.25 million cap hit until the end of his 35-year old season.

My initial thoughts on the trade are that Holland needs to stay the hell away from 29-year old defenceman showing signs of a decline that is under contract at a big cap hit for another 7 seasons. I also believe that while neither Klefbom nor Nurse are true elite number 1 defencemen, the Oilers have two guys in the system that could become exactly that in Philip Broberg and Evan Bouchard. I don’t think that Holland should move either of Klefbom or Nurse until Broberg is ready to be in the NHL. Having Broberg and one of Klefbom or Nurse as the top two on the left side will provide the Oilers with great value until the end of Broberg’s ELC. I’d like to see the top spot be open to Broberg for the taking when the time is right, and I’d like it to happen without having a 30-something year old, $8.25 million 2LD.

However, if OEL can really make the Oilers that much of a better team today, then Holland has to consider it. I wanted to take a bit of time to break down just what the Oilers would get with OEL, Klefbom, and Nurse from a performance perspective and a salary cap/financial perspective.

It is really difficult to define a defenceman’s performance using numbers because so many stats that are available to us are fundamentally team stats. I’ve compiled individual stats for all three players that I feel are indicative of the different skills that are important for defencemen. Those stats are goals, assists, points, even strength points, penalty minutes, shots, and hits. OEL is significantly more experienced than the other two, so I’ve calculated the per game averages for each stat for each player for the duration of each of their careers. I’ve also included the +/- stat, even though it is a flawed stat. The results are in the table below:

Player G/G A/G P/G EVP/G PIM/G Shots/G Hits/G +/- per G
OEL 0.17 0.33 0.5 0.29 0.62 2.28 1.76 -0.13
Klefbom 0.09 0.32 0.41 0.26 0.2 2.35 0.67 -0.17
Nurse 0.08 0.26 0.35 0.3 0.84 2.19 2.19 -0.02

Each of the three players have their own unique skill sets. OEL leads the three in point production by a considerable margin, but that is due to powerplay production. OEL is the best of the three as a powerplay point producer. He could make the already potent Oilers powerplay even more potent. He ranks 2nd of the three in the non-point related stats: penalty minutes, shots, hits, and +/-.

The most remarkable thing about Klefbom is how few penalties that he takes. He blows OEL and Nurse out of the water by a significant margin in terms of how few penalties he takes. That is a sign of a great defender because guys take penalties as a result of getting beat, by being out of position, or by being undisciplined. None of those apply to Klefbom. He is consistently in good position and he uses his skates to defend. However, it must be noted that he has the worst +/- rate of the three. He also is the least physical of the three players in question here. The low amount of hits is more indicative of how he defends rather than how effective of a defender he is. That definitely plays a role in how few penalties that Klefbom takes. The other metric that Klefbom shines in is shots. This metric does not factor in the quality of the shots, but Klefbom is the highest volume shooter of these three players.

Nurse is by far the most physical in this group. There seems to be a direct relationship to hits and penalty minutes based on this small study because Nurse also has the highest penalty minute rate of the three. The really surprising thing about Nurse is that he actually has the highest even strength point scoring rate, although it is by a narrow margin over OEL. The other surprising thing about Nurse is that he is only -7 for his career, which spans 350 games. For context, Klefbom is at -64 over 378 games.

From a strictly performance-based perspective, it seems like the only reason to trade for OEL would be to make the powerplay better. If we look at last season alone, however, OEL only got 7 powerplay points. Compare that to Klefbom’s 18 powerplay points. The Oilers had the best powerplay in the league with Klefbom at the helm last season, and it operated at the second highest rate in the modern NHL era. OEL has had seasons of 20 and 27 powerplay points, but those were in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. Based on these stats, I don’t think the upgrade that OEL might provide on the powerplay would be all that much over what Klefbom provides at a fraction of the cost.

There has been some chatter that the idea behind acquiring OEL would be to lower Klefbom’s minutes. Klefbom led Oilers skaters with an average of 24:13 of ice time per game. He ranked 3rd among Oilers D in terms of even strength ice time per game behind Nurse and Ethan Bear. Klefbom was the featured powerplay point man on the first unit that hardly ever came off of the ice, so he averaged 3:37 of powerplay ice time per game. Given OEL’s powerplay production, the thought process here makes sense.

Meanwhile, Nurse had 1:07 of PP ice time per game, and Bear had 0:44 of PP ice time per game last season. Nurse got 5 PP points in 19 games while Klefbom was injured in the 2018-19 season, which equals 0.26 PP points per game with the top unit in a small sample size. Klefbom had 11 PP points in 61 games in that same season, good for 0.18 PP points per game. In 2019-20, Klefbom had 18 PP points in 62 games, good for 0.29 PP points per game. Nurse’s PP production on that top unit in a small sample was not much of a drop off from Klefbom’s last season, and it was superior to Klefbom’s during the season in which it happened. It isn’t unreasonable to give Nurse some of Klefbom’s PP time to lower Klefbom’s minutes.

Ethan Bear has not had any real amount of time on the top powerplay, but his passing ability and the fact that he is a right shot are tantalizing possibilities on the powerplay. As a righty, he wouldn’t have to pivot to pass the puck from the right side to the left side like Klefbom does, which is important because 97 and 29 run the PP on that right half wall. The right shot at the point receiving passes from 97 and 29 from the right half wall also creates a one-time opportunity, which the Oilers lack on the PP. Even giving half of Klefbom’s PP time to Bear would lower Klefbom’s minutes and give the Oilers PP another look for teams to have to defend against.

Considering that OEL’s PP production is the only real performance-based reason to add him and that there are two serviceable options to take some of Klefbom’s PP time already on the roster, along with Broberg and Bouchard coming, taking on OEL’s contract really doesn’t make sense.

Now for the salary cap/financial perspective. First off, let’s look at OEL’s contract. He is 29 years old, and he is under contract for 7 more seasons at an AAV of $8.25 million. Here is how the actual dollar value owed to OEL breaks down over the next 7 seasons as per CapFriendly:

2020-21: $4M
21-22: $10.5M
22-23: $5.25M (+$5.25M signing bonus)
23-24: $10.5M
24-25: $8M
25-26: $5.25M
26-27: $5.25M

For comparison’s sake, Klefbom has 3 years left at an AAV of $4,167,000. Here is the breakdown of the actual dollar value owed to Klefbom for the duration of his contract:

2020-21: $4.5M
21-22: $4.5M
22-23: $5,169,000

Nurse’s contract is much easier to dissect because the actual dollar value owed to Nurse is the same as the AAV of his new two-year contract, which is $5.6 million per season.

For the 2020-21 season, OEL is actually owed the least amount of money of the three. Trading OEL for either Klefbom or Nurse doesn’t make sense for the Coyotes if the goal is to cut operating costs for this coming season. Their moving OEL now is all about avoiding the three seasons after the 2020-21 season where they would have to pay him $10.5 million per season. They don’t have to move him now, but they could.

The Oilers would need to have an idea of what Klefbom and Nurse will command for their next contracts before deciding which one to trade for OEL. Both players will likely need raises, but neither player will ever get up to OEL’s AAV because they do not have 55-point seasons on their resumes like OEL does. Klefbom has been on a team friendly contract for a while now, and I imagine that he will want to turn the tables in his favour. He will be 30-years old at the time his next contract starts. I don’t see the Oilers giving him anything more than 5 years with a $6 million AAV, barring a big offensive campaign sometime in the next 3 seasons.

Nurse will be the more expensive of the two. He will be 27-years old when his next contract starts, which will be the first year that he will be eligible for unrestricted free agency. He will be coming off of two consecutive bridge contracts from the Oilers. I can only assume that he will want to take advantage of his opportunity to get paid. The rumours have suggested that he will command upwards of $7 million per season, and I imagine that he will seek a 7 or an 8-year term.

Klefbom has had his injury issues in the past, but he will continue to provide better value than Nurse going forward. I like Nurse’s combination of even strength scoring and physicality, but I like the value that Klefbom provides more. I’d move Nurse over Klefbom.

Either way, here’s why I don’t think the OEL contract is a good fit for the Oilers. The immediate $8.25 million cap hit will prohibit the Oilers from filling other holes on the roster. Adding that big of a contract will likely mean that the Oilers will have to walk away from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after next season. The Oilers are in a position where they need to add depth, not bleed depth like their counterparts in Toronto.

The Oilers will have a decision to make between Klefbom and Nurse at some point, and that point is coming soon. As I mentioned, Broberg is coming. He was arguably the best Oiler in the pre-playoff training camp in July, and he is off to a hot start in Sweden so far this season. Broberg would be a surprise addition to the 2020-21 Oilers, but his odds of being on the 2021-22 Oilers are quite high. I don’t see all three of Broberg, Klefbom, and Nurse being Oilers past Broberg’s ELC because Broberg will command a big pay day at that point, which is likely 3 or 4 years from now. Nurse would be the most likely to get traded because he is more expensive than Klefbom and his contract expires sooner. Holland can wait until the end of Nurse’s contract 2 years from now to move him, but he could also choose to do it sooner.

Let’s play this out assuming that Holland trades Nurse for OEL now. OEL would be the 1LD, and Klefbom would be the 2LD. Once Broberg comes in, he would be the 3LD. Soon enough, I would expect Broberg to surpass both of them to become the 1LD, moving OEL to 2LD and Klefbom to 3LD. The Oilers are not going to want to pay Klefbom to play 3LD at any point in this contract or the next one. Eventually, the Oilers would have to trade one of Klefbom or OEL to improve other positions on the team and to make room for someone else like Samorukov potentially.

My point is that Broberg is going to force the trade of one of the Oilers’ top 2 LD at some point, whether it be Klefbom, Nurse, or OEL. Who will be easier to trade: a 31-year old OEL at $8.25 million for 5 more years, or Darnell Nurse as an impending UFA? Which player would yield more in a trade? If OEL keeps declining, then the answer to both will be Nurse.

If OEL were superior to Klefbom and Nurse in every conceivable way, then I would say pull the trigger. That’s not the case though. The only area that he is better than both of them is powerplay production. The Oilers already had the best powerplay in the league with Klefbom last season, and it was running at a near-historic clip. How much better could OEL realistically make it? I think that trading for OEL would be irresponsible management given the value that Klefbom and Nurse provide, and given the fact that OEL’s performance and value will decline while his $8.25 million AAV will remain constant for another 7 years.

The Oilers are in an interesting spot because they now have 2 Art Ross, Ted Lindsay, and Hart Trophy winners on their roster, and both are under the age of 25. Those boys are ready to win, and they play in a success-starved and hockey-mad market. However, the Oilers need to also be aware that Connor and Leon will be around for a while and they need to build a team that will be a contender on an annual basis for the duration of their careers in Edmonton. The shiny toy, OEL in this case, might look fun; but acquiring his contract is really not the best move for the long-term success of the Oilers. It honestly doesn’t even really feel like a move that will result in short-term success for the Oilers. I have to use every Oilers fan’s favourite word here: patience. Keep Nurse and Klefbom until Broberg forces Holland’s hand because he is better than both of Edmonton’s current top 2 LD. Avoid acquiring the big contract now that will cause the team to bleed depth later.

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