Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid are both having the best seasons of their NHL careers. Both players have taken a long road to get to where they are today. Gilbert is 29 years old, and while he’s been a solid defender for ages he’s only taken the next step now, more than 300 games into his career. Smid is younger, just 25, but he’s also more than 300 games into his NHL career.
It’s something worth remembering, when looking at all of the Oilers’ young defensemen.
The Oilers actually have a fairly decent set of defense prospects. We’ve seen a few of them on the blue-line this year: guys like Colten Teubert, Alex Plante, even Jeff Petry entered the season with only 35 games under his belt, but really those guys are just the tip of the iceberg. Bubbling under are players like Oscar Klefbom, David Musil, Martin Marincin, Martin Gernat and a host of others.
The problem is the timeline.
Oscar Klefbom, the 19th overall selection in 2011, is by most accounts the Oilers’ best defensive prospect, and arguably the best prospect they have period with the graduation of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He’s 18 years old, and has never played a professional game in North America.
Klefbom is typical of Oilers’ defensive prospects with high-end potential. Most of the guys that look like they could play at the top end of an NHL defensive group are years away from being able to do it. Even a player like Gilbert – who was a useful and relatively polished NHL’er early in his professional career – took half a season in the AHL and spent years in college before he made the jump. For a player like Klefbom, Musil, or Marincin, the reality is that each is highly likely to need at least one full season in the AHL and possibly more. In Smid’s case, he spent one year in the minors and probably should have spent two full seasons before making the jump as a third-pairing guy.
Colten Teubert is a good example of what development looks like. He was an 11th overall pick back in 2008, he represented Canada a combined three times between the U-18 and U-20 World Junior Championships, and generally looked as good as a defensive defender can look. He spent two seasons in the WHL after being drafted, another full year in the AHL, and is now partway through his second professional season. He’s shown glimpses in the NHL, but on a competitive team it seems highly improbable that he would be a regular on the third-pairing. Even on the Oilers, he’s not a regular on the third pairing.
Teubert is the best of the guys near the NHL level. Taylor Chorney’s perilously close to getting stamped as a career ‘tweener, while Alex Plante is a year older and a little further back. Even Teubert requires rose-coloured glasses to project as a top-four guy; the other two need the same glasses to project as NHL’ers.
In other words, the Oilers’ defensive problems are unlikely to be solved by the prospects in the current system. The best prospects are years away from taking on a role with heavy responsibility – we’re certainly past the end of Ryan Nugnet-Hopkins’ entry-level contract here – and unless the Oilers plan to spend another five seasons in the cellar they probably won’t get there in time to fill the gaps. The guys at or close to NHL readiness – Petry, Peckham and Teubert – might fill roles on a competitive Oilers team, but won’t do enough to fix the whole problem.
In other words, if the Oilers want to fix their defense they’ll have to look beyond their prospect pool. Maybe they spend this year’s high pick on a defenseman – sometimes a rearguard taken in the top-five has a big impact immediately, like Drew Doughty did with the Kings. Other times, as with Alex Pietrangelo, the timeline is a little different. Ryan Murray, should he be available when the Oilers select, could follow either path.
Beyond that, there’s always the trade route and free agency. Acquiring a top AHL defenseman, like Detroit’s Brendan Smith, would move things ahead. Picking up a young NHL defenseman with high-end talent might do even more. It’s a quicker, surer route than waiting for Klefbom, Musil and Marincin.