Oscar Klefbom is one of the Edmonton Oilers' top prospects. The 20-year-old defenseman from Sweden is expected to make his NHL debut later this season, but he might spend at least two or three months with the Oklahoma City Barons.
Games in the AHL, like OKC's two-game road trip to Iowa this weekend, are invaluable for the 2011 first-round pick.
“Oscar is a defenseman's defenseman,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “He really prides himself on playing good defensive hockey. He skates well. He's a strong kid. He's able to move the puck. He's got a lot of skill. He just needs to play hockey games.”
Sidelined by a shoulder injury that required surgery last December, Klefbom played in only 11 games last season in Sweden's pro league.
“It's fun to be on the ice again,” Klefbom said. “I've been waiting for this for a very long time.”
One of the keys for Klefbom with the Barons will be adjusting to smaller rinks in North America, always a challenge the in first season for European players.
“Things happen quicker here,” Nelson said. “You're always chipping and supporting (defensively) versus carrying the puck. Here, there's not as much circling and regrouping. Teams work their systems so well you have to work the boards, do the dirty work to get the puck into the offensive zone.”
Klefbom gained confidence in limited “North American hockey” action as captain of Sweden's Under-18 world juniors team that won silver in 2010. He also has stood out the past two summers at Edmonton's summer developmental camps.
But there are differences.
“Oh yeah,” Klefbom said. “But I think it's tougher for players here to go from the smaller ice to the bigger ice in Europe. I like the smaller ice. It's a closer gap to the forwards. I'm looking forward to it.”
In the long-term, Klefbom eventually could be paired with Justin Schultz, who won the AHL Defenseman of the Year award last season for his play with the Barons during the NHL lockout.
Klefbom was plus-seven his 11 games in Sweden's Elite league, filled with much older players. While he's not projected to be a potential All-Star like Schultz, Klefbom could be a key piece in Edmonton's rebuilding project.
“He doesn't mind the physical stuff,” Nelson said. “It's more or less the mental side, learning the pro game, adjusting to the way the game is played over here. His time with us is really going to help his development.”
There were rumblings Klefbom might make Edmonton's opening day roster without starting his career in the minors. But in addition to lacking experience, there's another reason why the 6-foot-3, 195-pound blue-liner could be with the Barons a few months.
Because the Oilers are committing $18 million a year to three young stars — $6 million each for Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — the organization needs to find ways to save salary cap dollars.
Edmonton will retain an extra year of restricted free-agent rights on Klefbom if he plays less than 40 NHL games this season.
Regardless when he makes his NHL debut, Klefbom embraces the opportunity to work on his game with the Barons, spending a lot of time with OKC assistant Rocky Thompson.
“Here in the minors we learn to play defensive hockey, how to play away from the puck, something he does pretty well,” Nelson said. “He's a good skater. He can handle the puck. He has all those skills. He has that mindset of playing defense. That's a big plus. He just needs some experience.”