The Edmonton Oilers have a major problem. Actually, given that they’ve been the worst team in the league over the last two years, and they have a solid track record of simply atrocious management since the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, they have a lot of major problems, but one of them towers above the rest: the defense corps.
While the Oilers’ forwards are still on an uphill curve, there is at least some major talent to work with. Taylor Hall is a star in the making, Jordan Eberle wildly surpassed expectations in his rookie season, and others like Mangus Paajarvi, Sam Gagner, Linus Omark and Andrew Cogliano could find roles going forward.
On the blueline, there is no such wealth of young talent. Theo Peckham had a good rookie season, but realistically he’s probably not a regular on a contending team right now, and the road to becoming a top-end shutdown defenseman is both long and uncertain. Martin Marincin had a slower second half to his WHL season, and is years away from regular NHL duty and even further away from being an impact defenseman – assuming that he ever is. Jeff Petry is the closest of the Oilers’ three to being a top-four defenseman; he boasts size and displayed a wide range of skills in his NHL debut, but it would be unwise to lean on him at this point, or do anything more than pencil him in going forward.
This leaves the Oilers with essentially two top-four defenseman. Ladislav Smid, Kurtis Foster, and (assuming he is re-signed) Jim Vandermeer all have good points, but all also have serious flaws that prevent them from being more than depth contributors. I still have some slight hope that Smid will develop into a player capable of complementing another defender on the second pairing, but as it stands he is in over his head on the second pairing.
Tom Gilbert was a popular whipping boy this year; style certainly played a role but I can’t help feeling the fact that he was thrown in way over his head as the team’s number one shutdown defenseman played a role. Gilbert’s been at his best in the past on the second pairing – in a role where he could focus a little more on offense and not have to handle the opposing team’s top lines all the time. Meanwhile, Ryan Whitney had a great year, but the planets aligned to make that happen and he will have difficulty repeating it. Not only that, but he got a disproportionate percentage of offensive zone starts – the point here is not to denigrate Whitney, but simply acknowledge that he wasn’t playing the toughest minutes.
Basically, the team needs an entire top pairing transplanted in, or if we make a pile of favourable assumptions (Whitney stays healthy, Gilbert rebounds, Petry, Smid and Peckham all develop) they might squeak by with just one top defender.
Where will they get that/those defenseman/men? I don’t know. I know Sheldon Souray isn’t the answer, and I have serious doubts that taking a player like Adam Larsson this year will get the job done (because of the typical development curve for defensemen, and based on some of the mixed reviews he has received). That leaves trade or free agency, though the latter has not treated the Oilers well the last few years and the former would require management to do something other than try to lose.
I may not know what the Oilers are going to do, but I do know this: the team needs to address the problem before they can seriously contend.