Edmonton Oilers: The rising and falling stars of the defence corps

There are 2 big surprises in the D corps these days on the Edmonton Oilers.  1 is a rising star, the other one is a falling star.  It’s still too early in the season to make permanent career projections for these 2 players, but in the early going one is catching positive attention from the coaching staff, the other is catching negative attention from the coaching staff.

Rising star:  William Lagesson

Now I use the word star only in the astrological metaphor sense because a Norris trophy is not in Lagesson’s future this season unless he starts sniping a ton of goals into the back of the net.  Prior to this season, Lagesson had bounced around a lot.  The Swedish development leagues, US College hockey, 1 and 1/3 seasons in the minors, and an 8 game cup of coffee at the beginning of last season.

But Lagesson has formed chemistry in the early going of this season with his Swedish countryman Adam Larsson.  His boxcars at 1st glance don’t appear to be that impressive – 2 assists in 6 games – but in the last few games at the time of this writing, he’s been creating some chances on net.

If he continues to learn and grow, he could turn into a cheap puck moving d-man by the end of the season who came out of nowhere to earn a spot.  What’s been even more impressive about Lagesson is he’s playing middling competition and is +2 at the time of this writing.  That means he’s not overwhelmed and is holding his own without the puck.  Pretty good for a guy who’s only got 14 games of NHL experience at the time of this writing.

Now realistically, if he sticks on the roster, he’ll probably end up on the 3rd pairing next season, because Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse – despite what some haters may tell you – aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Unless Klefbom’s career is over – which is possible but unlikely – then Lagesson next year will be in the 3rd pairing.

But, what a guy to have in your 3rd pairing.  He’d be rotated in and out next season with either Caleb Jones or Kris Russell if 1 of them gets picked by Seattle in the expansion draft.  Either way, Lagesson creates a difficult decision for Ken Holland next season.  There will be real depth on the left D next season – with Klefbom, Nurse, Jones, Lagesson, and Russell all in line next season for spots on the roster, at least 1 will have to go.  Maybe 2 will have to go.

There’s also the fact that Philip Broberg, the Oilers 2nd best prospect at this time, will be knocking on the door within the next season or 2, creating even more of a logjam.  At this point, Jones and Russell are the most likely to go, but there’s lots of hockey left to play in the season, and things can change before the season is over.

Assuming he maintains or improves his level of play, Lagesson will make things even more interesting for Ken Holland next season.  Lagesson is signed for 1 more season at $725K (his ELC), and this season is his last as a 2-way contract – said contract turns into a 1-way contract next season.

Falling star:  Caleb Jones

What a difference a year makes for Caleb Jones.  He got called up last season after Kris Russell got injured, and the 2 shared a roster spot for the rest of the season after Russell came back.

He was expected to step up and take some of Klefbom’s minutes and pick up the slack numbers-wise too.  Last season he put up the same amount of offence as Russell did but did it in fewer games, and probably would’ve beaten him if the season hadn’t been cut short by the pandemic.

However, in the early going Jones has been underwhelming at best as the dreaded sophomore jinx appears to have got him in a stranglehold (*Ted Nugent music starts playing*).

Jones hasn’t played a game in the entire month of February, last playing January 31 against Ottawa, and the one assist he’s produced on the season came January 13th vs. Vancouver.  Although for a 23-year-old he’s done OK defensively – he’s -1 at the time of this writing, which is not bad for a d-man with only 67 games of NHL experience.  Still, the NHL is a business of merit, and the always present question of “What have you done for me lately?”

Lagesson’s +4 and 2 assists in 6 games, while mathematically not much more impressive than Jones’s 1 assist in 7 games, is more impressive when you consider that Lagesson has been noticeable in creating a lot more scoring chances while Jones has been largely invisible out on the ice.  With a team that has as much depth at left D as the Oilers do, being just OK and being invisible isn’t going to cut it when another guy is showing the coaching staff a lot more and generating a lot more chances.  When you’re losing the competition, you lose the right to play.

Jones’s 1 asset at this point in time.  It’s still early in the season, so there’s lots of time to turn things around.  Defencemen rarely develop in a straight line, and a lot can happen between now and the end of the regular season, and beyond.

Lagesson may be the better player now but there’s no guarantee that continues for the rest of the season.  Maybe Lagesson falters at some point and Jones will have the opportunity to draw back in and redeem himself.  Or, there may be injuries and Jones will have a chance to step back in the lineup.

Right now, Jones is young, and he’s struggling.  That’s not altogether unexpected but it does mean that unless he turns things around in the near future then he may not be an Oiler after the season is done.  I’m not saying we give up on him, but again we do have the aforementioned depth to figure out on the left side of the D corps.  He may be a victim of the numbers game, it happens all the time in the NHL.

It’s not like we would relish giving up good young d-men with potential, but Holland has a responsibility first and foremost to ice a winning roster.  If Jones isn’t helping you win, he won’t be on said roster.  That’s the cold, hard, simple truth.  Jones is signed for 1 more season after this at $850K on a 1-way contract.

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Would it change things for the expansion draft?  

You bet it does.  If they go by the same rules as the Vegas draft – and they may not as they may shorten the numbers due to the shortened season caused by the pandemic – then Lagesson would fall out of the criteria.  After all, he only played 8 games last season and unless Lagesson gets scratched or injured, he’ll only have played 47 games over the past 2 seasons, falling short of the 70 game threshold over the previous 2 seasons required to be eligible for the draft.

Meanwhile, Jones played 43 games last season and he’s signed for next year, so he’s eligible to be picked because he meets the number of 40 games the season prior, regardless of how many games he plays this season.  Nurse and Klefbom we can pretty much put in the pen that they’ll be protected so that just leaves 1 more spot if Holland wants to go the 7-3-1 route.

Evan Bouchard isn’t eligible due to being on his ELC, while Kris Russell we know will be exposed, and we know Tyson Barrie will be looking for big $$ as a UFA after this season.  Who knows what’s going to happen with Slater Koekkoek – probably not protected, unless he gets back to his old form and shows he deserves another contract.  If Adam Larsson gets re-signed after this season – which I’m betting he likely will – then I’d say he’s safe to take the other protection spot in the D corps.

That means Holland would likely have to change his protection scheme to 8 skaters and 1 goaltender if he wants to protect Jones as well.  Anything is possible, but if Jones continues to struggle this isn’t likely to happen.

The only questions in the forward ranks would revolve around Puljujarvi and Kahun being protected, and there’s a good chance both are protected either officially or through a side deal with Seattle.  Kahun is much less attractive as a target as he hasn’t shown chemistry with anyone else in the NHL other than Draisaitl and Yamamoto.  That’s too risky a pick.

If I’m Seattle, I look at the Oilers’ depth on the left D side and salivate.  Right now, this is where the Oilers have the most depth, so it’s a prime place to grab their guy in the expansion draft because there’s no way they can protect everybody.

They could pick Jones and grab the young cheap d-man who would likely grow with their team, or they could pick Russell and take some cheap veteran help for the bottom pairing and be a shot-blocking horse.  IMO these are the 2 most likely targets for the Kraken in their expansion draft from the Oilers.

The goaltenders?  Forget about it.  Koskinen will be protected, and Smith will likely be given his walking papers as a free agent.  At 39 years old he’s not very appealing to Seattle, especially when there’s a good chance they could sign him without giving up assets in free agency if they want.  There are targets in bottom 6 forward as well, but these 2 in the D corps will be too good to pass up.  That only leaves a d-man, and there are 2 solid ones to pick from.  Only time will tell where we go from here.