Interesting Decisions Loom For The Oilers Defense
Last night the Oilers quickly went down 3-0 before clawing their way back to a 4-3 victory. It was a fun game to watch (unless you're a Canucks fan) and helped solidify the fact that this is a good Oilers team that has proven it can win in a variety of ways.
This marked the return of Caleb Jones into the lineup who after being scratched for nearly a month played a solid game next to rookie Evan Bouchard. The duo found some early chemistry and when they were on the ice together they out chanced the opposition strongly. It's important to note they had no defensive zone shift starts but their job was to maintain possession in the neutral and offensive zones and that is exactly what they did.
Outsiders may scoff at the notion of Edmonton having a good defense and while names like Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones may not be household names at this point of their career, the Oilers have started to build some real depth on their blueline and when healthy there are going to be some decisions to make.
Here are the options available for the Edmonton Oilers when everyone is healthy (not including Koekkoek because he is out for the season).
Darnell Nurse - Has 100% played like a #1 defenseman this season. Plays a massive amount of 5 on 5 minutes and comes out on top in the scoring chances and goals for game. Currently Edmonton's best defender.
Ethan Bear - Injuries have hurt his season but the young Bear plays a smart game and is one of the Oilers best passers on the blueline. His calmness and hockey IQ make him a great complimentary player in the top 4.
Kris Russell - Is not a good passer and spends too much time watching the play but he does skate well. Russell is what I would call a PK specialist.
Adam Larsson - One of the few true shutdown defensemen left in the league. After a horrid start Larsson has settled down and been a great help in the Oilers defensive end, playing a physical game and on the PK.
Caleb Jones - Jack of all trades, master of none, Caleb Jones skates well, thinks the game at a high level and can be counted on to make the simple play up the ice.
Evan Bouchard - The best passer on the Oilers blueline, period. Bouchard has offensive instincts long missed from the Oilers backend that go beyond a booming shot. Bouchard never looks lost and carries the puck in the offensive zone like a 10 year vet. The kid is going to be good.
William Lagesson - Similar to Jones last year, Lagesson has impressed the coaches by playing a simple game and never being on the wrong side of the play. Lagesson falls much more into the shutdown category than Jones as he was used heavily by his coach in the defensive end alongside Adam Larsson.
Tyson Barrie - After a tough start Barrie has come as advertised. A quick skater who is always thinking shoot. Sorry Leafs fans but his tenure in Toronto is looking like the aberration as his fancy stats are much more reflecting his time in Colorado.
Two things about this defensive group jump to mind. The first is the fact that the Oilers are no longer a single injury on the backend from catastrophe. In years past Ethan Bear being out for 10+ games would have signaled the end of the Oilers season. Now no single injury (with perhaps the exception of Darnell Nurse) will give this team much pause.
The second is the diversity of skill that exists. Looking back Edmonton has iced some truly awful bluelines where each pairing was fairly interchangeable. Now? If the Oilers want to play physical and suppress shots they can throw over Darnell Nurse or Adam Larsson or William Lagesson. If they want to focus on quick simple 10 foot passes, Ethan Bear or Caleb Jones jumps over the ice. Looking for that extra goal? Tyson Barrie or Evan Bouchard.
This is not an elite group but it is an effective group that plays well together. The questions become who are the best six players to send over the ice when everyone is healthy?
Edmonton has 8 defensemen who it could be argued should be playing every night. With the way the bottom six is playing I also don't expect Dave Tippett to go back to running 7 D and 11 forwards anytime soon. Two of these players will be sitting every night. So who warms the bench?
Kris Russell is the first easy scratch for me. He has value for what he brings but his skillset is easily replicated by the likes of Larsson or Lagesson.
After that? I would guess that Lagesson and Jones will never play in the lineup at the same time. Bouchard is improving with every game and brings a unique look to that third pairing and I would like to see Bear back with Nurse to alleviate some of Barrie's minutes.
What are your thoughts? Who is your top six for the Edmonton Oilers?