Defence has been one of the main talking points for the Edmonton Oilers for the past decade and for good reason. For much of their time toiling in mediocrity the team had trouble finding consistent defenders that were able to effectively defend for 20-plus minutes a night. We saw multiple attempts to rectify this, acquiring players like Ryan Whitney and Andrew Ference to bring a veteran feel to the backend, but both of these experiments, among many others, failed miserably.
For the longest time it seemed like Edmonton management thought the only way to improve this was to bring in as many veteran defenders as they could and hope that things would eventually work themselves out. Guys like Cam Barker, Nick Schultz, Kurtis Foster and Jim Vandermeer were just a small group of players who went around the revolving door that was the Oilers blue line.
Yet, here in 2020, it seems like defence is the least of Edmonton’s concerns. While we all sit in isolation due to the COVID-19 scare, let’s take a look at how the Oilers were able to finally build an effective blue line after years of failure.
Building Through the Draft
It wasn’t until the 2013 NHL Draft that the Oilers finally began on a meaningful path to rebuilding their defensive corps.
For the first time since 1980, the Oilers selected a defenceman within the top 10 – Darnell Nurse. The drafting of Nurse signalled a change in direction from the team’s amateur scouting, who traditionally targeted a forward with the club’s top pick.
Nurse is now a mainstay on the Oilers roster and is considered to be apart of the team’s “core” by many around the club. His hard-hitting defensive game is supplemented by his ability to carry the puck with speed and ease. He hasn’t established himself as the premier top-pairing D that many thought he would become during his junior years, but he remains a fine second pairing guy.
After that, we must take a very close look at the 2015 NHL Draft held in Florida. While that draft will always be remembered as the “Connor McDavid Draft” there were a few critical selections made by the Oilers in the later rounds. Caleb Jones was taken by Edmonton in the fourth round and was followed by Ethan Bear in the fifth.
Both Jones and Bear spent plenty of time developing in the junior ranks and in the AHL. The Oilers took their time with them and are just now reaping the rewards. Bear made the Oilers roster out of camp and has breathed new life into the entire group while Jones joined after a mid-season call-up and earned himself a two-year extension. It isn’t a stretch to say that, without either of these players, the Oilers would be gearing up for another draft lottery this spring.
Add that to the fact that Edmonton’s sixth-round pick in 2015 was John Marino, who is currently flourishing in Pittsburgh, it wouldn’t be a stretch at all to call it their best draft in the modern era.
Since that day in 2015, the Oilers have added Dmitri Samorukov, Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg to the pipeline. These additions have solidified Edmonton’s blue line for years to come. This is largely due to a dramatic shift in the organizations drafting and development philosophy dating all the way back to 2012.
Key Trades & Signings
Even with this improved draft scheme, the Oilers continued to scour both the trade and free-agent markets. One of the more notable examples of this can be seen in the infamous trade that saw Taylor Hall head to the New Jersey Devils while Adam Larsson came to Edmonton in 2016. While that trade is still seen as a massive overpayment on Edmonton’s side, it did bring in the young shutdown defender that the team desperately needed.
Larsson has become a key component to the Oilers’ blue line and is signed to a long-term low-cost contract. He might not bring the explosiveness and points that Hall would bring but he definitely shored up a gaping hole in the roster.
We then have the numerous free agent signings over the past few years. Guys like Kris Russell and Matt Benning have been brought into the fold and have succeeded to certain degrees. The former of which has been the subject of controversy on more than one occasion.
When it was announced in Oct. 2016 that the Oilers had signed Russell, a veteran defender most known for his shot-blocking ability, the fanbase was effectively split into two different factions. One lauded the Oilers for acquiring a proven veteran to stabilize their defence, while the other criticized the club for acquiring a player whose advanced statistics pegged him as one of the worst players in the league.
If we look back on Russell’s tenure with the Oilers now, it looks as though both sides of the discussion had their merits. Russell has become a reliable defender on Edmonton’s blue line and he continues to be a reasonable bottom-pairing guy.
Lastly, there was the signing of Matthew Benning in the summer of 2016. At first, it didn’t seem like Benning would be much a player for the Oilers but that changed pretty quick. He made his NHL debut on Nov. 1, 2016, against the Toronto Maple Leafs and has been with the Oilers ever since.
Benning has had his ups and downs with the Oilers but, like Russell, has proven to be a great top-six defender that plays well in his own zone and can lay a few big hits when the opportunity arises.
These moves went a long way in stabilizing the blue line for the Oilers. The additions of Larsson and Russell brought competent veterans to help the younger players along while Benning was a low-risk signing that turned out to be a pretty decent player.
The foundation has been laid on the Oilers blue line and they have quite a few young players that have yet to make it to the NHL as full-time defenders. Chief among those players is Bouchard and Broberg, both of which are expected to eventually become capable top-four defencemen.
It definitely looks like the defensive group is in very good hands moving forward, but only time will tell if they are able to maintain it.