Make no mistake, the recent achilles injury to veteran defenceman Andrej Sekera has put the Edmonton Oilers in a spot of bother.
Coming off a down year for both himself and the team — not unrelated outcomes — his position on the Oilers’ depth chart was the subject of speculation. But in one important respect, Sekera is, or should I say was, #1 with a bullet. His $5,500,000 cap hit is the highest on the blue line. He was signed to a six-year deal at that figure in 2015 and brought on board to provide some veteran leadership and help stabilize a wobbly Oilers blueline. Halfway through that contract, he remains Edmonton’s highest-paid rearguard, with three others in the $4 million range and one file still open (more on that in a minute).
Sekera had a strong first two seasons in Edmonton, scoring 30 and 35 points while playing reliable hockey at both ends of the ice. But his status as the team’s #1 blueliner came to a crashing halt in the playoffs when he was felled by a Ryan Getzlaf hit early in Game 5 in Anaheim and was helped to the bench with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
That hit ended his excellent 2016-17 season and entirely ruined his 2017-18 campaign. Sekera missed the first half of the season, returned just before Christmas but was a shadow of his old self. Despite heavy sheltering from the coaching staff, the player struggled on the ice and his team struggled right along with him. During his nearly 500 minutes at even strength, the Oilers scored just 9 goals and allowed 27. Ugh.
Thus the questions of where he might fit in the scheme of things going forward. An optimist like my colleague David Staples might suggest that the club already wasn’t counting on the “old Sekera”, while a more pessimistic type such as myself might counter that the 2017-18 experience is Exhibit A as to how badly the club misses that player.
Sekera did have a modest recovery towards season’s end and had a decent run in the World Championships, both suggestive that he was starting to come around. A common narrative on ACL injuries is that they take a full year to recover from; a reasonable conclusion was that Sekera would return after a full summer of training and a discarded knee brace to being a significant percentage of the player he was. Instead, he’s out for the foreseeable future and unlikely to be anywhere close to 100% at any time in 2018-19 if he returns at all.
That the injury happened so late in the summer affects in a negative way both his projected return and, more immediately, the considerations facing Peter Chiarelli.
Salary cap relief
Sekera will wind up on Long Term Injured Reserve, a complicated beast to put it mildly. The best scenario has the Oilers being able to find room for Sekera’s cap hit on the roster to start the season, then to assign him to LTIR and having the space to replace him. The problem is how to do things in that order. Bring a guy in on PTO and sign him on Day Two? Probably not with a player of quality. A trade early in the season? One rarely sees significant players moving at that point.
The idea of paper transactions to make room is problematic in that the club would be limited to those players not needing waivers, a short list of Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto and, uhh… Don’t see them risking waivers on many other guys, so the idea of running, say, a 20-man roster for a day is not easily done.
Nurse has been qualified, was not eligible for arbitration, but remains unsigned. While he remains subject to an offer sheet that seems unlikely. But it seems the player’s negotiating position just got a little stronger with the loss of an experienced LD. Does Sekera’s pending LTIR status open cap space for the club to reconsider a long-term offer? No way to do that on Day Two as some have suggested, so Chiarelli and his capologists might again have to be creative to find a way to keep Sekera’s pact on the books for a day.
My own defensive depth chart, published periodically throughout this l-o-n-g off-season, had Sekera on the third pairing to open the season. Here’s the extended version of that depth chart which includes all 16 blueliners under contract to the team.
The top six consisted of proven NHL defenders, while the rest were more difficult to project. I had the team breaking camp with two additional defenders including Kevin Gravel, plucked off the free agent market after suffering health problems of his own last season, and 2018 first-round pick Evan Bouchard on a projected 9-game trial. Below them are three parings likely to start the season in the AHL, along with two guys slated for other leagues in junior-aged Dmitri Samorukov and Sweden-based Joel Persson.
At least in theory a normalized Sekera ensconced on the third pairing could be valuable depth for the top four to cover off in case of injury. Now the default “4-5” role falls naturally to Benning in the above version of the depth chart, or to Kris Russell in this updated interpretation:
I’d make the case that Russell’s versatility to play either left or right side is best suited on the third pairing, where he can slot in beside pretty much Whoever while remaining a veteran option to take a top four role when circumstances dictate.
Puts the onus on Matt Benning to step into the top four, an opportunity he proved unready for a year ago, again in Sekera’s absence. Which is different from saying he’ll be unready this year, his third in the NHL. I do think the player has top four potential, at 24 years old and 135 games played he may be a year under-ripe but is he close enough to get by?
Russell might be able to cover both sides of the ice, but not simultaneously. With Sekera definitively out, that top six of proven NHLers is now a top five, leaving a spot with actual playing time open to a committee of veteran pros including Gravel, Lowe, and Stanton, and/or to emerging youngsters including Bouchard, Bear, Jones, and Lagesson. Unfortunately, the promising Mantha has health issues of his own to the degree that his career may be in jeopardy.
From this distance, none of the veteran options strikes me as a full-time solution. Best bet is Gravel, who has split time between the AHL (86 GP) and NHL (70) in each of the last three seasons. To call him low event might be an overstatement given his single digit career bocxars in goals (1) assists (9) penalty minutes (8) along with an Even plus/minus. Can’t say that supplemental numbers like 2 career takeaways vs. 33 giveaways fills me with high expectations either. Maybe he’s thirteen quiet minutes of Scott Ferguson, maybe he’s more, that’s yet to be seen. He’s at just that age to possibly mature into a solid NHLer. But to be counting on that would be foolhardy. He’s there with a chance, is the best we can say.
The name of Joel Persson is an interesting one. The emerging Swede is a total wildcard, signed seemingly out of nowhere on a one-year contract to stay in Sweden, with the key Chiarelli sound bite being: “The plan is for Joel to remain with his club team next year. We have the right of recall but want to see him develop his game thoroughly in what will be his second year in the Swedish Elite League.” I wonder if that right of recall includes training camp, which begins just when the SHL starts playing games that count.
Free agent market
For blue-liners this market was thin on the ground when it opened on July 01, and has been thoroughly picked over since. Likely the most Sekera-like option still out there is Tobias Enstrom. A 33-year-old left-shooting puck-mover with 700 games of NHL experience, Enstrom has just completed a Sekera-like contract in Winnipeg (five years at $5.75 million). He remains on the open market, potential suitors likely scared off by his own history of injury, notably in 2017-18 when he played just 43 games and averaged just 17 minutes a night after previously being a 23-minute-a-night muncher. Red flags, but last I heard he had two intact achilles tendons, and oh yeah, no contract. He’s working out with MODO and contemplating a return home to Sweden, “expected to make a decision soon” according to this recent update from Pro Hockey Rumours. If the NHL dream remains alive for the long-time Jet, the situation in Edmonton ought to intrigue him. He would surely come at a fraction of his former cap hit but unlikely on a PTO given the domestic options at his ready disposal.
Other options include Alexei Emelin who has completed his own big pact, four years at $4.1 million. Hard to imagine he remains in that ball park at 32, having scored a total of three goals the last three years. Like Sekera and Enstrom he saw his minutes slashed in 2017-18, having found himself playing behind the best Top Four in hockey in Nashville. Emelin is a heavy hockeyist who doesn’t exactly fit the new blueprint emphasizing pace. Doesn’t seem a fit for the Oilers who are, after all, looking to replace Andrej Sekera not Eric Gryba.
Another is Luca Sbisa, a 28-year old coming off an eight-figure pact of his own (Notice the trend?) He scored a respectable 14 points in an injury-shortened 30-game season for Vegas. That said, he’s never managed as much as 20 minutes a night in any of his ten (!) NHL seasons, so his prior tab of three years at $3.6 million is unlikely to continue.
A better-known option in these parts is two-time Oiler Brandon Davidson. He was seen as an up-and-comer when he signed a two-year extension at $1.425 million with the Oil in the spring of 2016, but soon thereafter suffered serious leg injuries when run by Dustin Byfulglien and Matt Tkachuk that set him back. By the time that two-year deal was done he’d been traded to Montreal, reclaimed on waivers from Montreal, traded to New York Islanders, then not qualified by the Isles despite RFA rights. He’d likely come at a lower price today, but may be looking for some guarantees in terms of playing time after being a replaceable part in his previous tours. He turns 27 next week and should be very near his peak, which at this point appears to be third-pairing defender.
The issue here is acquisition cost, a tough pill for an Oilers club lacking true roster depth or prospect value.
One prominent name being Carolina’s Justin Faulk. His two remaining years at $4.83 million could theoretically be absorbed this season at least by Sekera’s LTIR, though again it would be tough to fit both cap hits to start the season. Carolina is rich in right-hand defencemen, poor in cash, and likely looking askance at Faulk’s actual salary draw of $6 million in each of those two remaining years, which might lower the ask significantly.
Other options include guys with one year remaining on their contract, with Florida’s Alex Petrovic being just one example of an experienced guy rumoured to be available.
One such is a professional tryout, bringing a lower-tier veteran to camp for a “show me” opportunity, then signing him at the end of camp or even after the season begins. In recent years Chiarelli has brought in Kris Versteeg and Chris Kelly on PTO’s even as neither of them ultimately got signed. Among blueliners such might attract the likes of Cody Franson who played more games for Rockford (37) than he did for Chicago (23) last season. While obviously such players have to consider all their options, finding a situation where they actually might fit is surely high on the priority list.
Whatever path Chairelli takes, in my view the status quo is not a great idea, even as it may take the alternatives some time to unfold. I personally like the Enstrom option which would likely require early movement by the club but at least some form of insurance policy.
Cult of Hockey prospect series
Goal: #13 Olivier Rodrigue #18 Hayden Hawkey | #23 Dylan Wells | Depth G
Defence: #10 Dmitri Samorukov #12 Filip Berglund #15 William Lagesson | #16 Joel Persson | #19 Phil Kemp | #20 Keegan Lowe | #22 John Marino | #25: Ryan Mantha | Depth D
Wing: #11 Ostap Safin | #14 Graham McPhee | #24 Jospeh Gambardella | Depth wingers
Centre: #17 Cameron Hebig | #21 Aapeli Rasanen | Depth centres
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