Though there might be some questions surrounding the Edmonton Oilers situation in net, as there might be some merit in wanting to upgrade the Oilers 5v5 scoring, the biggest question in the minds of most likely lies with the Oilers blueline. Perhaps there is some lag in the public consciousness of this evaluation, the Oilers consistently improved their defensive play as a whole as the 2022–23 season progressed, not to mention the addition of a legitimate top four shutdown defenceman in Mattias Ekholm.
Ekholm himself suggested that the Oilers journey forward might be more about mentality than personnel at this point, insightful comments from his season’s end media availability. Despite this, after losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in back-to-back seasons, the difference between the Oilers and either the 2021–22 Colorado Avalanche and the 2022–23 Vegas Golden Knights would seem to be most pronounced on the back end. This season’s Knights team had three pairs that were all strong, making it difficult to tell which one we would call first pair or third pair.
Though rumours surrounding Brett Pesce of the Carolina Hurricanes being a target for the Oilers, an acquisition of this magnitude would be costly from both an asset standpoint and the cap space required to fit the player. With Evan Bouchard due for a raise, spending any more money becomes a precarious equation. A legitimate top four option on the right side, effectively an upgrade on Cody Ceci as Darnell Nurse’s partner, a high quality right shot defenceman would be coveted by the Oilers.
An offshoot, perhaps, a player on another timeline altogether is Philip Broberg. A highly touted prospect, Broberg has all the raw tools to affect the game in all facets, but such is a reality that we are still waiting for. Curiously, the needs of Broberg’s development and the Oilers dreams of an improved blueline might well be at odds with each other. In some ways, Broberg is exactly the type of player the Oilers should be looking to find, an in-house option on the left side, while at the same time there is not really a place for Broberg to get regular playing time. This much was recently acknowledged directly by GM Ken Holland, there is worry surrounding the defenceman’s position on the depth chart.
In some sense, the crux of the issue is handedness. Behind Darnell Nurse, Mattias Ekholm, and Brett Kulak on the left side, the Oilers have a formidable group ahead of Broberg. Even Kulak, clearly the third option here, is quite a high bar to clear as a capable contributor. While Nurse might be a bit overcompensated, Kulak provides fair value for his $2.5M cap hit.
Broberg might well be ready to surpass Kulak on the depth chart outright in the 2023–24 season, but it is impossible for him to prove without getting significant and regular usage. Although a trade or injury above him on the depth chart would catapult Broberg into an important role, he finds himself blocked by the Oilers depth.
The point of note should be that Broberg is entirely ready for another audition on the third pair. In the winter month of the 2022–23 season, Broberg held down such a role paired with Bouchard. In sheltered minutes the young duo proved that neither needed a babysitter, a veteran defensive presence, in order to deliver a high quality of play. While this poring acted as a springboard for the more seasoned Bouchard, Broberg was left in the dust after Ekholm was acquired.
Perhaps the most simple fix is to deploy one of these left shot defenders on their weak side. For his part, much of Broberg’s work post trade deadline was on the right, acting as the seventh defenceman in the Oilers off kilter lineup. It does speak to Broberg’s overall quality that he would be trusted on his weak side at all.
Despite this promise it should not be understated that this is not exactly putting Broberg in position to succeed. When Nurse was suspended for one game in the playoffs (surprisingly, a suspension equal to an egregious slash from Alex Pietrangelo) the Oilers felt the need to e thrust a top role onto Broberg, who took a penalty against Jack Eichel and was promptly benched. Although it was a bad look for Broberg, who was not ready to take on a franchise centre, it was overly ambitious for the Oilers to place him in a top role after months of infrequent usage.
Broberg will likely be best served to reprise a role on the third pair, this time in earnest, and with a favourable partner. The best option might be to deploy Broberg on the left with Cody Ceci as a partner, but there is reason to think that Broberg could hold down the right side with Kulak as a partner. Broberg is well rounded enough to be deployed with more offensive minded partners and skilled enough to be deployed with more defensive options, which greatly enhances his versatility in the lineup.
As a backfill
If the Oilers are able to acquire Pesce, for example, they might need to offload the salary of Kailer Yamamoto as well as one of Kulak or Ceci. Naturally, and theoretically, Peace would pair with Nurse giving the Oilers a solid top four, leaving Broberg and the remaining Ceci or Kulak as a capable third pairing. As evidenced by his playoff usage, Broberg is quite literally the best option to backfill the defence. In the unfortunate event that either Nurse or Ekholm is injured, Broberg would be an invaluable asset to have on hand.
Despite the fact that Kulak’s floor is higher and more certain than Broberg’s, Broberg has a ceiling that is unfair to expect from Kulak or Ceci. Broberg still has some work to do on his defensive game, but we should expect to see this improve with age and experience. To use a past Oilers example Adam Larsson had a somewhat similar profile as a prospect, although Broberg probably has better skating abilities. Larsson is a more stable and rugged defender now than he was with the Oilers, and better still than he was as a member of the New Jersey Devils. Each player develops at their own pace and in their own ways, but the marbling grizzle of experience can only be achieved with icetime.
It might still be another couple seasons before Broberg is ready to assert himself as a top four defenceman, let alone on his weak side, but Holland’s concern stems from the fact that Broberg has earned the chance to be deployed regularly in a favourable situation. Although it might be a bit riskier, having Broberg as the third pair left side defenceman has greater upside and is more affordable than having Kulak at the same spot.
It can be difficult to project too far into the future, but it would make a lot of sense for the Oilers to align Broberg’s next contract with Ekholm’s current deal. With a year left on his current deal, Broberg should be affordable coming off of what should be his first full time NHL season. It might be too soon to match up with the then six years left on Nurse’s deal, keeping Broberg’s cap hit cost controlled for the next two seasons that Ekholm would have left on his deal would allow for the left side to be of high quality and manageable cost while the torch of salary and icetime is passed from Ekholm in his late 30s to Broberg in his mid 20s.
Given that Kulak was signed in large part thanks to his synergy with former Oiler Tyson Barrie, it should be Kulak who is more cumbersome to fit into the Oilers plans. As an Edmonton native, Kulak does have the makings of a hometown favourite. Perhaps Kulak is capable of switching over to the right side. A very capable third pair defender, if Kulak is able to provide a similar level of effectiveness on the right side it might be the cleanest solution for all parties involved.
As Pesce would demand a raise in salary after this season, the final year on his current contract, the Oilers would have to be fairly certain of their valuation and ability to re-sign him to make his acquisition anything more than a rental. After all, it is the prospect of a raise that sees Pesce’s name in trade rumours to begin with. Although the player is a fantastic fit for the Oilers on the ice, on the books the fit is much less elegant.
As a chip
Another angle to Broberg’s fit with the Oilers is as a trade chip. Along with their 2024 first-round pick and prospect Dylan Holloway, Broberg is one of the few top level trade assets the Oilers have to work with. In a trade for Pesce, Travis Konecny, or any other player of this quality, it is likely that two of these assets would need to be involved.
As neither Broberg or Holloway have fully asserted themselves as NHLers to this point, some might argue that their trade value is diminished. Evaluators might have their own thoughts here, but any team trading for either Holloway or Broberg would have to be believers in their potential.
While the Oilers must be steadfast and bold in their willingness to improve, it is interesting that Broberg and Holloway have a chance to be the very upgrades at forward and defence that the Oilers so desperately seek. Not all prospects will reach their potential, in fact most won’t, but Broberg and Holloway have shown enough to warrant some hope in this regard. At a small cap hit and with years of team control and negotiation leverage, both prospects are quite valuable as members of the Oilers or as trade chips.
Perhaps at some point Broberg and Holloway might provide the level of quality that Pesce or Konecny provide, but it is too steep to expect so this upcoming season. While the Oilers primary goal is to win a Stanley Cup in 2023–24, the secondary goal is to retain Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl into their next contracts, ostensibly renewing or prolonging their theoretical championship window.
Although Broberg and Holloway would be in top form heading into McDavid and Draisaitl’s next contracts, the pair of key prospects might be at odds with another memorable Holland quote from this offseason, involving green bananas. The question of balance, in essence, boils down to whether or not the Oilers can afford to wait.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire