At the conclusion of the 2019/2020 playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers had a defense corp consisting of Darnell Nurse, Ethan Bear, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Caleb jones, Kris Russell, and Matt Benning. Today, just 2 off-seasons and no more than a calendar year later, Darnell Nurse and Kris Russell are the only players remaining from that blue line that lost in 4 games to the Chicago Blackhawks. Kris Russell isn’t expected to play much this year with the re-signing of Slater Koekkoek. I’m guessing for a large majority of games this season, we will see a completely different defense group than the one that got demolished in the 2020 covid bubble. It’s incredibly rare for even a rebuilding team to gut their entire defense group in 2 years, so why did the Oilers, a team who technically just made the playoffs comfortably in back to back seasons want to wipe the slate clean?
My honest guess: Dave Tippett, and lady circumstance. I am 100% sure if Larsson wanted to sign with the oilers, he would still be here. I am also 100% sure that Klefbom would still be here if he was healthy. So it’s not like the Oilers wanted to get rid of their entire defense group- it just ended up that way. Along with a push I’m certain came from Dave Tippett who sparingly used them, young blue liners Caleb Jones and Ethan Bear found themselves being shipped out of Edmonton for lesser packages. In the 2019/2020 off season Matt Benning decided to test free agency, and his tenure with Edmonton was over. But did the Oilers really need a shakeup like this? Will the defense perform better or worse than the last couple years? Time will only tell, but with some quick insight it’s easy to predict the answer.
Let’s first look at probably the most upsetting departure for many Oilers fans. Oscar Klefbom was a mainstay on the Oilers top pair from 2016 to 2020, and was absolutely missed during the shortened 2020/2021 season. While the Oilers recently have never been a particularly good defensive team as a whole, 2020/2021 was awful for them defensively. They finished 5th in expected goals against at 5v5 according to moneypuck.com, a pretty big drop off from 12th in 2019/2020. Losing the big Swede is surely to blame to an extent, even if the Analytics showed a steady decline in Klefbom’s game after his 2016/2017 season, undoubtedly due to the nagging injuries that now have him sidelined. Will he be back? Klefbom’s camp has always maintained that returning to the NHL is priority number 2. The goal is for him to be able to live a normal life, be able to use his shoulder for more than just picking up his coffee mug in the morning, and we should all respect that as Oilers fans. At this point I really doubt he’ll come back, and if he does he will not be anywhere near the same player. However I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t pay good money to hear just one more booming klef-bomb unleashed from the point again. It’s got me tearing up just thinking about it.
Moving on to the much more controversial half of the Oilers top pair in the second half of the 2010’s, Adam Larsson didn’t exactly leave to the Seattle Kraken on the best of terms with the Oilers. Larsson reportedly rejected a deal with the Oilers that would see him being paid slightly more than what he got in Seattle, which makes little sense considering he’s got the majority of his friends from the last 5 years in town, and the Oilers more than likely will be placing above the Kraken in the standings for the foreseeable future. The main theory is that he just couldn’t stand to stay in the place where his father passed away in 2018, which is completely fair. Larsson was a great defensive defenseman, which is an entirely thankless job from the fans for the most part. Needless to say, the 1 for 1 trade jokes and Taylor Hall comparisons definitely got to him at points during his Oilers tenure, among other factors, which led to him moving on. All the best, Larss.
Edmonton native Matt Benning has been completely under the radar his whole career. He signed with the Oilers in 2016 after going unsigned with the Boston Bruins, who selected him 175th overall in 2012. He’s had solid production as a 3rd pairing defenseman, and survived on the second pair at points. In the 2020/2021 campaign, I felt like the Oilers sorely lacked what he previously was supplying to the team. He was especially strong in his final season with the Oilers in 2019/2020 and for my eye, he was the Oilers best defenseman in that 4 game embarrassment we witnessed last august. From 2016 to 2020 Benning amassed 15 goals and 46 assists for 61 points in 248 games, just under a 0.25 point per game pace. Remarkably consistent is how I found Benning’s game; you always knew what you were going to get. Oh, except for that one time he dangled around Calgary Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin to tie the game in a late January Battle of Alberta last year. That one had left me dumbfounded, I had no idea he had it in him at all. He put up some respectable underlying numbers, too. In 2019/2020, Benning finished 2nd among Oilers defensemen in xGF% at 5v5, with 49.62%. That tells you all you need to know about what the analytics said about the Oilers 5v5 play that year. The actual goals % gets much better though- Benning managed a 58.97 GF% which was first on the Oilers by nearly 7%. It’s worth noting that if you increase the sample size to his last 3 years instead of just his last year the rates tell the same story, with Benning playing to a very respectable 54.46 GF% in that time. Now the raw stats don’t tell the whole story as Benning never had the ice time or competition like Klefbom or Larsson, but there’s no doubt his services went under-appreciated by the fans in Edmonton.
Peddling back to 2019/2020- do you know who finished first in 5v5 xGF among defensemen on the Oilers that year? Caleb Jones. While even analytically he had a pretty meh year in 2020/2021, he was great the prior year, and it’s a good bet he’ll perform much closer to his 2019/2020 self next year for the Chicago Blackhawks. At 24, Jones is still growing as a defenseman. If the Oilers kept him they’d be getting at worst an average 3rd pairing mobile defenseman as it stands today. No complaints about that. This article isn’t supposed to be about the trade itself, but man. I’d completely understand moving on from Jones, as he did have a rather meh year and didn’t provide much value in the playoffs, even considering his potential. Of all defensemen to replace him… Duncan Keith at that cap hit? But I digress. Let’s hope Keith can provide the value he’s being advertised to bring.
Finally, possibly the most disappointing subtraction from the Oilers blue line, Ethan Bear. I seriously cannot comprehend how fast the narrative switched on this kid. People turned on him faster than Cam Talbot. In 2019/2020, Bear broke out of nowhere to become a respectable defenseman in the Oilers top 4. With a bit of a push due to an Adam Larsson injury, he absolutely excelled on the Oilers top pair. The pair of Nurse – Bear played some of the toughest minutes in the league, and propelled the oilers to their 2nd best defensive finish in the analytical era (since 2007/2008.) No matter if you line up with what the analytics said about Bear or how his box score looked- is it really fair to let someone like Bear go after just one, at worst, meh season?
It’s impossible to mention the Bear trade without acknowledging the racist remarks a few Oilers fans had been throwing onto his comment sections on social media during and after the playoffs, but I really don’t think that was the internal reasoning behind this trade for the Oilers. In multiple post-trade interviews, Bear has stated that while the situation certainly shook him up, no actual trade request was given to Ken Holland. I’m a firm believer that Dave Tippett was the driving force behind this move. It just doesn’t make sense otherwise- Ken Holland isn’t exactly known for trading promising young defenseman who have a track record of being solid. Tippett had noticeably gifted Bear’s usual top pairing spot next to Nurse away to newcomer Tyson Barrie. The excuse I heard most commonly was Bear’s health- and while lingering post-concussion symptoms are certainly able to derail a players season, it really didn’t seem like Bear’s play fell off all too much for my eye. Since he came back from that injury, Bear never saw more than a glimpse of the Oilers top pair again. It really does hurt to see what was once considered a great up and coming defenseman relegated to the bottom pair permanently. Now while I love the player the Oilers got back in the deal- it just wasn’t enough. Mix that in with the defensemen Bear was replaced with… it makes me feel sick to my stomach knowing we could’ve had a young, cost-controlled top 4 right shot defenseman for a long while, but instead got 4 years of Cody Ceci.
Is the defense better?
In the end it’s the only question that needs to be answered. The Oilers let go of Bear, Larsson, and Benning on the right side. I’d say that 10-15 teams would prefer that right side over what they’ve got now, especially when considering contracts. I’d prefer Larsson on essentially the same contract as Barrie, but I’d definitely take Ceci and Bouchard over Bear + Benning. Bouchard is just that good, and I’d imagine that’s where much of the improvement on the back end is going to come from in 2021/2022. Time can only tell what group will be better, but for what it’s worth, I think this is a step in the wrong direction. You can surely justify some of these moves individually, but all at once? It screams of incompetence. Thankfully, there’s still one more Chiarelli-era move that could save Holland’s skin.