One of the problems facing the Oilers blue is that many of their players have duplicate skills and all 7 Dmen lack a complete skill set. Some can pass the puck well, some have finesse defensive skills, some shoot the puck well and still others can play a physical game. However, along with the skills come some very real and obvious flaws.
I think the plan for Tom Renney this season was to run a mobile top 4 (with some toughness) and then play a rugged third pairing (made up of Jim Vandermeer, Jason Strudwick and Theo Peckham). The problem (and it isn’t so severe they need to fix it right away) is that the 5-7D are so similar the coach has an extreme lack of options when shuffling the deck. The team is 22-23 at even-strength this year (a very respectable number) but I think the club needs more puck moving options.
- Ryan Whitney: The most complete skill set on the roster. A smooth skater, he’s an exceptional passer and can quarterback the PP. He doesn’t use his considerable size enough in the defensive zone but plays a smart game and is good on coverage. Desjardins shows he is playing tough minutes with subpar help and for that reason his relCorsi (-6.3) should be considered very respectable under the circumstances.
- Tom Gilbert: Very mobile defender, intelligent and makes things look easy. Expert passer, he’s good on coverage but lacks a physical edge. An effective finesse defenseman, Renney is using him upside down so far (easy minutes, good linemates) and his relCorsi (+4) reflects it. That could mean the coach isn’t confident in the players’ ability, or that Gilbert is in the doghouse. I’d suggest it might just be a case of the coach rolling three pairings at evens at not line matching a lot. I think that’s a mistake, and the Oilers could improve quickly if Gilbert faced tougher competition.
- Ladislav Smid: Big defender is very mobile and is (or should be) cast as a strong top 4 option. He lacks offensive acumen and despite being a smooth skater and puck carrier his passing skills are not a strength. Renney is playing him against the softest available competition and with the lower end of the roster as help. In that role, Smid’s +5 relCorsi is a solid number.
- Kurtis Foster: Big man with a big shot, we’re just getting used to his style of play. He looks a little clumsy out there and despite lots of physical skills that lend themselves to the defensive side of the game he hasn’t flourished in that department. He’s very raw defensively for someone who is 28 years old. Renney is using him on the second pairing in terms of difficlty and with top flight help. It should be a very good slot in the batting order for him but his Corsi (-1.2) suggests that opportunity isn’t being taken advantage of at even strength. I think there’s a chance he just won’t get any better than he is right now. If that’s the case, the Oilers have 4 candidates every night for the 3rd pairing. This is the area where the club sorely needs a more complete skill set. The fact that he’s scored 4 points in the last 4 Oiler game rarely gets mentioned because of his defensive issues. He needs to be better.
- Theo Peckham: Tough hombre. Excellent open ice hitter and brings intimidation to every shift. Peckham lacks NHL level footspeed and is sometimes slow to react (rookie defensemen have a very difficult adjustment). Peckham is playing third pairing opposition with dregs as linemates and his -0.7 Corsi is about where it should be for this team.
- Jim Vandermeer: Tough defender lacks mobility. He has played a more high profile role than expected because of the struggles Foster has endured early in the season. Renney is playing Vandermeer against average competition and with average linemates. Because he’s slow, Vandermeer (and Strudwick) can look completely exposed when beaten. The actual impact of those failed sorties should be more harsh, but his Corsi is the best among regulars (+5.3). I’d suggest he’s playing in extreme good luck at this point in time.
- Jason Strudwick: I mentioned during the summer that (imo) retirement was an option for Strudwick. His skills had been duplicated on the roster by Vandermeer and with Peckham coming there was going to be a logjam. In his 6 games, Strudwick has faced the toughest possible opposition according to Gabe Desjardins behind the net site. He’s playing with good linemates, but his Corsi is what you’d expect (-11.1) for a player who can’t deliver a quality performance against the leagues best opposition. He (like Vandermeer) has been playing in some good luck.
When Kurtis Foster struggled, Renney didn’t have a lot of variety in terms of replacement. Why? Peckham, Vandermeer and Strudwick have extremely similar skill sets. Does it matter which one of the three you pair with Smid? None of them can pass the puck well enough to be considered a strong option for a 2nd pairing with Smid.
The Oilers have JF Jacques on a rehab assignment currently and he’ll return to the Oilers after a short time in Oklahoma City. I’m hoping that the coaching staff and management of the Oilers are at least considering calling up another defensive option. The club has been healthy for most of the first 11 games of the schedule, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the tough D sent to IR in order to get more options into the starting 6D.