With the likes of Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones joining the team as regulars this year and Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg on the way in the next few seasons, the Edmonton Oilers defence could become one of the best in the NHL.
It seems like a miracle and a blessing all at once. For years the Edmonton Oilers were the laughing stock of the NHL and their defensive depth was no short of pathetic. They had spent three consecutive first overall picks on forward with no end in sight. It seemed like all hope was lost for a once-proud franchise whose alumni include Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey and dare it to be said, Chris Pronger. But they managed to turn it around and have yet to look back.
Edmonton Oilers Defence Looks Bright
The 2015 NHL Draft
For one to understand how the Oilers managed to build their defensive depth so quickly, one must look at the 2015 NHL Draft. In that draft, the Oilers got superstar captain Connor McDavid first overall. They also drafted two players that would, along with William Lagesson (2014), become the pillars of their development system during the short but fruitful Peter Chiarelli era. Those two players where Caleb Jones, drafted 117th overall, and Ethan Bear, 124h overall. One should also note that John Marino was also part of this cohort of players taken 154th overall. Both Jones and Bear would be sent to the WHL for two years before going pro full time in 2017-18. Bear returned to Seattle where he would help them win their first-ever WHL crown. While Jones, who joined Portland, would go on to represent the US at the 2017 World Junior Championship.
2016-2019 NHL Draft: Adding more D-men
Following the 2015 NHL draft. The Oilers would add nine defensemen throughout the next four drafts. They included the likes of Dmitry Samorukov(2017), Evan Bouchard(2018) and Philip Broberg(2019). All of whom have shown great progress after being drafted, especially Samorukov who was drafted 84th overall. In his last year of junior, he helped the OHL Guelph Storm upset the Ottawa 67’s in the 2019 OHL finals. One player of note from the 2016 class would be Marcus Niemelainen who some believe could become a reliable bottom-six defenseman in the future.
Both Samorukov and Bouchard turned pro this past season while Broberg played this year in Sweden for Skelleftea AIK of the SHL. He is also part of the Oilers roster that was brought into the bubble for this year’s playoffs after an excellent showing in camp.
Edmonton Oilers Defence Before the 2019-20 NHL season
Before this past season, the Oilers blueline slowly began to take form under Peter Chiarelli. Darnell Nurse (7th overall 2013), who was the Oilers only major prospect on the blueline at the time, was NHL ready and after a nine-game stint in the AHL, he joined Oscar Klefbom (19th overall 2011) and Brandon Davidson (162 overall 2010) as the only drafted and developed bluelines on the Oilers.
The Oilers would go on to add the likes of Matt Benning as a college free agent in 2016, Adam Larsson via the Taylor Hall trade, and Kris Russell via free agency in 2017. This would form the core group that will remain together until the 2020-21 season, baring trades.
The Current Edmonton Oilers Defence
Currently, the Oilers blueline core consist of:
Darnell Nurse (L) Ethan Bear (R) Oscar Klefbom (L) Adam Larsson (R) Caleb Jones (L) Kris Russell (R) Matt Benning (R)
This could be subject to change come next year if Evan Bouchard makes the team. There could also be a chance that Broberg impresses with his stay in the bubble during the COVID 19 playoffs for the Oilers and makes the team come next year.
However, there is little chance that both make the team next year. William Lagesson is a wild card to make the team as a starting six, however, he would be an excellent option as a seventh defenseman.
What Does the Future Hold?
If all goes well and the development of Bear and Jones continues going up, and Bouchard and Broberg become full-fledge NHLers by 2022-23, the Edmonton Oilers defence could be one of the best in the NHL.
However, there is one question that remains. What will the Oilers contract situation be in 2022? Both Jones and Nurse will need new contracts. While Benning and Bear’s situations remain unknown regarding new contracts for both defensemen this year. With the salary cap remaining flat for the foreseeable future the Oilers could be in a cap crunch before they know it.
There is one bright spot out of all of this. The contracts of both Larsson and Russell expire in 2021. If the Oilers believe both Broberg and Bouchard are ready for NHL duty in the 2021-22 season; they could afford to lose both Larsson and Russell. This would free up around $8M in cap space, which could potentially be enough to sign Nurse and Jones in 2022.
If the Oilers manage to keep their drafted and developed players, the Edmonton Oilers defence could look quite dangerous.
Darnell Nurse (L) Ethan Bear (R) Oskar Klefbom (L) Evan Bouchard (R) Philip Broberg (L) Caleb Jones (L) Matthew Benning (R)
With this blueline, the Oilers would have one extra left shot in Jones in the top six. However, he has played his off-side in Bakersfield and succeded, so there should be no concern with him playing the right side. Although it is tempting to include Samorukov, the Oilers would be better off trading him and Lagesson for picks as Lagesson could fetch the Oilers a fourth-round pick and if Samorukov continues improving he could potentially fetch them a second-rounder at his peak value. They could also be used in a trade to help the team go on a playoff run.
And who knows, the Oilers could add a couple more high-end defensemen in future drafts and improve their depth even more.
Considering how poorly run the Edmonton Oilers defence and prospect system was before 2015, they have taken a massive stride out of mediocrity and have made themselves respectable once again. Although many fans will remember Peter Chiarelli for the bad, one must thank him for the work he put towards improving the Edmonton Oilers defence and its depth. Now with the added guidance of Ken Holland, the Oilers are closer to becoming Stanley Cup contenders than they’ve been in a long time.
If they manage to keep the band together long enough for their young defensemen to graduate to the NHL level, the Oilers will be a tough team to beat in the coming years. If this prospect group is any indicator of as to what could be yet to come, Oilers fans should be excited for not only the blueline’s future but the future of the team itself.