Preseason hockey sucks.
We are at that point in time where hockey is so close, yet so far away at the same time. Instead of watching Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl we are stuck with Anthony Peluso and Brandon Manning.
Ok, well maybe it isn’t all bad. We have had a few great moments in this year’s preseason, including Neal’s first goal as an Oiler, Evan Bouchard’s sexy outlet passes and, most importantly, we have been subject to a very interesting battle for roster spots.
Last week I took a look at the very crowded battle for spots on the bottom 6 of the roster. Today I decided that we take a look at another area of the roster that isn’t quite set in stone: The defence.
Recent cuts have made the picture a little bit clearer but, with the season still a week away, there are bound to be more questions answered.
Before we get to roster hopefuls, lets take a look at what spots are up for grabs and who are locks to make the team on opening night:
Oscar Klefbom - (vacant)
Darnell Nurse - Adam Larsson
Kris Russell - (vacant)
This leaves two spots up for grabs, both of which are on the right-side. Benning might be pencilled into the top 6 for majority of Oiler fans, but his dismal preseason makes me think that his rope will be shorter than it has ever been. It would be a safe assumption to expect Benning to be bumped up next to Russell in the coming week, but for the sake of argument I have him in the 7th D spot.
Klefbom is heading into the most important season in his career. The Swede has been hampered with multiple injuries throughout the course of his career that has prevented him from hitting his stride, but he has shown incredible bursts when healthy. His usual partner, Adam Larsson, will be bumped down to play with Nurse on Dave Tippett’s shutdown pair, which leaves the top pair RD spot wide open.
Meanwhile, on the bottom pairing, there is a spot available for a rookie to steal. All signs are pointing to Russell returning to his natural LD spot, after spending the majority of Oilers career playing on his off-side, and will continue to be the hard-nosed defender that we have come to expect.
Who will fill these roles? Well there are 5 options: William Lagesson, Joel Persson, Evan Bouchard, Ethan Bear and Brandon Manning.
When it comes to Oscar Klefbom’s partner for the upcoming season there are really only two players who I could see taking up that role.
The early favourite is Joel Persson, who has been auditioning for the role since the beginning of preseason. Their first game together went as well as you could have hoped it to go. The pair played a total of 20:34 together, outshooting the opposition 18-11 while on the ice, as well as being on the ice for both Oiler goals in a 2-0 victory. Klefbom and Persson were both able to pick up assists on each goal.
It was a very impressive debut for the Swedish import, but question marks arose in his second game with Klefbom. The game was basically a write-off, as an inexperienced Oilers lineup was throttled 6-1 by a better Canuck’s lineup, but there was still a concern about how Persson and Klefbom looked.
The pair played 16:10 together, were outshot 11-5, and picked up a minus 1 on the night. The dominant play that they showed in their first game together was seemingly gone in their second outing.
This, of course, could be a direct result of the Oilers icing a bad lineup around the pairing, but you can never be too skeptical of imported defence man, especially when they are auditioning for a role of this importance.
Persson’s lone opponent for the 1RD spot is none other than Evan Bouchard. The 2018 first-round pick has had an impressive training camp with the Oilers this year and has earned high praise from Dave Tippett along the way.
Bouchard’s calm demeanour and smooth puck movement has made him one of the more impressive defencemen in Edmonton’s current stock of defensive prospects. He looked good in his 7 game stint with the Oilers last year and it looks like he is ready to take the next step in his development.
His usage during the preseason so far doesn’t suggest that he will be on the Oilers roster to start the year, playing with William Lagesson in his first game and then with Dmitri Samorukov in his second. This, however, could change as Edmonton still has three more games left before the season opens.
If Bouchard gets a chance to play with Klefbom and he excels, we could easily see him start the year with the Oilers. If he doesn’t, I expect him back down in Bakersfield. The Oilers won’t be using him on the bottom-pairing and will be glad to see him get big minutes in the AHL.
With Joel Persson and Evan Bouchard fighting for a spot on the top pair, we now move down to the that third pairing spot beside Kris Russell.
Leading the way for this roster spot is Ethan Bear, who is poised to make the team out of training camp for the second straight season. That isn’t to say that Bear actually played with the Oilers last season, as he was sent back to Bakersfield on October 6th, 2018....barely after the regular season started.
It is looking like a different situation for Ethan Bear this season. He has been one of the more impressive youngsters thus far.
His first preseason game saw him play 18:24 paired mainly with Brandon Manning. His poise on the blue line was impressive and, as Bob Stauffer alluded to earlier this month, Bear was a fair bit quicker than he was last year.
Bear’s offensive instincts seemed to have received a boost as well. He handles the puck calmly on the opposition’s blue line and he has a hell of a shot if he can get it through traffic.
If he is able to continue his stellar play for the remainder of the preseason, I think it is safe to say that he will be on the opening night roster.
Following closely behind Bear is perhaps one of the more NHL ready prospects currently playing in Bakersfield, William Lagesson.
Lagesson is entering his third season of professional hockey and is poised to make the leap to the NHL as soon as he gets the chance, which might be getting close. While I do think he trails behind Ethan Bear to land a permanent spot on the team, I also think that Lagesson is better suited for a third pairing spot.
What Lagesson lacks in offensive ability, he makes up for in the defensive zone. He is a punishing defender that can play a shutdown role. His ability to move the puck up to this teammates has been a pleasant surprise this preseason as well.
If the Oilers decide that they would rather let Bear continue to percolate in the AHL, they could very well opt to go with a more seasoned Lagesson to act as a stop-gap for higher end guys like Bouchard, Bear, and Caleb Jones.
If any of you follow me on Twitter you know about my disdain for Brandon Manning. I view him as a defender with absolutely zero value at the NHL and is a middling AHL defender at the best.
The trade that brought him to Edmonton was one of the most confusing and bizarre occurrences to happen in recent memory that I cannot concretely tell you how it happened.
If the Oilers decide to have a complete lapse in judgement and award Manning a spot on the roster it Is most definitely going to be as the 7th defender.
That’s all I have to say about him, something is wrong if he beats out Lagesson and Bear.
Here is my projected defensive group come October 2nd:
Oscar Klefbom - Joel Persson
Darnell Nurse - Adam Larsson
Kris Russell - William Lagesson
I don’t believe that the Oilers are ready to give Evan Bouchard top pairing minutes just yet. It would be in the best interest of both the player and the team that he spends some considerable time percolating in the AHL to get used to professional hockey. If he tears it up after the first month or so, bring him up, but don’t throw him in right away.
As for Lagesson making it over Ethan Bear, I think it is a matter of what they want from the third pairing. If they wanted a more offensive minded pair, Bear would make the team but, with Kris Russell being there, I don’t think that will be the case. Lagesson has shown promise as being great defensive defenceman that can move the puck and I believe that is why he will get the nod.
Give me your projections in the comments!