Imagine the scenario.
You've made it to the National Hockey League. Your game is rounding into form, and you figure to be a critical piece to your team's puzzle.
But you suffer an unavoidable setback. Just as you were hitting your stride, you're pulled from the game you love.
That was Oscar Klefbom's 2015-16.
An ordinary broken finger, he sustained after taking a puck to the hand in a game against the New York Rangers on December 12, 2015, evolved into an unrelenting series of setbacks for the young defenceman.
Oilers management and fans alike eagerly awaited his return in the month that followed. Having struggled defensively to start the season, blueline reinforcements were more than welcome.
April 6, 2016.
Klefbom gazed down from the press box as the Oilers wrapped up their final game at Rexall Place with a decisive 6-2 win over Vancouver. The post-game farewell festivities began and Oilers alumni and current players were announced onto the ice one-by-one. Number 77 was called out, and there was a palpable roar from the Oil Country faithful. He was missed.
The beginning of the 2015 season saw the Oilers developing what they felt was long-awaited stability on their back end. The off-season acquisition of veteran blueliner Andrej Sekera, the surprising emergence of Brandon Davidson, along with the growth in Darnell Nurse's game were all pieces to the defensive puzzle. Klefbom had clearly become another crucial cornerstone in the architecture of the Oilers defence.
The Oilers promising young Swedish blueliner had quickly built off the end of his 2014-15 season when he, after signing a seven-year deal with the Oilers in September, came blazing out of the gate to start 2015-16 with 11 points in 20 games to lead the team's d-men in scoring.
Along with a stabilizing presence on the blueline, the Oilers were seeing the emergence of the gifted two-way defender they drafted with their second pick at
the 2011 NHL Draft, 19th overall. They felt they had hit pay dirt on a patient defensive development plan.
Leading up to his hot start to the 2015-16 season, Klefbom experienced some hard rubbing from his skate on his left ankle that resulted in some discomfort, but any inflammation had subsided and he began the year feeling good. It wasn't until he was recovering from the broken finger in December that his attention was drawn to that foot once again.
It wasn't being sidelined that was unfamiliar territory, it was the mental battle that came along with the persistent setbacks.
"If you have shoulder surgery or knee surgery, you have a schedule to go off. They tell you six to eight weeks or four to six weeks. This is different. This is mentally tough." said Klefbom.
While Klefbom was dealing with the struggle of being out of the lineup, so too was his team. The Oilers felt the effects of his absence immediately, going 2-4-1 to finish December after his mid-month exit.
Suddenly, something totally unrelated to anything previous had become a serious cause for concern. The young d-man learned quickly that the type of infection that had developed on his ankle could be persistent. After a couple of attempts at clearing it up with antibiotics, cleaning the area surgically was the next option.
The progress was good, Klefbom said. He was back in skates and began conditioning for a New Year return in hopes of salvaging the second half of his season. But again, issues cropped up and his training had to wait. The continued complications with the ankle prevented him from even being able to put a skate on. It was then, in late January, Klefbom conceded the mental battle of this kind of sporadic recovery started to wear on him.
That next option ended up being a second surgery in February. Klefbom was suddenly faced with the reality that getting back into the lineup before the end of the season might not be feasible. The focus then shifted to tempering expectations.
"By that time, I tried not to concern myself with what they said about recovery time. I was just trying to stay positive and not give myself too much hope. It wasn't easy."
Come late January, the Oilers found themselves 6-11-3 without Klefbom in the lineup. They knew he'd be missed, but the effects of a depleted defensive group were showing as the grind of the season wore on.
February may have brought about the unfortunate reality of losing Klefbom for the season, but the injury bug on the Oilers blueline had been active all season. Just like a winter storm, December brought with it a bitterly cold rash of injuries to the back end.
The defensive corps the Oilers had solidified at the beginning of the season had been picked apart by injury as they neared the conclusion of their campaign, and Klefbom was feeling the helplessness of his situation more than ever.
"I was staying in the best physical and mental shape I could. I was in the gym three hours a day for months. But seeing the boys struggling on the ice, I just wanted to help."
But he couldn't.
"You feel powerless."
After accepting the fate of his season, Klefbom turned his attention to off-season recovery. If time was the only way to see the stubborn issue through, the young blueliner was prepared to be patient.
In fact, the next step to his recovery over the summer was patience alone. Klefbom was to leave the area alone, completely, including restricting much of his physical training to let his body build up the tissue as much as possible. Progress was steady and the next stop was Montreal to see a skate specialist, who, like Klefbom, was navigating uncharted territory.
"They had all these molds of other NHL players who had issues with their feet and required special skates. But no one really had issues in the same spot I did, so it was new for them as well," he said. "They were very excited because they wanted to solve the problem too. It was a learning process for us both."
A few trial runs later, and Klefbom found his fit. The right combination of padding and height on the skate boot was found. The issue was behind him, the area had healed and the skates were perfect.
Klefbom could now turn his attention to the ice, and unlike before when the finish line seemed blurry and ever-changing, the d-man could realistically set his sights on the 2016-17 season and picking up where he left off.
The 2016 Oilers off-season wasn't used only for healing physical ailments. There were holes in the lineup management felt needed tending to as well. General Manager Peter Chiarelli began that "healing process" in a big way on June 29. Chiarelli executed a polarizing deal that sent forward Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils, and brought Swedish defenceman Adam Larsson into the Oilers defensive fold.
When Chiarelli first joined the club in the summer of 2015, he made it known that the first season would be a feeling-out process for team and management alike. But after a full season spent analyzing the roster, management was determined to further bolster their young D group that started taking shape at the start of the previous season. They set their sights on Larsson, and got their man.
When the initial dust settled, it was fellow Swede Oscar Klefbom who was among the first to welcome his new teammate.
"Both Klefbom and Anton (Lander) reached out to me," said Larsson, following the trade.
"To get traded here when you know you have two friends, it makes the adjustment a lot quicker. I was really excited when I knew I was going to come here and play with these guys."
As the 2016 Oilers training camp began, it became clear that the framework of a new back end was starting to take shape.
"The rightie, leftie (combination) on defence is very significant," said Chiarelli, addressing the media following the trade for the right-shot Larsson.
With Klefbom's return for the 2016-17 season imminent, along with the fact that he was a left-shot defender, it seemed the Oilers had a vision for their top pair. Chiarelli didn't feel like he was getting just one new player as an upgrade from last year's defence.
"I look at it as getting another player back in (Klefbom)," Chiarelli said. "We really didn't have him for the bulk of the season. I think those two players will contribute greatly as to breaking the puck out and defending."
Head Coach Todd McLellan was also seeing opportunities emerge. Larsson's addition and Klefbom's return gave some instant flexibility on defence, and with that flexibility, a plan.
"If we can find common ground right off the bat and get two or three (defensive) pairs up and running, get them confident and get them feeling good about being on the ice with each other, that's something we're shooting for," said McLellan.
To no one's real surprise, the Swedish duo were paired together to start training camp, and management liked what they saw through pre-season. The tandem remained the anchor of the Oilers blueline to begin the team's inaugural season at Rogers Place.
Klefbom also felt the chemistry was instant, and attributed much of his comfort after a long-awaited return to having found some initial consistency in a defensive partner.
"It's been so good. Last year I played with a lot of different guys and it's tough to start reading off each other. So it feels really good on the ice with a stable D partner right now."
Through the first month of the season, the two are logging over twenty minutes each per night. Combined with the surge of another new pairing in Andrej Sekera and newcomer Kris Russell, the Oilers seem to have found real stability in their top-four-a far cry from where they were a year ago.
Despite finding what he feels is a consistent partner, Klefbom is hoping the long road to recovery will culminate in the resurgence of his offensive contributions as well.
"I still had a really good feeling about my play (before the injury). I was playing a lot of minutes but putting up some points too. I still want to see myself as that top-two, top-four defenceman who plays big minutes but is a two-way defender, so hopefully I'll put up some points this year too."
Klefbom smiled, "I'm just so happy to be back out there."
In what he described as a year of unknowns, frustration and the struggle to stay mentally positive, Klefbom is back, and he's back to the tune of a 7-2 Oilers start through October.
Klefbom sits leaned back and relaxed in his stall in the Oilers brand new dressing room at Rogers Place, legs outstretched and ankles crossed. He doesn't hide the smile on his face, and why would he? His eyes light up as he echoes a sentiment that seems to be surrounding the team right now.
"I think it's time to make up for lost time."
By Cait MacPhail • View More In Depths