If you talk to fans of the Edmonton Oilers or those who cover the team, the vast majority will point to goaltending and special teams as keys to the fast approaching 2018-19 campaign. No question the club will need better showings on the penalty kill and man advantage, a bounce-back performance from Cam Talbot and Mikko Koskinen to prove he was worth the risk but if the defence isn’t improved, none of it will matter. Sitting atop that list is Oscar Klefbom.
"It feels good to be back. It's always good to see the guys again. When you spend that many days with these guys, you almost become family. That's what it's all about." Klefbom on reuniting with #Oilers teammates for informal skates this week pic.twitter.com/3ONhDdSmDO
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) September 7, 2018
Though almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for the Oilers in 2017-18, the argument could be made the most impactful issue of all was the slip in play from the club’s top blueliner. Unfortunately, the talented Swede wasn’t near full health at any point last season and the collective wasn’t anywhere near good enough to back up the slack and keep its head above water in his absence. Fast forward to the here and now and not much has changed.
Klefbom Remains Oilers Top Defenceman
The debate as to whether or not Klefbom is a legitimate No. 1 is fair to make but there is no debating as to whether or not he is this club’s best defenceman. Though the quartet of Matt Benning, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell all bring something to the table, in an ideal situation, all four would be slotted on one of the Oilers bottom two pairings. That isn’t an option on this roster and subsequently, makes dealing with injuries extremely challenging.
In other words, in order for this group to have anything close to a realistic ask being placed upon them, Klefbom will not only have to return to his 2016-17 level but must remain healthy throughout. Problem being, a quick look at his resume suggests expecting the latter might be a tad unrealistic. In a perfect world, Peter Chiarelli would’ve surrounded him with better pieces by now but that isn’t how things have played out in good ol’ Oil Country.
On the positive side of the ledger, Klefbom and Larsson have already proven capable of carrying the workload of a top pairing, albeit a small sample size. The year the Swedish duo put together two seasons ago speaks for itself but to be fair, it was also the season in which their goaltender performed at a Vezina-worthy level and Andrej Sekera anchored their second pairing. Good luck with either of those happening again, never mind in the same season.
Oilers Have Yet to Replace Sekera
With the veteran Slovak defender essentially out of the picture for a second consecutive campaign, said safety net no longer exists and will once again leave Edmonton with little to no wiggle room along the blue line. Now, could the addition of Jakub Jerabek and another year of experience under the belts of Benning and Nurse help soften the blow? Possibly but it is a risky proposition, as we saw last season, and unlikely to come to fruition.
In ’17-’18, the decision was made to not bother bringing in a replacement for Sekera and instead put more onto the collective. It was a decision that proved rather costly and the possibility of a repeat performance this season is quite real, especially if Klefbom can’t stay healthy. After all, this is a player who has surpassed the 60-game mark twice in his career and one of those was last season.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) August 14, 2018
For anyone who has followed this club in recent years, it’s rather obvious they seem to go as No. 77 goes. Despite losing Connor McDavid for the better part of three months in 2015-16, the Oilers managed to remain in the playoff hunt for the first six weeks of his absence but that all changed the moment Klefbom was shut down in December. He was healthy in 2016-17, had the best season of his career and the Oilers put up 103 points. Seems simple enough.
Klefbom Has to Stay Healthy
Like most teams, when you remove one of its best players from the lineup they are going to struggle. Organizations who build a roster filled with quality depth players generally find a way to survive in the short-term. Those who are unable or unwilling to do the same, usually find themselves falling off the proverbial cliff and down the standings.
Make no mistake, in order for this team to challenge for a playoff spot and beyond, the guy wearing No. 97 will need to put them onto his back and lead the way. With that said, McDavid cannot do it on his own and having Klefbom in peak form gives this group their best shot at lending that helping hand to their captain. Without a so-called anchor on defence, there is almost zero chance of it happening.
Again, we can point to special teams and goaltending as significant areas in which the Edmonton Oilers need to drastically improve in 2018-19 but if they don’t have a guy in place who can ensure responsibility and minutes are distributed in a reasonable fashion on the backend, it will be meaningless. Now we just need to find out if Oscar Klefbom can hold up his end of the deal and survive the rigours of another 82-game campaign.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.