Dave Tippett and Associate Coach Jim Playfair appear ready to break up the Swedish duo of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom. Playfair hinted at the idea in August of a shutdown pair that would see Larsson team up with Darnell Nurse. Although the duo struggled in limited minutes a season ago, they did play well together in 2017-18.
If Larsson and Nurse are to run team up on a shutdown pairing, that leaves Klefbom without an obvious partner. For my money, Klefbom is the best defender the Oilers have. He’s strong in his own end but can move the puck well, has offensive instincts and always seems to be pushing the play in the right direction. The Oilers are a better club when Klefbom is on the ice.
Who he plays with is a major item in training camp. The Oilers don’t have a singular force on the blueline, they’ll need all three pairings to be up to par and ready to handle their respective roles. That means whoever rides shotgun with Klefbom must be up to the task of a top-four role.
Whoever wins this job must be able to play the right side, that much is obvious. That rules out Kris Russell, who Playfair and Tippett both admit they want back on the left side. The candidates are limited in number and all come with serious concerns.
I count three potential options, with two players holding an outside chance at the job.
Matt Benning: The leader in the clubhouse for this job, Benning is in an interesting spot. He’s a proven NHL defender, but to this point his ceiling has been that of third pair defender. He struggled in a top-four role early last season and took time to recover when he was finally moved down the depth chart.
He’s solid at everything, but not great at any one skill. He can move the puck, though, which is key. Benning is also entering a contract year and could be trade bait as the Oilers look to make room for their young defenders. He might be on the second pair on opening night, but the odds are just as good that he is in another city.
Joel Persson: To me, Persson is the most interesting candidate for the job. Why? He’s proven to be a strong offensive defender who can run a powerplay in Sweden. Of course, that means nothing in the NHL but it is a good arrow. Persson has had a lot of success in a very good professional league.
We don’t know much about the Swede, but he can move the puck and has good speed. He’s an intriguing player, because he could fall anywhere on the depth chart or he could prove that he can’t play at this level. I think he is going to get a long look in camp, mostly because his skills fit Edmonton’s needs like a glove.
Persson finished with 31 points (6-25-31) in 50 games with Vaxjo HC of the SHL last season.
Evan Bouchard: Yes, the Oilers want to take their time and slowplay their prospects now that Ken Holland is in charge. Sometimes, players are ready earlier than the expected timeline. Bouchard might be such a player.
He was the most dominant offensive defender in the OHL in each of the last two seasons, and posted eight points in as many games during the Bakersfield Condors’ Calder Cup Playoff run. Bouchard looked good during a brief seven game NHL stint a season ago as well.
He finished averaging 12:21 per night with a positive possession number (55.4% Corsi For) and one goal. If numbers aren’t your thing, his sublime outlet passes and offensive instincts probably did the trick.
Bouchard will need to improve his defensive game, and a stint in Bakersfield is likely to help him. Don’t count him out, however. He has the skills to make this battle interesting.
Caleb Jones: Jones thrived in a third pair role last December when injuries struck, but looked like a fish out of water once he was forced up the depth chart. A natural left shot, Jones played mostly on the right side in Bakersfield last season.
Odds are, Jones will be on the third pair if he makes the team. He’s proven he can handle that role, and it is probably best for him to start down the lineup. His mobility and passing skills make him a good fit for the modern game. I’m not sure Tippett will want to start him on his off-side in his first full NHL season, however.
Ethan Bear: Everyone seems to be forgetting about Bear, who was viewed as being well ahead of Jones a season ago. Bear battled injury last season, but quietly put together a strong AHL season with 31 points (6-25-31) in 52 games. Bear chipped in four more points (2-2-4) in eight playoff contests with the Condors.
He’s another mobile defender with strong passing skills. Bear can run a powerplay, and has a shot that makes opponents respect him in the offensive zone. Like many young defenders, however, he has some coverage issues and must improve in this area.
He’s healthy and coming in well under the radar. Bear has a chance to shock some people over the next three weeks and make a push for this job.
Who Gets It?:
There has been a big push from Oilers media for Persson lately, which makes me think that he’ll get a long look with Klefbom in camp. Both Swedes are fast, skilled and can move the puck. Those skills should thrive if they are assigned softer minutes. A Nurse-Larson shutdown pair might make that kind of role a reality.
I think in the end this will be a two-man race between Persson and Benning, with Persson winning it in the end. I don’t think the Oilers will rush Bouchard, and I don’t think they want to throw Bear or Jones to the wolves right away.
I’d expect the following defensive pairings when the Oilers battle Vancouver on October 2nd.
Darnell Nurse – Adam Larsson
Oscar Klefbom – Joel Persson
Kris Russell – Matt Benning