Youth and inexperience doesn’t have to define you. At the end of the day, you have one job— play hockey. So that’s what the Oilers’ promising 21-year-old defenceman does and, quite frankly, does well. He also does it with quiet confidence.
“He’s impressive to watch,” said Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish, speaking on the radio show Oilers Now. “I really feel very strongly about the way he’s playing.”
Understandably, MacTavish is excited about the development of one of his young pillars. If MacTavish is the architect then Klefbom is a piece to what he’s trying to build, an important piece if recent play is indicative of future production.
But for Klefbom, development didn’t happen overnight. It was just a few years ago that Klefbom’s season was cut short due to serious injury. Then came an adjustment period as the Swedish blueliner transitioned to the North America game. And yet here he is, comfortable in the NHL and undeterred by youth or inexperience, ready to make an impact.
|19th overall pick Oscar Klefbom by the Edmonton Oilers puts on an Edmonton Oilers hat during day one of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center on June 24, 2011 in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) |
It’s draft night on June 24, 2011. A much more youthful looking Klefbom sits beside his family at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Four Swedish players have been selected already in the first round and the Oilers are on the clock with Klefbom’s nerves in full swing.
The defenceman had met with a few teams the night before— Washington, Calgary, Colorado— but he had no idea which organization would be the one to help his dream come true.
His agent tapped him on the shoulder and leaned in.
“This could be it,” he said.
Klefbom looked down at the Oilers draft table, the closest to where he and his family were sitting. As if letting him know through telepathy, the Oilers then General Manager Steve Tambellini gave a little smirk back.
“I saw Steve Tambellini smile at me and look at me when they walked up to the podium so I thought maybe this is it,” Klefbom remembered. “When they called my name it was very big, one of my biggest experiences in my career so far. It was very cool. Just to go in the first round is a big thing overall.”
The Oilers took Klefbom 19th overall, with a pick acquired from Los Angeles in the Dustin Penner trade, securing a raw and talented defenceman with all the ability to become something special.
“It was very cool and a very nice experience for me and my family,” Klefbom said of the moment.
What got him to that moment was hard work and success in Sweden. That success was punctuated by more achievement in international competition following the draft as well.
SWEDISH SUCCESS & SETBACK
Playing for the Farjestads organization, Klefbom worked his way through the ranks. He got his first taste of the Swedish Elite League in 2010-11, the year leading up to his draft.
He captained Sweden’s silver medal-winning team in the 2011 IIHF U18 Championship and was a part of their gold medal run in the 2012 IIHF U20 World Junior tournament, helping his home country best Russia 1-0 in Calgary.
|Oscar Klefbom #6 of Team Sweden and Danil Apalkov #14 of Team Russia stop together during play of the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championship Gold Medal game at the Scotiabank Saddledome on January 5, 2012 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) |
“It’s always good for your career overall to play a number of games that really mean something,” Klefbom said, as he reflected on his time in Sweden. “I’ve played in a couple of finals in world juniors so it’s been a very good experience and I feel it has helped me a lot on my way here, especially to win the World Junior Championship over here in Calgary and Edmonton, I think was one of my biggest achievements in my career so far. It was an amazing feeling and I’m going to take it with me the whole way.”
Winning gold in the province of the team that drafted you is quite the experience as well.
“During the time, I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the NHL because I hadn’t played any games there yet but now looking back, it feels kind of special to have won the world juniors in Alberta. It’s an amazing feeling and I’ll never forget it.”
Things were looking up for Klefbom. He was a year away from joining the North American professional ranks when he hit a road bump after returning to Sweden. A season-ending shoulder injury derailed Klefbom’s plans for a strong finish to his career in Sweden. He played just 11 games in 2012-13 and spent the latter half of the season in Edmonton rehabilitating.
“That was a huge setback for sure,” Klefbom admitted. “I was very focused on having a really good season in Sweden before I came over here. Now afterwards, I try to see everything positive. I got the ability to come to Edmonton and meet all the coaching staff and all the trainers to get to know them. I think that made the transition easier when I finally got here. Obviously, it was pretty tough. But now I try to see everything positive.”
After a long road to recovery, Klefbom was in North America ready to join the organization which drafted him. It would take some time in the minors before he’d be ready for the big club, but, as it turns out, that’s just what the doctor ordered.
GROWING, DEVELOPING & THRIVING
|Oscar Klefbom #8 of the Oklahoma City Barons zeroes in on the puck. (Photo by Steven Christy/OKC Barons) |
Undoubtedly, the NHL is the desired career stop for all talented young players, especially those with a high draft pedigree. But for most, time spent in the American Hockey League for a while is the better approach. Klefbom was no exception.
“When we first got Oscar, he had not played for the whole previous season,” said Oilers Interim Coach Todd Nelson, who coached the Oklahoma City Barons at the time. “There is always a bigger adjustment for European players coming over to North America and quite frankly, when he first came over he wasn’t ready.”
That isn’t a knock on the talent, more so the situation. Klefbom hadn’t played since the previous October and he was making a difficult transition.
“It’s very different,” Klefbom said of coming from Europe. “Obviously, when you play on bigger ice you have a lot of time and it’s a different system back home. To come over to North America, especially after injuries, it’s pretty tough to play in the NHL.”
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Klefbom didn’t quite take to the transition right away.
“His first three months in Oklahoma City were really up and down,” Nelson explained. “He really struggled some nights and some nights he prospered. That’s what you see down there. You see players trying to develop their game. You work as a staff with these players to try and develop consistency. He benefitted from being down there and he gained confidence.”
Klefbom thanks Nelson and the Barons for his time there, knowing it was a crucial point in his career.
“The team and year in Oklahoma helped me a lot,” Klefbom said. “To play some games there and get used to the smaller ice, to get to know the system, to get to know Todd, it was a big year for me.”
Klefbom was briefly recalled in November 2013 due to injuries on the Oilers blueline. However, he was not destined to make his debut on that trip, but the tease was worth it for the rookie.
“Not disappointed,” Klefbom said. “Of course you want to play, but it’s good to see that you’re doing something good down in OKC. It gave me a lot of confidence and I felt like I was pretty close to playing some games up here. It gave me the motivation to practice even harder and try to develop down there.”
As it turns out, Klefbom was close. He got another opportunity, making his NHL debut on March 11, 2014. He didn’t play another game in the AHL last season, finishing with 10 points (1-9-10) in 48 games with the Barons.
“I finished up in Edmonton and that was really important for me too because I got a lot of confidence from that and it made me feel like I could play in the NHL,” Klefbom said.
“When he got called up last year he played extremely well,” Nelson added.
Klefbom made his NHL debut against his childhood best friend, Jonas Brodin, and the Minnesota Wild in the same building in which he was drafted. He recorded an assist in that game for his first career point. Nerves were an issue for the first 10 games or so, Klefbom admitted. But he seemed like a good fit on the Oilers blueline.
Klefbom scored his first career goal on March 28, against Anaheim at Rexall Place. Former Oilers winger David Perron set up Klefbom, who jumped up in the slot. The defenceman showed great skill, tracking the puck through his feet and then snapping it on net.
He joked after the game that he blacked out, unable to really comprehend the moment or describe the goal. Maybe the fuzziness has faded a bit as Klefbom remembers now, but after describing the play, it almost seemed like he was still in shock.
“It went in and it’s hard to explain, but it was an unbelievable feeling,” Klefbom said. “I remember I got back home that night and thinking about how I scored in the NHL. It was a big achievement for me. It was an unreal moment.”
Klefbom finished the season with 17 NHL games under his belt. He felt confident that he belonged in the show.
“The first 10 games or so you’re obviously very nervous,” he said. “You don’t want to make any mistakes and you want to play a simple hockey game. But after a month or so you feel like, ‘hey, I’ve got this. It’s not as hard as I thought it would be.’”
Unfortunately for Klefbom, a strong finish to the season is not enough to guarantee permanent residency in the best league in the world. He’d have to do some more marinating in the minors in 2014-15 before returning to Edmonton. Some players might have had the send-down blues, but Klefbom embraced the Oilers decision and used it as a launching pad.
“This year, he spent time with us in Oklahoma City and you saw him develop a little more confidence,” Nelson said.
Just nine games into this season in the minors and it appeared as though his time there was either done or close to it. Klefbom scored eight points (1-7-8) with OKC this year in those nine games and Nelson used him as a “work-horse” defenceman.
Now he is in Edmonton, where Nelson is pleased with the progress.
“Right now I think we’re seeing a good, young defenceman that’s going to be a good defenceman for quite a while in the National Hockey League.”
Klefbom credits his familiarity with the Oilers system and Nelson’s tutelage for his most recent level of consistent play. But it is his time in the minors that also sticks out as a huge reason for his development this season.
“Especially now that Todd is here, it feels like the games down there helped me a lot,” Klefbom said. “The system is very similar to here and that helped me a lot. It’s the same system and Todd knows what he can expect from me as a player so I don’t feel like I have any pressure on me now. I have a lot of confidence on the ice and it’s fun to play. I just try to enjoy every day up here and it feels good.”
Projecting players this early in their career is dangerous. But there’s reason for excitement with this particular blueliner. The Oilers have themselves a budding 21-year-old defenceman that has the ability to be deployed in many, if not all, situations.
|Oscar Klefbom #84 of the Edmonton Oilers skates against Joe Colborne #8 of the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on December 31, 2014 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images) |
“You have to be optimistic and enthusiastic based on the way he’s playing and asserting himself in the game,” MacTavish said. “He’s got a head for hockey, he closes gaps quickly, he protects gaps in the neutral zone, he can break the puck out under pressure, he’s got the leg strength that he can hold the tight turns under pressure and still make plays. He’s never tired on the ice, he’s in incredible shape and we’re seeing more of an emergence of an offensive game.”
Nelson has had the luxury to watch the uphill progression of Klefbom since his first game in the minors. It’s allowed the coach to see both flashes and full-on displays of his talent and potential.
“He’s a player that can play a lot of minutes and he doesn’t fall off the pace. He’s just a horse,” Nelson said. “He can play a lot of minutes and he’s strong in the corners. I like the way that he’s progressing. He wouldn’t have gotten to this point if he did not spend time in the minors.”
For posterity’s sake, I asked Nelson to compare Klefbom’s potential to that of a current, established NHL player. After some brief hesitation, he provided an answer.
“He could develop into a 25-28 minute defenceman,” Nelson said. “You see guys like that in the league, the high-end guys that have developed, like (Boston’s Zdeno) Chara, (Chicago’s) Duncan Keith and (Brent) Seabrook. I see Oscar, in the future, developing into more or less like a Duncan Keith. Duncan Keith is probably more offensive than Oscar but Duncan Keith can skate well, you see Oscar skates well. Duncan is strong in the corners and I see Oscar is strong in the corners and so I think there are some similarities there. I’m not saying he’s going to be Duncan Keith, but he has the potential, over time, to develop into that type of defenceman.”
Keith is an NHL All-Star, a two-time Norris Trophy winner, a two-time Stanley Cup champion and a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada. Should Klefbom develop into anything remotely close to Keith, it’s a safe bet that the Oilers would be very pleased. That, admittedly, could be an understatement.
It’s high praise to the potential of the player. It’s also up to Klefbom to prove he’s up to the task of reaching that potential. Being the 19th overall pick and earning high expectations from his organization could be seen as a lot of pressure for a young kid, barely into his career. But Klefbom doesn’t feel the weight of it, he just plays the game the only way he knows how.
So far this season, Klefbom is pleased with his performance. He’s putting forth his best effort to play a steady, simple game. He’s learned much from his time in the minors and in Edmonton and maybe the biggest thing he’s learned is that he belongs.
“It’s a lot easier when you don’t feel the pressure that you have to prove to somebody how good you are,” he said. “I’ve played a couple of games now and I think the players, the coaches and the fans know what I’m capable of so it feels good.”