Oscar Klefbom’s body of work in the NHL to date sees him move up a couple of spots in this year’s edition of the Top 25 Under 25.
Klefbom has been a fixture in the Top 25 Under 25 since he was drafted in 2011. That summer’s version saw the young Swede slot in at #10, and he’s been inching up the list ever since. At 22, there’s still time for the former first round pick to keep climbing.
This year’s climb can be attributed to Klefbom finally asserting himself as an everyday NHL defender. Only featuring in 17 NHL games last season, Klefbom took advantage of his early season call-up and managed 60 games in the majors in 2015. Though at times his youth and inexperience were laid bare, Klefbom started to show flashes of being the player the Oilers envisioned when they drafted him.
Klefbom possesses all of the tools required of a top-4 defenseman in today’s NHL. At 6’3’’, 210 lbs, he has the size to handle the rigors of the big, bad Western Conference. With a long, smooth stride and the ability to make smart, crispy puck plays, Klefbom has the attributes to develop into a true top pairing defenseman – arguably the most coveted asset in the NHL. If that development were to occur this year, the Oilers’ current group might stand a chance. In fact, the Oilers probably need that to happen to have a sniff at the post season. As it stands, I don’t think they’re quite a playoff group yet. At least not on defense. But again, this isn't Klefbom's fault.
Klefbom saw his TOI/G jump from 15:47 in 2013-14 to 21:59 in 2014-15, with most of that extra ice coming at evens or shorthanded. His zone starts at evens were a bit less severe this season, and in turn Klefbom saw his P/60 rate improve – he was actually more productive than Justin Schultz by that measure. For context, here’s a look at some of the NHL’s best young defenders in their age 21 season.
Despite a pretty large CF% gap and a slight gulf in offensive production, the numbers here are kind of encouraging. Klefbom is surely one or two tiers below these players, but these numbers do give us some reason to be optimistic that he could be a mainstay in Edmonton’s top-4 for years to come. Playing 21+ minutes in the NHL at 21 isn’t to be scoffed at. Last season only one 21-year old defenseman of any consequence played more per game than Klefbom: his old partner i brott Jonas Brodin – a 2014 Calder finalist. Let's see how these same elite players - and Justin Schultz - did in their age 22 season.
Karlsson got hurt. Hedman exploded. Subban, Doughty, and Ekman-Larsson more or less maintained their production. Just for fun, I included Schultz's age-22 season. Remember that? When we all still thought he was amazing? Anyways, the point of this exercise is just to benchmark what elite numbers look like for 22 year old defensemen. That's it, that's all. Back to Klefbom.
So good was Klefbom’s 2015 season (relative to his teammates at least) that heading into this July, he was probably the Oilers’ best defenseman after the club traded away Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin. This is a testament to his promising development, but also an indication of his old (and, sort of worringly, his new) boss’ incompetence. Thank god Peter Chiarelli also brought in Andrej Sekera to help Klefbom with the heaving lifting this year. If only Jeff Petry the Edmonton Oiler was still a thing. Imagine?
This season, I expect Klefbom to marshal the left side of the second pairing beside Schultz. I’d be surprised if the Oilers ran Klefbom-Sekera as the top pairing but if so, Young Oscar showed us this season that he might just have what it takes to stay afloat in such circumstances. Personally, I think the Oilers would be better served throwing Sekera-Fayne to the dogs every night, giving Klefbom-Schultz a chance to take advantage of lesser matchups. I have time for either approach, and think Klefbom can do more good than harm in either role. He’s a smart player who can add value in all three game states, and is poised to build off of last year’s successful campaign. If he can find a way to add a little more offense at the NHL level and continue to improve his two-way game, the Oilers’ left side could be stabilized for a long time. Here’s hoping.