January 23 2014 10:39AM
Going back at least as far as the day the Edmonton Oilers drafted Sam Gagner, fans of the team have been taught to place their reliance in young up-and-comers.
It is an easy mindset to fall into on defence, where the problems are many and top prospect Aaron Ekblad may join an already strong prospect group at this summer's draft. As tempting as it sounds, general manager Craig MacTavish cannot afford to make the mistake of falling into the trap of thinking the solution is youth.
The primary problem has to do with timelines.
Edmonton's NHL team has been in rebuild for a long time. Whether one subscribes to the party-approved line that the rebuild started with the drafting of Taylor Hall in 2010 or instead places the date at Chris Pronger's departure for Anaheim, futility has been the order of the day for far too long. The fans are unruly, and the only way to turn it around is with winning.
Another factor is what Lowetide likes to call the heart of the order - players like Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the like - who are now established as NHL players. Hall's being paid to produce like a first-liner, as is right wing Jordan Eberle. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will join them next season. These players are tremendously talented and entering the prime years of their careers but if they aren't supported - and soon - the Oilers run the risk of losing them. Edmonton has already lost the cheapest years for that trio, which poses its own problem (Chicago won the first Stanley Cup for the modern era Blackhawks while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were still on their entry-level deals).
So with the clock running on its young stars and the fanbase's mood already turned to ugly, the Oilers have to start making considerable progress right now. To do that, they need good defencemen.
Time & Opportunity
There may not be a steeper learning curve at any position in hockey than there is on defence and the examples of players really putting things together after two, three or even four seasons of NHL hockey abound. Additionally, an organization can only devote so much space to prospect defencemen if they want to win.
A good example is the Oklahoma City Barons. At the start of the year the team's defence was pegged as a great strength and why not - with some strong second-year pros (Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun, Brad Hunt and Brandon Davidson), a guy the Oilers felt might be NHL-ready (Oscar Klefbom), an actual NHL'er (Philip Larsen) and some extremely talented rookies (Martin Gernat and David Musil) pushing for time the Barons should have been set; they could ice two top pairings, and force the kids to fight with older guys like Hunt and Davidson for ice time
It hasn't worked out that way. Call-ups and injuries and regression (particularly on the part of Davidson) mean that for much of the year the Barons have relied on three rookies - one for each pairing. That's not a problem for the Oilers - these guys need at-bats and the AHL is a developmental league - but it's a big part of the reason who the Barons are four points out of a playoff spot.
The NHL is even more punishing. Oilers fans have seen first hand how a defenceman coming off college and an incredibly dominant AHL run struggled to adapt to second-pair and now first-pair minutes. They saw Ladislav Smid find his way in the majors after being pushed there well before he was ready.
Edmonton doesn't have a top-pairing defenceman right now. Even if Schultz is penciled in for a top-pair role next season on the assumption that he can handle it, the Oilers need a top-pair guy to complement him. Andrew Ference isn't that guy, and it's crazy to think Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin or Aaron Ekblad will be either. The first three (and the fourth, if drafted) may evolve into the role but the Oilers need is immediate.
As it is, phasing in prospects like those listed above (to say nothing of Gernat or Musil or Dillon Simpson) is going to result in growing pains, which means the Oilers will need to lean on experienced guys who can play hard minutes to off-set the talented youth. Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference might be those guys on the lower pairs, but there has to be somebody topside who can cast a long shadow for the other pairs while they figure things out. The Oilers don't have anybody like that, and may not for years.