Oilers Options to Replace Sekera on Defense

It’s a quiet mid-August afternoon for most clubs around the NHL, but the Edmonton Oilers and their fanbase caught a bad break. The club announced that defenseman Andrej Sekera will be out indefinitely after an off-season training injury that resulted in a torn Achilles tendon. The 32-year-old is coming off a 2017-18 season in which he missed 51 games due to a torn ACL. Here’s the press release from the Oilers website:

“Oilers defenceman Andrej Sekera will be sidelined indefinitely following an off-season injury, undergoing successful surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn achilles tendon. Sekera, 32, posted eight points in 36 games on the blue-line for the Oilers during an injury-shortened season in 2017-18 before posting a goal and two assists in seven games with Slovakia at this year’s IIHF World Championships in Denmark.”

When Sekera rejoined Edmonton in late-December last season and averaged 16:20 in ice-time through 36 games. It was a significant drop from the 21:29 he averaged in 2016-17 which took him from second-most utilized, to one of the least used blueliners in the club. So now general manager Peter Chiarelli is heading back to the drawing board. It would be wise of him not to repeat the same mistake he made last summer when he failed to address the Sekera void with a significant addition.

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Oilers Must Address Sekera Void This Time

Last summer the club was linked to guys cost-effective players like Cody Franson and Jan Rutta. Both signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. Franson split time between the NHL and AHL, while Rutta looked like a great signing. Neither were world-beaters, but maybe Rutta, more so than a struggling Franson who’s evidently on his last legs (no pun intended) in the league, would’ve helped shore up the Oilers blueline last season.

Related: The Oilers & Who’s Jan Rutta?

With the season fast approaching, what will the Oilers do to address the Sekera void this time? Before the injury, Edmonton’s defense looked quite robust on the left side with Klefbom, Sekera, and Darnell Nurse being rolled out in three different pairings. Internally there are a few options to take his place by one move or another which might result in Kris Russell sliding back over to the left side on the third-pairing.

Projecting Oilers 5v5 Defense Pairings Before Sekera Injury

Left Defense

Right Defense

Oscar Klefbom

Adam Larsson
Andrej Sekera

Kris Russell

Darnell Nurse

Matt Benning
Kevin Gravel*

Evan Bouchard*

There are also some less favorable options if you keep Russell on the right side playing that No. 4-5 role he did last season. The Oilers expected too much from Russell early last year, and he was exposed. He’s a better fit for the club in a No. 5 role, with the odd pinch hit as a No. 4.

Most patients who suffer an injury similar to Sekera are off their feet for six weeks. It’s after six weeks that most patients can be placed into a cast or walking boot, and a “full recovery” takes around six months. How much of a “full recovery” can you make from a torn Achilles and a torn ACL in back-to-back years? That remains to be seen. The timetable places Sekera out of Edmonton’s lineup until mid-February.

He’d be missing (approximately) the first 55 games of the 2018-19 season. So what does the club do?

Internal Left Defense Options for Oilers

Kevin Gravel (LD) – Edmonton signed the 26-year-old to a one-year deal worth $700,000 to compete for the club’s No. 7 job. He played just 14:02 last season over 14 games, had three points and got into one playoff game for the Los Angeles Kings. Gravel himself is coming off some injury issues having gone through Crohn’s Disease that caused him to lose 40 plus pounds at one point. Now healthy, Gravel can compete for a No. 6 job, but he’s far from a full-time replacement for Sekera.

Keegan Lowe (LD) – This is a move that would likely get a collective groan from some fans, but believe it or not, Lowe was one of the Bakersfield Condors’ best all-around defenders in 2017-18. He logged a ton of minutes, played on the penalty kill, and was tasked with tough shutdown minutes against the opposition’s best lines. The 25-year-old got into two games with the Oilers last season and logged 13:54 in ice-time. He’s an option but was expected to compete for the No. 7 job with Gravel.

Oilers defensemen Andrej Sekera
Who replaces Andrej Sekera? (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY)

Caleb Jones (LD) – Jones has one year of pro hockey under his belt after playing a top-four role in Bakersfield last season. He got better as the year went on, and put up 17 points in an injury-shortened 52 game season. A healthy Jones should take a natural progression in his overall two-way style that will be on display with the Condors. His game isn’t at the level that you’d expect him to compete for a legitimate shot to start the year with the Oilers.

Related: William Lagesson Ready for North America

William Lagesson (LD) – Where one of Gravel or Lowe might be successful as a No. 7 for the Oilers, one player that might be able to slide into Edmonton’s lineup in that third-pairing on the left side might be Lagesson. He’s coming off an incredible year with Djurgardens in Sweden that saw him play a No. 2 role while playing 19:27 in ice-time through 49 games.

He’s got a throwback take-no-prisoners style that reminds you of former Oilers captain Jason Smith. Having Lagesson focus on being a true shutdown defender in the third-pair would allow the Oilers to increase the offensive responsibilities for Klefbom, Nurse, and Matt Benning on the power play (PP).

Internal Right Defense Options for Oilers

Ethan Bear (RD) – Adding Bear to start the year with the club might help the team replace some of that offense that was expected in a bounceback year from Sekera. No Oilers defenseman, aside from Klefbom, averaged more time on the PP last year than Bear during his 18-game audition with the team last year.

Related: Ethan Bear & Other Oilers Thoughts

Offensive upside aside, Bear was a disaster defensively and had to have his zone starts and minutes heavily sheltered by the coaching staff. Another year in the AHL might do him wonders to hone his overall game. He’s a nice re-call for a few games, but not a solution through 55 games at this point.

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Joel Persson (RD) – When the Oilers signed Persson from the SHL in May, they did so with the notion that he’d be loaned to the Vaxjo Lakers for the 2018-19 season. Edmonton does have re-call rights and the ability to transplant him to North America should they choose. Maybe Chiarelli comes calling saying his services are required in Edmonton this season instead of Vaxjo.

Related: Oilers Joel Persson & Where He Fits

He’s a dynamic offensive defenseman who could step into the lineup and quarterback the second PP unit. Persson put up an astonishing 34 points in 54 games on a stacked Vaxjo team that won a league championship last season. As mentioned above, any of these internal right defense options would require someone to shift over to the left side (likely Russell).

Oilers Being Forced to “Rush” Evan Bouchard?

Looking at the internal depth chart and what’s likely, suddenly pre-season and camp have become very interesting on the backend. Before the Sekera injury, the defense was practically set on paper with Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, Benning, Sekera, and Russell getting top-six minutes, while Gravel and Lowe competed for the No. 7. Evan Bouchard was pegged to get a long look in camp that might’ve led to a nine-game audition.

Related: Edmonton Oilers Top 10 Prospects

Now with the injury to Sekera, you’re suddenly looking at the field opening up and having Gravel, Lowe, Jones, Lagesson, Bear, Persson, and Bouchard competing for minutes. It’ll be interesting what happens in camp internally. It now looks like the inevitable might happen; Chiarelli and the Oilers are being forced to potentially rush an 18-year-old Bouchard into the NHL based off necessity.

Evan Bouchard Oilers
Oilers forced to rush Evan Bouchard? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It’s not the best move from a developmental standpoint when you were looking to have Bouchard have his nine-game cup of coffee, then go back to a stacked London Knights squad in the OHL, compete in a staring role for Canada at the upcoming World Juniors, make a deep playoff run, and maybe a short stint with the Condors to end the year. The Sekera injury just injected the Oilers with a dose of reality, and that means the simple plan that was etched out for Bouchard might be scrapped.

Whether by hell or high water, Chiarelli’s predictable fashion as a GM and his history with the club shows he might stand pat. On one side of the coin, Bouchard was likely going to get a nine-game audition anyways, on the other side, if he plays more than nine outings, Chiarelli burns a year off his entry-level contract (ELC). On a positive note, of all the puck-movers in the system, Bouchard has the highest offensive upside and could be used on the PP.

London Knights, Evan Bouchard, OHL
Evan Bouchard (Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Is it the worst thing in the world to protect his zone starts with leniency towards the offensive zone and PP? Probably not, but you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul in a sense because you’re creating a hole amongst the veterans and tasking the group of Klefbom, Larsson, Nurse, and Russell to take on those penalty kill minutes. There’s no break for Klefbom and Nurse who will also be tasked with PP time.

So for this Bouchard plan to work, Klefbom and Nurse have to be the club’s top two defensemen next season. They’ll also need Larsson and Russell to step up big time defensively as this club looks to improve their special teams in both aspects in hopes of shoring up something that was an absolute disaster in 2017-18.

Trade, Free Agency & PTO Options

It’d probably be wiser for the club to go with more of a sure thing than to gamble on Bouchard throughout the potential 55 game absence by Sekera. Then again you genuinely don’t know what you have until you see what happens. That’s why the most likely thing that happens is that the Oilers will try their hand with the current group plus Bouchard to start the year. Expect them to shelter him and hope he fairs better than Bear did late last season.

Projecting Oilers 5v5 Defense Pairings With Sekera’s Injury

Left Defense

Right Defense

Oscar Klefbom

Adam Larsson
Darnell Nurse

Matt Benning

Kris Russell

Evan Bouchard
x – Kevin Gravel

x – Keegan Lowe

The best internal options for the Oilers might be amongst the trio of Bouchard, Persson, and Lagesson to step right into the NHL, with the rest of them starting the year in Bakersfield. Externally you’re looking into the same Justin Faulk trade with the Carolina Hurricanes that has been talked about at nauseam for the past two seasons. Faulk, 26, comes with a $4.83 cap hit and is currently penciled in on the Hurricanes third-pairing.

Related: Edmonton Oilers Salary Cap Information

Maybe Edmonton’s cap relief from moving Sekera onto long-term injured reserve (LTIR) creates an opportunity for this trade to finally take place. Tyson Barrie has been linked to the club for quite some time as well. How about Colton Parayko again? The problem is that once Sekera is back (if he comes back), the Oilers are in a salary cap crunch and someone will have to go. Think Sekera has much value playing on one leg at half the abilities he had before? Didn’t think so.

Justin Faulk Hurricanes
Justin Faulk (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

You’re back to looking at economical additions for this club which means free agency and professional tryout offers (PTO). Tobias Enstrom, Paul Martin, and Jason Garrison are three notables that are still available. Alexei Emelin and Luca Sbisa might draw some interest. Emelin was within the top ten defensemen in the Western Conference for hits last season.

Related: Five Players Worth an Oilers PTO

Sbisa had a surprising offensive year for the Vegas Golden Knights that would’ve led the Oilers in scoring amongst defense. Maybe the Oilers once again go down the Brandon Davidson path and bring him back to the club on a one-year deal or PTO. Either way, it’s slim pickings at this point. So out of necessity the most likely scenario (to the chagrin of some) is the Oilers starting the year with Bouchard in the lineup.