Ken Holland’s greatest challenge right now? Replacing critical “one-for-one” defensive ace

Author of the article:

David Staples  •  Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON, AB - MARCH 4: Oscar Klefbom #77 and Adam Larsson #6 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate Larsson's goal against the Detroit Red Wings on March 4, 2017 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
EDMONTON, AB – MARCH 4: Oscar Klefbom #77 and Adam Larsson #6 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrate Larsson’s goal against the Detroit Red Wings on March 4, 2017 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Codie McLachlan /Getty Images

Oilers GM Ken Holland will reportedluy solve one long-standing issue — finding the right winger to fit with Connor McDavid — when Zach Hyman signs.


But an age-old problem again haunts the Oilers.

This nasty issue is unexpectedly every bit as grave as finding the correct wingers to mesh with McDavid and Draisaitl.

For the first time since Andrej Sekera was fully fit and healthy in 2016-17 the Oilers have a true No. 1 d-man in Darnell Nurse, with an opportunity this summer to lock up Nurse long-term.

What Edmonton doesn’t have are other d-men who are sure things in the Top 4.

It’s Nurse at No. 1, then an endless number of question marks.

Three lost Top 4 d-men in five seasons

Only a few seasons ago in 2016-17 the Oilers looked to have large solved their on-going problems on defence, with Sekera leading the way as the team’s top d-man, backed up by a solid second pairing of Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom, stalwart vet Kris Russell and promising Darnell Nurse coming on strong. GM Peter Chiarelli paid a high price to bring in Sekera and Larsson, but he also looked to have solved a problem on the Oil’s defence that had been there since Sheldon Souray got banged up and fell out with Oilers management.


The Sekera/Larsson/Klefbom group helped pushed the Oilers ahead in the 2017 playoffs, with Klefbom arguably Edmonton’s best player in that post-season run, and Larsson in the Top 5. It looked like the Oilers would be set for a few years at least with this group, primed to make a number of deep runs in the playoffs.

But Sekera badly injured his leg against Anaheim, felled by a hit from power forward Ryan Getzalf. Sekera would never again be the same player.

Klefbom also got banged up that series, a continuation of shoulder problems that would plague him the following three seasons, 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, and which have now put his career in jeopardy.

I sometimes wonder how the Chiarelli era would have gone if Sekera had not been injured out and out and if Klefbom had not been so banged up, to the point where his play never again reached the impressive level he had attained in the 2017 playoffs.


A left defence with steady, clever and quick Sekera, smart, graceful and effective Klefbom and the budding dynamism of Darnell Nurse? It’s hard to imagine the Oilers being so weak in 2017-18 and 2018-19 with that group on defence. It’s possible to imagine them at least making the playoffs. With them, most likely Cam Talbot doesn’t struggle nearly so much and he’s still with the Oilers right now. Maybe all kinds of pieces on the Oilers start to fit together better, based on the bedrock of a strong-to-exceptional left defence. And maybe Larsson re-signs in Edmonton with his best buddy Klefbom thriving on the team.

The injuries to Sekera and Klefbom, as well as ongoing back issues with Larsson took a huge bite out of the Oilers, essentially ruining the team’s chances to improve upon its 2017 playoff run. That failure of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 Oilers also led to the drafting of Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg. The team is now racing to develop those two talented young d-men during the McDavid contract era.


But now Bouchard doesn’t have the benefit of playing behind Larsson, with the mighty Swede soaking up and succeeding in all the toughest minutes. Now Larsson is off to Seattle, with the best information on why he decided to leave Edmonton coming from NHL insider Elliotte Friedman on Tim & Friends.

Friedman said he’d heard from a GM that it’s getting harder to attract players to Canada because of high taxes, social media and tighter pandemic restrictions, then pointed out that Montreal GM Marc Bergevin had also said basically the same thing.

“I do think it’s a thing,” Friedman said.

Asked if Larsson taking so much heat for being traded for Taylor Hall was an issue in the player’s departure from Edmonton, Friedman indicated it definitely was. “Yes, yes, one of the Oilers players told me that. There was some other things too. Klefbom leaving, his friend. His father passed away he went through a very difficult time. But the ‘one for one’ thing, the fact that it was always there, one of those guys told me he (Larsson) was never comfortable. He thought that would go away eventually and it never did.”


The loss of Sekera and Klefbom from the Top 4 were a huge blow. The loss of Larsson is another one, a major hit to the fortunes of the Edmonton Oilers.

The difference this time is that Edmonton isn’t losing it’s No. 1 d-man, as it did when Sekera and Klefbom went out. As mentioned, Edmonton has that in Darnell Nurse. The team is one big step ahead of previous defensive rebuilds.

Edmonton has already picked up Duncan Keith to play behind Nurse on left defence in a second-pairing. They’ve got a Top 4 candidate in right shot Ethan Bear, as well as a number of top prospects who are either ready for the NHL, as in Evan Bouchard, close to ready, as in Dmitri Samorukov, or needing a year or two in the AHL, as is likely with Philip Broberg.


Help is coming soon and help is coming in numbers, but to compete this year Edmonton needs to fill Larsson’s spot, preferably with a cycle-busting, shut-down d-man.

Can Holland find such a player?

On Oilers Now, host Bob Stauffer mentioned a number of candidates including puck mover Tyson Barrie and shut-down types Travis Hamonic and Jari Hakanpaa.

Hamonic, 31 this year, is an 11 year NHL veteran. In the last four seasons his games played has dropped steadily from 74 to 38. In his prime with the New York Islanders in the first half of his career he played 23 to 25 minutes per game. Last year he played 19: 22 per game in Vancouver.

There’s a long list of UFA d-men, but few of them if any will provide the defensive excellence of an Adam Larsson.


If Barrie were to re-sign in Edmonton — and he’s looking for at least three years at $5 million per year according to the well-connected Stauffer — an alternative plan might be to bring in a cycle-busting d-man on the left side.

Holland certainly has a tough task set out before him. Good luck to Edmonton’s GM. It will be a tough thing to have any advantage of Hyman meshing on the top line with McDavid taken away because the team struggles to break up the cycle in its own end.

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