The aftermath of the Oilers’ playoff run was supposed to be filled with excitement for what was to come. The Connor McDavid-led club had barrelled their way through the opening round after a 10-year absence from the post-season and were very narrowly defeated by the Anaheim Ducks in a hotly contested seven-game series in Round Two. Leon Draisaitl had stepped up in the post-season, Cam Talbot looked solid from start to finish and there were signs this team was realistically destined for bigger and better things next season.
And then GM Peter Chiarelli announced that Andrej Sekera is going to miss anywhere from six to nine months after tearing his ACL in the second round.
The timeline for Sekera’s injury almost certainly means that he’s going to lose a big chunk of the 2017-18 campaign. If he manages to rehab quick enough and get back in six months, that still puts him out until at least mid-November. If he falls in the middle of his timeline, seven and a half months, he probably doesn’t suit up until teams come back from the brief holiday break. And if he’s out the full nine months, which, sadly, is a real possibility, he might not skate in his first game until sometime in February.
While it might not be akin to losing McDavid or Draisaitl, being without Sekera for what could be half a season is a significant blow for the Oilers, especially on a blueline that could use his steadying, veteran presence. In the same press conference where Chiarelli announced Sekera’s injury, he said he wasn’t sure that Edmonton had a “championship D corps.” And if that’s the case with Sekera included, it almost goes without saying that the Oilers don’t when he’s on the sideline.
Consider the impact Sekera had this past season on the back end. Primarily skating alongside Kris Russell, Sekera averaged nearly 21:30 per game, the second-most on the Oilers’ defense, and produced eight goals and 35 points, good for second-best among all Edmonton rearguards. Sekera also took a higher percentage of defensive zone starts than all but Russell and Adam Larsson, and faced, on average, the third-toughest competition on a nightly basis of any Oilers defenseman. He’s the elder statesman on the blueline, set to turn 31 in a field of players in their mid-20s, but he’s still plenty mobile and arguably the most heads-up puck mover the Edmonton defense has. This is to say that losing Sekera means the Oilers are down quite possibly their best player at what is undoubtedly their weakest position. That’s one of the last things Edmonton needs heading into a campaign where expectations are going to be higher than they have in any of the past several years.
However, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean disaster.
Even before Sekera’s injury, there was a good chance that Edmonton was going to head into this off-season with an eye on defensemen. Of course, the necessity of strengthening the back end only becomes greater with Sekera’s injury, but the good news, if you can call it that, is that Chiarelli doesn’t have to reach for the panic button because of the timing of the injury. Chiarelli will have time to formulate a plan to navigate what could have been some extremely tough waters if Sekera’s injury had occurred well into the summer or sometime in the pre-season.
It’s also beneficial that Chiarelli is going to have more than enough money to work with in his search to bolster his blueline and find a fill-in for Sekera. As of Wednesday, Edmonton is set to have nearly $22.5 million in cap space. Chiarelli no doubt has some big fish to fry — an extension for McDavid and a new deal for Draisaitl are one-two on his list — but when the dust settles on the re-signings, the Oilers GM is still going to have a sizeable chunk of change when he starts scouring the market. And he’s going to have a few options when he does.
The obvious starting point would be Russell, who has said he is open to staying in Edmonton. Signing him, however, might not come cheap. He made $3.1 million on a one-year deal this past season and could be looking for a raise with some term if he’s to stick around. But knowing coach Todd McLellan’s system, having been part of the team this past season and skating big minutes in the post-season might make him the prime candidate to come back. However, it’s hard to say maintaining an already-existing piece really stands to make up for the loss of Sekera. That’s where other free agents come in.
There’s just about zero chance Chiarelli lands the big fish, Kevin Shattenkirk, but he could very well look at the second tier blueliners who are available, with an eye on players such as Karl Alzner, Brendan Smith, Cody Franson and Michael Stone. Of those four, Franson might be the most intriguing if only because he could be the best bet when it comes to term, salary and fit. Over the past three seasons, Franson’s cap hit has remained at roughly $3.3 million, and he’s taken short-term deals twice in a row — first a one-year pact with the Maple Leafs as an RFA, followed by a two-year UFA deal with the Buffalo Sabres. If he’s willing to try his hand on a one- or two-year deal again on an up-and-coming team, he could certainly fit in with the Oilers, especially as a second-pairing, puck-moving defender.
There’s no guarantee of a short-term deal for any of those four rearguards, though, and that’s what Chiarelli might be looking for considering he has a bevy of up-and-coming defenders, including Larsson, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning. So, with that in mind, maybe the best bet is to take a shot on a veteran defender who’s looking to try his hand with a team with potential to win. Ron Hainsey, who’s currently playing a big role with the battered and bruised Pittsburgh Penguins, could fit the bill. As could Mark Streit, who also happens to be with the Penguins, and is probably eying up what could be his final season in the NHL. Or what about Trevor Daley? Also with Pittsburgh, Daley has a bit more offense to his game than Sekera, but his skating ability would give the Oilers defense another element.
No matter who the Oilers add, though, it’s clear that something will need to be done not just to bolster the defense, but to ensure that losing Sekera to start the year doesn’t result in Edmonton taking a step backward. However, given Chiarelli has time and money to spare, there’s no reason why Sekera’s injury has to slow the Oilers’ rise.
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