June 25 2014 11:01AM
The Edmonton Oilers, as is well-known at this point, have signed Nikita Nikitin to a two-year deal with an average annual value of $4.5 million.
The interesting thing about the signing isn’t the deal itself, which was bad but defensible. It’s what it says about the Oilers. A team with Edmonton’s defence that prioritizes Nikitin cannot realistically expect to contend for a playoff berth in 2014-15.
One Shoe to Drop
So Nikitin is done. Oilers still need a Center, 2 Wingers and a preferably a right shot D IMO— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) June 25, 2014
Stauffer said yesterday that he expected a two-year deal at a price point that was going to hurt for Nikitin, and I’m quite confident that he’s right about the Oilers’ further defensive ambitions. Who will that right-shooting defenceman be?
Here’s what MacTavish told Jim Matheson on Sunday:
We need somebody who’ll go north-south with the puck from the back end. We need defence that can move the puck better. That’s a priority, but there’s not much of that in the UFA market. Historically, a big percentage of those signings in the UFA season are poor anyway. You’re often better sticking with your own guys, guys you know. You have to do your homework with free agency. Hopefully, we make some good decisions. We are going to target some people. We’d like a third-pairing defenceman who can block shots and kill penalties. A Mark Fraser-type guy.
I don’t really see Nikitin as either of the guys described above, but MacTavish followed that question by telling Matheson that Justin Schultz “has enough game” and that “he’s not too needy out there.” Given Nikitin’s contract and MacTavish’s comment about “guys you know” (Howson has a history there), my read is that Nikitin is the big add on defence and that the Oilers are looking for a right-shooting shutdown type to round out the group. MacTavish mentions Fraser (a left-handed shot) but the name batted around for most of last season by Matheson was Deryk Engelland, who fits the bill as Mark Fraser but with a right-handed shot.
Next year’s defensive plan probably looks something like this:
- Nikita Nikitin – Justin Schultz
- Martin Marincin – Jeff Petry
- Andrew Ference – [Engelland-type]
Maybe they flip Ference and Marincin, because I have no idea who is supposed to move the puck on that third pair, but the idea of saddling Jeff Petry with the combination of Ference and tough minutes is almost as bad.
It would be nice to think that the seventh defenceman is going to be someone like Taylor Fedun or an external hire, but Mark Fraser seems the likeliest candidate for the job. Early in the year, of course, Darnell Nurse could get a cameo.
If I’m on track with my guess above, I’d further suspect that the plan is for Oscar Klefbom to make the jump at some point during the year, either on the right side or with Ference switching to the right side, and with the Engelland-type shuffling into the No. 7 role.
It’s not nearly good enough. I like Nikitin more than some others and think he’s a legitimate No .4 defender, but that projected top-four is nowhere near good enough. Depending on usage, all four members of that group could be playing above their level of actual ability.
If all the above is wrong, and Nikitin is pegged as the shutdown guy with the Oilers eyeing a puck-mover via trade or free agency (Dustin Byfuglien or Anton Stralman, for example) the team’s blue line just might be good enough to contend for a playoff berth. A lot would still need to go right, but it would at least be possible.
More likely, Nikitin is the big add, and MacTavish is looking at the big picture long-term. It’s going to be very difficult to rebuild the Oilers’ defence via trade (the team is short of quality assets) or free agency (hello, $4.5 million cap hit for Nikita Nikitin).
That means the hope for the blue line is internal. Young NHL’ers like Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz, as well as the blue chip prospects (Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin) and maybe one of the next tier (Dillon Simpson, David Musil, Martin Gernat, Brandon Davidson).
If Nikitin is the big get, that must be the team’s plan. It’s a reasonable plan, and it might even be the best plan available, but it also means that we’re going to be talking about that wicked 2015 Draft by February.
That’s getting old.
From Scott Howson, on the Oilers' desire to add another NHL defenceman:
“I think we’re open to anything. We want a good player and Nikita is a good player. We’re targeting three or four other good players. Some are more defensive oriented, some are sort of all around guys so there is no specific criteria they have to meet, we just want a good NHL player.”
This is going to be interesting to watch. A quality top-four addition could make next season extremely interesting, while the lack of the same would have the opposite effect. Based on Howson's comments, the Oilers have some defensive ambitions yet.