January 18 2014 08:22AM
Taylor Fedun is the best defenceman in Oklahoma City, and it isn’t even all that close this season. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing left for him to prove at the AAA level, and he can be a useful NHL player right now.
I may be right or I may be wrong on that, but one of the things the Edmonton Oilers should make a point of doing before the end of the year is finding out.
Oklahoma City Blue
Oklahoma City Barons head coach Todd Nelson has had a delicate balancing act with his blue line for much of this year.
The Barons’ blue line is awfully young, and consequently pretty error-prone. Martin Gernat is currently one half of the top pairing, and for all his gifts he’s a first-year pro. On Friday, for example, he seemed incapable of making a pass any less than two feet off the ice; judging by the ‘whoa’ behind me at a particularly hot cross-ice pass it was a trend the Oilers’ staff in attendance didn’t appreciate. Fellow rookie AHL’ers Oscar Klefbom and David Musil are also all in the top-six, so fully half the blue line is made up of first-year players.
Aside from Denis Grebeshkov (a sadly diminished player these days), the veterans aren’t particularly veteran either. Seventh defenceman Brandon Davidson is a struggling second-year pro. 5’9” rearguard Brad Hunt is in his second full AHL season and being asked to play on his off-side while packing around a rookie; he’s a gamer but it’s a lot to ask.
That leaves Taylor Fedun. Fedun led the team on Friday with two assists and a plus-one rating in a 4-3 loss.
“He was good, like he has been all year,” said Nelson, when asked to describe Fedun’s game. “He’s been very consistent. I don’t think his game has really dipped a whole lot this year.”
Is he worried about losing Fedun to the NHL?
“Possibly. It would be a great opportunity for him once again to go back up top. As long as he’s here he’s going to play a lot of minutes."
With Justin Schultz and Jeff Petry ensconced on the right side of the NHL blue line, there are two positions open to Fedun on the NHL roster: the right-side slot on the third pair or the seventh defenceman slot.
Presently, Edmonton’s third pair is comprised of two left-side defencemen (Nick Schultz and Anton Belov) while Corey Potter holds down the seventh spot. All three are unrestricted free agents with Belov and Schultz in particular being potential trade deadline bait, so one can understand why the Oilers are employing them in those spots. In a lot of ways, the situation is as it was last season, when Potter was battling for playing time with pending free agents Mark Fistric and Ryan Whitney.
Whitney’s a fitting analogy for Schultz, because both players are veterans who do all the veteran things the coaching staff likes to see and both guys struggled badly in the role. It’s tough to scratch a vet like Schultz because he’s been an integral part of an NHL team for so many years and because he’s a potential deadline rental and most importantly because he brings experience to a blue line sorely lacking in it. That matters; when I asked recent call-up Brad Hunt about playing with Schultz he told me this:
He was just helping me with little things throughout the game. He was great to me. He was an awesome first NHL defensive partner; he’s a veteran guy and he knows what he’s talking about. I was open ears and just taking it all in and he was excellent in helping me out with little parts of the game, just with positioning and stuff and in helping me to stay calm; obviously it was hard for me to stay calm.
But by performance Schultz is also the weakest of the three, as Whitney was.
Then there’s Belov. If the Oilers are interested in bringing back one of this trio, it should be Belov. The 27-year-old Russian brings size and competence with the puck, a combination that hasn’t been seen often enough in Edmonton, and there’s often an adjustment period for first-year Europeans (language, culture, North American style of hockey, etc.). He might have value at the deadline but he might also be worth keeping; for all his problems he’s shown flashes and with a year under his belt might take a significant step forward.
Potter’s a tough player for me. A year ago, I argued forcefully that he was the Oilers’ fifth-best defenceman and (as a natural right-handed shot) a guy who should be playing every night. He’s not an incredible NHL’er, but he’s big and one of those guys who is good but not great at lots of things – with the puck, defensively, with physical play. But he’s also missed a ton of time this season to injury, and he’s 30 years old and even at his best he’s a good six/seven defenceman. He’d be a nice fit on a two-way contract, filling the mentoring role on the farm/plausible injury call-up but given how thin the margin is between ‘six/seven defenceman’ and ‘AHL’er’ he probably ought to be penciled in somewhere outside the top-seven.
What about Martin Marincin, the call-up currently on the Oilers' second pairing? Marincin has a lot of good qualities and a high ceiling, but he hasn't been a better player than Fedun in the minors. He's more projectable and he brings an element of size Edmonton doubtless covets, but Fedun is a better player in all three zones today.
Somebody’s going to move at the deadline. Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish has been very busy, making whatever moves he can, and he’s bound to move a defenceman. At that point, Fedun will be the only sensible recall, since he’s easily the best defenceman in Oklahoma.
And if nobody moves? Then the Oilers should clear a space anyway. If it were just a choice between Fedun and Belov he might be blocked, but it isn’t. Nick Schultz certainly isn’t part of next year’s plans, and it’s pretty likely Corey Potter isn’t either. Fedun is a number one with a bullet defenceman in the AHL who just does everything well in all three zones; there’s nothing more he can prove down here. The only question is whether he can make the jump, and it’s a question Edmonton needs to answer before this summer.