Defencemen develop by sundial.
A quick glance at the current roster confirms that. Ryan Whitney was a fifth overall pick in 2002, but didn’t play his first NHL game until he’d spent two more years in college and played 120 contests in the AHL. Tom Gilbert’s arrival in the NHL didn’t happen until five years after he was drafted. Ladislav Smid went ninth overall in 2004; he spent a year in Europe and a year in the AHL before he arrived in Edmonton (where he was rushed into the line-up to show the fruits of the Pronger trade) and only really emerged as a reliable player last season – and he (hopefully) still has a ways to go, in his fifth NHL season. Kurtis Foster, meanwhile, played more than 300 games in the AHL and spent two post-draft seasons in junior before finally making the jump to the NHL in 2005-06.
The point here is that it can take a long time for a defenceman to go from draft pick to reliable NHL’er. This is true even of top-10 draft picks. Over at Houses of the Hockey, I looked at top-10 picks from the last 10 drafts and found just three ready to contribute immediately on an NHL blue-line.
For the Edmonton Oilers, this presents a bit of a problem. The team’s blue-line has been its most obvious weakness, and while the team is blessed with an assortment of competent defensive prospects, none look to be ready for top-four duty any time soon. Theo Peckham’s just breaking into the league, and while the team’s key minor league prospects (in order: Jeff Petry, Alex Plante, Taylor Chorney) all have things going for them, none of them have been so compelling in the AHL that they’re shoe-ins for an NHL spot at this time. Elsewhere, Martin Marincin might be the team’s best defensive prospect, but he’s still playing junior hockey and is probably looking forward to at least one year in the AHL before he seriously threatens for an NHL roster spot.
Even if the Oilers were blessed with half a dozen prospects breaking down the doors, they couldn’t play them all at the NHL level. Only once in the last 10 seasons have the Oilers broken in more than one rookie defenceman at a time, back in 2002-03 – and one of those rookies was a 25-year old European pro named Ales Pisa. Neither he nor top prospect (at the time) Alexei Semenov cracked the 50 game barrier. I’d suggest that at the very most the Oilers might carry three rookie defencemen at one time, and that it is far more likely they would not carry more than two. Additionally, if they chose to carry two rookie defencemen next season, they would almost certainly be unable to carry two more in 2012-13. There are only so many spots on any blue-line that can go to players still developing into NHL’ers.
The difficulty of breaking NHL defencemen in is only half the problem. The other half is the weakness of the Oilers’ current group. I’d argue that as it stands they need at least two more top-four (ideally top-two) defencemen, without making any subtractions. That would allow them to ice a top four including Whitney and Gilbert, and leaving Smid and Foster on the third pairing with Peckham subbing in for whoever is playing poorest. Those kind of players are not easy to find.
The way I see it, this means that somewhere along the way, Steve Tambellini is going to have to start augmenting his defensive corps through some avenue other than the NHL Entry Draft. He’s done a tremendous job of dismantling it (he inherited a team with Visnovsky, Souray, Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Staios, and Smid on the back end) but this summer it will be time to add pieces, either via trade or free agency. Capable veterans will be needed to ride shotgun for whatever young players are added to the group, and they have to do more than add toughness or be a presence in the dressing room – they need to be able to provide on-ice support.