Adversity, thy name is Oilers.
With 81 games left on the schedule, Edmonton must face its first hurdle of the season as defenseman Adam Larsson has been put on Long-Term Injury Reserve with a fractured right fibula. He is expected to miss between six to eight weeks.
If you’re a glass half-full kind of person, you can see this as an opportunity for some other members of the defense corps to step up and be counted, particularly youngsters like Ethan Bear and Evan Bouchard.
While Bear was sent down to AHL Bakersfield in exchange for Bouchard, it’s fair to guess that we’ll see both of them play NHL games during Larsson’s absence. Swedish veteran Joel Persson, who won an SHL title with Vaxjo two years ago and led the Lakers in blueline scoring last year, is another option once he returns soon from a minor shoulder injury.
In Bear, the Oilers have a youngster with some nice potential as a two-way defenseman and one who has already garnered NHL experience during his 18 games with the team last season. Bouchard comes in as a highly-touted first-rounder who was the best passer in his draft class and the possessor of a heavy shot. Skating was an area he needed to improve on, but he’s well on his way there. Bouchard has more size than Bear and Bouchard was also a point-per-gamer for Bakersfield in the playoffs last season. He has less NHL experience than Bear does, but now opportunity comes knocking.
The evolution of Darnell Nurse will also help the Oilers while Larsson is on the mend. Now in his fifth NHL campaign, the big and nasty Nurse is coming off a very good 2018-19 that saw him set career highs for goals (10), assists (31), points (41) and average ice time (23:48). In this year’s first game against Vancouver, he ended up playing 26:27 and while that’s too much hockey for anyone not named Ryan Suter, it won’t be the norm once things get settled.
If Nurse can keep ascending as a top-four blueliner and one or two of the kids can pick up the slack, maybe defensive specialist head coach Dave Tippett can keep everything on the rails until Larsson returns.
If you’re a glass half-empty person, this is Classic Oilers. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl got their seasons off to excellent starts and now you have to deal with a key veteran and minute-muncher going out for a team that was bottom-10 in goals-against and Corsi last year and didn’t add any blueline veterans over the summer.
While Tippett is indeed a defensive guru behind the bench, he’ll need time to implement his system and he needs the pieces to make it happen. Larsson would have been a key part of that plan and now the sand is shifting already.
If the Oilers lose a bunch of games while Larsson is out, it may not matter how good they are when he gets back; this team was no lock to make the playoffs in the first place and with the Central Division looking so strong this year, Edmonton’s Pacific Division may only get three post-season bids, with both wild cards going to the Central. Are the Oilers better than the Flames, Golden Knights or Sharks? Not on paper. So the margin of error gets incredibly thin now and you have to hope that Winnipeg falls into a manhole (possible), Chicago was a mirage last year (not likely) and St. Louis gets a wicked Stanley Cup hangover (also not likely). Oh, and you have to hope Arizona doesn’t catch on in your own division.
So what’s the answer? Half-full or half-empty? The timing is obviously not ideal here, but the Edmonton Oilers face their first big challenge of the 2019-20 campaign. Let’s see how they deal with it now.