In the wake of another loss, this time to Carolina, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Adam Larsson shouldered a lot of the blame. In his post-game scrum, the Swedish blueliner was grim in his assessment:
“I’m playing so bad right now,” Larsson said. “I don’t know what it is, but I need it to stop. I feel like I’m working hard, but I’m too passive, I’m not skating – that’s not part of my game. I know how good I can be and I’m not even close right now.”
Larsson’s most egregious mistake in the Hurricanes game was when he completely lost Jordan Martinook on a rush, allowing the Carolina forward to get behind him for an easy goal. It’s not something that should happen to any NHL defenseman, but it’s the type of error that happens when times are tough. And things are obviously tough right now.
The tragedy of Adam Larsson’s tenure in Edmonton is not just that he will always be linked to the ill-fated 1-for-1 trade that sent Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to New Jersey, but that the Oilers rarely put their key acquisition in a position to succeed. Naturally, the Oilers were hoping that Larsson could be a No. 1 defenseman and he certainly had it in his DNA – but by forcing him into the role too early, Edmonton may have deprived Larsson of the chance to make it happen.
It’s worth looking at Larsson’s most successful season to date when exploring this idea. Back in 2014-15, Larsson posted 24 points in 64 games for New Jersey, which remains his best offensive output in the NHL. How did the Devils deploy him? Still just 22 at the time, Larsson ranked fourth among New Jersey defensemen in ice time and not far ahead of Jon Merrill, who ranked fifth in that category.
Larsson played against stiff competition that year, seeing the likes of Sidney Crosby and John Tavares on a regular basis. But he did so while playing with Andy Greene, a veteran who is known for his defensive acumen: Larsson was in a good role, but he had a lot of support.
Now look at what Larsson has been forced to deal with in Edmonton. He and frequent partner Oscar Klefbom (who has a similar amount of experience) have often been tasked with taking on more responsibility than they can handle and the Oilers have suffered for it.
The only successful Edmonton season of the Connor McDavid era came in 2016-17, when the Oilers spread out the ice time on defense and got solid minutes from Andrej Sekera and the oft-maligned Kris Russell, giving Klefbom and Larsson room to breathe. Sekera’s injury woes have made him an unreliable contributor since, but Edmonton also hasn’t made much of an effort to bring in more help. The salary cap is a problem, but signing Milan Lucic wasn’t exactly a good use of money either. Darnell Nurse is developing into a solid guy, but he should be bolstering Edmonton’s defense corps, not keeping it together.
Had Larsson been given more support early on in his Oilers tenure, perhaps we’re not having this conversation. I recognize that top blueliners aren’t exactly easy to find, but now we’re seeing what happens when you can’t support your young talent (and I’m not saying you need Marc-Edouard Vlasic; just someone like Greene for another year or two). Larsson has all the tools necessary to be a top-pairing guy in the NHL and we’ve seen flashes of it in the past. But right now he’s in a bad place and the Oilers don’t have the roster to help pull him out. Makes you wonder what a more appropriate return for Jordan Eberle could have been for Edmonton. Although with Ryan Spooner on waivers (who was traded for Ryan Strome, who was traded for Eberle), perhaps that’s too fresh a wound to contemplate.