Developing Defencemen

Jonathan Willis
December 06 2013 08:49AM

Edmonton’s farm team in Oklahoma City is loaded to the gills with defence prospects. Oilers fans got to see one of those – Martin Marincin – last night and over the course of the season have seen Taylor Fedun, Philip Larsen and come very close to seeing Brandon Davidson and Oscar Klefbom.

What’s happening with that group down in OKC?

Potential and Experience

There has been some grumbling about middling results from the group, but the fact is that aside from occasional minor-league stints played by Corey Potter and Denis Grebeshkov it’s been a very raw set of players on the Oklahoma blue line.

That isn’t to say they aren’t talented, but experience counts for a lot on defence.

“We have a lot of potential, we have some very skilled and hard-working guys back there. But it is, no matter how you look at it, it’s a big jump to move from junior up to play at this level,” Taylor Fedun said earlier this week. “At times we have to remind ourselves that they’re young back there, but that’s the way it is in this league – we hold everyone to a high expectation. Moving forward, we’re going to try and stop using that as something to lean back on.”

Why doesn’t Fedun include himself in that young group? Because 95 games into his professional career he’s the team’s blue line greybeard.

A Veteran Hand

That lack of experience can be a difficult thing for a coaching staff, both from the perspective of winning games and developing players. After Tuesday’s game against Texas, Todd Nelson spoke about Corey Potter’s demotion to the farm (he has since been recalled) and made it clear that he was looking forward to working him back into the Barons’ lineup.

“You can’t put a price on a veteran defenceman in this league,” Nelson said. “Right now we have guys that are trying to learn from other guys that are learning. Last year for instance we had Garrett Stafford, Randy Jones and Brett Clark for a while, and at that time when they came our young defencemen shot up and they played well. Now, the second-year guys are trying to help out the first-year guys but they’re just not as experienced, they’re still learning. You can’t put a price on a good veteran defenceman to help out the young guys; it’s invaluable.”

Nelson point to players like Brennan Evans (with Detroit’s farm team) and Maxime Fortunus (with Dallas’ farm team) as examples of farm teams employing an experienced guy in a mentorship role in the minors before turning back to the general difficulty with developing defenders.

“Defence is probably the hardest position to develop,” he said. “It takes longer, you have to read the play a lot more than a forward does and let’s face it: If you don’t do your job right it ends up in the back of the net. It’s going to take time, we’re going through that right now, and hopefully Corey [Potter] gives us a boost.”


That’s where we are now.

Up front, the Barons don’t have the same level of prospects as they do on defence, but they have some minor-league veterans in place to help carry the load. Linus Omark helps offensively, but guys like Derek Nesbitt and Matt Ford and even C.J. Stretch offer help in other areas.

The cast is much more limited on the blue line. The Barons went into the season leaning on a group of five young players: Philip Larsen paired with Brandon Davidson, Taylor Fedun paired with Martin Marincin and rookie Oscar Klefbom in the five slot. Larsen and Fedun have worked out as first-pairing defenders, but Larsen’s been promoted and seems likely to stay in Edmonton for some time to come. Klefbom has been rawer than hoped and needs time playing big minutes (he’s in the top-four at even-strength and on the top penalty-killing unit most nights), Marincin’s been good but not spectacularly so with Fedun and Davidson has struggled badly.

Behind that group, Brad Hunt is a useful player but not an all-purpose defenceman while David Musil and Martin Gernat are raw rookies, with Musil looking okay in a third-pair role and Gernat alternating between exceptional and excruciating.

In that light, the demotion of Denis Grebeshkov yesterday is a positive, providing Nelson with a veteran who (at least at the AHL level) is a defender capable of handling all situations and adding a little bit of support on a pairing with a younger player. But the real problem is that there is only so much room for developing ‘D’ on any blue line, and the Barons are at the saturation point (it’s the same reason why some of these prospects will find their way to other organizations, since Edmonton can only take so many) and don’t have the kind of Steady Eddy presence to stabilize the group.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
#51 Saytalk
December 06 2013, 08:43PM
Trash it!

Best player available and flashiest player available are not the same thing. Based on draft history, Tambo didn't know this.

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