As the Edmonton Oilers look to improve upon a very successful 2016-17 NHL playoff campaign, they will have to do so without the presence of veteran defenseman Andrej Sekera. Acquired in the free agent frenzy of 2015, the addition of Sekera to the Oilers lineup has gone a long way towards improving what was once arguably the team’s biggest weakness-a lack of quality, nhl level defensemen.
In the two seasons he has played in Edmonton, Sekera has posted back-to-back 30+ point campaigns while improving his plus-minus to a career high +14 in the 2016-17 season. These numbers are very positive contributions to an Oilers team that generally used to struggle with generating offense from the blue-line while maintaining a strong level of play in the defensive zone. Perhaps more importantly is Sekera’s partnership with fellow veteran defensemen Kris Russell throughout the 2016-17 season. When deployed together, both players combined to give the Oilers a strong defensive pairing that could take on tough minutes, when necessary, to keep goals against low, while also allowing the team’s younger defensemen to take on more sheltered roles against weaker opposition. The result of this approach was the Oilers’s lowest goals against average (2.52) in the 11 years since the team had last made the playoffs in the 2005-06 season.
Despite the Oilers taking the Anaheim ducks to 7 games in the 2nd round of last season’s playoffs, it was revealed after the series conclusion that Sekera had suffered a torn ACL and would reportedly miss 6 to 9 months. Of course, the Oilers may find that their current group of young defensemen will perform well in filling the void left by Sekera’s prolonged absence. However, past seasons have shown the team’s previous approach of deploying young defensemen in large roles against the NHL’s toughest opposition was obviously not the most wise course of action:
In the 10 seasons that the Oilers missed the playoffs, the team was consistently outshot by an average margin of 27.4 to 31.5. Though shots for and against are only one measure of a team’s success, it is a definite indicator of control of play. Indeed, it can be reasonably inferred that the team was consistently outplayed when it did not utilize quality, veteran defensemen in its lineup.
Though the team’s two younger standout Swedish defensemen, Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom, grew by leaps and bounds during the 2016-17 season, it is not hard to imagine the two’s success coming partially from coach Todd McLellan’s luxury of being able to lean on the experience of Sekera and Russell on nights that Larsson and Klefbom may have somewhat struggled. Additionally, the presence of young defensemen Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning, at the respective ages of 22 and 23 as of this writing, further complicates matters. Both players are the youngest members of the Oilers d-corps and may also be asked to step into larger roles before they are ready to do so.
In summary, with Andrej Sekera not projected to return to the lineup until midway through the 2017-18 season, the Edmonton Oilers may find it challenging to maintain the same level of defensive play, let alone continue to make desired improvements. Unquestionably, the most obvious question pointed at the Oilers will be if the team can keep itself competitive and in a playoff position long enough for Sekera’s return and hopefully continued strong level of play.