The real reason the Edmonton Oilers are looking for a Top 4 defenseman

Oscar Klefbom #77 of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images)
Oscar Klefbom #77 of the Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images) /

The Edmonton Oilers desire to move a top four defenseman isn’t that surprising at all.

At the end of the season, Edmonton Oilers management had their perennial exit meeting, the purpose of which was to identify areas of need. During the offseason, they will be looking to acquire players to address these areas. Those players would be added either through trade or by free agent signing.

If the rumors are to be believed, those needs are:

  1. Adding a 1A or 1B Goalie
  2. Adding a 3rd line Centre
  3. Adding a top six Winger
  4. Moving one (or two) top 4 defensemen

The first three are not controversial. But the fourth took many fans by surprise. The result has been continued discussion about why, or who, the Oilers would target. I think I know why. It all has to do with point shots. Let me explain.

The Oilers’ Depth Chart

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The Oilers’ current depth at D is as follows:

First pair

  1. Klefbom (left side)
  2. Larsson (right side)

Second pair

  1. Nurse (left side)
  2. Bear (right side)

Third pair

  1. Russell (left side)
  2. Benning (right side)

First Pair – Klefbom and Larsson

I believe injuries this last year made the first pairing look worse than it actually is. Although this could still be a good reason to consider moving either of them out.

On the other hand, Klefbom and Larsson are not making first pairing money. Their cap hits are each only $4.17 million. They could be your second pair, if only Bear and Nurse were ready to be the first pair.

Even still, taking a mediocre first pair and paying them second pair money still makes a position of mediocrity (or even weakness) into a position of cap flexibility.

Klefbom was near the top of the league in minutes per game last year. He came into his own on the Power Play, helping make it the league’s best. He has a bomb of a shot, and offensive upside. He moves the puck well out of his own end. If he is moved, it will show.

Larsson is a legitimate shut down defender who plays the toughest minutes of any defenseman on the team. His absence from the lineup last year was palpable. If he is moved, it will also show.

Larsson’s also on the last year of his deal. So any kind of one-for-one trade can be ruled out.

If Larsson is moved, it’s to clear space for a player testing free agency. But any free agent would require the Oilers to commit to:

  1. cap space the Oilers don’t really have, and
  2. major term, which the Oilers don’t really want.

Second Pair – Nurse and Bear

Ethan Bear was one of the brightest surprises for the Oilers last year. He stepped into the lineup as a rookie and played meaningful, big time minutes. He creates space for himself with quick acceleration, has a good outlet pass, and a good shot.

He wasn’t the best in his own end, but rookies never are.  He kept his head above water, and his best hockey is yet to come. He is entering Restricted Free Agency this year, so it is expected that he will imminently sign a deal with the team.

Darnell Nurse is tough to play against like Larsson, and generates a good amount of offence like Klefbom. He also likes to join the rush, something Klefbom used to do more often. At $5.6 million, Nurse’s cap hit is also reasonable.

For what they are, any team would want Darnell Nurse or Ethan Bear. Which is why it makes no sense for the Oilers to move them. My guess is they wouldn’t.

Third Pair – Russell and Benning

The conventional wisdom is that Benning and Russell would not be able to take on top 4 minutes. But they are both above average 3rd pairing defenders.

Many fans presume that Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard are ready to step into the 3rd pairing next year. I’ll believe it when I see it. Even if they could, they would not be an improvement over Russell or Benning.

But the cap space might be more useful to the Oilers, even if the 3rd pairing ceases to become a point of strength.

As a result, signing Benning (entering Restricted Free Agency just like Bear) may or may not be a priority for Oilers management this year.

Russell’s cap hit is $4 million, but he will only cost $1.5 million next year.  Daryl Katz has shown multiple times, most recently with the Sekera buyout and the Lucic trade, that he will put up the money to make the team better. So we can’t rule out a situation where the Oilers move him for the cap space.

In fact, it’s probably pretty likely they will move on both of these players.

The Takeaway

The Oilers are currently focused on developing prospects, not giving them away.

In order to add depth, they need to free up cap space.

Development usually means avoiding big free agent signings. But if they are moving out a Top 4 D, a free agent signing seems to be the only option.

If this happens, the piece leaving will probably be Klefbom or Larsson.

However, this logic seems a little counterintuitive to me.

The D core didn’t seem to be an area of glaring weakness. Adding forward depth and a goalie are higher priorities on their list.

If the Oilers are trying to make cap savings on Benning and Russell, they’d spend any savings plus a little more to add a Top 4 D. That’s like taking two steps forward and three steps back.

What’s Really Going On

Let’s go back to the exit meeting. The Oilers were the best in the league for special teams, and one of the worst at even strength.

I suspect that one issue Oilers Management identified was shots from the point.

Klefbom and Nurse are decent at shot generation. Larsson is not, and never has been. Ethan Bear can shoot, but he didn’t actually shoot that much last year.

As a result, there wasn’t much shot generation on the right side of the ice. Fewer goals, fewer rebounds, less offence, more chances going the opposite way.

How the Top 4 Oilers D ranked in Total Shots this year (league wide)

  1. Nurse: 5th
  2. Klefbom: 21st [11th had he played all the games]
  3. Bear: 72nd
  4. Larsson: 132nd [75th had he played all the games]

All stats in this article taken from Natural Stat

If I assume that every team has 2 pairs of D on this list, then the top 2 D should at least be in the top 60, and the top 4 should be in the top 120 (31 teams x 4 D per team). So 4 D in the top 75 actually isn’t that bad.

But those shots need to convert into offence. And this is where the real problem lies.

How the Top 4 Oilers D ranked in Shot Percentage this year (league wide)

  1. Bear: 97th
  2. Nurse: 164th
  3. Klefbom: 171st
  4. Larsson: 203rd

How the Top 4 Oilers D ranked in Rebounds Created this year (league wide)

  1. Bear: 54th
  2. Klefbom: 71st [49th adjusted over a full year]
  3. Nurse: 125th
  4. Larsson: 147th [93rd adjusted over a full year]

In this light, it should be obvious that point shots are a major problem. They are shooting enough, but they aren’t generating enough goals or rebounds. Shots from the point simply aren’t as dangerous as they need to be.

And worse, the Oilers Top 4 don’t stack up well in limiting offence going the other way.

How the Top 4 Oilers D ranked in Corsi % this year (for all players who played 800 minutes or more):

  1. Bear: 96th;
  2. Nurse: 104th;
  3. Larsson: 124th
  4. Klefbom: 130th.

What It All Means

If Oilers Management has also identified point shots as an area of weakness, they would target a defenseman that can not only put lots of shots on net, but dangerous shots as well.

That also probably means they would be looking to move Larsson out.

Larsson isn’t known for his offense, and last year it was the worst of the Top 4, and well beneath the mark, even for a second pairing D. More importantly, he wasn’t able to pick up the slack on the defensive side of the puck. Perhaps he has an injury we don’t know about. But the fact remains – he did not play like a first pairing D.

Klefbom didn’t perform overly well either at even strength. Perhaps he’s banged up too. But he is part of the league’s best PP, generates more offence, and is locked up for several more years. I can’t help but think the team would rather keep him.

That being said, it may be impossible to sign two Free Agents (or trade for one, in Ekman-Larsson’s case). If the only available Free Agents shoot left, they may have no choice but to move Klefbom.

And this may be a good year to sign a D. Names like Ekman-Larsson, Pietrangelo, Krug and Ekblad are all potentially available this offseason. Any of them would be an upgrade over any of the Oilers’ current Top 4.

My Take

It’s worth mentioning that the Oilers have a prospect in Evan Bouchard, who might one day check a lot of the boxes Larsson didn’t last year.

So the Oilers could potentially avoid committing major cap space and term to a Free Agent simply by waiting. In the meantime, their other prospects would continue to develop. And then the Oilers would have a solid team in about 3 years, loaded with great veteran players, and good young players, all with good contracts.

It all comes down to whether they think they need to do something to win now. And given what the current Oilers management has been saying all along about the virtues of patience, they may just keep the Top 4 they have.

Next. 2020 NHL Mock Draft. dark

And for the record, I would be OK with that. That’s because in my view, the only way to win under the cap is to build your team from the inside out.