We have high hopes for Oscar Klefbom.
In the course of what I was doing this year early, I took a trip to Farjestad to watch Oscar. I went in there with one of our Swedish scouts, Pelle Eklund, and it was one of those games where I walked in, sat down, watched warm-up, Oscar came on the ice. The team that they were playing, Modo at the time, dumped the puck in the corner. Oscar pivoted and went back hard and fast for the puck. He fought off a pretty physical forecheck, turned to the back of the net, made a movement of the puck, a simple play, a direct pass up to the wall. That player subsequently turned the puck over. Oscar closed the gap in a hurry in the corner, used his stick, finished his check, knocked the guy off the puck, spun the other side of the net and moved the puck out. I turned to Pelle at the time and said, we can pretty much pack up our briefcase right now and get outta here, I've seen enough.
I'm always a little bit skeptical when I hear very positive things without having seen them myself. I wanted to spend that trip, get over, take a look at Oscar and we have high hopes that he'll be a part of our team very quickly. Whether he needs some time, we like to think that all players are benefited from some sort of time in the American Hockey League. Oscar, having played with men this year, might be an exception, but that will be determined at training camp for him.
Those are the words of Oilers GM Craig MacTavish, waxing optimist about Oscar Klefbom just nine months ago in a meeting with season ticket holders. As mouth-watering as that sequence of plays sounds, I found myself a little bemused at "I've seen enough". When it comes to budding athletes, "can he do it?" and "can he do it consistently?" are two distinct questions, the second of which can only be answered in the long term.
There seems little doubt that Klefbom can do it. He's a great package of size, mobility and raw talent with the capability of taking charge, as he proved at age 18 when he was a key contributor to Sweden's gold medal at the Alberta World Juniors, making the tournament All-Star team in the process.
On the professional side, however, his progress has been much slower than the "very quickly" of MacT's high hopes. For one thing he has really taken a beating, has been nicked up on numerous occasions in each of the three seasons since Oilers drafted him #19 overall in 2011, part of the Dustin Penner return. Just a constant barrage of little things, but the news always seemed to be "Oscar has a lacerated thigh" or "Oscar is getting a precautionary check for concussion symptoms" or "Oscar left the rink in a walking boot after blocking a shot in practice". Add to that the one major injury occurred early in the 2012-13 season which ended it after just 11 games.
Suffice to say the transition to North America hasn't been as smooth, or as fast, as hoped/hyped. It hasn't turned out to be a simple transition right into Oilers top four and from there to the All-Rookie team, as happened with Swedish teammate Jonas Brodin in Minny. Instead, it's been the better part of a full season in Oklahoma City with indifferent results (45 GP, 1-8-9, -9) as Klefbom goes the way of many blueline prospects. It's a long hard apprenticeship to the NHL, with many promising kids lost along the wayside.
Klefbom has dropped slightly in our Top 25 Under 25 ranking from 8th last summer to 9th today, with all 10 panellists having him in the 8-10 range. Specifically, he has dropped behind Martin Marincin, whose impressive debut with the big club shows how painstaking is the apprenticeship from prospect to NHLer. Another Euro defence prospect of impressive pedigree (Marincin was draft first overall in the CHL's Import Draft in 2010, the same year the Oil stole him 46th overall in the NHL Draft.) From there it was two years of junior and a full season and a half with Todd Nelson's Barons before Marincin was deemed ready. Even then, pleasantly surprising as he's been, he faces many miles of big league hardtop before his apprenticeship is complete.
Klefbom is a year and a half younger than Marincin and a full year behind him on the development curve, arguably two given his lost season. He went the Swedish League route rather than CHL, arguably a tougher route though the injury renders the point moot. But at this point he's got 45 professional games in North America to Marincin's 142, something for Oil fans to bear in mind if he struggles when he gets the call. Which could come as early as next game, given Jeff Petry's back woes and Oscar's own reported recovery from a "minor" shoulder issue.
Another comparable familar to Oilers fans is Ladislav Smid, a somewhat higher draft choice (9th overall) who came over and played his 19-year-old season in the AHL, when he was about six months younger than Klefbom is now. Ladi was touted somewhat similarly to Oscar -- big, mobile, team player, leader -- who actually showed a little offensive upside in that one year with Portland Pirates with 28 points in 71 games. Turns out we should have paid more attention to his playoff output (16 games, 1 assist) but by the numbers, he still had a significantly better year than Klefbom is now. I tend to accept the reports that the Swede is much more a natural puckmover, just goes to show that trying to project numbers from the AHL to NHL is problematic, especially for defenders. Heck, Steve Smith scored 9 points in a full AHL season and went on to record three seasons of 50+ points in the NHL. If Klefbom turns out the that guy, Oilers fans would be over the moon.
I've had little opportunity to see Klefbom play this season, so thought I would turn to a few reliable sources who have to provide a take. The names will be familiar to longstanding C&B readers, since all but one of them are, like myself, C&B alumni. All are cautiously optimistic about Klefbom's potential. Take it away, Neal Livingston, now of the Barons blog Tend the Farm:
Oscar Klefbom is a work in progress in every conceivable way. He has had moments of great success, moments of awful play, moments of injury - but as a whole he is progressing very nicely.
There have been surprises on the farm in terms of defenders this season (Gernat scoring, defending well), and those that have continued to flourish in a more prospect oriented farm team (Taylor Fedun, what a sharp AHL defender). But none has had more of a target on his back than Oscar Klefbom. The Oilers desperately need him to be good, and he desperately wants to be.
He struggles, as most young defensive prospects tend to do, in the "between the ears" portion of the game. Exhibit A - cradling the puck behind the net, planning to bring it up the ice, he elects to pass about two strides too early, gives the puck up. This scenario has played out various times as well as other decision making discrepancies that you would expect from such a youthful defender. But it isn't all bad news.
He continues to be one of the fasest footed defenders, great with his stick, strong on the puck, and increasingly strong around the edges of the rink. With all these really good, God-given qualities, the thinking part of the game will come with time.
In 39 AHL games to date he only has 6 points, and that sorta scares folks, but in the end he just isn't that type of player. A puck mover indeed, capable of making his defensive partner look good (mostly David Musil, occasionally Denis Grebeshkov), but the strong/sturdy/big bodied defender that Oilers fans hoped Plante and Teubert could have been over the last handful of seasons.
He may not be the best defensive player on the Barons this season (Fedun clearly the best), but he certainly is the one to keep an eye on in the coming months and seasons. He will be a good one.
-- Neal Livingston
Patricia Teter of The Artful Puck summarizes:
Klefbom is an impressive defenseman, fast and big, which is a great pairing. He’s a work in progress, developing, feeling more comfortable, but he still suffers from some decision making issues, having a rough game now and then.
Patience is key because there is lots of potential here.-- Patricia Teter
Patricia's closing words get to the nub of issue. his next NHL game will be his first, and there surely will remain a significant process from there before he's a useful contributor in the big picture. But it would be a breakthrough for Oil fans if we could practice our patience by actually watching this guy's growing pains after hearing a whole lot about him for the last thousand or so days.