Similar to the forward group, the Edmonton Oilers revamped their defense corps over the offseason. The surprising departure of assistant captain Adam Larsson forced general manager Ken Holland to pivot to other defense options. He brought in several new faces, including landing Cody Ceci in free agency, re-signing Slater Koekkoek and Tyson Barrie, and trading for three-time Stanley Cup Champion Duncan Keith. The blueline will play a large role in how the team will fare this season, especially after so much player movement and the uncertainty in the crease. The question now becomes where do all of these players fit in the organizational depth chart and lineup once the puck drops.
*Health is assumed when configuring lineup projections*
Oilers First Defense Pair
Darnell Nurse – Tyson Barrie
Two players who signed new contracts this offseason will make up the team’s top pair heading into the season, albeit Nurse’s deal will kick in at the start of the 2022-23 season. Nonetheless, the Oilers brought back the duo that was relied on last season as the team’s number one unit after re-signing Barrie on a three-year deal. The familiarity between the two should make for a seamless and easy transition into this season because of how well the two complement each other on the ice.
Barrie had a solid bounce-back year after signing a one-year prove-it contract after his failed stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and led all defensemen in the league with 48 points. Barrie also quarterbacked an already potent Oilers first power-play unit that operated at a league-best 27.59% success rate. Expect much of what we saw last year from Barrie this season since he is in a familiar environment after having already played a full season in Tippett’s system and teammates.
Nurse’s physicality and defense-first mentality allow Barrie to use his skating ability to move pucks out of the zone, and create plays off the rush while contributing offensively. Having an offensive player like Barrie as his partner should make life easier for Nurse since he doesn’t have to be relied upon as much to produce at both ends of the ice.
He may begin to feel some pressure to produce once his $9,250,000 extension kicks in, but nothing will change in terms of his usage and role on the team or his time on ice. He finished as the fifth-highest defenseman in the league in ice time, averaging 25:37 last season and will be a workhorse and leader on and off the ice yet again. This is an ideal situation for both players and the team heading into the 2021-22 season.
Oilers Second Defense Pair
Duncan Keith – Cody Ceci
This is a much more intriguing pair for the team heading into the start of the 2021-22 season since both Ceci and Keith are new additions. Both players come having the reputation of being defensive defensemen in the league at this stage of their careers and will form a pair that will be heavily relied upon to shut down opposing teams’ offenses. This duo will also have to play a big role in the team’s penalty kill and fill the shoes of the departed Larsson.
Although the Duncan Keith trade may still not sit well with some people, considering the return the Chicago Blackhawks got despite their minimal leverage in the situation, Keith brings a lot of intangibles to a very inexperienced Oilers group. His mentorship and guidance will be a great asset to the team in difficult situations and in the playoffs should the team make it there. His presence on the ice and in the locker room will be welcomed with lots of young blueliners in the organization ready to break into the league. A more limited role as a second-pair blueliner in Edmonton as opposed to his previous first-pair role in Chicago should bode well for the 38-year-old and allow him to stay fresh and effective over the course of the season.
Ceci is also a new face who finds himself back in a media-heavy Canadian NHL market. He is a player who flies under the radar most of the time, which is usually when he is playing his best hockey. Ceci will have to adjust to a new home in Edmonton over the offseason after signing a four-year deal in free agency, while also adjusting to yet another new defense partner. Similar to Keith, he will be relied on to fill part of the hole left by the vacated Adam Larsson, although he is not as physical and does not block as many shots. There may be an adjustment period for these newcomers through training camp and the course of the season. Nonetheless, both players are in prime positions to shoulder much of the defensive assignments on the backend this season.
Oilers Third Defense Pair
Slater Koekkoek – Evan Bouchard
This is the pair where things get a little bit interesting for the Oilers’ back end. This pair features a young defenseman awaiting his full-time chance at the NHL level and a veteran with 167 games of experience. The Oilers have taken their time developing their 2018 first overall selection, who has only seen 21 games of NHL action since the 2018-19 season. He has been able to prove himself at the minor league level but never received a full opportunity to carve out a full-time role for the Oilers just yet.
The Oilers were notorious for rushing prospects in the past and have brought Bouchard along much more carefully, but if they do not give him an NHL role this year, they risk overripening one of their top prospects. Getting NHL-caliber players on cheap or entry-level deals is necessary to compete in the salary cap era, and Bouchard looks poised to make the leap for good. While Barrie will still handle first powerplay unit reps, Bouchard should play sheltered minutes on the third pairing while getting some offensive looks on the second power play unit.
The Oilers have a few options for a partner with Bouchard, but ultimately, it looks like Slater Koekkoek’s job to lose. The former Blackhawk missed most of last season due to injury, as he played only 18 games with the Oilers, and was brought back on a very team-friendly contract. While Bouchard is more offensive-minded, Koekkoek provides a great compliment as a more hybrid two-way defenseman. This tandem should allow Bouchard to play more freely, while the Oilers should benefit from the versatility and reliability that Koekkoek provides.
He will be depended on in penalty kill situations, and has the upside to elevate himself in the lineup if other blueliners above him struggle. He will have more defensive responsibility on the third pair this year than he has had in the past but can be a good shot blocker and physical presence, which will be welcomed contributions for the Oilers. As mentioned before, the team will have to use a group effort to replace what was lost by Larsson, and between Koekkoek, Keith, and Ceci, they should be able to fit the bill.
Oilers Seventh Defenseman
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and the Oilers don’t expect anything different from Russell this season. He is the most likely option to be the team’s seventh defenseman as he enters the final year of his contract. The 34-year-old appeared in 35 games last season for the team and was a dependable stay-at-home defenseman.
Russell’s defensive game could make him a solid candidate to accompany young blueliner Evan Bouchard, but a more mobile Koekkoek will likely get the first opportunity. Russell is a reliable option to have to turn to if injuries occur, and his ability to play both sides of defense and familiarity with the team’s system will allow the coaching staff to shuffle pairings seamlessly if need be.
Oilers Defensive Depth Chart
William Lagesson – Filip Berglund
In terms of the options the Oilers have after their seventh defenseman, there are some intriguing ones that can fill the void. The first is a lesser-known name in Filip Berglund, who is a 24-year-old right-hand shot defenseman. He has yet to play professional hockey in North America since being drafted by the Oilers back in the third round in 2016. Berglund has played all of his career on loan with Skelleftea AIK in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), and has had a very strong showing for the Oilers in training camp. Although he was re-assigned to Bakersfield, he will still make his North American hockey debut this season. The Swede’s promising play and familiarity against playing against men overseas should allow him to make an easy transition and take on a significant role at the American Hockey League (AHL) or NHL level.
The second of the two is left-hand defenseman William Lagesson, who the team is familiar with from last season. He featured in 19 games for the Oilers in the 2020-21 season but expects to start the season with Bakersfield in the AHL. He is still only 25 years old, and because of his previous NHL experience, although it is limited, he is a strong candidate to be one of the first recalls from the minors if injuries hit the Oilers.
New Look Blue Line
Although the defense pairings aren’t set in stone as of yet, it is evident that the Oilers will be icing a very different look on defense. New faces will need to adjust to the new system, teammates, and living situation, while others will need to adjust to new roles and higher expectations. The team has made a strong attempt to rebuild its defense corps after losing some important pieces, and much of their success this season will rely on how they perform in their new roles.
I am a graduate of Seneca Colleges Civil Engineering Technology Program and have turned my obsession for sports into a lifestyle. I have been covering the Edmonton Oilers here on The Hockey Writers since 2019. I love fantasy sports, collecting sports memorabilia and listening to classic rock with a cold one or a coffee in my hand.