Larsson Injury Means Opportunity for Young Oilers Defensemen

Wednesday night’s thrilling home-opener victory for the Edmonton Oilers came at a hefty cost for the club as they lost defenseman Adam Larsson to a suspected broken bone in his foot after blocking a Quinn Hughes shot in the first period. Larsson was surprisingly able to battle through the pain and finish the game logging the third highest minutes of Oilers defensemen with 22:19 time on ice (TOI), therefore this morning’s news of Larsson being placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) comes as an unwelcome surprise to Oilers fans and media across the board. With Larsson on LTIR for the foreseeable future, this signals a lengthy recovery process that will require the blue and orange to somehow fill the void of a stable, minute-munching, top-four defenseman.

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid Adam Larsson
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid talks with defenseman Adam Larsson (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Playing Time Up for Grabs

New general manager Ken Holland will truly be able to witness how his team handles adversity right off the bat here in the first days of the NHL season as Larsson’s injury subtracts a tough, physical presence from the Oilers’ blue line. Not only does Larsson play heavy minutes against the opposition’s top players, but he also stabilizes the North-South game that partner Darnell Nurse plays by being the steady last man back when the former seventh-overall pick decides to pinch into the offensive zone.

Finding someone defensively responsible and gritty to play alongside Nurse will certainly be a challenge for Holland and head coach Dave Tippett, but the new management team will get a great opportunity to see how deep their defense really is by playing without one of their top defenders for the next six to eight weeks.

The Oilers will likely look to fill this hole internally with the return of Joel Persson from injury or young able bodies such as Ethan Bear, Evan Bouchard, or William Lagesson, all who have never had a better opportunity to impress management and prove that they are ready to perform consistently at the NHL level. The door is open for these youngsters to step up and perform, but the only question is who will take the opportunity and run with it?

Persson vs. Bear

Joel Persson looks like he is set to return to game action and make his NHL debut on Saturday night versus the L.A. Kings after suffering a shoulder injury that sidelined him for about 10 days. I think that he will slot back in beside Oscar Klefbom after playing the majority of the preseason on his right side, ultimately replacing Ethan Bear who was just sent down to the Bakersfield Condors this morning.

Ethan Bear
EDMONTON, AB – MARCH 3: Ethan Bear #74 of the Edmonton Oilers lines up for a face off during the game against the New York Rangers on March 3, 2018 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

I suspect Persson will thrive in that role with Klefbom by being able to contribute more offensively and facing the opposition’s secondary units, but I believe Dave Tippett will err on the side of caution with the rookie defenseman’s ice time as he has yet to play on North American ice for a consistent amount of time. Though Bear played exceptionally in the preseason and last night, I believe he will be back up with the club in the next few weeks competing with Persson for a spot alongside either Klefbom or Nurse in the top four if Evan Bouchard is not ready for full-time NHL duty.

Bouchard in the Show Already?

This morning’s recall of Bouchard from the Condors was a surprise to me, partially because I thought management wanted him to play top minutes in the AHL and develop steadily there before he transitions into the NHL. Holland made it clear to the media a few weeks ago that Bouchard would not be playing in Edmonton if he was playing sheltered minutes.

Edmonton Oilers Evan Bouchard
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Therefore, bringing him up to the big club signals to the Oilers faithful that they can expect Bouchard to line up alongside Nurse against the Kings on Saturday night. My guess is that Bouchard will likely either split time with Matt Benning beside Nurse to ease his transition into the top four, or he will play on the third pairing alongside Kris Russell, with whom he played much of the preseason with.

Benning, Lagesson, and Manning

My only concern with the latter option is that Bouchard playing alongside Russell means Matt Benning plays more minutes with Nurse on the top pairing. To me, Benning is the type of player for who less is more, in that he succeeds playing sheltered minutes against the opposition’s third or fourth lines. With Larsson’s injury expected to last until just before the New Year as per Mark Spector, this may well be a defining moment in Benning’s career where he either shows the club he can play heavier minutes and not be a liability, or he struggles as he has in the past with more playing time and proves to have the ceiling of a third-pairing defenseman.

As for the options in Brandon Manning and Lagesson, I see Lagesson being a better seventh defenseman to rotate in and play the tough style of play that Larsson possesses, but coach Tippett’s preference to keep left and right shots on their natural sides will keep Lagesson from filling in on the Oilers’ right side given that he is a left-handed shot. Manning is better off staying in the press box as sending him down to Bakersfield will take playing time away from young defenseman that need to develop. I see him being a practise player, fighting his way into the lineup if one of the top-six defensemen falter.

Larsson’s injury certainly raises a lot of questions within the Oilers’ lineup, but I think Holland, Tippett, and all Oilers fans will finally get to see what the team’s d-core really looks like in tough situations and evaluate how far players like Bear, Bouchard, and Benning have come in their development. Opportunity awaits for the young defensemen, the question is, who will make the most of it in Larsson’s absence?