Edmonton Oilers: Breaking down the evolution of their defense since 2007

Here’s a breakdown of the evolution of the Edmonton Oilers defense from 2007 to now

This is an article that’s worthwhile looking at the D corps that has far and away made the most progress from the decade of darkness until now.  A lot of interweb space has been dedicated to the forward corps as that was the highlight of the team for so many years, so there’s no point in rehashing that.

The goaltenders have been less than stellar and even now are average to questionable, and being bad of that long is not worth writing about because I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer writer.  That only leaves the D corps, the area that has seen the most improvement on the team from the darkness to now.

Let’s start with 2007.  As many of you know, that was the offseason that Chris Pronger asked for a trade out, due in part to rumours his wife – used to being a St. Louis socialite – wasn’t happy in Edmonton, and in part due to rumours he was having an affair with a local sportscaster.  If the latter is true, I could certainly see why his wife wouldn’t like Edmonton, site of the low point of their marriage.  Even to this day Pronger himself is still remaining tight-lipped about the situation, so we’ll probably never know exactly why he asked for a trade.

Jaroslav Spacek, a key d-man picked up at the trade deadline, was a free agent who chose not to re-sign here, so the Oilers D was reeling pretty bad.  The plan was for Pronger to anchor the D for the entire 6 years of his contract, so to ask for a trade 1 year in certainly threw everyone for a loop.

Anyway, once the dust settled we were left with righty D Tom Gilbert with a motley crew behind him.  Gilbert had recently been traded to the Oilers from Colorado in exchange for Tommy Salo.  The rest of the D wasn’t great, and the veterans all got dealt within a couple of years with no replacements in place as was the tradition of the day with the franchise’s first foray into a rebuild.

2007 Notable d-man:  Tom Gilbert

State of the corps:  1 good d-man, a motley crew behind him, no depth and no pipeline

It wasn’t until Jeff Petry arrived on the scene in the 2010-2011 season that Gilbert would get some help in shouldering the puck moving load.

2010 Notable d-men:  Tom Gilbert, Jeff Petry

State of the corps:  2 good d-men, a motley crew behind them, no depth and no pipeline

Progress, right?  Yeah, but shortlived.  In 2011-12 Gilbert would be dealt to the Minnesota Wild for Nick Schultz, a stay at home guy.  Schultz would later be dealt to Columbus for a 5th round pick in 2014.

Relief would come once again in form of homegrown 1st round draft pick Oscar Klefbom in 2011, making the team as a regular in 2014-15.  The pick for Klefbom was LA Kings property until we snaked him in the Dustin Penner trade with their pick.  I bet they wish they still had that pick after the whole Slava Voynov saga, right?  A rare trade win for management of the day.  Another big win comes in the form of drafting Darnell Nurse in the 1st round in 2013, and he would join the team for good in 2016.

2015 Notable d-men:  Jeff Petry, Oscar Klefbom, Andrej Sekera

State of the corps:  3 good d-men, a motley crew behind them, no depth and no pipeline

Klefbom, of course, is still with the team to this day but will likely be sitting out next season due to a nagging shoulder injury that requires surgery and an entire season to recover from.

Petry would be dealt to Montreal in exchange for 2nd and 5th round picks.  We would live to regret this decision as Petry would go on to have 3 straight seasons of 40 points in Montreal – and counting, right now.  If we had Petry on the roster we wouldn’t have had to trade for Adam Larsson and Taylor Hall might’ve still been an Oiler.

Sekera was the prize of free agency for the Oilers in the 2015 offseason, signing with the Oilers for 6 years and $33 million.  He would end up being bought out after season 4 of that contract due to encountering injury problems, Nurse needing a bigger role, and the Oilers needing cap space.  We’re still paying for that contract today.

Peter Chiarelli becomes GM and does a housecleaning of the scouting staff, resulting in immediate dividends in the team’s drafting record which has been pretty bad since 1981.

Then comes another pivotal point in Oilers history, the day then GM Chiarelli traded Taylor Hall to New Jersey for Adam Larsson straight up.  I still feel the same way about this trade today as I did then – didn’t mind the names involved, but as the Oilers were trading the better player they should’ve asked for a sweetener in addition to Larsson.  It’s also worth noting that both Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones were drafted in 2015, both in the 5th round.

2016 Notable d-men: Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse, Kris Russell, Andrej Sekera

State of the corps:  Legit top 4, but still no depth and no pipeline.  I don’t really count Sekera as depth considering how much he fell apart and struggled with injuries after 2017.  He’s still notable, but barely.  Since Nurse ended up taking his spot for the last 2 seasons he was here, he didn’t really register on the radar much after 2017.

FINALLY, at long last, we have 1 good pairing which becomes the de facto top pairing.  Darnell Nurse becomes a regular in the 2015-16 season, and will probably be one until one of Philip Broberg or Caleb Jones dethrones him.  Kris Russell, who came to the team on a PTO in 2016 training camp, passed training camp and was signed for 1 year at $3.1 million, later re-upping after the season for $4 million for 3 more seasons, and then 1 year at $1.25 million this past season.

His play would improve with a reduced role in Edmonton, having failed as a top pairing guy in Calgary and Dallas prior to.  This rounds out a top 4, and finally for the first time since 2006 we actually have a proper top 4.  This is the top 4 that would play for the team when they finally got the playoff monkey off their back in 2017.  Well, subtract Nurse for Sekera and you’ve got it.

Fast forward to this past season in 2020.  Ethan Bear surprises everyone making the team out of training camp.  Caleb Jones would make the team as well, but it would take an injury to Kris Russell to do it.  When Russell comes back, Jones doesn’t go back down as expected but instead the 2 share the spot, cycling in and out at Dave Tippett’s discretion.  This pushes Kris Russell down to the 3rd pairing, which he plays with the underachieving Matt Benning.

The PP finishes at #1 in the NHL this past season, and puck movers Klefbom, Nurse, and Bear are all a part of it. In a nod to a bright future, Evan Bouchard is drafted in the 1st round in 2018 and Philip Broberg in the 1st round in 2019.  Both of these players seem like locks for top 4 spots in the future.

2020 Notable d-men:  Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Adam Larsson, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones, Kris Russell

State of the corps:  We have a legit top 4, and we have depth but no pipeline.  The pipeline is likely only a matter of time, though, with Evan Bouchard, Philip Broberg, and Dmitri Samourukov all looking good and likely knocking on the door in the next 2-3 seasons.  I don’t consider there to be a pipeline until younger cheaper guys are dislodging the veterans off the roster in trade, which as of now isn’t happening…..yet.

Ethan Bear has a fantastic rookie season, putting up 21 points and finding chemistry with Darnell Nurse.  Caleb Jones’s season isn’t as impressive, but he shows Dave Tippett enough that in this upcoming season if all goes well he’ll be playing on the 2nd pairing with Larsson rather than the team playing the veteran Russell with Larsson to make the 2nd pairing a shutdown one.

Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond:  Look for Klefbom and Nurse to be traded from a position of strength as Broberg and Samourukov become ready to take their spots.  Both these players are already making waves in Europe so maybe it’s sooner than that.  Expect Bouchard to dislodge Larsson, but I could see Larsson being re-signed to a cheaper, short term contract prior to this happening.

If Russell isn’t picked up in the expansion draft by Seattle, expect him to play 2 more seasons for us before likely giving way to a prospect. Free agent signing Tyson Barrie is a great sub-in for Klefbom this season at least as far as the PP goes.

Klefbom’s loss will be felt, but we should have the depth to handle it within the group without having to bring in a ringer at EV. Holland likes his D and realizes it’s vital to team success in this day and age, so expect to see more high draft picks of d-men, as well as a few flyers taken on European free agents.