Andrej Sekera can’t catch a break, and it appears neither can the Edmonton Oilers.
After piecing together an excellent 2016-17 campaign, one in which he was roundly considered the best blueliner on what was seen as an up-and-coming Oilers squad, Sekera found himself sidelined throughout last summer and well into last season due to recovery from off-season ACL surgery. It wasn’t until late December that Sekera was able to return, and after a facial injury, foot ailment and another knock to his knee put him on the shelf for an additional 11 games over the back half of the campaign, the veteran blueliner hobbled across the 2017-18 finish line with a forgettable eight-assist season in which he averaged a mere 16:20 across 36 games.
Hope, however, was not lost when it came to Sekera.
With a long summer ahead, there was some optimism that Sekera, 32, would be able to recuperate from a difficult season, train hard and hit the ice come the 2018-19 campaign as a rejuvenated, veteran top-four blueliner who harkens back to his 2016-17 season and helps propel Edmonton to greener pastures. The tentative expectation was he could again be a top contributor on the power play, chip in frequently on the penalty kill and be the reliable play-driving, puck-moving defenseman he had been prior to his ACL surgery.
But then came Tuesday’s news: last week, Sekera tore his Achilles tendon during a training session and has since gone under the knife to repair the injury. As a result, Sekera is out indefinitely, with Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli telling NHL.com that it is, “a significant injury.”
One concern, of course, is what the injury means for Sekera’s future. As a veteran rearguard who has now gone through not one, but two major injuries over the past two seasons, it’s reasonable to wonder what the outlook is even upon his return to action. Fleet of foot and a smooth-skating defenseman in his prime, the now-veteran Sekera’s skating ability could realistically take yet another hit due to the Achilles injury. And if he can’t keep up in an ever-faster league, chances are his time as anything that even closely resembles a top-four rearguard will have passed him by. That’s worrisome for the Oilers, too, considering Sekera is currently their highest-paid blueliner and has three seasons remaining on a six-year pact that carries a $5.5-million cap hit.
The more pressing for Edmonton, though, is what becomes of an already mediocre blueline that is coming off of a woeful campaign. Last season, the Oilers had what was arguably one of the five worst defensive performances in the league. And place what blame you will for that on goaltender Cam Talbot, who was shaky at times in the Edmonton crease, but it should be said that Talbot alone can’t shoulder all the blame for the Oilers’ 27th-ranked goals against total, 25th-ranked penalty kill or 17th-ranked shots against total. Furthermore, Talbot can’t at all be blamed for Edmonton giving up the third-most 5-on-5 scoring chances against in the league last season or fourth-most high-danger chances against. That is entirely on the Oilers’ team defense.
And while it could be argued that Sekera wouldn’t have been much help in turning things around given his shaky base and underlying statistics last season, the truth is a calm, collected, veteran defenseman of his ilk would have been a welcome presence. If he returned to his prior form, too, Sekera would have been able to contribute much more than he did during his limited 2017-18 campaign. Prior to last season, he had been second in ice time for the Oilers across his two-season tenure in Edmonton, second in points per game and his underlying statistics, while maybe not Norris Trophy-caliber, were most certainly rock-solid.
Now without Sekera’s services for what stands to be a large portion, if not all, of the coming campaign, the Oilers will likely have to look to the already assembled pieces for the answer on the back end. In saying that, more responsibility stands to fall the way of Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Darnell Nurse — who, it should be noted, remains a restricted free agent — while Kris Russell, Matt Benning, Kevin Gravel, Ethan Bear and quite possibly June draft choice Evan Bouchard battling it out for minutes on the bottom half of the blueline. While there’s some upside there, particularly in the likes of Nurse, Bear and Bouchard, it’s difficult to use those pieces to create a six-man defensive unit that inspires great confidence in a single-season turnaround for the Oilers.
Adding to the difficulties that Sekera’s injury brings the Oilers is the timing of it all. Had Sekera fallen injured a month earlier, two months earlier, similar concerns about the back end would have existed, but Chiarelli would have had greater opportunity to address Edmonton’s defensive needs by way of free agency. Knowing Sekera’s $5.5 million cap hit was bound for long-term injured reserve, Chiarelli could have pursued Calvin de Haan or John Moore or Nick Holden. Even if he had known after the flurry of signings on July 1, Chiarelli could have made a play for veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who signed a cheap, two-year deal with the Nashville Predators on July 25.
Instead, the crop of unrestricted free agent defensemen from which Chiarelli can choose is limited, at best. Toby Enstrom, Johnny Oduya, Luca Sbisa and Cody Franson are the more notable names still without deals, though the Oilers could also turn back to Brandon Davidson, who has played 114 games in Edmonton over his brief, four-year NHL career. And while there’s always the trade market, it would be no surprise if trade prices only increased for an Oilers team that’s desperate to patch up its defense.
So, given the circumstances, the Oilers’ best bet when it comes to replacing the minutes Sekera would have taken on, replacing the contributions he could have made, may truly be to simply see what they have in their own cupboards. And while there’s some promise there, to be sure, getting back into post-season contention with a youthful and already-banged up blueline could prove a tall task for an Edmonton defense corps that hasn’t yet proven itself to be playoff-caliber.