Oilers Have Difficult Decisions Ahead, Starting When Keith Returns

Had you asked most fans how they’d feel about the Edmonton Oilers going 2-0 after losing both Duncan Keith and Darnell Nurse (frankly, the entire starting left side of their defense) to injuries, they’d have likely told they’d take it and smile. Not only has that happened, but the replacements who have come in for Nurse, Keith, and Slater Koekkoek have offered more than anyone could have asked.

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Philip Broberg got his first shot at NHL games about a week ago and not only has he seamlessly fit in, but he also played more minutes than any defenseman in a 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday. Meanwhile, Kris Russell has pulled regular duty and just so happened to set the NHL record for blocked shots. Willam Lagesson has been fine, averaging just over 10:50 per game.

All that said, Keith isn’t expected to be out much longer and Nurse shouldn’t be far behind. What will the Oilers do with their blue line when the group is healthy? They might have to make a couple of decisions starting as early as December 1st.

Broberg Has Earned a Longer Look

Broberg has now played in four games and in each successive contest looked more and more comfortable, logging more and more minutes. Since November 20th, his minutes are as follows: 14:24 (Nov. 20), 18:59 (Nov. 23), 21:29 (Nov. 24), and 23:34 (Nov. 27). He’s got one assist, has used his size and speed, and been as steady as the coach could have hoped under the circumstances. A strong case could be made that Broberg should never play another AHL game again. While his game hasn’t been perfect, the rookie appears ready and he’s earned the chance to keep his spot.

Based solely on spaces available, Lagesson will be the first to go back to the AHL which gives Broberg another few games, even if Keith returns on the 1st of December versus the Pittsburgh Penguins. It might be the case the Oilers keep Broberg on that top-pairing and slot Keith in on the second pair, just to ease him back into the lineup a bit.

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The Oilers have been impressed with Broberg’s quick adjustment. “He’s just playing,” said head coach Dave Tippett. He added, “It’s been really pleasant to watch a young player like that not get flustered.” Goaltender Mikko Koskinen said, “He’s been really impressive, really solid.”

What Happens When Nurse Gets Back?

The really tough question comes after Keith returns, is deemed healthy and Nurse is ready to roll. A broken finger that didn’t require surgery is only going to keep Nurse out of the lineup a few more games. Once he’s ready, the Oilers will have Nurse, Keith, Russell, and Broberg all able to take minutes.

Darnell Nurse Edmonton Oilers
Darnell Nurse, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

It makes the most sense that Russell comes out and gets spot duty in the event Broberg has an off game or a series of short games warrants giving someone a bit of a rest. Still, if Broberg continues to play well, earn Tippett’s trust and eat heavy minutes, what message does it send to the young defenseman if he’s demoted? Sure, the Oilers can take their time with Nurse’s injury to make sure they don’t rush him back. That said, he’s not going to be a player who wants to sit if he believes he’s ready.

Should the Oilers run with a top three of Nurse, Keith, and Broberg? Or, do they run Nurse, Keith, and Russell? Once they decide, what pairings make the most sense and who gets the most minutes?

The Longer-Term Questions for Edmonton

As Allan Mitchell of The Athletic points out, there are some talented young defensemen bubbling up from where Broberg and Lagesson came from. Some of those defensemen may be close to ready to get a look in the NHL. If that’s the case, these may be players of interest to other teams prior to the NHL trade deadline.

If Keith returns and Broberg has proven he’s closer to being more an NHL player than an AHL player, GM Ken Holland may elect to dangle one of those young defensemen for help in other areas. Mitchell writes:

It’s also possible one or more of these young defenders will be cashed in for help elsewhere, and that includes NHL help at the deadline and a “defenceman for forward” prospect trade. They are rare but do happen, a fairly recent example in Oilers history being the 2008 deal that sent defenceman Danny Syvret to the Philadelphia Flyers for Ryan Potulny.

source – ‘Lowetide: The Oilers’ prospect pipeline has produced 2 call-ups on defence already this season. Who’s next?’ – Allan Mitchell – The Athletic – 11/27/2021

Could players like Markus Niemelainen, Dmitri Samorukov, Filip Berglund, Phil Kemp, Mike Kesselring, or Vincent Desharnais be used in deals that will better round out the Oilers roster come playoff time? If so, which of these players could be what the next coming of what the Oilers hope they have in Broberg?

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