Originally, on the shopping list for GM Ken Holland, this spot was reserved for Adam Larsson. Simply, the Oilers would re-sign their top shutdown defenseman and run a top four on defense than included Larsson, Duncan Keith, Ethan Bear and Darnell Nurse.
On Wednesday, Larsson threw a wrench into those plans. Despite multiple competitive and fair offers from Holland and the Oilers, Larsson elected to sign a four-year free agent deal with the Seattle Kraken.
Now, Holland must find a top-four defender just a week and a half after taking on Keith’s full contract in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks.
There is no ideal Larsson replacement on the free agent market, but Holland must now check down and at least adequately fill this hole on his roster.
Here’s a look at some of the targets for the veteran General Manager.
Tyson Barrie (UFA, Edmonton Oilers): With Larsson now gone, it’s expected that Holland will re-engage with Barrie. After signing a one-year, $3,750,000 deal last October, Barrie now has a clear path to return to the Oilers. The veteran puck mover sees a fit with the Oilers, and is coming off a season where he scored 48 points (8 g, 40 a) in 56 games.
Those 48 points were the most out of any free agent signing from last off-season, and also led the entire NHL in points by a defenseman. Yet, even with those positives, it’s tough to see where Barrie fits moving forward.
No one can question Barrie’s offensive game. He’s excellent on the powerplay, has a good shot, strong offensive instincts and is able to pass the puck quite well. His defensive issues are aplenty, however. Barrie had issues with coverage during his one season with the Oilers, and struggled to maintain the blueline. It was high-event hockey when Barrie was on the ice.
There’s also the fit. Barrie is the complete opposite of Larsson in the sense that he is all offense and very little defense. Larsson played a shutdown role for the Oilers, and was the best defenseman at suppressing opposition offense. That is not a strong point for Barrie.
With Evan Bouchard a priority to play in 2021-22, it’s hard to see where Barrie fits with the Oilers. He’d make their defense far too redundant, and far too weak when it comes to defending.
Travis Hamonic (UFA, Vancouver Canucks): Not a sexy option, Hamonic is at least a realistic option. The Manitoba native has played in Western Canada since the 2017-18 season, and has shown a desire to remain in the region. He’s previously be interested in joining the Oilers, and likely would only command a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $2,750,000.
Hamonic is also stylistically a better fit to replace Larsson. At 6’2″ and 205 pounds, Hamonic’s game is more based around defense and some degree of physicality. It’s questionable at best to assume he can fill Larsson’s role fully, but he at least can fill it to some degree and would help on the penalty kill.
Hamonic appeared in 38 games with the Vancouver Canucks a season ago, scoring 10 points (3 g, 7 a) and posting a -3 rating. He largely struggled possession wise, posting a 45.16% Corsi For and a 45.28% Fenwick For in 2020-21.
With Hamonic on the ice at five-on-five a season ago, the Canucks managed just 44.92% of the shots, 42.73% of the expected goals (xGF%), 44.44% of the actual goals and 41.00% of the scoring chances.
Now, the Canucks were a bad team a season ago, and also dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced them to play a condensed schedule with a less than ideal lineup. Still, Hamonic struggled and that cannot be ignored.
If you are looking for a little optimism here, one can look back to Hamonic’s 2019-20 season down the highway in Calgary. Hamonic posted a 49.19% Corsi For and a 47.92% Fenwick for that season, while posting a 48.55% xGF%.
(All numbers via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted)
Hamonic is not a perfect solution, but he could be a cheap stopgap option that at the very least gets the club to the NHL trade deadline next winter.
David Savard (UFA, Tampa Bay Lightning): Savard has been the favorite pick of many to replace Larsson. The name value is there, but there should be caution when it comes to Savard. The veteran shutdown defenseman struggled mightily in 2020-21, and was relegated to a depth role with the Lightning.
There’s no debating that the kind of game Savard wants to play is a perfect fit. At his best, Savard has been a strong shutdown defender capable of facing the best the opposition has to offer while providing a physical edge. He’s just not that player anymore.
In 54 totals games this past season, Savard scored six points (1 g, 5 a) and posted a -27 rating. I’m not the biggest on +/-. it’s an antiqued statistic, but when it’s that poor it must be mentioned.
Savard was a negative possession player in both spots, posting a 43.1% Corsi for with the Blue Jackets (-5.0 rel) and a 51.7% mark with the Lightning (-2.6 rel). His PDO in both spots was dreadful, 95.2 in Columbus and 94.3 in Tampa, but the puck was going in the wrong direction all of the time.
At least some of that bad luck was deserved.
Savard appears to have lost a step, and was buried on the Lightning’s depth chart during the playoffs. This is a veteran player with a lot of miles on the tires, and it’s looking like those miles have caught up to him.
Stylistically it appears to be a match, but in practice signing Savard is a poor gamble for any team.
Nick Jensen (Washington Capitals): The first trade candidate on the list, Jensen is a familiar face for Holland. Jensen was Detroit’s fifth-round selection in 2009, and played parts of three seasons with the club at the NHL level. Holland moved him to the Capitals at the 2019 NHL trade deadline as the club was in the middle of a rebuild.
Jenson scored 14 points (2 g, 12 a) in 53 games for the Capitals this past season, averaging 17:18 per game in ice time. He also finished the season with a +5 rating on a Capitals team that finished second in the East Division.
Jensen posted a 50.24% Corsi For and a 49.64% Fenwick For this past season, while helping the Capitals to 50.88% of the shots, 52.54% of the goals, a 53.58% xGF% and 52.50% of the scoring chances.
Described as a speedy defenseman with good defensive instincts, Jensen isn’t a pure shutdown defenseman. He’s solid in his own zone, but less so than Larsson. He can move the puck better than Larsson, however, and has a very affordable contract. Jensen has two seasons left on a deal that carries a $2,500,000 AAV.
Jensen is a sleeper option, and it’s uncertain if the Capitals would even be interested in dealing him. Still, he’d be a good fit and is a familiar face for management.
Josh Manson (Anaheim Ducks): Another trade option, Manson is coming off of a nightmare season for the Ducks in which he was one of the club’s worst players. He also dealt with injury, however, and that could have had an impact on performance.
Also, unlike Jensen, there is little doubt that the Ducks would be inclined to deal Manson. Sources indicate they were dangling the defenseman prior to the April 12th trade deadline, and it’s no secret that the Ducks are in the middle of what appears to be a lengthy rebuild.
Manson is entering the final year of his contract and carries a cap hit of $4,100,000. That’s nearly identical to what the Oilers were offering Larsson before he decided to sign in Seattle.
In terms of style of play, Manson is a big defenseman (6’3″, 224 pounds) who plays a physical style of hockey when he is on his game. Known as a shutdown defenseman, Manson has a strong hockey IQ and, in the words of some scouts, “excels” in defensive situations.
There is risk here, Manson is coming off of a down year and some injury issues, but the reward is high. When healthy, an argument can be made that Manson is actually a better player than Larsson. Getting him to Northern Alberta would certainly be win for Holland and his team.
Manson is a perfect fit for the club, and wouldn’t hamstring them long-term. The Oilers can take the player for a test drive, and it’s doubtful the price will be crazy high.
Dougie Hamilton (UFA, Carolina Hurricanes): Hamilton is on this list, but he’s not high on it. That’s not because Hamilton isn’t a good player, heck, he’s the best defenseman on the open market. The reason is, it is incredibly unlikely that Hamilton will return to Alberta. That’s why I won’t go in-depth on the pending free agent.
An all-around, top pairing defenseman capable of doing everything, Hamilton would be a stunning addition to the Oilers.
Unfortunately, with a Zach Hyman signing looking imminent, it appears unlikely that the Oilers will have the resources to give Hamilton the kind of contract it would take to get him to town.
It’s a pipedream, but the Oilers would instantly be a much better team with Hamilton in the fold.
Cody Ceci (UFA, Pittsburgh Penguins): How ironic would it be if Larsson left and Ceci, the other defenseman, came to Edmonton to replace him. Ceci, of course, was the other defenseman that the Oilers were after in the summer of 2016, as GM Peter Chiarelli tried to acquire him before checking down to Larsson.
Ceci is coming off of a strong season with the Penguins, one in which he scored 17 points (4 g, 13 a) in 53 games. Possession wise he wasn’t great, but also wasn’t bad for a Penguins team that won the East Division.
Ceci posted a 48.31% Corsi For and a 48.38% Fenwick For in 2020-21. At five-on-five, the Penguins got 48.39% of the shots, 59.42% of the goals, 48.34% of the scoring chances and had a 48.67% xGF% with Ceci on the ice.
Ceci had a lot of good look with the Penguins this past season, but also outperformed prior seasons. He’s certainly not a perfect player, but Ceci is certainly an NHL defenseman.
This is a player with good size, and a recent flash of offensive ability, but likely not one suited for a shutdown role. Ceci could fit in Edmonton, but coach Dave Tippett will need to change how he deploys his defense. Ceci isn’t a big minutes, shutdown defender.
Erik Gudbranson (UFA, Nashville Predators): Gudbranson is big, is a veteran and, in theory, is a shutdown defenseman. He’s far from my pick, but is on this list because his name has already been tossed around.
I’ll keep it short, signing Gudbranson to play the Larsson role would be a mistake.
Gudbranson, at best, is a depth defender. He had an up-and-down 2020-21 season that was split between the Ottawa Senators and the Nashville Predators.
With Ottawa, Gudbranson actually nearly broke even in some key possession stats. He posted as 49.35% Corsi For and a 48.17% Fenwick For in 36 games for the outgunned Senators. His xGF% of 45.92% wasn’t good, however, and the Senators only got 47.89% of the shots and 35.42% of the goals with Gudbranson on the ice.
Some of that was atrocious goaltending, which killed the Senators early, and some of it was coverage mistakes by players like Gudbranson. His possession metrics sunk further in Nashville, with a 40.23% Corsi For, 40.20% Fenwick For, 38.41% of the shots and an xGF% of 40.29%. Granted, the sample size was only nine games, but it still wasn’t good.
Gudbranson is 6’5″ and plays a physical style, so he’ll always get looks in this league. At the end of the day, he’s simply not a top-four defenseman and shouldn’t be looked at as a Larsson replacement. He can’t fill the second pairing RHD vacancy the Oilers have, and he’s never proven over the course of his career that he can handle the rigorous shutdown minutes now available in Edmonton.
Mark Pysyk (UFA, Dallas Stars): Yes, I know people will roll their eyes because there isn’t a single former Edmonton Oil King who has worked out as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. I get that. Pysyk, however, is the best of the bunch to this point and is actually a good player.
Now, he’s not as good as Larsson and there is no denying that he won’t be able to fill the hole left by the Swede. He can’t handle those minutes. He can, however, take some of the burden.
Pysyk appeared in 36 games with the Dallas Stars in 2020-21, scoring four points (3 g, 1 a). The Stars faced numerous injuries over the course of the season, and had to play the most compact schedule of any team for the longest period of time due to an early season COVID-19 outbreak and an ice storm that crushed the Dallas area. The team never got into rhythm, and as a result missed the playoffs.
Pysyk, however, was quite good. He had the second best Corsi For on the team, posting a 55.73% mark to go with a 56.50% Fenwick For. The Stars got 58.11% of the shots, 59.09% of the goals, 60.95% of the scoring chances and had an xGF% of 63.01% when Pysyk was on the ice in 2020-21.
He was a shining light for the Stars possession wise in his lone season in Dallas, and should be in the lineup on a nightly basis for some NHL team in 2021-22.
It’s doubtful that Pysyk would command much in terms of dollars or, well, term, and he could prove to be a strong value contract. He won’t replace Larsson’s minutes and he won’t fill the shutdown role completely, but Pysyk is a good player who can help the Oilers overcome a tough loss. He can be part of the solution.