Hockey is so close you can nearly taste it!
The Edmonton Oilers are set to open up the 2021 season against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday and I could not be more excited. An exciting offseason by Ken Holland has given the team depth in a few key areas that could go a long way in ensuring an Oilers playoff berth. Among some of those key additions were some new faces on the blueline. Tyson Barrie and Slater Koekoek are impressive additions while young guys like Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear are poised to take the next step in their development.
These four players are sure to give Edmonton some good hockey, but the group isn’t without some struggles. The team’s top defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, will miss the entire season with a shoulder injury and they lost a key depth guy in Matt Benning to free agency. With all this in mind, I decided to take a look at what an optimal Oilers defensive group will look like.
I did something very similar with the Oilers' forward lines earlier this week and, as I mentioned then, I would like to note that these defensive pairs ARE NOT predictions for the opening night roster. Rather, I am looking at what they could look like by season’s end if everything goes according to plan.
That should be more than enough exposition, let’s get into the fun stuff.
Darnell Nurse — Ethan Bear
The loss of Oscar Klefbom for the season means that the mantle of #1 defenceman will fall upon Darnell Nurse. Nurse has had his fair share of problems in his own zone and it is a bit of a stretch to expect him to play up to the expectations of a top-pair defender. That being said, he is still a fairly young player and is only one year removed from a fantastic season. Nurse has all the raw tools to be a good two-way defender and if he can pull it together just a little bit more it would help the Oilers fill the void left by Klefbom.
His partner is none other than Ethan Bear, who is fresh off signing a two-year deal with the club. Bear burst onto the NHL scene last season after helping the team fend off an early injury to Adam Larsson and he hasn’t looked back. His ability to move the puck up the ice helped Edmonton’s transition game and he showed flashes of brilliance in his own end. He is still a young player, however, so we shouldn’t be rejoicing just yet.
This is a very risky top pairing for the Oilers. Both players are young and relatively unproven in a feature role such as this one. The bulk of my fear lies in whether or not Nurse can take the next step in his development and improve his defensive zone coverage. If he can this pair could be a godsend, but if he can’t it could be a difficult season.
Caleb Jones — Adam Larsson
Down on the second pair, we have another young defender from the 2015 draft class in Caleb Jones. While he might not be as good as his superstar brother in Columbus, Jones has shown well in his time with the Oilers. He shares a lot of similarities with Bear in that they both have great puck movement skills and are decent in their own end of the ice albeit Jones is a little less polished than Bear. A second pairing role seems like a good place for him to play this season and, as with Bear, we should expect some growing pains.
Rounding out the top four is Adam Larsson, who I have the least amount of worry for thus far. It has been a few rough seasons for the Swede but I think he is finally in a place where his play can be consistent. By now we have a full understanding of the hardnosed defensive-focused style of play that he brings to the table and we should expect more of the same as the season progresses.
Jones and Larsson as the team’s second pairing works nicely. Jones is a budding two-way defender that is sure to jump up in the play every now and then while Larsson is the tried and true stay-at-home guy. I think Larsson will act as a good mentor for Jones and this pair could surprise with how effective they are.
Slater Koekkoek — Tyson Barrie
The bottom pairing features a couple of players in their debut season with the Oilers. I opted to go with Slater Koekkoek over Kris Russell for the sole reason that I think Koekkoek is better. I do expect Russell to be in this spot to start the season but as it wears on Koekkoek’s rugged style and sizable frame will eventually win over Dave Tippett. He is a fine defensive player and has the fancy stats to back him up. He’ll be a great yin to his partner’s yang.
That partner will be Tyson Barrie. Long heralded as a dream addition for the Oilers will wind up as the team’s third pair RD. He is coming off a dismal season in Toronto that saw his market value plummet but don’t expect that to last. Much of Barrie’s value will be seen on the powerplay as he will head up the league’s reigning number one unit.
It will be interesting to see how this pairing does but I think it also has the potential to be effective. They will be handling lower competition so maybe that works to Barrie’s advantage a little bit.
Trust me when I say that I wanted to put Bouchard somewhere in the top six. Edmonton’s 2018 first-round pick has reached the point in his career where he could be considered NHL-ready but I just don’t see a good spot for him right now. The right-side is full of quality NHL regulars and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to slot Bouchard ahead of any of them at this point.
This isn’t to say that the 2021 season will be a wash for Bouchard as I fully expect him to appear in a handful of games, but if he can win out a more permanent position is really anybody’s guess. I couldn’t justify not including him here and I couldn’t figure out where he would go on the roster so I have him here as the wildcard.
I am not nearly as enthusiastic about the defensive group as I am with the forward group. While I think the forwards have a nice blend of veteran and youth I do not think that's the case for the defence. While Bear and Jones have shown well in their limited time in the NHL the fact that they are in the position to be top four guys is concerning. I trust that they have the skill to play those roles but it isn’t a sure thing. Combine that with the fact that Nurse is coming off a mediocre year and I have a lot of concerns about the top four.
However, I believe that there is almost an equal chance of the opposite happening and this group does completely fine over the course of the season. It’s a group that we won’t know will work until we see them play over an extended period of time and that is honestly just adding to the sense of anticipation before the season.
What would be your ideal defensive pairs?