Oilers’ defence remains a question mark after off-season moves

Sportsnet's Gene Principe speaks with Tyson Barrie about signing with the Edmonton Oilers, including what about the Oilers drew him in and his thoughts on his experience with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers added an offensive defenceman in Tyson Barrie, and a third-line centre with excellent offensive pedigree in Kyle Turris. They signed Tyler Ennis, retrieved Jesse Puljujarvi from Finland, and return the same tandem in goal that left Edmonton ranked 15th in goals against per game last season at 3.03.

Meanwhile, it appears their No. 1 defenceman, Oscar Klefbom, could miss the entire 2020-21 season with his shoulder injury.

So general manager Ken Holland scratched a few itches in free agency, but did Edmonton really do anything to keep more pucks out of its net?

“That’s a fair question,” began head coach Dave Tippett, reached at his home in Arizona.

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Tippett won’t allow an influx of offensive talent to move him off of the Oilers’ need to play better defensively — especially at five-on-five — though he does admit of his changing roster, “One of the best ways to defend is to have the puck.”

“The biggest thing for me is, we can defend better. Five-on-five as a group, we have to defend better,” he said. “It’s not on the defence, not just on the forwards — it’s as a group. I think we can be a better defending team, and if the goaltenders are steady and we defend better as a team, we can keep some pucks out of our net.”

It’s a fair question to look at the Oilers’ goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith and ask how a duo that had the best save percentage in the National Hockey League while shorthanded finished in 25th place during five-on-five play.

Did the goaltending suddenly get worse at even strength? Or did the quality of the scoring chances change?

Edmonton’s penalty-killing units were clearly superior — they finished second in the NHL in PK percentage (84.4%). But when the team returned to even-strength play, somehow the Oilers leaked goals.

That’s about managing pucks and playing the game the right way so as not to bleed chances. Clearly, the Top 6 forwards and Top 4 defencemen — those who play the most minutes — have to find that game to solve Edmonton’s defensive shortcomings.

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Some more thoughts on where the Oilers stand after free agency:

• Turris walks in as a veteran centreman in a new role, with a long history under Tippett dating back to the Arizona team that drafted Turris third overall in 2007. Turris played 63 games as a 19-year-old under head coach Wayne Gretzky, then found himself in the minors the next season when Tippett took over.

“Kyle was a good young player, but not quite ready for the league. He thought he should be playing more, but we had a pretty good team with a lot of veteran players,” Tippett said. “I was trying to do things to win, he was a young player trying to develop, and those two things didn’t mix. There was no animosity — he just wanted more opportunity.”

A couple years later the two would link up again on Team Canada at the 2014 World Championships, where Turris served as Tippett’s third-line centre. “I really relied on him and he did a great job. A right-hand centreman who took all the big draws on the right side for us.”

He’ll do the same thing in Edmonton, likely with Puljujarvi on his right wing.

• Tippett is watching Puljujarvi’s games with Karpat, and had to say Thursday that Holland did nice work hanging on to this asset.

“I think we’re going to get a great player out of Kenny’s patience,” said Tippett, who wouldn’t promise that Turris will be the centreman charged with helping to bring Puljujarvi back into the NHL.

“He’s fine wherever he plays,” Tippett said. “I told him he could be a third-line winger or he could be higher. He’s fine with that. He’s coming back over to try and prove himself.

“You have to give a player a chance to become a player, and get the maximum out of that player. It’s not just the centreman helping him. He can help the centreman also. He’s a dominant player over there, on the power play, penalty kill and with his five-on-five play. He’ll make other players better, and he has to be better.”

Caleb Jones will get a much bigger bite this season.

“I think Caleb Jones is ready for a bigger role,” Tippett said.

The cavalry is coming on the Oilers blue line, with righty Evan Bouchard and lefties Philip Broberg and Dmitri Samorukov, all of whom are enjoying nice starts to their European campaigns. Barrie, on a one-year deal, is the bridge to those players.

In the meantime, with Klefbom likely out of the picture, Jones’ time has arrived. Tippett did not make any promises, but it is clear that Jones will get Top 4 even-strength minutes, perhaps alongside Adam Larsson.

We could see a defensive scheme where Jones plays with Larsson to start games. If the Oilers get the lead, Larsson gets more minutes. If they’re trailing, the riskier Barrie takes some of those minutes from Larsson.

We also see Ethan Bear being asked to follow the play up ice more often, while partner Darnell Nurse becomes this team’s shutdown defenceman, playing all the tough minutes on the left side.

“We’ve upgraded our skill, our puck play, and they’re all good enough players to play conscious defence,” Tippett said. “We’ll be better.”


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