EDMONTON — That one hurt.
We will likely never know the exact reasons why stout defenceman Adam Larsson walked away from the Edmonton Oilers, signing with the Seattle Kraken for the same money and term that Edmonton had offered. And that is perhaps the worst part.
You’d like to know exactly why, so you could know if the problem was fixable.
Did he leave because of an issue with the team? Did he choose the Kraken out of a belief that he’ll never win in Edmonton?
Or did he simply choose the unique experience that a ride with an expansion team can provide? Did he select a major American city with an NFL team, the ocean, and other amenities that Edmonton simply does not have and can not compete with?
Perhaps it was just time for an Oilers career that began as the disappointing return for Taylor Hall to come to an end. Time to leave a city where Larsson had experienced some personal success, but also tragedy when his 50-year-old father Robert passed suddenly on a visit here three years ago.
Those things leave scars. Scars that a guy wants to wipe away when he can.
It appears as if his best buddy, fellow Swede Oscar Klefbom, will not be playing here this season — or perhaps ever again due to an arthritic shoulder. Maybe Larsson said, “I’d have stayed and played with Oscar, but if he’s not playing…”
There are things Edmonton can deal with, and others this franchise can not match. It’s the reality of being Edmonton. Or Winnipeg. Or Ottawa.
Here, players experience the same fishbowl as Toronto, but without the location or amenities of The Big Smoke. It’s cold, it’s far away, and outside of hockey the winters are long.
When you are a handsome 28-year-old athlete making $4 million, Seattle is a sexier locale. By far, truth be told.
Whatever the reason, Edmonton just lost their best shutdown defenceman, a year after losing Klefbom. Those are two major blows to the program.
So, Edmonton moves on, pleased to have nabbed Duncan Keith for the next two seasons to recoup some of what will be lost with Larsson.
Holland will look harder at right-shot Tyson Barrie now, a UFA, but a right side of Barrie, Ethan Bear and young Evan Bouchard are insufficient. They need a defender like Larsson — a player you put out there to protect a 3-2 lead late in a game.
So, in our eyes, a Barrie signing almost assures a Bear trade.
Maybe you leave Barrie alone and go after UFA defenceman David Savard, a straight-up replacement for Larsson who would pair nicely with Keith on a second unit for roughly what Oilers GM Ken Holland was willing to pay Larsson. Maybe a tad more.
Or spend less money and term on Travis Hamonic, with the idea that Bouchard will be able to play second-pairing minutes halfway into the coming season. Hamonic’s injury status does not bode well however.
Either way, the hole left by Larsson can not be filled by an offensive-minded defenceman. Bouchard is too young and inexperienced to project into that role, and Bear simply is not that player. He can be a more staunch defender than Barrie, perhaps, but at five-foot-11 he’ll never play the commanding, physical style the six-foot-three Larsson does.
So the tangible aspects of Larsson’s game can be found elsewhere. It’s just another item on the to-do list of Holland, one that seems to grow daily.
He signed goalie Mike Smith to a two-year deal worth about $4 million in total on Wednesday. But now he needs a protégé like Linus Ullmark, who could relegate Smith to a lesser role than Mikko Koskinen affords.
Smith at $2 million as your backup is fine. He can still play, as his numbers from last season attest.
But he can’t be your best guy. Not at 39 years old.
Then there’s the job of a left winger for Connor McDavid, and the very real threat of having to over-term a player like Zack Hyman. The same factors that influenced Larsson to choose Seattle are the reasons why teams like Edmonton must overpay and over-term Unrestricted Free Agents to entice them to Northern Alberta.
It is why you jump at players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Keith — two good players who want to make Edmonton their home. They are few and far between, and the reason why the free agent market is more perilous for the Edmonton’s than it is for teams like Los Angeles, Boston or Tampa.
The bright side?
Holland won’t lose Tyler Benson or Jujhar Khaira in the Expansion Draft, and has another $4 million in cap space with Larsson gone.
Time to get to work.