After more than a decade of defencive woes, the Edmonton Oilers will soon be able to call their back end an area of strength. Thanks to quality drafting and plenty of patience, the Oilers are now at a point where their young defenders are pushing for roster spots instead of being thrown into them out of desperation.
Although the Oilers are just over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 season, it’s never too early to start thinking about how their blue line will be formed in 2020-21. The Oilers need to make decisions on several young defencemen in the next 19 months, or risk losing them on waivers or in the expansion draft.
Additionally, several veteran defenders could be headed out of town before the puck drops on the 2020-21 season. Brandon Manning will surely be gone in the offseason when his contract expires, but general manager Ken Holland might also try to move out Kris Russell and Matt Benning if he believes a couple of the Oilers’ more seasoned prospects are ready to make the jump.
Here’s how the Oilers’ defencive pairings could fill out on opening night in the 2020-21 season.
First Pairing: Oscar Klefbom – Adam Larsson
Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson are close on and off the ice and their strengths complement each other well. Klefbom likes to use his excellent mobility to join the rush and contribute offensively, while Larsson plays more of a rugged, defencive-minded game. The two Swedes have been defencive partners since 2016-17 and give the Oilers a bargain top pairing at just over a combined $8.3 million cap hit.
While they might not be regarded as an elite top pairing around the league, Klefbom and Larsson are better than they generally get credit for. Klefbom is on pace for a career-high 56 points and leads the NHL in average ice time at 25:56 per game this season. Larsson, who just returned to the lineup after missing 22 games with a fractured fibula, can wreak havoc on opponents in the corners and make life easier for his goaltender.
Picked 15 spots apart in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, Klefbom and Larsson will surely be the oldest and most experienced defencive pairing on the team next season. There’s a real chance the Oilers could have three regular defencemen with fewer than 100 NHL games on their respective resumes in 2020-21, so having a couple veterans like Klefbom and Larsson logging a lot of tough minutes is essential for success.
Second Pairing: Darnell Nurse – Ethan Bear
Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear have been Edmonton’s best defencive pairing through the first 25 games this season. After racking up a career-high 41 points in 2018-19, Nurse was expected to play top-four minutes, but few would have predicted that Bear would be his partner. Bear stole a roster spot in training camp and has continued to get better every week he’s been with the big club.
Nurse and Bear both own excellent mobility, which allows them to support the offensive attack and quickly get back into a defencive position. Nurse has a penchant for carrying the puck up ice, while Bear’s ability to start a breakout with short, quick passes in unmatched among Oilers’ defenders.
If Nurse and Bear stay together on the same unit, they could be the Oilers’ most offensively potent pairing in 2020-21. Klefbom will be the lone defenceman on the top power play unit until someone proves they are better in that spot. Even so, I think Nurse and Bear will produce more at even-strength than Klefbom and Larsson.
Third Pairing: Caleb Jones – Evan Bouchard
The combination of Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard represents the biggest change on the Oilers’ blue line since 2016-17 when Larsson, Russell and Benning arrived. While it’s probably not ideal to have two young, largely inexperienced defencemen learn the NHL game at the same time, head coach Dave Tippett will surely shelter Jones and Bouchard with soft minutes next season.
Bouchard, the top prospect in the organization, will be pushing hard for a permanent roster spot next fall. The 20-year-old is the incumbent to take over Klefbom’s role as the anchor on the power play, and could be ready as soon as 2020-21. It’s easy to envision Bouchard sending breakaway passes to Connor McDavid for the next decade as well.
While Jones’ ceiling isn’t as high, he has more professional games under his belt than Bouchard, and gives the Oilers another fantastic skater on the back end. Tippett could put one of Bouchard or Jones with a player like Nurse to avoid having two very young defenders on the same unit, but there’s a perfect balance of right and left shooters as it’s currently constructed.
“I think if you’re going to have a good team in the NHL you need to have a good defence,” Holland told Oilers TV at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver. “The teams that go on long playoff runs have good defence, deep defence and big defence. And that’s what we are going to build in Edmonton.”
While there is more offensive skill in the NHL than ever before, Holland knows you still need a strong defencive core to win a Stanley Cup. The six defenders listed above might not be ready to win a championship in 2021, but they are building towards that.
What’s even more encouraging is that prospects Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov haven’t even factored into the equation yet. Broberg and Samorukov both have the potential to be excellent NHL defenders, and when they reach their peak, the Oilers will be in a great situation.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.