Opportunity And Jeff Petry

Yesterday, Robin Brownlee nicely covered the difficulties that Colten Teubert will face in his NHL debut on a pairing with Theo Peckham. Teubert, though, isn’t the only defenseman trying to show something over the next stretch of games. Jeff Petry, only recently returned from the minors, faces an uphill battle to establish himself as a regular in the Oilers’ defensive rotation.

Petry’s in something of a unique situation. On merit, he’s almost certainly one of the Oilers’ top seven defensemen. Unfortunately, he can be sent down to the minors without clearing waivers, something that guys like Cam Barker and Theo Peckham can’t do. Is the gap between the player that Petry is now enough to justify risking a guy like Barker or Peckham on waivers? Earlier this season, the Oilers decided that it wasn’t. It’s up to Petry to take advantage of some injuries and a suspension and change their minds.

A quick look at the Oilers’ active roster lists 10 defensemen. One of them – Taylor Fedun – is on the roster in name only; given the severity of his injury not only will he be out for a long chunk of the season but he’ll also most likely start his season in the minors when he does return. Another, Colten Teubert, sits beneath Petry on the depth chart. That leaves seven defenders ahead of Petry when everybody’s healthy.

Petry has a limited window in which to make an impression. Based on published reports, Ryan Whitney should be back by the end of November and may even return a little sooner. Andy Sutton will already have sat for two games; once tonight’s contest is finished; he’ll be back next week. Cam Barker could be back any day. Decent play on Petry’s part should keep him in the line-up when Sutton and Barker return – one player could take the spot of Teubert, while Theo Peckham’s play this season means a seat in the press-box is a legitimate option when the other comes back – but he’ll need to do more than play decent hockey to stick around when Ryan Whitney returns.

Who can Petry pass on the depth chart? It certainly won’t be Ryan Whitney, Edmonton’s best defenseman last year, and the Tom Gilbert/Ladislav Smid pairing has been far too good to break up. Of the other four defensemen, I would rank them as follows based on their play this season:

  • 4. Corey Potter
  • 5. Andy Sutton
  • 6. Cam Barker
  • 7. Theo Peckham

Potter not only has history with Renney but has played very well for the Oilers to date this season. He’s probably not bulletproof but it would presumably take a severe slump at this point for the Oilers to be willing to risk him on the waiver wire. Andy Sutton adds a physical element and has played well for the Oilers defensively – as David Staples points out, he hasn’t played top opponents but he has earned a ton of starts in his own zone, showing that Tom Renney views him as one of the blue line’s better options in those situations.

That leaves Barker and Peckham.

Theo Peckham has not had a good season so far. He’s racking up the penalties, the coach hasn’t trusted him in nearly the same way that he has Sutton, and high-profile gaffes have been the order of the day. Over an average hour of 5-on-5 ice-time, the Oilers have been outshot 42-to-26 with Peckham on the ice.

The issue with Peckham is upside. He’s been a top-pairing shutdown defenseman at the AHL level, and last year looked at times like a competent third-pairing defender who adds that coveted physical element. He’s nasty, he can fight, and he doesn’t turn 24 for another week. How well would Potter have to play for the Oilers to put Peckham on waivers and risk losing him forever? This isn’t the situation the team faced with Taylor Chorney earlier this year, or even guys like Stortini and Jacques in previous years – Peckham has shown signs in the not-too distant past not only of filling a physical role, but also of being a useful player in the long term for the club.

Cam Barker is the other player that might be vulnerable. His plus/minus is quite decent at the moment (plus-3) but that’s largely thanks to the goaltending – among regular Oilers defensemen, none have had a better save percentage behind them (0.987). The Oilers have been outshot 30-to-18 over an average hour of five-on-five ice-time with Barker on the ice, despite the fact that he’s uniformly played low-quality opponents and been given more offensive zone starts than any other regular defenseman on the team.

Barker was signed this summer after being bought out by the Minnesota Wild. The Oilers gambled a significant chunk of money ($2.25 million) on a one-year contract; the hope was that Barker would show the kind of offensive firepower that got him drafted right behind Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Aside from one pretty goal, Barker hasn’t delivered, but then again he has only dressed for 10 games. How much time does Barker have to show something? How well does Petry have to play for the Oilers to cut Barker loose?

The Oilers may not be forced to make a decision. Injuries are a common enough occurrence on the blue line, and they may need to keep Petry up to fill gaps. Even if injuries don’t strike the club, Petry has been sent down twice before – once this season, once last season – where he was probably a top-seven defenseman on the team but simply didn’t do enough to force the club’s hand. If he plays the way he did to start this season – where he was decent, but well shy of overwhelming – the cautious approach of giving Peckham and Barker a bit more time will be more attractive.

Petry is capable of forcing the issue. He’s facing some decent challenges – the Oilers are off on a long road trip, and Tom Renney will undoubtedly try to deploy Petry and Potter against secondary opponents rather than letting Peckham and Teubert play those minutes – but Petry’s track record in college and as a professional suggests he can rise above them. Now it is just a matter of him doing so.