In the world of the NHL, the off-season is a funny time. Although the fact that any games are a long time away affords us the space to analyse and digest a large volume of roster changes—the uncertainty of the season ahead means that our analysis might be at its most misguided.
This dichotomy creates an environment in which perception can tilt the scales of our judgement, unchecked. It manifests itself in a number of ways, most simply with a disproportionate amount of focus on new players. New draft choices are graded and dissected despite being years away, while free agency acquisitions grab headlines despite being an expensive, peripheral, and auxiliary process for team building.
The more sustainable method of growth, and that which can most profoundly impact the strength of a roster, is internal development. Although throughout the offseason we tend to think of teams and players existing on paper, the athletes and their effectiveness are dynamic beings, evolving and deteriorating before our very eyes.
So tight to the upper limit of the NHL’s hard salary cap, the Edmonton Oilers hands were tied, even giving up assets to dump salary. Without many high priced signings and without much draft capital either, the Oilers were certainly not standout winners of the offseason from a league wide perspective. While other teams drew more attention for the largely meaningless mantle of offseason winners, this analysis of the Oilers offseason omits a focus on the fact of the matter; the Oilers are likely to be improved heading into the 2023–24 season thanks to the likelihood and capacity for internal development.
Younger players already in key NHL roles should continue to improve. Evan Bouchard, Stuart Skinner, Ryan McLeod, and even Vincent Desharnais are all key members of the Oilers who should be further coming into their power. All four played quite well last season, and while big steps forward would be appreciated, it might be a bit ambitious to rely upon yet another huge step forward from all of them. To an extent even equaling their effectiveness from last season would be a boon for the Oilers. As more established NHLers we might have a more well formed concept of their potential.
Further down is another trio of young players who are significantly less established in the Oilers lineup, a trio that might present an even higher potential to the Oilers. Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway, and Raphael Lavoie might take significant steps in the 2023–24 season. For these players, one by one, let’s take a look at where in the lineup they might play, and ultimately how they might improve the Oilers as a whole.
We should start by acknowledging that there is a growing friction between Broberg’s stock as a prospect and some corners of Oil Country. While some of this might trace back to his draft night,—where fans might be hanging onto grudges wishing that the Oilers picked another player that they might have liked more—some can also be traced back to a case of prospect fatigue.
Rightly or wrongly, there was some hope that Broberg would be able to earn an NHL spot out of training camp in each of the past two off-seasons. While this, the third consecutive off-season with such hopes, some might be growing impatient, even feeling that Broberg’s progress has stalled. A further investigation, however, would dispute this, as Broberg’s game has continued to grow, albeit most visibly in the AHL, where Broberg proved he had little left to prove in a short but dominant stretch in the fall of 2022 last season.
Draft class comparisons
Furthermore, if we compare Broberg to other defencemen we can contextualise what has seemed like a slow ascent. Take for example the group of defencemen taken in the first-round of Broberg’s 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Naturally, Moritz Seider stands above the rest, as he should after being the first of the group off the board. With two strong seasons under his belt already, Seider is one of the best young defencemen in the game, and hardly a fair standard to hold Broberg to at this point.
Victor Soderstrom, Cam York, Lassi Thompson, Ville Heinola, and Tobias Bjornfot were all taken in the first-round as well. All five are at a similar crossroads as Broberg as they all come of age, hoping to start carving out bigger NHL roles for themselves. York might be the standout of this group, and his skillset as an offensive defenceman with power play upside should aid that perception.
The advantage that York and other defencemen in this group have over Broberg is a path to playing time, or teams in a different developmental phase than the Oilers. As a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, the Oilers have been weary to entrust Broberg with any more than they have had to, limiting his opportunities. In any case, it’s hard to argue that Broberg is lagging behind his draft class.
Similarly, Broberg is keeping pace with the progress that Evan Bouchard showed over the past couple seasons. Roughly a year and a half between the two, Broberg’s usage last season does mirror Bouchard’s usage two seasons ago, on the outside of the top-six looking in. Bouchard was ultimately placed with veteran partner Duncan Keith, a favourable situation for Bouchard to start taking a regular shift.
One potential lineup that could mirror this step is playing Broberg with Cody Ceci. Stylistically, Broberg shares a lot of similarities with Darnell Nurse, a big left shot with strong skating abilities who can contribute on both sides of the ice. Broberg should be able to continue growing as an in zone defender, as well as in general, but it’s easy to see how Ceci would be a strong compliment given his veteran savvy, well rounded game, overall quality, and handedness. The main problem with this is that Ceci has been needed further up the lineup.
Elsewhere on the right side, the Oilers have Vincent Desharnais and Bouchard. While Broberg and Bouchard played quite well together in 2022–23, Bouchard has likely found a long term deployment with Mattias Ekholm. Desharnais would provide some snarl and in zone defence that Broberg would appreciate, but it might be hard to characterise the demand on Broberg as a primary puck mover as ideal. Perhaps Broberg is ready to carry a pairing with Desharnais.
Broberg also has the ability to play on the right side, his weak side, and much of his usage last season came under such circumstances. While this versatility does help Broberg’s candidacy for more potential fits in the lineup, it would hardly be described as the ideal for his development.
It does create something of a paradoxical fit with the Oilers. Brett Kulak is an ideal third pairing defenceman behind Ekholm and Nurse on the left side, the same spot we would want to see Broberg occupy. Broberg has yet to supplant Kulak outright, but might not be able to without being adequately auditioned. Yet, with an injury to the right side Broberg is the first to be called upon.
If Broberg can indeed handle the right side, too tall a task for the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart, it does open some possibilities. A pairing with Kulak might work for many of the same reasons that a pairing with Ceci would. Kulak has enough speed and skill to handle some of the puck moving burden, while also possessing the savvy to help during in zone defending.
The boldest fit would be to try Broberg on Nurse’s right side. This would be throwing a lot on to Broberg’s plate, facing top competition on his weak side, so this might be an option that Broberg grows into. Nurse and Broberg share a number of stylistic similarities, but this might help bring out the best in both of them. Neither is an elite power play puck mover, but both have the skill to contribute to attacking. With size and athleticism, it is possible that both would serve as top quality partners to handle defending across all situations.
Ultimately, it is entirely possible we see the Oilers start where they left off, carrying seven defencemen and rotating Broberg into various permutations. Even without discernible improvement, the Oilers owe it to themselves to feed Broberg more icetime, to give him the space to prove himself, instead of prioritising ideal deployment for depth veterans like Kulak.
End goal for Broberg
Broberg has continued to show growth, but will need to keep improving to reach his potential. We have seen increased levels of command, coordination, and confidence, and should expect more in these areas. Broberg can still grizzle into a greater physical presence, more defensive intensity, and a more ruthless attitude. His processing speed is enough that some savvy in defending would go a long way. We should see Broberg continue to improve in these areas into his late 20s. With his attributes, even with another season or two at his current usage, there would be some upside to his being an everyday NHLer.
While some angst and anxiety might make sense with regards to Broberg’s current spot in the roster, the Oilers best chance at an elite and affordable blueline is with Broberg in the fold. The Oilers left side is fairly set with Nurse and Ekholm, but given their ages two to three years from now, or when Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid’s current deals expire, the sentiment here might have changed.
Quite simply, the endgame should be that Broberg evolves into a legitimate top four defenceman by this time. Not only would this help convince Draisaitl and McDavid of the Oilers viability as a contender into their next contracts, so too would it prolong the championship window. Any amount of time that Broberg is able to achieve this lofty status before then is a bonus that would bring the Oilers blueline to an elite level of quality.
The fact that Broberg is trending in this direction is extremely encouraging. There are sure to be some ups and downs along the way as Broberg develops, and this might be frustrating for fans, but Broberg has far too much potential for the Oilers to toil with.
Some might have taken issue with the Oilers deployment of Broberg last season, getting limited and sheltered time in the NHL instead of big minutes in the AHL, especially given that it was his final season of waiver exemption. While we might not know definitively, we can postulate that having spent a number of seasons in the AHL playing top minutes already, that getting some NHL experience might have been valuable in showing Broberg where his improvements must come.
Broberg has been an early attendee of pre-training camp workouts for the past two seasons, showing his desire and dedication. He should be even more motivated to have a good summer with a regular spot so close. A nice step for this season would see Broberg holding down a third pair spot this season, proving that he is ready for more headed into 2024–25.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire