Oilers Young & Inexperienced Defence Will be Tested

The Edmonton Oilers defence has endured a lot in a very short time. Injuries to Darnell Nurse, Duncan Keith, Slater Koekkoek, and Cody Ceci entering the COVID protocol has forced the team to dive into their depth. It is both exciting and scary for fans, as we of course want to see the team’s top prospects play in the NHL, but also are not sure how well they will perform if the callup comes too soon.

Oiler Have 4 Defencemen With a Combined 74 games of NHL Experience

Two of those players that make up the inexperienced Oilers’ blueline at the moment have 70 of those games (“Lowetide: The Oilers’ prospect pipeline has produced 2 call-ups on defence already this season. Who’s next?”, The Athletic, Nov. 27, 2021). Evan Bouchard’s 41 games comes over the past three seasons, while William Lagesson’s 29 does as well. With a mix of roles that these young defenders specialize in, the Oilers may be surprised by what they get.

Lagesson is the oldest of the three young defencemen that the Oilers have turned to in replacing what they have lost right now. He is 25 years old but only has 29 games of NHL experience. He also hasn’t played a ton in the American Hockey League (AHL, 103 GP), partly due to the limited games in the past couple of seasons.

Philip Broberg is one of the higher-picked defencemen the Oilers have in their organization. Chosen only one year after Bouchard in the top-10 of his draft, it was projected that Broberg wouldn’t be making his debut until at least the end of the season or next year. Plans have changed and he has looked very good in his first four NHL games.

Philip Broberg Oilers Draft
Philip Broberg, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers

The most recent callup, Markus Niemelainen, came today after Keith was placed on the injured reserve (IR) and Ceci entered the COVID protocol. Niemelainen could get his shot after only playing in 35 AHL games. He is another left-shot defenceman, but the Oilers have Kris Russell, who is able to play on both sides. The team has their top three left defencemen out.

The last, and of course, the most NHL-ready young defenceman that the Oilers have on their blueline is Bouchard. He is still growing in the NHL and has experienced time on the first and third defensive pairings. With Ceci now on the COVID protocol, Bouchard will certainly see an elevated role. As of now, Ceci isn’t confirmed to be out for a few weeks, but the worst-case scenario is that he is.

How the Oilers’ Blue Line Has Faired Thus Far

It’s been about as long as Broberg has been in the lineup that the defence has been decimated with injuries. Nurse and Koekkoek last played Nov. 18 vs the Winnipeg Jets, missing the last four games. Keith made it two more games and played his most recent game against the Dallas Stars on Nov. 23. Broberg has filled in all four games while Lagesson has slotted in after Keith went down. It looks like there may have to be another addition to the lineup if Ceci isn’t cleared in time for the Oilers’ game tomorrow vs the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Related: NHL Stat Corner: Capitals, Penguins, Oilers, Panthers, Predators, & Kings

Since Broberg has entered the lineup, the Oilers are 3-1, and after Keith got injured, they have won both games. In just his fourth NHL game, Broberg led the Oilers in time on ice with 23:34, 45 more seconds than the next closest on the team, Ceci. Broberg will have to give even more of that moving forward and as fellow THW writer Jim Parsons writes, there will be some difficult decisions ahead when defencemen start returning from injury.

The calm demeanor of Broberg has made it easier on the goalies and taken the worry off of growing pains that come with young and inexperienced players. He looks like he’s been there before and not panicking with the puck helps in creating plays and making up for the inexperience of the other defence that may struggle with that. Head coach Dave Tippett says, “it’s been really pleasant to watch a young player like that not get flustered.”

Lagesson, on the other hand, will have to be tested and play more than he has. His play has been average for the very limited time he’s been on the ice. He’s played a total of 22 minutes in both games combined, and even though I don’t expect him to be moved off of the third pairing, his ice time should rise with another young defender added to the mix.

William Lagesson (Credit: Connor Mah/Flickr)
Edmonton Oilers, William Lagesson (Credit: Connor Mah/Flickr)

With Broberg’s offensive abilities, Niemalainen will be useful when it comes to having a stay-at-home defenceman on the left side if Russell does indeed shift over to the right side. We would likely see Niemalainen get time on the penalty kill but also probably see limited ice time. It does depend on the way games are going, and the Oilers don’t have the most difficult schedule in the coming week, playing the Penguins, Seattle Kraken, and Los Angeles Kings.

What Will the Oilers’ Defensive Pairings Look Like?

Broberg is more of a two-way defenceman than a player specializing in just one area of the game, and with the ice time and performance he had in the Oilers’ game against the Vegas Golden Knights, he should be on the top pairing playing the most. For the next game at least, if Ceci is still out, we can assume that Tyson Barrie will line up as Broberg’s partner.

In recent games, Bouchard and Lagesson have been defence partners on the third pairing. This duo may stay together, but at the very least, Bouchard will be elevated and play on the second pairing with either Lagesson or Niemalainen. Another option that could be utilized is Russell playing more on the second pairing with Bouchard if the top two lines are going to be double shifting and Lagesson and Niemalainen aren’t going to play that much.

Russell will most likely be slotted in on the right side of the third line, but as I said, that will change. He has the experience and is sound defensively. Neimalainen may surprise and play very solidly and allow Tippett to spread out some of the talent over all three pairings. But for now, it’s anyone’s guess. His play will determine his opportunity and ice time.

Other teams like the Washington Capitals and Penguins have been able to manage the next-man-up mentality and be successful, while other teams like the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators have been on the other end after injuries and COVID have derailed their seasons early on. With young players stepping up big already on the Oilers like Ryan McLeod and Stuart Skinner, who’s to say that doesn’t rub off on the new additions to the blueline.

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