As part of edmontonoilers.com’s countdown to 2016-17, we will be publishing a 5-on-5 series. For the five weeks leading up to rookie camp, we take a look at five questions for this Oilers team heading into the new season. The series ends September 15, as the Oilers rookies report for duty and our pre-season coverage begins.
5. Will the defence be improved?
Priority number one for the Oilers this off-season was adding to a defence on a team that allowed the fourth-most shots against per game (31.1) and fourth-most goals per game (2.95) in 2015-16.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story of a defensive unit, but improvement was necessary.
Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Peter Chiarelli wasn’t shy in his declarations of need on the back end heading into the Draft and free agency. At his season’s end press conference, Chiarelli said he felt confident the club would be able to upgrade their defensive core during the summer. Trade was the most likely scenario for an immediate improvement, and that’s the route Chiarelli inevitably went.
Following a Draft in which the Oilers invested multiple picks in their blueline pipeline, Chiarelli would make a move to shake up his roster greatly.
Chiarelli acquired Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils on June 29, in exchange for Taylor Hall. The move, most certainly, was need driven.
In order to get a young, potential top-pair, right-shot defender, Chiarelli had to give up a prized offensive asset. But could the return be just what the doctor ordered?
Larsson, 23, was taken fourth overall in the 2011 NHL Draft by the Devils. Defensively, 2015-16 was a breakout season for the young blueliner.
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Larsson finished second on the Devils in time on ice per game, playing on average 22:30. Paired with Andy Greene, Larsson matched up against the toughest competition and was +15 on a team that allowed the seventh-fewest shots per night (28.6) and eighth-fewest goals per game (2.46).
“We’ve added what I assess is a top defenceman. He’s going to be a two at some point,” Chiarelli said of Larsson.
So with Larsson added to the group, it shifts other young guys down a bit in the minutes pecking order. That could be good for the development of players like Darnell Nurse, 21, who averaged 20:13 in his first full NHL season (Nurse played only nine games in the AHL in 2015-16).
In addition to adding bodies for better distribution of minutes, the Oilers look to have more bodies in general.
2015-16 was a disappointing season for injuries. Arguably the team’s best defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, played just 30 NHL games before a lower body injury forced a premature end to his year. Having Klefbom back healthy and likely pairing him with his fellow Swede, Larsson, could automatically provide a boost to the group’s performance.
Brandon Davidson had a breakout campaign, earning NHL status after years of hard work in the minors. He too saw his season cut short due to injuries. Davidson played just 51 games. In those games, Davidson played 19:11 per night but as the season rolled along and he performed better and better, the 24 year-old was routinely shouldering a larger load of minutes.
|Photo Getty Images. |
Another year of experience could also provide a benefit to the Oilers. Of their top four minutes-eaters on the back end this past season, three are 24 or under in age. Jordan Oesterle, who became a surprise contributor down the stretch averaged 21:41 per game. Klefbom is 23, and led the whole roster with 21:53 per game when healthy. Nurse is only 21. Another year of competition should help players like those three make a developmental jump in 2016-17.
Griffin Reinhart, 22, is also another year older and adds to the competition.
The Oilers needed a top pair, right-shot defenceman and feel they got their man in Larsson. Although there is still a perceived need on the back end for a power play quarterback, Chiarelli is content to sit and wait on any other moves.
“I’m gonna let the dust settle a little bit before we go out looking again,” Chiarelli said following free agency.
The hope is that Larsson could produce more offensively in Edmonton than he did in a defence-first role in New Jersey's system (69 points in 274 games). It’s a responsibility and challenge Larsson is eager to tackle.
“I think I can take an even bigger step,” said Larsson. “It was a lot of focus on defence last year and penalty kill. The next step is more offence and hopefully a little more power-play time.”
While Larsson is ready to take on more offensive responsibility, the Oilers want to bring him into that role slowly.
“We’ve got to take our time with him,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “I don’t want to be bold and tell fans and even his teammates that he’s going to play in a situation or that situation. We’ve got to take some time with him and we’ve got to make him comfortable with what he does best, and that’s playing regular minutes and penalty killing and playing a good defensive game. Do I think the offence is there? Yeah, I do. I think in the future we can talk about working him into those roles, but right now we need to just make sure he gets comfortable here.”
The Oilers hope Larsson fills a need and continues to develop in what should be a growth season for the young defender.
The Larsson addition combines with healthy, improving blueliners like Klefbom and Davidson, with veteran support from players like Andrej Sekera and Mark Fayne, and with another year’s experience for their younger defensive pieces. Those developments are important to Edmonton’s goal of defensive gains in 2016-17.