The injuries just keep on coming for the Edmonton Oilers. Kris Russell left the game against the Boston Bruins and didn’t return, later hearing from Dave Tippett his thought that the defenceman may miss some time.
That brings us right back around to which young defenceman will take his spot in the lineup on the left side. The best options that have already been given a shot recently are Philip Broberg, who was just sent down to the American Hockey League (AHL) after Cody Ceci was activated, and William Lagesson.
Since Niemelainen seemed like the young player that the Oilers have chosen to go with over the other two mentioned, expect him to have his playing time bumped up. Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard ate a ton of minutes last game and they can continue to do so. That creates a bit of a cushion for the other young defencemen to slowly get more acclimated to the NHL and not be outmatched or taken advantage of.
Niemelainen Set for Larger Role Already
After the No. 1 shot blocker in the league went down, Niemelainen — another defensive-minded player — will likely be asked to do more in his own end and on the penalty kill. This means attempting to block more shots, along with his already very physical game. That includes more time in key minutes when trying to defend a lead, since Nurse can’t play the entire game.
Russell played nearly 2:00 of his 7:26 of ice time on the penalty kill last game before suffering an injury, while Niemelainen got 0:02 of time on the penalty kill. Tyson Barrie isn’t going to step in and be asked to play shorthanded, and Niemelainen is the most reliant and big defenceman in his own end that the Oilers have readily available. So, the job of killing penalties on the second unit with Ceci falls on him.
Ceci will take some of the pressure off of Niemelainen, and I could even see a 5-on-5 pairing of the two together. Barrie seems to be falling a bit out of favour and has been passed by Bouchard at even strength. It may just be a matter of time before the torch as the power-play quarterback is passed as well. (“Oilers’ Evan Bouchard: Another multi-point game”, CBS Sports, Dec. 4, 2021) That being said, Barrie and either Broberg or Lagesson should pull into the third pairing and receive less ice time, allowing Niemelainen to get even more of a shot.
Originally paired with Barrie to begin the game, Niemelainen’s ice time quickly increased and fans saw different defensive pairings for the remainder of the game. It did make sense to pair Niemelainen and Barrie together since they play the game completely different and Russell has the experience to play higher in the lineup. However, the Oilers don’t have much else to turn to as Duncan Keith and Slater Koekkoek are still sidelined with injuries.
Will we ever see a fully healthy Oilers defence again this season? Hard to say by the way they have been dropping like flies and half of Bakersfield’s defencemen have been asked to step in.
The Choice Between Broberg or Lagesson?
This brings us to the question, who gets in the lineup and receives more playing time for the next little while, Broberg or Lagesson? If I had to make an educated guess, I would go with Broberg, despite his recent demotion to the AHL. My reasoning behind that is the Oilers would rather have him get as much ice time as he can to grow his game at a pro level. Being a healthy scratch in the NHL does less for his development and future than playing top-line minutes in the AHL.
Broberg has already played top-pairing minutes when Nurse was still out, so his ceiling and ability to perform is higher than Lagesson. He seemed to be more engaged and play a bit better when his minutes were elevated, so it is possible that he is paired with Ceci for a better balanced bottom-four defence group. Things could change within the games as well depending on what Tippett sees from his players.
I don’t think the Oilers have Lagesson marked down in their plans for the future, so they are fine with him being a seventh defenceman to fill the roster, despite him playing pretty well in the four games he got into this season. He is a bit older than the other Oiler prospects that he is competing with in the NHL and AHL, and for that reason, he may be less of an importance in the team’s eyes.
Though sometimes it takes longer for some players to develop, especially defencemen, the Oilers’ defensive depth is looking much better than expected. The NHL experience some of them are getting only helps matters. Taking advantage of players in your organization that are younger and have come into their own quicker is a bonus, and Lagesson seems like he may not get much more of a chance in Edmonton.
With a couple of difficult opponents in the Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs next on the schedule, the Oilers hope to figure out their defensive situation and get back in the winning column as soon as possible.
Rob Couch is a THW freelance writer covering mainly the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers. He covers everything you need to know about fantasy hockey. He will also keep you up to date with the NHL Stat Corner and trade talks from around the NHL.
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