Yesterday I covered quarter-season grades for the forward corps of the Edmonton Oilers. With 21 games in the 2018-19 NHL season now behind the team, there’s plenty to say about the defense.
Considered an area of weakness for the organization coming into the season, Edmonton’s blueline is serviceable, potentially even average but not a group worthy of being one that much is expected of. Is there a playoff team somewhere in this blue line? The Oilers certainly won’t get to the postseason because of it, but they could be capable enough not to be the reason the Oilers miss time beyond the regular season.
Oscar Klefbom, A –
The closest thing Edmonton has to a bonafide No. 1 defenseman, Klefbom has rebounded from a poor season in 2017-18 to being a defender the Oilers can rely on for around 25 minutes per night. When he’s on the ice, the numbers for the team improve. When he’s not, they go down.
That’s not to say Klefbom is perfect, (he has no goals for a defender who gets all the prime power play time on the No. 1 unit). Still, he’s a first-ballot blueliner when the Oilers hit 3-on-3 overtime, he’s the best shot on the team, seems to be able to withstand the minutes he’s being asked to play and he makes those around him better.
Adam Larsson, B-
Larsson would be up near where Klefbom is if he were more offensive a player, but he’s steady on that first pair, he’s playing a ton of minutes and he’s rebounded nicely from a tough 2017-18 campaign in which he didn’t play as well but also missed a ton of time due to personal family issues.
For someone like Klefbom, who is supposed to be more offensive in nature, Larsson is a good fit as more of a stay-at-home type, but he’s also got to watch the number of penalties he takes. He’s taken more than any other d-man and it doesn’t help when the Oilers can’t kill off the minutes he’s sitting in the sin bin.
Darnell Nurse, C+
Nurse has settled into a second-pairing role on the team and is third on the team for minutes per game at 21:55. He’s not taken that step forward the Oilers are hoping he’ll take on offense and he’s bleeding some chances against when he’s on the ice against the team’s better players, but at the new contract he signed this summer, he’s not a bad deal with plenty of room to grow.
Part of the problem is that he’s not often playing with a regular partner as Benning and Russell get shifted onto an off of his pairing and that makes a difference.
Matt Benning, C
It could be interesting to see what happens with Matt Benning as Chris Wideman arrives in Edmonton. Benning is likely over-matched when asked to regularly play a second-pairing role, but he’s a touch too good for an exclusively third-pairing spot. The issue for him is that he’s not helping much on special teams.
He’s not giving you much and his numbers on the penalty kill are among some of the least impressive for defensemen on the team. Wideman, on the other hand, seems to excel in a lower role 5-on-5, but opportunity on the power play.
Kris Russell, B-
Russell takes a lot of heat in Edmonton, partially because of his paycheque, but he’s not hurting the Oilers defensively when he’s on the ice and he’s actually improving the numbers for his playing partners (especially Nurse). He quietly and consistently lands in the top of the league for blocked shots and he’s offering a little offense with a goal and five assists.
If he’s a third-pairing guy, he’s overpaid. If he’s a second-pairing guy he’s not.
Jason Garrison, C
Depending on how you view Garrison, he may hold more value than this grade suggests. If you see him as someone who should be contributing a lot on the ice, you might want to give him a worse grade because he’s got one point (a power-play goal) on the season and played in only 11 games. It becomes a fair question to ask, in that capacity, why Edmonton signed him.
But, if you’re looking at him as a player who isn’t killing you every night, doesn’t mind not always playing and can mentor younger blueliners while keeping prospects in the system who aren’t quite ready for the next step, Garrison deserves a higher grade. He’s not lightning fast, but he’s quicker than people said he’d be coming into the season.
Kevin Gravel, N/A
Gravel is technically here right now but with only seven games on his Oilers resume and less than 13 minutes per night, it’s tough to grade the player here. The grade should be given to the Oilers management team who signed him and haven’t really used him even though he’s a pretty good six/seven defenseman.
If I had to give an overall grade, the only shining light seems to be Klefbom with Larsson not far off. Otherwise, the defense is a C, at best.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”