LAS VEGAS — There are 31 teams in the National Hockey League, but there likely isn’t even 20 of hockey’s most coveted NHL player — the No. 1 defenceman.
Roman Josi, Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Brent Burns, Mark Giordano. Now a John Carlson … soon a Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.
Buy a jug of beer, get two buddies around the table, and if the three of you can unanimously agree on 20 pure No. 1’s, we’ll buy.
Which brings us to Oscar Klefbom, who has never made anyone’s universal list — even though he has been Edmonton’s No. 1 for some time now. He leads the NHL in time on ice per game (25:56), is ninth among defencemen in points (17), quarterbacks the NHL’s leading powerplay and anchors the league’s second-best penalty-killing unit.
Yet, you might ask 20 NHL general managers if he’s a legit No. 1 and not get a single “Yes.”
“Is that fair?” we asked Klefbom after a practice in Las Vegas.
“For sure, it’s a fair question,” responded the handsome Swede, completely unoffended by the question. “You look at a guy like Drew Doughty — he’s been playing 27 minutes for I don’t know how many years now. He’s been consistent for many, many years. Victor Hedman, plays a lot of minutes, a lot of responsibility for so many years.
“I’m really happy with the way I play right now. But, ask me in five years. Hopefully, if I can keep it up, it’s another discussion (for down the road). Now, it’s up to all the experts to compare (him) with Giordano, or Josi, or whoever.”
The thing about Klefbom that defies common hockey practice is this:
Let’s say he’s really a top-notch No. 3, second powerplay unit guy, who should be playing 21, 22 minutes per night. That means that the Oilers have him playing above his level; that they’re over-using Klefbom.
But in almost every case we’ve ever seen, that over-used player caves in. They say that there is ‘Truth in 82,’ and when the player finally buckles under the additional responsibility that his coach and GM have saddled him with, it’s not his fault. It’s theirs.
Klefbom is being asked to be No. 1. He has been for a few years now.
Yet, he’s not caving in. He’s actually getting better.
“He does every little part of the game right, and when you put it like that it means he is an extremely smart D-man,” said countryman Adam Larsson, whose respect for Klefbom’s game grew when he watched him from the press box while injured all of this season. “Good positioning, a tremendous shot, and for being a big guy he is a pretty smooth skater. He has a lot of tools that define his name, his personality out there.
“He has come into his own this year.”
Don’t forget, Klefbom is no Hughes or Tyson Barrie. He is six-foot-three and 216 pounds. — smaller than Weber or Hedman, but two inches taller and 15 pounds heavier than Josi, who is becoming a bit of a comparable for Klefbom.
“He’s not flashy,” Larsson says. “He plays first power play, PK, and he’s pretty good at it. Maybe a left-handed Pietrangelo?”
Hmmm… Stay healthy and give the Oilers a few years of 40-plus point seasons, and Larsson might have something there.
We called a scout who has watched Klefbom for his entire NHL career.
“I remember when I first laid eyes on him. I thought he looked like a pretty good player,” said the scout. “He was just learning the NHL game, but he had three things: Size, he could skate, and he knew how to play. He knew the game. So it was a case of time, patience and experience.
“As the game has evolved, and it has become less gritty, a guy like Klefbom gets a little more time and space to play. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder as much … and he looks more comfortable now.
“And he can really shoot the puck. He can fire it.”
It’s rare to see a defenceman play as much as Klefbom has on both special teams. He doesn’t even lead his own D-corps in even-strength time on ice — Darnell Nurse does at 19:31, to Klefbom’s 18:54.
But Klefbom leads all Oilers defencemen at shorthanded minutes (3:26), and of course on the power play (3:36), where he is the only D-man on a unit that plays at least 90 seconds of every PP opportunity. Often the full two minutes.
Interesting though, that 3:36 of PP time ranks just 12th among NHL defencemen. Vancouver rookie Hughes (4:13) averages more power-play time per game than any other NHL blue-liner.
For his part, Klefbom is liking his minutes, and happy to play as much four-on-five as five-on-four.
“You learn a lot about the powerplay by being on the PK — and vice versa,” he said. “It’s an advantage (to play both). It’s almost easier to play on the powerplay if I am playing the PK.
The minutes will go down a touch, now that Larson has returned. But Klefbom will always be this team’s No. 1 — even if he’s not an actual No. 1 in most people’s eyes.
“It comes with a lot of responsibility,” he said of his ice time. “I’ve got to do something good with the minutes I get.
“To show that I deserve them.”