In Edmonton, new general manager Ken Holland was given quite the inaugural test – improve the Oilers' lineup in order to return to the post-season, but to do so with extremely limited cap space.
With limited financial flexibility, Holland has spent his first summer tinkering at the fringes of the lineup. The Oilers brought in Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco to solidify their forward depth, extended Alex Chiasson and Jujhar Khaira on two-year deals, and landed a back-up goaltender in the form of 37-year-old Mike Smith. The team also notably made the decision to buy out defenceman Andrej Sekera, who will now carry $8 million in cap penalties over the next four seasons.
You could argue that the buyout of Sekera was the most impactful move the team made for two reasons. One, Sekera provided the Oilers with a little bit of cap flexibility to make a move (though that money was then re-allocated to extending the aforementioned Chiasson). Two, Sekera definitely felt like an important – if limited – piece on an otherwise shaky blueline. Sekera’s best years are surely behind him, and his injury history over the last two years didn’t leave the Oilers with many options.
Still, you wonder if the Sekera buyout was the best decision for the team. It didn’t provide the Oilers with a material amount of cap flexibility, but did ensure that an Edmonton blueline already low on talent would be even more handcuffed entering a critical 2019-20 season. The pressure within Edmonton to deliver a serious contender in the Connor McDavid era – now entering year five – has never been higher, and yet the Oilers appear ready to “run it back” with mostly last year’s roster turned over.
I bring up the Sekera buyout because for all of Edmonton’s limitations right now, I’m not sure there is one greater than the talent deficiencies on the blueline. The team has not developed or procured defensive talent in the same way it has forward talent over the years, and the two big moves they have made to bring in defenders – the ill-fated Griffin Reinhart and Adam Larsson trades – have failed. The Oilers are hopeful that young defenders like Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Caleb Jones can add value going forward. But developing each of those players will take time, and even for a player like Bouchard, who appears ready for full-time NHL action, insulation does matter.
Let’s add some more statistical context to the Oilers' defensive issues. If we look at each team’s Goals Above Replacement contributions from their 2018-19 defensive corps, we see that Edmonton finished 28th in the National Hockey League:
All three teams the Oilers finished above when it comes to blueline contributions were either explicitly rebuilding (New York, Detroit) or in an obvious rebuild (Anaheim). The average NHL team gets about 24 goals above replacement from its blueline, which is roughly equivalent to four wins in the standings. In the Oilers’ case, they were just over seven goals better than comparable replacement level players, or a little over one win added to the standings.
Because goals above replacement models are blind to goaltender effects, we get a much better understanding as to how skaters are truly affecting performance at both ends of the ice. And with the Oilers, the story is relatively straightforward. The Oilers had one ultra-productive line last season (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl both finished in the top-20 in Goals Above Replacement last year), and little else behind it. Defensively, the Oilers really had nothing.
The Oilers have had a defence issue for some time now but it’s actually become worse over time. If we look at how players have individually contributed to performance for the Oilers over the years, we can see that there are far too many negative or neutral contributions from guys getting significant ice time. Before reading this table, a little bit of context: the average NHL defender last year was about 2.4 goals above replacement level across all situations, and a 75th percentile defender was double that.
During the 2016-17 season when everything was clicking for the Oilers, Edmonton received an incredible season from Oscar Klefbom and strong support seasons from both Larsson and Matt Benning. Klefbom’s season was so good, in fact, he ranked as the 13th most impactful contributor league-wide, sandwiched between guys like Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson. Klefbom hasn’t been nearly as big of a difference maker for the Oilers since, but he is still a very reliable top-four option for Edmonton (and for any other team in the league, for that matter). Injuries certainly haven’t helped his cause recently, either.
While we are being complementary, I’ll also bring up Benning. Whereas Klefbom has had the most impactful season to date, Benning has been the most consistent. He’s a versatile second and third-paring puck mover who had been a perfect match for frequent partners in Klefbom and Sekera. His skating and passing abilities have more than offset any defensive reservations one might have had upon him entering the league three years ago.
Once you get past Klefbom and Benning – well, that’s where it goes sideways quickly. You don’t need a superstar-driven first pairing to be successful in today’s NHL, but if you don’t have that, you need to ensure you have quality depth across all three pairs. That simply hasn’t happened. Klefbom’s disappointing 2018-19 season didn’t do them any favours, but Larsson was one of the league’s worst contributors, primarily because the Oilers were absolutely wacked with him on the ice at even strength. Recent acquisitions – names like Alex Petrovic and Brandon Manning – have been worse than what you would probably find from a high-end AHL call-up option, and Manning is still with the team for one more season. Combine that with your other regular options – players like Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell, neither of whom have shown to be much more than run-of-the-mill NHL defenders – and you have a serious talent problem.
What the Oilers really need, at least for 2019-20, is for Klefbom to find what was working so well during that 2016-18 stretch, or for 19-year old Bouchard to have an explosive rookie season. Absent that (or some move that opens up cap space to bring in another weapon), the trends from these Oilers defenders will likely manifest again in 2019-20.And if that’s the case, the Oilers will likely be on the outside looking in come April.