Darnell Nurse (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The controversial Adam Larsson-Taylor Hall trade did accomplish one goal right off the bat: Edmonton got a much-needed defenseman. But will the addition of Larsson and the continued growth of Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse get the Oilers back to the post-season?
The best-before date on "crucial season for the Oilers," expired long ago, but the goal is still the same for 2016-17: get back to the post-season for the first time in, now, more than a decade. Milan Lucic has replaced Taylor Hall as a top-line winger, while Jesse Puljujarvi is the latest lottery pick to bring excellent skill as a potential top-six forward.
But defense is going to be the bellwether.
If Edmonton is going to be successful, the Oilers must mount a serious challenge to forecheckers and puck-dumping invaders. While possession hockey hasn't been a strong suit, the team's Corsi For percentage has improved in the past few seasons and in 2015-16, the Oilers ranked 19th in the NHL – their best showing since the stat became well-tracked.
Adam Larsson is the latest New Guy, tasked with taking on minutes and playing against tough competition, something he did in New Jersey. And while acquiring him for Hall was controversial, the end game is that Edmonton has another blueliner and that was necessary. Will it be enough? That's the huge question, but Larsson will not be alone in taking the weight.
Really, it's time to expect more from Edmonton's young blueliners – and they're up for the challenge.
“We’re continuing to grow," said Darnell Nurse. "For a lot of guys including myself, we’ve got another year under our belt, a little more experience, and that goes a long way. It’s going to be a fun year.”
Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Brandon Davidson represent the future in Edmonton, but it's a near future - like, as soon as possible would be ideal. Klefbom's most recent campaign was hampered by two significant setbacks – a finger injury, followed by a foot infection – that limited him to 30 games. But when he was in the lineup, he was the most effective blueliner the team had, taking on tough competition and still managing positive possession numbers. Davidson was also a pretty good driver, while Nurse took on more minutes than any other regular besides Andrej Sekera (not counting Klefbom, who led all Oilers in average ice time during his truncated season).
The combination of youth and experience on the back end has proven tricky for Edmonton of late, with veterans such as Sekera, Andrew Ference, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin failing to make a dent in the standings.
But if Larsson, who played some of the toughest minutes of any defenseman in New Jersey, can move the dial, he'll take some pressure off Klefbom, Nurse and Davidson – a trio that may be ready to bloom anyway. Right now, the vibes are positive among the crew.
“There are a lot of real good young pieces and older guys to show us the way," Nurse said. "It’s going to be fun. Everyone’s looking forward to the season and for us, we have to go out every day and get better and get better results.”
The "better results" part is the key. With Connor McDavid leading the offense and Cam Talbot doing all he can in net, the defense will be the tipping point in Edmonton. Survival means the squad may have a chance. Outright success means a return to playoff hockey in town.