Edmonton - August 27, 2014 - There was no question that Craig MacTavish was going to upgrade his blueline during the summer and he apparently accomplished what he set out to do in signing defencemen Keith Aulie, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin to free agent deals.
While the trio will undoubtedly improve the Edmonton Oilers depth on their backend, in my mind they are still missing the necessary pieces to compete for a playoff spot with the roster structured as it currently is.
Now there are those who would disagree with that assessment but at this stage of the game, it is nothing more than sheer speculation on everyone’s part. Ultimately the performance on the ice will determine where this team ends up. With that said, one can’t help but wonder what sort of role the organization has in mind for Oscar Klefbom during the coming season.
Barring some sort of training camp deal that would see MacT ship one of Andrew Ference, Martin Marincin, Jeff Petry or Justin Schultz out of town, which seems to be highly unlikely at this stage, it looks as though the Swedish rearguard could be the odd man out when it comes to cracking the opening night roster. In the past this organization has mistakenly rushed certain players into the National Hockey League before they were ready to make the jump but having Klefbom start the year in Oklahoma City could prove to be counterproductive.
During his brief seventeen game stint with the Oilers in 2013-14, the former nineteenth overall pick showed to be more than capable of holding his own against the best players in the world. By all accounts, he played arguably his finest hockey of the season after securing a regular spot in Edmonton and to be perfectly honest, no one should have been overly surprised by it.
Don’t get me wrong, Klefbom still has a lot to learn but in my opinion sending back to the American Hockey League for more seasoning doesn’t guarantee he will continue to improve as a player. Management made the right call in sending him down to start the year in ‘13-‘14, as he not only needed time to adjust to playing and living in North America but was also coming off an injury plagued season in which he saw very little actual game time over in the Swedish Elite League.
Not surprisingly, he struggled to find his way in OKC but the youngster started to turn the corner after becoming comfortable with his new surroundings and took it to another level upon his arrival in Edmonton. While it may have been a fairly small sample size, Klefbom appears to processes the game a much higher level than most and more often than not, those players tend look much better and develop better habits playing alongside guys who think the game on the same wavelength.
His ability to think on the fly and make adjustments in mid-game were apparent in his very first NHL game against the Minnesota Wild, following what was a rather challenging opening ten or so minutes to his career. When it comes to transitioning the puck out of the defensive zone when pressure is being applied from the opposition, the twenty-one year old is arguably already better than any of the Oilers current crop of returning blueliners. He rarely if ever rushes into making a bad decision with the puck and if he does, it has generally been corrected in very short order. Again…something that cannot be said about the vast majority of defenders on this roster.
At 6’ 3” and 215 pounds the kid adds size and a willingness to at least engage physically and actually attempt to clear out the front of the net for his goaltender, another trait which is lacking in many of Dallas Eakins’ group of defencemen. Add to that the fact Schultz played arguably the most consistent hockey of his young career when paired with #84 and suddenly shipping him to minors makes even less sense.
By the looks of things, Aulie will likely be given every opportunity to earn the role of being this team’s seventh defenceman and in all honesty, it is spot which should suit the twenty-five year old native of Rouleau, Saskatchewan perfectly. In my mind, going with three young defencemen in the top six would be a recipe for disaster, meaning one of Klefbom, Marincin and Schultz would have to be the odd man out and the latter is guaranteed spot.
As solid as the Slovak defender was during his first go-round with the Oilers, my money would be on Klefbom being the more effective of the two. If he can come out and prove to this coaching staff that he is ready for prime time during training camp, do not be surprised to see Eakins keep him around and make whatever move is necessary to make it happen.