There’s no question that a key player for the Edmonton Oilers this year is Joel Persson. But there are plenty of questions about Persson’s performance to date and it’s apparent Edmonton needs a Plan B in case deploying Persson as a Top 4 NHL d-man proves to be too much for him.
Has Persson aced his NHL debuted? No. Has he failed it? No.
Has he consistently put his best foot forward? No.
Has he shown glimpses of two-way talent that give hope? Yes.
Persson, 25, was thrust into a situation with the Oilers this year full of both opportunity and challenge, essentially asked to pair up with Oscar Klefbom and step into Top 4 NHL d-man minutes. It’s a big ask for a player with no experience playing the NHL game.
With that in mind, Edmonton should be pleased with what Persson has given, an uneven, up-and-down performance, but one where he’s also kind of, sort of kept his head above water to date.
On Edmonton’s most recent road trip, Persson had perhaps his most assured performance against the New York Rangers, only to have an iffy game against the Chicago Blackhawks, which saw Persson get belted hard by physical Chicago forwards and making several major defensive errors.
Here is how Cult game graders saw him on the road trip:
Vs. New York Islanders, Staples: Joel Persson, 6. In first half of the game, he looked tentative making plays. Halfway through the second, though, with Edmonton up 4-1, he finally showed some offensive merit, wheeling deep and around the New York net. He looked more settled after that.
Vs New Jersey Devils, Leavins: Joel Persson, 5. Three shots, 3 hits, 2 blocks 16:45. Persson is looking more confident with and without the puck. But a couple of 3rd Period give-away’s in his own zone gave me the willies but his teammates bailed him out.
Vs New York Rangers, McCurdy: Joel Persson, 6. Served as an effective foil to Klefbom, moving the puck north for the most part. Did have four official giveaways, but the more eye-popping stat was on-ice shot attempts of 30 for, just 8 against in 16½ minutes.
Vs. Chicago Blackhawks, McCurdy: Joel Persson, 3. A very tough night for the rookie who was on the receiving end of two heavy hits, and who, perhaps coincidentally, struggled to move the puck efficiently. Oilers were outshot to the tune of +4/-10 on his watch, which included a critical mistake on what became the game-winning goal. Welcome to the NHL, son.
Up and down, up and down
Overall, I get the strong sense that we’ve yet to see Persson’s “A” game consistently. He’s at his best when he’s skating and passing confidently and reading the play to get ahead of the action. He appears to be a smart player, though he’s not the fastest of skaters and this limits his ability to make plays.
On defence, he’s one of a number of Oilers d-men who are struggling to contain opposing attackers, with Persson, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell all having a few too many iffy moments, though Nurse’s play has improved as he and Ethan Bear have settled in as a unit.
The good news for the Oilers is that so far Bear has slipped in beside Nurse in Adam Larsson’s absence and he’s excelled. He’s moving the puck well and defending adequately, which is major news considering Bear’s tough quality of competition.
Frankly, it’s a relief to have to discuss issues on the Oil’s second pairing of Klefbom and Persson, as opposed to having to worry about Nurse and Bear on the top pairing.
Promote Benning to play with Klefbom likely best Plan B
For now, Edmonton’s options are limited when it comes to the right side of the defence. I just watched Bakersfield’s last two games and can report that Evan Bouchard flashes plenty of talent and a wicked shot, but he’s still got work to do on defence. He’s sometimes slow to get on his man in the slot on the rush and sometimes loses physical battles. In other words, the AHL is not unexpectedly exactly where Bouchard needs to be right now to work on those aspects of his game. I don’t know if Bouchard would be any worse than Persson at the NHL level, but I have no doubt the Oilers are best served with Bouchard learning the pro game in Bakersfield.
Caleb Jones is as fast and skilled as ever. He did well in his NHL debut last year, at least when he was asked to only play bottom pairing minutes. He’s also playing the right side in the Bake, but at the NHL level Oilers head coach Dave Tippett appears to be wedded (and not without reason) to sticking with players on their right side, which means no left shot d-men like Jones on the right side.
At this point, Jones or the increasingly solid William Lagesson look like they could handle third-pairing minutes on the left side in the NHL, but there is no opportunity there for them, not with Nurse, Klefbom and Kris Russell all healthy.
So could Caleb Jones do better than Persson teamed up with Oscar Klefbom? Could Matt Benning step up and do better with Klefbom? It would certainly make sense for Persson to be on a third-pairing and have a less onerous and challenging role on the ice.
Benning has been Edmonton’s least mistake-prone d-man to date, but he’s also played third-pairing minutes, which generally means he’s not had to regularly face the toughest of competition. It’s also the case that as a puckmover, the clever Persson has more skill than Benning.
But if Tippett is looking for a Plan B, if he wants to give Persson a break from tough competition at the NHL level, the most obvious short term move would be to team up Benning with Klefbom, moving Persson down to play with Russell.
Switching Benning and Persson on their pairings might well be the helping hand Persson needs to acclimatize to the NHL.
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