Stalwart defender Adam Larsson made a strong case for contract extension with Edmonton Oilers

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2021 Edmonton Oilers in review
Adam Larsson

When Edmonton Oilers played the Winnipeg Jets in their opening-round series, coach Dave Tippett’s defence corps of choice for the first three games looked as follows:

Darnell Nurse — Tyson Barrie
Dmitry KulikovAdam Larsson
Slater Koekkoek
— Ethan Bear

Four of the six, shown in boldface, have all played out their contracts and are all set to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Four out of six. Unrestricted. Egads.

While there is some overlap in the sense that a left shot d-man could be moved to the right side, or (heaven forbid) vice versa, Tippett has shown a very strong preference for natural pairings of “sticks on boards”. Over the course of the season (60 games including playoffs), right shot defenders logged 181 GP, lefties 183, with a 3:3 split in the vast majority of those games. So in one sense, it is best to consider the two sides of the defence as separate entities.

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While he has problems to address on both halves of the ice, Holland’s first priority surely lies on the right side. Barrie and Larsson both played 56 games in 2021, ranking 2-3 on the team behind only Nurse in average ice time per game, playing extremely different roles.

The right side is also where the existing depth chart beyond the two expiring vets offers fewer solutions:

  • Ethan Bear (23 years old): 43 GP in Edmonton in 2021
  • Evan Bouchard (21): 14 GP in Edmonton, 23 GP in Hockey AllSvenskan
  • Filip Berglund (24): 32 GP in Swedish Hockey League
  • Philip Kemp (22): 12 GP in Bakersfield, 32 GP in Hockey AllSvenskan
  • Michael Kesselring (21): 21 GP in Bakersfield, 20 GP in NCAA

From that group, the most optimistic outlook for the immediately upcoming season sees one top-four NHL d-man in Bear, a potential third-pairing guy in Bouchard, and three past draft picks cutting their professional teeth in the AHL. The five men combined have barely 150 games of NHL experience. Thus the options for the Oilers are to sign at least one of Larsson or Barrie, and/or sign or trade for a proven right-shot from elsewhere in the NHL.

The cupboards aren’t quite as bare as they were in 2015 when Peter Chiarelli took charge of a team that had just moved on from Jeff Petry and had exactly two (2) righties in the entire organization in Justin Schultz and Mark Fayne. Chiarelli quickly set about addressing the situation, drafting RHD Bear and John Marino that summer, then Berglund the following year while also signing college free agent Matt Benning. But to more immediately address the shortcomings of his top four, in June of 2016 Chiarelli pulled the trigger on the infamous one-for-one trade that brought Adam Larsson to Edmonton.

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Larsson had five years to run on his contract on that fateful day, but those years have now melted away. But the team need for a reliable defence-first right-shot defender remains as strong now as it did then.

We know a lot more about the player now than we did then, of course. He’s now played over 600 NHL games, with over half of them right here in Edmonton. In that span he’s posted modest boxcar stats of 16-52-68, +5 in 329 games, averaging over 20 minutes per night as an Oiler. But by far the lion’s share of his value is on the defensive side of the puck.

2021 was fairly typical in that respect. Larsson averaged 2:18 per game on the penalty kill, just 2 seconds on the powerplay. More than twice as many of his shifts started in the defensive zone than the offensive, by far the most lopsided rate of any Oilers D. He shared under 16% of his 5v5 minutes with Connor McDavid, spending more raw ice time with 10 other forwards than he did with the high-octane captain.

He also split his time among the various left-side d-men, playing over two hours at 5v5 with each of four different left-shot partners, none of them named Darnell Nurse. Never mind the fact that Larsson played not a minute with his regular partner over several years, Oscar Klefbom, who missed the entire season with shoulder woes. His cycle of partners ranged from fellow vets like Kris Russell (251 minutes) and Dmitry Kulikov (147) to youngsters William Lagesson (209) and Caleb Jones (141).

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When he did play with Nurse (84 minutes at 5v5, 15 more at 5v6) it was generally protecting leads in the late stages, something the Oilers were very successful doing all season long. Nurse was also his most common partner on the penalty kill. But at 5v5, Nurse and Barrie played on McDavid’s unit frequently, leaving Larsson to mind the store with lesser mates.

Through all of that  partner chaos, Larsson took care of his primary function, which was to keep the opposition in check. Opponents averaged just 1.99 goals per 60 minutes that the dour Swede was on the clock at 5v5, and just 5.49 per 60 that he was on the penalty kill, high among the team leaders in both disciplines. He did so in his customary take-no-prisoners manner, ranking in the top five among NHL defencemen in both hits (166) and blocked shots (128).

While I’ll spare you the gory details about how the sausage was made, an analysis by the writer through the filter of PuckIQ.com comparing their keystone stat of  “Dangerous Fenwick” to overall shot attempts suggests that Larsson did the best job of any Oilers rearguard in limiting high-danger shots. That noted shot suppressor Kris Russell was a close second and Kulikov a more distant third served, in my mind at least, to validate the methodology.

By our own counts here at the Cult of Hockey, my colleague David Staples and I charged Larsson with the lowest rate of any defenceman on the team in committing major mistakes on both Grade A chances against and on actual Goals Against all season long. This after a couple of rocky performances in the very early stages including the season opener. He settled down nicely thereafter and contributed many games of robust, nearly error-free defence through the heart of the season.

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The elephant in the room is that was not the case in the playoffs, where Larsson was charged with a major mistake on a goal against in each of the 4 games, 3 of them at 5v5 and the other on the penalty kill. Notable too that he wound up with a -1 in each game, pretty significant given his team effectively lost all 4 by a single goal. It was a disappointing finish to a pretty good season for a lot of Oilers, Adam Larsson most definitely among them.

But where would the team be without him? Could Ken Holland find an adequate replacement for Larsson on the open market? It’s pretty clear he doesn’t have such a player within the organization, certainly not on the right side. On the left, fellow Swede and occasional partner William Lagesson was clearly being groomed for a similar role, but it’s fair to say he’s a long ways away at this point in time and at 25, may never get there.

Larsson himself is not getting any younger at 28, but is in his physical prime and should have a few good years ahead of him yet. He was the picture of health in 2021 playing all 60 games, with no sign of the back issues that have plagued him at times in the past.

At this point, the verbal from both the team and from outside sources is that Larsson is much more likely than Barrie to be re-signed. The general buzz suggests a multi-year extension, perhaps three years, on roughly the same pay scale that he has been over the past half-decade.

Oilers fans are definitely on board with this, at least judging from this sample of nearly 2,700 followers of the team:

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While some might suggest that Ken Holland keep his powder dry for a big play on a high-end right-shot rearguard like pending UFA Dougie Hamilton or trade candidate Seth Jones, neither player seems likely to land in Edmonton. As the old saying goes, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. And while Larsson himself has options on the open market, by all accounts he is comfortable and Edmonton and wants to remain an Oiler.

The smart money has him doing just that. And while speculation has it that Holland might try to finesse him through the Seattle expansion process and only then sign him, the guess here is that a deal will be done in the relatively near future and Larsson will subsequently be protected by the Oilers as a centrepiece of the defence corps.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Will Oilers bring Devin Shore back? Signs point to yes

LEAVINS: Ken Holland faces a challenging off-season — 9 Things

STAPLES: Is Connor McDavid’s new winger playing for Tampa right now?

McCURDY: The wrong goalie contract is expiring

STAPLES: Tippett on why they lost to the Jets

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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