Normally, it takes training camp before any teams begin scrambling for an unanticipated injury replacement among the leftovers of the market. It is unclear how long the Edmonton Oilers knew about the injury to defenseman Andrej Sekera – they announced the surgery today indicating they knew of the injury prior – but what is clear is that the team will need to add another body to the mix in Sekera’s stead. Out indefinitely with a torn Achilles tendon, Sekera is likely to miss a substantial amount of time and extremely unlikely to be back at 100% at any point in the 2018-19 season. It is no coincidence that with Sekera missing most of last season due to a knee injury, the Oilers defense struggled on all fronts. Sekera had easily been the team’s top defender over the two years prior and this will now be the second straight season where he cannot be relied upon. The team must do something to avoid another frustrating campaign on the blue line, but what?
In replacing Sekera, Edmonton will likely target a right-handed defenseman. Although Sekera is a lefty himself, the team is set on the left side regardless with Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Kris Russell. There is also free agent addition Kevin Gravel, also a left-handed defenseman, though he is best suited for his current extra man slot. The right side however poses questions behind Adam Larsson, with Matt Benning likely slated for the second pair and now a hole on the third pair. It is unlikely that the Oilers want to press Benning into a top-four role this season, nor do they want a left-handed depth option like Gravel, Ryan Stanton, or Keegan Lowe as a regular on the right side. As such, they are likely looking for a second-pair caliber righty.
The easy answer is the free agent market. In a relatively stagnant summer, there remains ample talent available in unrestricted free agent defensemen. However, the Oilers are not in the most flexible of positions. The team currently has all but approximately $5MM in cap space committed to their roster which doesn’t include restricted free agent defenseman Nurse, still in need of a new contract. If and when Nurse re-signs, the team will be left with little to no cap space. Fortunately, at this point in the summer they face little competition on the free agent market and could negotiate several tryout deals with available defenders, signing one or more after the start of the season once Sekera’s $5.5MM cap hit can be buried on injured reserve. Yet, the pickings are slim on the right side. Cody Franson could be the team’s best bet with Paul Postma potentially as the next-best option. Ryan Sproul or Frank Corrado could be younger dark horse candidates, while the team could possibly look at veteran Kevin Bieksa. However, if the Oilers consider overloading on lefties as they would have anyway with Sekera, then Toby Enstrom, Luca Sbisa, Alexei Emelin, Johnny Oduya, or even old friend Brandon Davidson jump out as attractive options.
If the team is set on adding a right-hander and not sold on the available free agents, they could also wait for training camp cuts. While there is no guarantee that the right player would wind up on waivers, it’s also well within the realm of possibility. Robert Bortuzzo, Nate Prosser, Jake Dotchin, Steven Kampfer, Brad Hunt, Alex Biega, and Adam McQuaid – a former favorite of Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli in Boston – are just some of the names who could wind up on the waiver wire and fit in on the right side of the Edmonton blue line. It would not be a surprise to see the team sign multiple defenders to PTO’s and also keep an close eye on who gets cut from training camps.
Finally, Edmonton could simply stand pat and attempt to replace Sekera internally. On paper, it doesn’t seem like the Oilers have the pieces to do so effectively, but some of their defensive prospects have not yet been given the opportunity to show what they can do at the NHL level. Many will clamor for recent first-round pick Evan Bouchard to get a shot at sticking with the team. Although very talented – and a right shot – it would be asking a lot for the 18-year-old to step into the top pro game and succeed. It’s not unprecedented, but it is unlikely. Recent Swedish import Joel Persson, currently on loan to his SHL club, is a 24-year-old righty who could be an intriguing experiment and has more experience with the pro game. William Lagesson, on loan in Sweden last season but now back in North America, is a left-shot defenseman but played on the right side frequently during his college days at UMass and is a very safe defensive player who could be a stopgap. Elsewhere in the system, small puck-mover Ethan Bear and hulking Ryan Mantha are both righties who could provide some different style options alongside Lagesson in the AHL. Between these young possibilities and some veteran depth, the Oilers could opt to just let camp battles decide who steps into Sekera’s shoes.
The only thing that is for sure is that Sekera is not going to be suiting up for Edmonton any time soon. Whether the team finds a way to add a capable free agent, gets lucky on the waiver wire, or trusts their young depth, the Oilers will need someone to step up in his stead. An injury to a top defenseman is not how they wanted to begin the season, but the Oilers now have some time to figure it out before the puck drops on the new campaign.