Oilers’ New Look Defense Will Do Just Fine Without Adam Larsson

On July 21, the morning of the Seattle Kraken expansion draft, Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland said he woke up to a text that veteran defenceman Adam Larsson, an unrestricted free agent, had signed with the Kraken. The contract was reported to be worth $16 million over four years and Larsson counted as Seattle’s Expansion Draft selection from the Oilers.

Going back as far as the spring, all signs pointed to Larsson remaining in Edmonton. Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the right-side blueliner and team had made good progress negotiating a likely four-year contract extension. As recently as a week before Larsson signed with Seattle, Holland said he had money set aside for the 28-year-old.

Larsson’s exit was not part of the Oilers’ plan, and it set in motion a series of moves by Holland, as the GM tried to fill the giant hole left by the loss of Edmonton’s top shutdown defender. After a busy few days of wheeling and dealing, Holland appears to have emerged with a defensive core that can maintain last season’s level of play while also offering some new opportunities.

Barrie is Back

Holland’s first move was essentially using that money earmarked for Larsson to instead re-sign UFA right-side defenceman Tyson Barrie, 30, to a three-year deal with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.5 million.

Tyson Barrie Edmonton Oilers
Tyson Barrie re-signed with the Edmonton Oilers on July 28. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Barrie had a phenomenal season in 2020-21, re-establishing himself as an elite offensive D-men after signing a one-year, $3.75 million contract with the Oilers last October. Playing on Edmonton’s top pairing with Darnell Nurse and quarterbacking the power play, Barrie led NHL rearguards in points with 48 while ranking second among defenceman in assists (40) and power-play points (23).

Playing alongside Barrie, the 26-year-old Nurse emerged as a Norris Trophy candidate with tremendous play at both ends of the ice. And with Barrie at the point, Edmonton’s power play was the most potent in the league, ranking first in goals (48) and percentage (27.6%).

If it Ain’t Broke…

Would Nurse still have had a brilliant season, and would the Oilers still have been deadly on the man advantage without Barrie? Quite possibly. But with Barrie, they did. And now the Oilers move forward with what they know succeeds, rather than merely assume will be successful.

In Larsson and Barrie, the Oilers had two right-side UFA blueliners who would command a multi-year deal in the $4 to $5 million range, and they could likely afford just one.

Barrie was understandably the second option because of his subpar defensive proficiency and that he takes playing time from the similarly skilled Evan Bouchard, a tantalizingly promising right-side rearguard who did not get sufficient opportunity to develop in 2020-21 and is going to turn 22 at the start of the new season. But as he executed his post-Larsson backup plan, Holland had a move up each sleeve to address these two issues.

Signing Ceci

One box was checked with by coming to terms on a four-year, $13 million contract with 27-year-old defenceman Cody Ceci, a UFA who spent the 2020-21 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A veteran of eight NHL seasons, the 6-foot-2 Ceci will slide in on the right side of Edmonton’s second defensive pairing opposite Duncan Keith, who was acquired in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks on July 13, giving the Oilers one of their more defensively strong and experienced tandems on the backend.

It’s not unreasonable to believe that Ceci has an impact akin to Larsson. SBNation’s Adam Gretz noted that Ceci was one of Pittsburgh’s most effective defenders in scoring chances allowed, expected goals, and actual goals produced. Ceci was also the Penguins’ most-used player on the penalty-kill, logging an average of 2:32 of short-handed ice time per game. Larsson averaged 2:18 ice time while short-handed last season, second on the Oilers to Nurse.

Making Room for Bouchard

The addition of Ceci would bump Bouchard back down to number four on the depth chart among right-side D, behind Ethan Bear, another highly regarded young defenceman that the Oilers thought highly enough of to include on their Expansion Draft protection list. So Holland opened up a spot for Bouchard on the third pairing by trading Bear to the Carolina Hurricanes for left winger Warren Foegele.

Bear, 24, flashed promise in 132 regular-season games and eight postseason appearances with the Oilers but had an underwhelming season in 2020-21, with eight points and a minus-one rating in 41 games. Meanwhile, Bouchard, the 10th overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, only played 14 games with the Oilers last season, stalling his growth.

The 6-foot-3 Bouchard will now have the opportunity to begin realizing the sky-high potential long expected of him. He will likely be paired with 34-year-old Kris Russell, a veteran of 14 NHL seasons whose experience and defense-centered game make him the perfect compliment for Bouchard.

Additionally, Holland managed to address a separate need with the acquisition of Foegele, who gives the Oilers much-needed depth on the left wing and brings elements of physical play that Edmonton has been lacking.

Related: Oilers’ Warren Foegele: 5 Things to Know About Edmonton’s Latest Signing

Holland’s likely not finished this offseason; there could still be a move or two and there remains a glaring question mark in goal. But his work on the backend appears done. The GM has assembled a blueline that balances the competing interests of winning now with developing Bouchard.

Barring developments unforeseen, the Oilers know who their defencemen will be come opening night against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place on Oct. 13, when they begin to find out if this unit looks as good on the ice as it does on paper.

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