Over the last two weeks I’ve looked at the Edmonton Oilers and the lineup that Todd McLellan could put on the ice on opening night. I projected all four lines, and which forwards I thought would be starting on October 6th in Sweden.
Today I will wrap things up by looking at the potential defensive pairings headed into the regular season.
First Pairing: Nurse-Larsson
Darnell Nurse proved last season that he is the best defensemen on the roster for the Oilers. In a season where the top pairing was supposed to be Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom, Nurse quickly proved he was worth taking over Kelfbom’s spot with his injuries and inconsistent play.
Nurse played in all 82 games last year for the first time in his NHL career and totalled 26 points (6G-20A) while generating the most amount of ice time amongst Edmonton defenders.
Being on the ice the most meant Nurse would be present for the highest amount of Oilers goals last year with 69. But that wasn’t all that made him the team’s best defender. Nurse brought a physical game that we’ve seen flashes of in his young career, at a more consistent level.
Nurse is currently an RFA and has not yet signed an extension. It is currently unclear whether the Oilers will sign him to a short-term bridge deal or a long-term contract but whatever the deal is, I hope they can get it done soon.
Nurse is set to be the team’s best defender and holds the number one spot on the roster with his left-handed shot.
Adam Larsson was the right-hand shot on the first pairing for most of last year. Larsson has played in 142 games for the Oilers since coming over in a trade with New Jersey in exchange for Taylor Hall.
Larsson played in 63 games last year missing time due to an upper-body injury and the death of his father in February.The Swedish defensemen totalled 13 points last year (4G-9A) and had the second most takeaways of Oilers d-men as well as lead the team in hits with 216.
Larsson is a solid top pairing defenseman and despite some people’s criticism of the trade, I for one think it was a deal I’d do over in a heartbeat. When on his game Larsson can be one of the best defensemen there is, and his right-handed shot can be a key weapon If he can play in all 82 games this year.
Second Pairing: Klefbom-Benning
Oscar Klefbom has very high potential as being one of the best d-men for the Oilers but has failed to stay healthy or produce points at a consistent level.
Klefbom has only played in a full 82 game season once in his career, in 2016-17. His rookie year in 2015 he only played in 30 games and last year, in a season where he was expected to take off he only suited up for 66 games.
In those 66 games Klefbom had 21 points (5G-16A) and was third on the team in takeaways while only turning the puck over a total of 32 times, fifth on the team among defensemen, with only 66 games under his belt.
Klefbom has all the pieces and has decent size at 6’3” and 215lbs but hasn’t had an offensive explosion yet in his career. He also hasn’t developed a physical game yet. Last year he was 7th on the team in hits with 42.
With Nurse taking the top spot with his superb play last year I think Klefbom can be a great second pairing option who could over-produce is he finds his rhythm.
Matt Benning had a good 2017-18 season playing in 73 games for the Oilers in his second year in the NHL. He put up 21 points (6G-15A) after putting up 15 in his rookie year prior. Benning really seemed to come into his own in his second year not just on the score sheet but also as a defender with a physical game.
Benning signed a 2-year deal worth $3.8 million as an RFA this past June and could be the right-handed shot from the blue-line the Oilers have wanted for years. This year he’s poised to reach that potential playing on the second pairing.
Benning played the third most number of minutes amongst defensemen in Edmonton last year, as well as was third on the team in hits and was second in rebounds created. These are all numbers that show to me that he is ready to take a step forward heading into this season, solidifying his spot in the second pairing.
He was third on the team in giveaways so there is some cleaning up that needs to be done in his game, but for a player entering his third year in the NHL I’m excited to see what steps he can take forward this year.
Third Pairing: Russell-Bouchard
Kris Russell had what some may call a horrible 2017-18 season. I try to look at things from a positive perspective and while I agree he had a bad year I don’t think you can write him off. Russell was put it positions that seemed unnatural to him at times last year with injuries plaguing the team early.
He is a natural right-side defensemen but I think he plays better on the left side, opposite his shooting side. Russell is entering the second year of a four-year deal worth $16 million so while I agree that he may be a bit overpaid, I think it would be foolish to consider him not a worthy piece.
Russell played in 78 games last year and put up 21 points (4G-17A) his highest in the past four years. He’s a good defender if he can keep the play in front of him and of course as everyone knows can block shots like no one else. His 189 blocked shots were the most on the team with second place going to Darnell Nurse with 113.
Russell can be a physical presence despite his small stature, finishing fourth on the team in hits with 87 but his team leading 64 giveaways is something that needs work.
Overall, I think the biggest downfall to Russell’s game last year was him having the second most amount of minutes of any Oilers d-man. He belongs in the third pairing and if played out of that he will struggle.
For years I have always hated the idea of playing a rookie before they were ready for big game action. With Andrei Sekera going down for what can be assumed the year with a torn achilles the Oilers are very thin on options to plug in his spot.
The difference between most rookies and Bouchard is uncanny. This young Oakville Ontario native was the most NHL-ready defensemen in this year’s draft and at times looked like a man amongst boys last year with the London Knights.
Bouchard was a main component to the Knights finishing with 99 points last year and making the playoffs late. He was 7th in the team in scoring and 6th in the playoffs. Bouchard put up 87 points on the year (25G-62A) and 5 points in the playoffs.
At 6’2” 193lbs Bouchard brings size to the blue-line and it’s hoped that one day his heavy right-handed shot can be one that leads the powerplay unit. Bouchard’s passing ability is something to marvel at and could already help and Oilers powerplay unit that finished last in the league at 14.8%.
Again, forcing a rookie into a spot they’re not ready for is never ideal, as the Oilers have learned over the years. But they have finally found one that will be ready for the challenge and thrive on the third pairing with a veteran partner to help him out.
Other Possibilities: They aren’t many. The only other defensemen on the roster even capable of playing in the NHL for me are newly signed Kevin Gravel and Jakub Jerabek and the youngster Ethan Bear who caught some time last year.
Gravel has played a total of 70 NHL games while Jerabek only 36. Neither will make huge contributions but could fill in a pinch. Bear played in 18 games with the Oilers last year and while he had some success is still a raw prospect and needs more time in the AHL.
Let’s hope the Oilers don’t suffer too many injuries on the blue-line this year because they are paper-thin behind the top 6.
That was my lineup projections for the Edmonton Oilers going into the 2018-19 season. Hope you enjoyed it and are as excited as I am to get camp and the preseason underway, so we can see what Todd McLellan does come October 6th.