4 Oilers Defensive Questions That Must Be Answered Before 2022-23

The Edmonton Oilers’ defence has become a bit clearer heading into the 2022-23 season, but there are still a lot of questions to be answered before it takes shape. Duncan Keith recently announced his retirement, and Brett Kulak remains unsigned despite the interest from the Oilers. As for Tyson Barrie, there is still a strong possibility he gets traded, while there’s the question of where Philip Broberg will play. All of this will be discussed and answered below.

Keith Retirement Opens Up Big Hole on Left Side

Keith was paid $5.538 million last season and had one more year on his deal. He actually helped the Oilers out a lot by retiring since he wasn’t worth the money he signed for 13 years ago. Even though he helped Evan Bouchard and added experience and leadership to the room, the cap space was needed elsewhere, and Kulak, who earned much less money, was more effective.

Now, there is a hole on the left side alongside Bouchard that must be addressed before next season. There are high-end trade targets around the league, including Travis Sanheim of the Philadelphia Flyers, MacKenzie Weegar of the Florida Panthers, and Jakob Chychrun of the Arizona Coyotes, but those will cost the Oilers assets. However, they are all very strong options and would fit very well on the second pairing with Bouchard/Cody Ceci, and they are also on short-term deals to give Broberg that extra little time to adjust to the NHL.

Can the Oilers Re-Sign Kulak?

It appears that Kulak was torn between two destinations, the Oilers and returning to the Montreal Canadiens. With the recent moves they made, the Canadiens’ rebuild won’t last as long as most thought. The team also just moved out Alexander Romanov, and Jeff Petry is still likely on the move, so an increased role is available on the team he enjoyed playing for.

Brett Kulak Edmonton Oilers
Brett Kulak, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

However, the Oilers should be able to offer Kulak a larger role next season on a team that is ready to win, and his decision will likely depend on whether he wants a strong chance to win now or return to the organization that signed him to his current deal. His decision will impact whether the Oilers need to go out and get another defender for the left side who excels in the defensively to play either the second or third pairing. As for the following season and on, Kulak will likely be a third-pairing defenceman.

How Soon Do the Oilers Trade Barrie & for What Return?

Despite Keith’s retirement, the Oilers still have three top-four right-shot defencemen in their lineup. Ceci is paid at a very fair price for the minutes and role he plays, while Bouchard is still on his entry-level contract and isn’t going anywhere for a long time.

The Oilers have already cleared up a good amount of space, but more room would help them add an actual third-pairing defenceman who can play a bigger role in defending the Oilers’ net. They will be able to gain assets by trading Barrie and replenishing what it cost to acquire players at the deadline and to move Zack Kassian. They don’t have to acquire a player necessarily, as a couple of draft picks will do just fine. Ranked fairly high on Frank Seravalli’s Trade Targets List, Barrie will have teams interested.

Related: Oilers Have the Perfect Trade Partner in the Hurricanes for Barrie

After Bouchard passed Barrie on the depth chart pretty early in the season and also took some time away from him on the power play, Bouchard is more than capable of doing so full-time, especially since Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl run the top power-play unit anyway. The Oilers don’t have much in their system to fill that right-side hole, but there are a couple of big defencemen they can target in free agency at a much cheaper price and can play those tough minutes.

Where Does Broberg Slot Into the Lineup?

There isn’t much of a question about whether Broberg will be with the Oilers next season. He’s shown improvement in the SHL (Swedish Hockey League) and AHL (American Hockey League) the last few seasons and got a trial run with the Oilers when the injuries piled up in 2021-22 (from “Lowetide: Are Oilers prospects Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway NHL-ready?”The Athletic, 6/20/22).

With Keith’s spot open on the left side, that’s a possibility, but he can also shift over and play the right side if the Oilers move on from Barrie. He would be able to ease his way into the NHL easier on the right side since he’d be playing bottom-pairing minutes against easier competition rather than playing on the second pairing on the left – or at least splitting time if Kulak comes back.

Philip Broberg Oilers Draft
Philip Broberg, Edmonton Oilers, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

With just 23 games of NHL experience, Broberg has played over 21 minutes in three games but also played less than eight minutes a few times. His NHL season was all over the place, and the Oilers shouldn’t count on him to outperform expectations immediately as Bouchard did. Broberg would be better off starting in a third-pairing role (like Bouchard), and if he exceeds expectations, that’s better for the Oilers – if they don’t go out and spend big and longer-term on a second-pairing defenceman. If he doesn’t, the Oilers won’t be taking any chances, and either Kulak – who can play on either the second or third pairing – can play where needed, or the defenceman they bring in will fill the hole.

The Oilers have a bright future on defence and lucked out a bit with Keith’s timely retirement and Bouchard’s accelerated development. Whichever goalie ends up in Edmonton will have a much easier time than the goaltenders of the past.