Oilers taking a ‘calculated gamble’ on Klefbom

Arizona Coyotes' Jordan Szwarz (21) and Edmonton Oilers' Oscar Klefbom (84) battle in the corner during first period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alta. on Wednesday October 1, 2014. (Jason Franson/CP)

As the Edmonton Oilers hand out yet another seven-year contract to a player who has accomplished almost nothing in the National Hockey League, it begs two questions:

Can you ruin the player by giving him too much too soon? Or, if you choose the right target — and he blossoms into what you’re projecting he might — are seven-year deals for 22-year-olds simply considered good cap management in today’s hockey economy?

The Oilers locked up a very good young blueliner in Oscar Klefbom, signing him to a seven-year extension with an Annual Average Value of $4.167 million.

All this for a defenceman who has played just 77 NHL games.

"He’s a pretty known commodity," Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli said. "His NHL games, I know it’s not a huge sample size. But he’s known around the league as an up-and-coming player.

"He’s a big, strong kid. He skates well. He moves the puck well. He defends well," Chiarelli continued. "I saw him play in the Worlds, and at that high level he’s a very good player. I know he’s only had 70-some games in the NHL, but there’s a lot to like about him."

It was Chiarelli’s predecessor, Craig MacTavish, who handed out the other long-term deals in place here; Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each were given seven-year, $42 million deals coming out of their entry level contracts, while Jordan Eberle is going into his third season of his six-year, $36 million deal.

Those three top-six forwards will be signed well into their primes at $6 million per season.

What are the odds that the Oilers will not regret these deals?

Hall has five years remaining on his contract. Over the past three seasons, the 23-year-old has been the third highest-scoring left winger in the NHL, behind Alex Ovechkin and Jamie Benn.

A player gets better into his mid-twenties — barring catastrophic injury, of course. Hall turns 24 on Nov. 14 and should play his entire prime in Edmonton. Obviously points aren’t the only measure of a player, but if Hall’s high-scoring ways improve with age and experience, it’s fair to assess that Edmonton will likely get increasingly excellent value for his services at $6 million per year over the next five seasons.

If for some reason his play declines, or injuries slow him down… well, that’s the gamble, isn’t it?

Nugent-Hopkins is 17 months younger than Hall. His game took major strides last season — the first of his seven-year pact — with 24 goals and 56 points as a 21-year-old No. 1 centre on a bad team.

Extrapolate those numbers through to ages 23 to 27, with commensurate improvement due to maturity and an expected improvement in his on-ice support system, and Nugent-Hopkins’ value at $6 million per year seems promising.

Eberle, 25, has averaged 64 points per season the past two seasons. If his usual centre, Nugent-Hopkins, continues to grow, points totals in the 70s for Eberle would justify his pay. Or, at worst, he would be fairly paid for that kind of production.

Justin Schultz recently signed a one-year, $3.9 million bridge deal. That’s fitting, as his projections are clearly a tad murky.

But what of the 22-year-old Swede Klefbom, whose AAV is nearly identical to countrymen Jonas Brodin (Minnesota Wild) and John Klingberg (Dallas Stars)?

"When you first step into the league you want to play an easy, safe game. Maybe my first year I took a step back, and played a strong defensive game," Klefbom said on Sunday. "I would like to see myself as a strong two-way defender who can follow up some rushes and be an offensive threat as well."

To these eyes, he’s a slightly bigger — but not nearly as talented, yet — Niklas Hjalmarsson (Chicago Blackhawks).

At six-foot-three and weighing in at 210 pounds, Klefbom’s game has a promising physical side — and he shows that increasingly-Swedish ability for young defencemen to handle themselves so well at both ends of the rink.

Personally, I would place him in the "overpaid" column when his contract first kicks next season. But there is an excellent chance — particularly if the salary cap rises — that the Oilers will have a top defenceman at excellent value through the five or six years that follow.

Klefbom at $4 million starting in 2016-17 is a calculated gamble. It is the lot of today’s GM — part hockey man, part Las Vegas gambler.

"It’s a seven-year deal — effectively eight years if you include this year. So you have him until he’s 29 at a pretty good cap number," said Chiarelli. "It’s hard to get D-men. He’s a top-four D and he’s going to be a top-two D at some point.

"We’re fairly confident on that."

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