Accelerating the defensive rebuild

Jonathan Willis
September 10 2013 02:30PM

The Oilers’ rebuild has hit on a basic problem. The top end of the forward group is made up of NHL difference-makers, players ready or very nearly ready to contribute to a contending team. The top end of the defence corps is still very much a work in progress.

Head coach Dallas Eakins talked over the weekend about how he doesn’t like the Oilers being referred to as a young team, and his point is well-taken – as much as the elite talent taken near the top of the draft matters, at the end of the day it generally doesn’t win Stanley Cups by itself (as, say, the Atlanta Thrashers could attest). Further, as coach, Eakins needs to reach everybody, not just the handful of elite players he has.

However, great teams need great players at the top of the lineup, and while it’s possible to lose with them it’s very difficult to win without them. In that sense, the Oilers’ rebuild remains dependent on finding players to fill those top spots, and most of those players will be found via the draft.

The Young Forwards

  • Taylor Hall, 1st overall 2010: He was the best left wing in the Western Conference last season, and in my view the NHL (sorry, Chris Kunitz). He’s ready.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 1st overall 2011: Had a bit of a down year offensively and he’s coming off major surgery, but this is a guy who helped push puck-possession against the NHL’s best. He might not be ‘top centre on a Cup contender’ grade out the gate this year but we’re counting the days.
  • Jordan Eberle, 22nd overall 2008: Fantastic player who tends to get either more or less than his due, depending on which segment of the fan base one talks to. He was a key part of a legitimate top line last year, and there’s little reason to think he’s anything less than a first-line caliber right wing.
  • Nail Yakupov, 1st overall 2012: He’s still raw, but the talent level is off the charts. His year one shooting percentage was through the roof, and right now we don’t know if he’s a Stamkos-like shooting talent or just a very good shooter coming off a great year (like Eberle in 2011-12). For what it’s worth, I think he’s the best pure shooter I’ve ever seen in an Oilers jersey (keep in mind I missed the dynasty years). He’s still a ways from being the player he’ll likely top out at but he was a top-30 NHL goal-scorer last year; he can help.
  • Sam Gagner, 6th overall 2007: Outscored every Oiler not named Taylor Hall last year, and in his role (second line centre) he’s a nice fit.
  • David Perron, trade with St. Louis: We haven’t seen what he can do in Edmonton yet, but a year ago he was Ken Hitchcock’s fourth most-used forward on a contender-calibre Blues team. He’s an established second-line forward with a variety of abilities.

Some will point out that the top-six is lacking certain qualities (size and, uh, size) but it’s a lot easier to find a Bryan Bickell type to plug in on the wing of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane than it is to find Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. There may be some finessing to come here, but the Oilers have a top-six group that should be capable of wreaking havoc on opponents. It’s the single-biggest reason I think the team makes the post-season this year.

The Young Defence

  • Justin Schultz, free agent signing: Outrageous offensive talent wasn’t able to excel in a second-pair role for all of last season but had no choice but to try. He’ll round out his game with time; he can help right now and probably isn’t too far away from being a difference-maker.
  • Jeff Petry: 45th overall, 2006: Petry’s a surprisingly controversial player among Oilers fans; as far as I’m concerned there should be little-to-no doubt he can hold a second-pair role on a very good team today.
  • Ladislav Smid, trade with Anaheim: Limited in some ways, Smid is still a legitimate top-four NHL defensive defenceman.
  • Oscar Klefbom, 19th overall 2011: My view – one that seems to be in harmony with the coach – is that Klefbom needs to start this year in the AHL. I think he’ll see NHL time at some point, but he’s still likely some distance from being an effective top-four (or better still, top-pairing) NHL defenceman.
  • Darnell Nurse, 7th overall 2013: Fantastic player with obvious physical talents, but one who is just as obviously years away from NHL employment.
  • Martin Marincin, 46th overall 2010: He enters the year as a top-pairing caliber talent in the AHL; it will be interesting to see how coach Todd Nelson balances the ice-time given what he has on his blue line. He’s probably a year away from NHL employment, and at least another year away from being top-four ready.
  • Martin Gernat, 122nd overall, 2011: Just entering the professional ranks this season, he’s years away.
  • Dillon Simpson, 92nd overall 2011: Unsigned college defenceman has to be considered something of a flight risk, given Edmonton’s defensive depth chart.
  • Brandon Davidson, 162nd overall 2010: In terms of draft pedigree he’s well back of most of these guys, and if he makes it at all the smart money says he’s a third-pairing defenceman. But everything I’ve seen says this is a guy who is going to be a real threat to pass by some of the more highly touted prospects in the system.
  • David Musil, 31st overall 2011: Just entering the professional ranks this season, he’s years away (and might never arrive).

There isn’t a single top-pairing defenceman in the organization today; the hope is that some of these players –mostly guys who have never played a professional game in North America – get there eventually. I think a contending team would do pretty well with Petry-Smid-Schultz in the 3-4-5 roles on their blue line today, but this is about filling the top spots and clearly this group is going to need some time to get there.

The idea of a top-four of Nurse and Schultz and Klefbom and Petry is appealing in theory, but even a wildly optimistic scenario has that two years away from happening.

Rapid Fashion

Craig MacTavish started saying smart things from his first day in the general manager’s chair, and his comments early in his introductory press conference energized the fanbase immediately:

I’m an impatient guy, and I bring that impatience to this situation. I think that we’re at the stage in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things. We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion.

MacTavish was unable to completely overhaul the defence, but his additions make the Oilers a better team today and may speed up the process of putting together a playoff-caliber defence.

  • Andrew Ference: A top-four defenceman on a Stanley Cup-contending team. He’s nearing the point in his career where there will be a drop-off in ability, but in June he was logging 21:34-and-up for the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. He helps this team get better now and should be seen as a player who can cover while the prospects find their legs.
  • Denis Grebeshkov: Reclamation project was brilliant in the number four role in his final season coached by Craig MacTavish. Maybe he doesn’t work out, and maybe he only works out on the third pairing, but he isn’t yet 30 and might emerge as a guy who can play the four/five role for the next five years or so.
  • Anton Belov: A total wild card. He’s a huge defenceman with puck-moving ability and an elite player in the world’s second-best league. The possibilities range from “never plays an NHL game” to “establishes himself as an integral part of the top-four” and everything in between.
  • Philip Larsen: Maybe he was a throw-in on the Horcoff deal to help balance the money, but two years ago Larsen was a strong young prospect on a top-four trajectory. He’s 23 years old and has 95 NHL games under his belt; it might be that the Oilers have added a real player who learned his toughest lessons (and made his worst mistakes) in another NHL city.

The top end of the forward corps is ready for playoff hockey. The defence, not so much. What MacTavish showed this summer is that he isn’t content to wait for Klefbom and Nurse to arrive. It’s hard to add top-end players at any position but especially on defence; with these signings the Oilers have done the next best thing and added plausible middle-pair types in large numbers.

Recently around the Nation Network

At Flames Nation, Kent Wilson takes a long, thoughtful look at Brian Burke's track record and what it might mean for the Flames. It's an interesting look at a guy who is likely to have a major impact on one of the Oilers' division rivals and well worth the read. Wilson wraps it up this way:

Brian Burke has spent a lot of time in the league, much of it as a high level executive who could pull off incrediblely beneficial trades for his organizations. That's the good news. On the other hand, he was unable to meaningfully improve the Leafs in his last front office job, he apparently has little use for new methods of analysis and it's unclear how well he will fit in to an increasingly crowded Flames font office. Flames fans have to hope Burke's strengths will win out over his weaknesses and the various personalities heading the Calgary organization will be able to work harmoniously together.

Click the link above to read more or check out some of my recent stuff below:

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Wax Man Riley
September 10 2013, 07:16PM
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pkam wrote:

Which "Tambellini" move do you refer to as stupid move?

The whole "hiring Tambellini" move lol

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#52 steelymac
September 10 2013, 08:22PM
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I watched the young guns tourney in Penticton and it was painfull at times for sure.I have heard Nurse has Pronger qualaties at times but never seen him play till the young guns tourney.It is very evident that the 18 year old and I stress the 18 year old has talent,poisse and a mean streak similar to Pronger.What really pissed me off was the know it alls complaining he never met there excpectations.The friggin kid is 18 years old and every team in the league is going to want him in 4 or 5 years.

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#53 H4LL
September 10 2013, 10:22PM
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steelymac wrote:

I watched the young guns tourney in Penticton and it was painfull at times for sure.I have heard Nurse has Pronger qualaties at times but never seen him play till the young guns tourney.It is very evident that the 18 year old and I stress the 18 year old has talent,poisse and a mean streak similar to Pronger.What really pissed me off was the know it alls complaining he never met there excpectations.The friggin kid is 18 years old and every team in the league is going to want him in 4 or 5 years.

I totally agree with this.

After watch Nurse play in person at the U of A tonight, I thought he was the best player on the ice in an Oilers jersey. He's mean, aggressive, he handles the puck well for a d-man, I thought he was a good passer... he kind of reminded me of a player who wore #44 in 2005-06. He was playing against the Golden Bears, not NHL players. But I think in a few years time he could to be our no.1 d man in Edmonton.

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#54 Devolution
September 10 2013, 11:28PM
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Serious Gord wrote:

And i guess you were too young to have seen Bossy. Or perhaps you don't watch stamkos highlights, or Brett hull's or half a dozen others. Kurri was over-rated.

I haven't seen Stamkos but I did see Bossey and Kurri. You are wrong about Kurri, he was a great goal scorer. Mike Bossey certainly fit in that category as well though. Brett Hull, also great.

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#55 kevin
September 11 2013, 08:32AM
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I love this site!

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#56 Will
September 11 2013, 10:32AM
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I watched the rookies play the Bears last night. Davidson couldn't accept a pass on the point to save his life. So many times the cycle died going over his stick and out.

We have zero forward talent. Again and again the Bears easily stopped rushes into their zone, and very rarely could the rookies even set it up. There were two or three chances that should have been buried, including a break away, but nothing was done.

The two players, of course, that really stood out were Klefbomb and Nurse.

Klefbomb, although not the biggest guy on the rookie defence, was just so crafty. I watched him knock a puck out of mid air that was headed out of the zone, then tee up a blast for I think a tip in that scored.

Nurse, on the other hand, was simply on a different level. He was the only player on the entire ice that looked like he should have been drafted to the NHL. Every time he was on the ice, it was like the Golden Bears vs Nurse. I know he's not ready yet, but I am just ecstatic to see what this kid can bring in two years.

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#57 Lochenzo
September 11 2013, 12:59PM
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Just to follow up on your talent assessment of Yakupov, I was here for the dynasty years and I've seen some great goal scorers. Jari Kurri was my favourite player growing up. Great goal scorer. Very smart player, always found gaps in the D and Wayne always put it right on Jari's tape. You expected them to score just like you expected the Oilers to win the Cup every year.

Yak has the goalscorer's instinct. He always seems to be in right place at the right time in goal scoring areas, just like Jari did. In addition, Yak's stick seems superior to what I recall of Jari's. I've never seen a player so consistently get everything on a puck that's flying in the air and score goals. I'm pretty excited to see what the ceiling will be for this kid.

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