An NHL Defence

Jonathan Willis
July 01 2014 07:45PM

Craig MacTavish6

It’s possible to question the defencemen Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish added to the team’s blue line this week. It’s possible to argue that contracts were handed out that were too rich or for too many years. It’s extremely fair to note the lack of high-end players on the blue line.

But what is inarguable is that Edmonton’s defence has been dramatically improved from where it was a year ago. As far as I’m concerned, MacTavish deserves a lot of credit for taking the worst defensive group in the NHL and turning them into something vaguely resembling a major-league blueline group.

The Depth Chart

2-Petry-12

Left Defence Right Defence
Nikita Nikitin Jeff Petry
Andrew Ference Justin Schultz
Martin Marincin Mark Fayne
Keith Aulie

“It was an area that we talked about all year long, trying to improve our defence,” MacTavish told assembled reporters in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “When you look at the makeup of our defence now, it looks like an NHL defence, which it didn’t always last year.”

The Oilers now have five established NHL defenders and Martin Marincin (who for my money is better than some in that group of five) in the top-six. Keith Aulie, who has played 136 games and just turned 25 last month, is in the No. 7 slot. And that leaves Oscar Klefbom in the AHL.

There aren’t any really high-end five-on-five defenders in the mix, but Jeff Petry, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin are all capable of playing tough minutes. Marincin fared well in a brief stint last year, too. Add in Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz and this is a decent by-committee group.

Nikitin

Nikita_Nikitin_2013-11-01

Nikitin’s contract isn’t good. The term is short, but the money ($4.5 million) is awfully dear for a guy who probably should slot in at No. 4 on the depth chart of a playoff team.

“We paid a decent price for him,” MacTavish admitted. “But ultimately we get the player.”

Edmonton wasn’t alone in overpaying for a player in the Nikitin range on a short-term deal. Detroit gave Kyle Quincey two years at $4.25 million per season. 37-year-old Willie Mitchell, who had some postseason struggles in a second pair role for Los Angeles, got the same money and term in Florida.

In each case, the team signing the deal was desperate for defencemen and had few options, and opted to hold its nose and pay the necessary price on the condition that the deal not go on forever.

Fayne

Fayne comes in at a smaller cap hit ($3.625 million) but at a four-year term. That’s not a huge concern if he turns out to be what he looks like – a 6’3”, 210 pound rearguard who can both defend and make smart plays with the puck.

“He’s a 28-year-old defenceman with great character,” MacTavish said on Tuesday, “We felt like he really fit into what we’re trying to build here with his character and the way that he plays. He’s just a really solid player, a solid person, so we were happy with the term with Mark.”

The concern is that he was being carried by Andy Greene in New Jersey:

I’d be a little worried about signing any Devils player – New Jersey plays a system different than any other team in the NHL and seem to have an ability to make anybody look like a decent puck possession player – but I’m not too worried about the Greene effect.

Looking at the five-year trend, Fayne and Greene have an excellent 54.8 percent Corsi over 1,800 minutes together. But in 2,000 minutes away from Greene, Fayne managed a 53.1 percent Corsi. That’s a pretty long track record of playing well with guys not named Andy Greene.

Aulie

From MacTavish’s presser:

Later on in the day we were able to add Keith Aulie, who we feel has an opportunity to be one of the players on a one-year deal that really enhances his value through this period. We were looking at Benoit, we were looking at Anton Stralman, all these players that had come in the year before and really added all this market value to their ability. Benoit in particular was in New York on a million and a half deal or slightly less than that, and he commands this price as did Anton Stralman and I think Keith Aulie has that ability. Duane Sutter on our staff was a real advocate of bringing him in, and we think that he’s got an opportunity because of his age and his skill set to have a significant impact on our team.

That’s an awfully optimistic take on Aulie, and I’m not sure it’s one I buy, but his numbers aren’t terrible and he scratches the size itch that the Oilers have.

At least as importantly: not only is this a cheap, one-year deal for a depth player, but the Oilers opted to sign a depth player who has both NHL experience and youth on his side. Too often, teams grab 34-year-old third pairing guys and are surprised when it turns out they are no longer good enough to be third pairing guys. Here the Oilers got someone who they know is good enough to fill the No. 7 role and who is young enough to be a pleasant surprise for the team. That he has history with Dallas Eakins doesn’t hurt either.

That’s a pretty reasonable player to slot in that position on the depth chart.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
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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#101 Cold Hard Truth
July 02 2014, 12:32PM
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Zarny wrote:

Good summary by JW.

I really like the Fayne signing. Nikitin was certainly overpaid but the term is good and he's a legit 3-5 D. I like Pouliot the player but the contract is an overpay in terms of dollars and term. Not ideal but that's how it goes when you are Edm in free agency.

I think you have to be realistic though. Adding Fayne, Nikitin and Pouliot to a 28th place team isn't exactly a makeover. Last season was marred by starting 4-15-2 but with better G and a legit NHL blueline an additional 10-15 pts should be low hanging fruit.

That would still only put the Oilers in 26th place last season and while the blueline has certainly improved the 2 biggest needs (top pairing Dman and 2C) remain unaddressed.

The depth at C (Nuge, Arcobello, Gordon, Lander and Draisaitl) remains woefully inadequate. MacT needs to address this before the season starts.

The positive is that the Oilers are a better team now. With continued improvement from young players like Hall, Nuge, Yak, Schultz etc and some bounce back years I think it's realistic the Oilers could move up to "battle" for 17-20th place but I don't see them making the playoffs unless we see some major breakout years by Nuge, Yak and Schultz.

I don't see how the defence is any better this year than at the start of last year. Fayne and Niktin, at best, replace Smid and N. Shultz. A top-pairing line still eludes the Oilers.

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#103 smith
July 02 2014, 12:55PM
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The defense looks mildly better but not due to the signings, but more by the growth of youth. Aulie, Fayne, Nikitin are maybe mildly better than Belov, Shultz and Smid.

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#104 madjam
July 02 2014, 12:56PM
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Oilers last year was buoyed early by Grebs and Larsen , as well as Belov . So this year will be better . We also were buoyed /strapped with underperforming goalies in LaBarbara and Dubnyk . All our defence should play better this year and that should be expected . Our youth should show a much better season as well .

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#105 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
July 02 2014, 12:58PM
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@Jonathan Willis

Would you give up Petry and Mirincin for Couturier and Coburn?

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#106 Wax Man Riley
July 02 2014, 12:59PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Would you give up Petry and Mirincin for Couturier and Coburn?

totally weren't asking me, but...Yes

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#107 tileguy
July 02 2014, 01:00PM
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Just stirring the poton a slow news day.

Guess Hemsky hated our organization based on this quote after signing with Dallas "Yeah, we talked a lot the last month," said Hemsky. "They showed the most interest. They have a great team with Jamie Benn and Seguin and now adding Jason Spezza, it's a great fit for me. Finally I can enjoy hockey again and that's a great city too. I'm really excited." "

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#108 Smokey
July 02 2014, 01:04PM
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Cold Hard Truth wrote:

I don't see how the defence is any better this year than at the start of last year. Fayne and Niktin, at best, replace Smid and N. Shultz. A top-pairing line still eludes the Oilers.

As was mentioned Fayne was on the top pairing in New Jersey with good possession number. Nikitin has been in a top role elsewhere but not recently. Fayne has excellent abilities in keeping pucks in at the blueline, and Nikitin is puck mover. Both are bigger bodies, and the defence has five or six caliber NHL defenders this year rather then 3 or 4. Its a defence by commitee approach. If nothing else you got good trade assets.

Schultz was a bottom pair defender when he got here, and Smid was when he left.

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#109 Smokey
July 02 2014, 01:09PM
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tileguy wrote:

Just stirring the poton a slow news day.

Guess Hemsky hated our organization based on this quote after signing with Dallas "Yeah, we talked a lot the last month," said Hemsky. "They showed the most interest. They have a great team with Jamie Benn and Seguin and now adding Jason Spezza, it's a great fit for me. Finally I can enjoy hockey again and that's a great city too. I'm really excited." "

One can read I hated playing in Edmonton and for the Oilers.

Or

I am glad to come to winning team and look forward to winning again.

Knowing the quality of person Ales is, and that he adored by Edmontonians, I go with the second thought. Also English is not his first language and albeit he is fluent, sometimes there are better ways to say stuff.

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#110 Cold Hard Truth
July 02 2014, 01:25PM
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Smokey wrote:

As was mentioned Fayne was on the top pairing in New Jersey with good possession number. Nikitin has been in a top role elsewhere but not recently. Fayne has excellent abilities in keeping pucks in at the blueline, and Nikitin is puck mover. Both are bigger bodies, and the defence has five or six caliber NHL defenders this year rather then 3 or 4. Its a defence by commitee approach. If nothing else you got good trade assets.

Schultz was a bottom pair defender when he got here, and Smid was when he left.

Fair enough.

My understanding was that both Nikitin and Fayne played third line roles on their respective teams last season.

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#111 Next up, is Connor McJesus.
July 02 2014, 01:28PM
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Cold Hard Truth wrote:

Fair enough.

My understanding was that both Nikitin and Fayne played third line roles on their respective teams last season.

A number of times they did see 3rd pairing duty CHT. Stay with your instincts.

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#112 Cold Hard Truth
July 02 2014, 01:30PM
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Smokey wrote:

One can read I hated playing in Edmonton and for the Oilers.

Or

I am glad to come to winning team and look forward to winning again.

Knowing the quality of person Ales is, and that he adored by Edmontonians, I go with the second thought. Also English is not his first language and albeit he is fluent, sometimes there are better ways to say stuff.

Players don't tell the media what they really think. Occasionally though you get little slips, which, when reading between the lines, gives you an indication of what a player really thinks.

I don't see Hemsky looking back on Edmonton with fond memories -- save for the 2006 run -- once he gets established on a real team like the Stars.

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#113 backup bob
July 02 2014, 01:55PM
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The optimism is running high. Once again the bottom six are moved around. A second line center, and top pairing defence men are still missing. The Oilers are now better, only if ALL the pieces work out, which they never do.

Purcell, a healthy scratch in Tampa.

Pouliot, five teams in five years.

Fayne, Devils wouldn't resign him, but I think he is good.

Nikitin, is a #five to #six NHL caliber Dman

They all have good size, which I like. Are these four guys really better, then Smid, Belov, Schultz, Hemsky, Smith, or Gagner?

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#114 Joilers889
July 02 2014, 02:03PM
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So I hear the hype and bashing of the UFA moves and trades and believe we are a better team from it all, but wonder if we got better and only to see the teams above us getting even more better.

Did we move up the line closer to the bar, I think yes, but I think the bar moved higher than we did.

Hard to be a fan

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#115 RexHolez
July 02 2014, 02:05PM
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after 8 years of failure and embarrassment, who knew all it would take to bring back the optimism and Kool-Aid was Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot?

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#116 Cold Hard Truth
July 02 2014, 02:29PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

You know you made this comment already, right?

Good on you for being such a big fan of Nick Schultz, though. Such a poor year for defencemen, he must have got a lot of money from someone, right?

I'm curious how you went from lamenting, "we're going to be talking about that wicked 2015 draft by February," to now applauding MacTavish's accomplishments on defence. That's quite the leap. You must really be after a job with the Oilers.

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#117 nuge2nail
July 02 2014, 02:36PM
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RexHolez wrote:

after 8 years of failure and embarrassment, who knew all it would take to bring back the optimism and Kool-Aid was Mark Fayne and Benoit Pouliot?

Oiler Domination To Follow

I think it has more to do with all the aqcuistions since MacT took over last year...

Perron, Scrivens, Fasth, Ference, Gordan, Hendricks

You would recognize these players as the only players who give a shtt each night other than Hall...

And now...

Draisaitl, Purcell, Fayne, Nikitin

Soon the Silver Fox will add a #2C with the cap space we have and we will have the most complete lineup since MacT left nearly a decade ago...

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#118 nuge2nail
July 02 2014, 03:05PM
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Oiler Domination To Follow

This was the Oilers opening day roster last year:

Smyth - Hall - Hemsky

Perron - Arcobello - Eberle

Joensuu - Gordon - Yakupov

Gazdic - Acton - Brown

Ference - J. Schultz

Smid - Petry

N. Schultz - Belov

Dubnyk

LaBarbara

Last year Yak was stuck with Gordan and Joensuu on his line. I'm much more optimistic about this years lineup.

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#119 Cold Hard Truth
July 02 2014, 03:42PM
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nuge2nail wrote:

Oiler Domination To Follow

This was the Oilers opening day roster last year:

Smyth - Hall - Hemsky

Perron - Arcobello - Eberle

Joensuu - Gordon - Yakupov

Gazdic - Acton - Brown

Ference - J. Schultz

Smid - Petry

N. Schultz - Belov

Dubnyk

LaBarbara

Last year Yak was stuck with Gordan and Joensuu on his line. I'm much more optimistic about this years lineup.

You're optimistic about every years' lineup. You don't excercise any judgement; you just faithfully boost your team. Your opinions, therefore, mean little.

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#120 cccsberg
July 02 2014, 04:59PM
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Zarny wrote:

Good summary by JW.

I really like the Fayne signing. Nikitin was certainly overpaid but the term is good and he's a legit 3-5 D. I like Pouliot the player but the contract is an overpay in terms of dollars and term. Not ideal but that's how it goes when you are Edm in free agency.

I think you have to be realistic though. Adding Fayne, Nikitin and Pouliot to a 28th place team isn't exactly a makeover. Last season was marred by starting 4-15-2 but with better G and a legit NHL blueline an additional 10-15 pts should be low hanging fruit.

That would still only put the Oilers in 26th place last season and while the blueline has certainly improved the 2 biggest needs (top pairing Dman and 2C) remain unaddressed.

The depth at C (Nuge, Arcobello, Gordon, Lander and Draisaitl) remains woefully inadequate. MacT needs to address this before the season starts.

The positive is that the Oilers are a better team now. With continued improvement from young players like Hall, Nuge, Yak, Schultz etc and some bounce back years I think it's realistic the Oilers could move up to "battle" for 17-20th place but I don't see them making the playoffs unless we see some major breakout years by Nuge, Yak and Schultz.

Overall not bad summary, and likely "correct" that Oilers have improved the team. Unfortunately, most of the western conference teams also should be improved, some of a similar, slight, amount, others by a large margin. These would be IMO Anaheim(Kesler, prospects), Dallas(FAs trades), St Louis(Stasny), Chicago, Calgary(FA,prospects) and Nashville. Relatively speaking Oilers will be in tough to repeat at 28th spot overall, especially with Florida, NYI and Buffalo looking to jump substantially too. Think realistically Oilers more likely battling it out with TML, Carolina and perhaps Florida/Buffalo/Calgary/Vancouver for 30th...

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#121 cccsbrg
July 02 2014, 05:12PM
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nuge2nail wrote:

Oiler Domination To Follow

I think it has more to do with all the aqcuistions since MacT took over last year...

Perron, Scrivens, Fasth, Ference, Gordan, Hendricks

You would recognize these players as the only players who give a shtt each night other than Hall...

And now...

Draisaitl, Purcell, Fayne, Nikitin

Soon the Silver Fox will add a #2C with the cap space we have and we will have the most complete lineup since MacT left nearly a decade ago...

Oiler Domination a Delusion

By your very words you've hit the nail on the head re: Oilers problems. The "core" don't really Give a S*** (exception Hall) and yet you're unwilling to accept they're a major part of the problem. Nothing will significantly change till that is addressed. Good luck shuffling the second tier players, unless one or two of them have the gumption to slap some sense into the Fab5, and then survive MacT for not toeing the company line of superstar 'potential' just waiting for the right support players.

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#122 GCW
July 02 2014, 08:31PM
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I think you are being optimistic about Nikitin. There is a very real possibility he is the third pairing / healthy scratch guy he was in Columbus last season. In that case we have almost eight million tied up in Ference and Nikitin to play third pairing minutes and force Schultz up the line up. That's bad.

Plan for the worst and hope for the best, not the other way around.

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#123 Zarny
July 02 2014, 10:52PM
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Cold Hard Truth wrote:

I don't see how the defence is any better this year than at the start of last year. Fayne and Niktin, at best, replace Smid and N. Shultz. A top-pairing line still eludes the Oilers.

Surely you did not type such a ridiculous statement with a straight face.

Fayne and Nikitin are undoubtedly better than Smid and N. Schultz. Go check their corsi, Vollman sledgehammers or just watch them play hockey. It's obvious.

I would say it's probable the Oilers still lack a true top pairing D. Fayne and Nikitin certainly aren't Shea Weber and Erik Karlsson.

The simple reason why the defense is better this year is that they are all legit NHL Dman.

No, we're not talking Team Canada here but Fayne, Nikitin, Petry, Ference, Schultz and Marincin can all average 18-20 min a night and any one of them playing above their heads is better than Belov, Grebeshkov, Larsen, Fedun, Smid or N. Schultz.

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#124 Spydyr
July 03 2014, 12:36PM
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SRELIOFAN wrote:

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!?

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2007

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2008

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2009

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2010

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2011

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2012

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2013

now 2014......Can't fix gullible.

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#125 Juggler00
July 06 2014, 12:05AM
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Spydyr wrote:

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2007

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2008

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2009

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2010

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2011

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2012

I'm excited... Is the season starting yet!? said the Oiler fan 2013

now 2014......Can't fix gullible.

You know what being a fan of something is right? I think oilers need work, and they won't be close next year, but I'm excited for season start too. So much negativity, at least we've figured out the right direction

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