To many outsiders the Oilers were foolish to pass on Adam Larsson in 2011, and foolish again to pass on Ryan Murray in 2012. Fans and observers in other NHL cities were taking it as a given that the Oilers would try to balance out their developing core by adding blueliners at the top of the draft. When they didn’t the criticism came early, but died down fairly quickly as well. By the midpoint of last season I don’t recall anyone but the fiercest of trolls still criticizing the Oilers for taking Nugent-Hopkins over Adam Larsson. And certainly by the time the Oilers’ rookie camp had begun there didn’t seem to be much floating around about Ryan Murray being a better pick than Nail Yakupov.
I’ll take a look here as to what I believe may be an underappreciated strength of this organization in the next five or six years: defence.
I’ll start by looking at what we can expect from the start before going into the depth and range of prospects.
Again, we are going to fast-forward to the 2013 roster. I’m working off of available resources here, so no trades or incoming free-agents to fill spots. I’m basing all of my assumptions on the information available to me by the same sources we all use: TSN, the Nations, local media, and various other hockey blogs that do not feature accuracy ratings.
On the Blueline
We know that Andy Sutton has probably played his last game in the NHL. That and the likelihood that Corey Potter will be unseated in the bottom pairing rotation means that we can assume that there will be at least two new inclusions to the defence corps in the immediate future. By the same token, Justin Schultz would appear to have all but guaranteed himself a roster spot whenever the league unshackles the doors. His skill set is closer to Potter than Sutton, so we should probably assume that the extra open spot is reserved for a more physical defender.
So we can bump at least two incumbents off of our seven defensive roster spots. That leaves room for Justin Schultz and guest. My best guess is that Schultz’ plus-one to the NHL will be Theo Peckham, Colten Teubert or Taylor Fedun. Fedun is a more natural replacement for Potter, but Schultz is bringing many of the same things to the party and they are wrapped in much shinier, expensive-looking paper. The Oilers may also want Fedun to spend a bit more time down on the farm, there’s no rush for a young man who nearly lost his career last fall. Peckham and Teubert on the other hand, play a game closer to Sutton and are a safer bet than Fedun. My guess is that Peckham gets penciled in at training camp, but if Teubert looks good, then perhaps Theo gets moved to another organization with time and space for the promising young defender. This is only a hunch, and the way blueliners get injured we could be calling up Alex Plante as a replacement by early November.
My point here is that the Oilers already have quite a few bodies for the four through seven spots. The top three are pretty much spoken for.
There is some debate as to whether Ryan Whitney would be re-signed as a free-agent. I believe that the Oilers would prefer to retain him, if only for a season or two, in order to help bridge the gap between the defence today and the many emerging young players expected to crack the roster in the immediate future. For the sake of argument let us also assume that Ladislav Smid also re-signs with the Oilers.
I’ve left off Klefbom because I honestly want to believe that the franchise will see the error of their ways and not let Ryan Whitney go to free-agency so they can promote a rookie blueliner coming off a season-ending injury to full-time NHL duty straight out of training camp. I’d like to believe that they will assign him to OKC. If you’re pessimistic about that, just subtract Whitney and add Klefbom.
This, however, leads me into the crux of the situation with regards to the Oilers defence corps. Depth and range. The Oilers have several physical options in Teubert, Bigos, and Musil. The slick defenders like Klefbom and Marincin. And the puck-rushers like Schultz, Gernat and Laleggia. Players like Davidson, Simpson and Gustavsson could go any number of ways. The point here is that the Oilers likely won’t be desperate to go hunting for any particular type because they have some redundancy in skill sets.
A Few Bodies More
There are quite a few bodies that could soon be pushing their way onto the roster over the next three years including the aforementioned Colten Teubert and Oscar Klefbom. But also Martin Marincin, Martin Gernat, Taylor Fedun, Brandon Davidson, Dillon Simpson, Kyle Bigos, David Musil, Erik Gustavsson, and Joey Laleggia. I’m certainly not suggesting that every one of them makes the jump, but I think even with injury and development we can conservatively assume that there will need to be room for a few rookies on the blueline these next few seasons.
The blueline roster could easily morph from Whitney, Schultz in stereo, Smid, Petry, Teubert, Peckham, Potter, or Fedun in 2013 to Justin Schultz, Petry, Marincin, Gernat, Teubert, Klefbom and Musil by 2015. That is a fairly dramatic overhaul of the blueline in only two short seasons. And before you say "that’s way too many young defenders for a single defense corps" remember, this is the Oilers. This is what they do.
In net I think we can safely ensconce Devan Dubnyk as the starter for the next two years, and likely Yann Danis, or another potential free-agent, as backup. Nikolai Khabibulin is unlikely to find further NHL employment unless it is in the form of a veteran backup goaltender providing insurance to a playoff bound team. Or the Islanders. Olivier Roy is still at least two years away from any NHL duty, while Tyler Bunz is close behind and could, conceivably, leapfrog Roy in the depth chart depending on next season in the AHL.
(Note – In some of the films, Eastwood’s character is referred to as "Manco" in spite of the fact that the character is famously called "The Man With No Name". The reason for this comes from production where the character as portrayed by Eastwood tends to use only his left hand, his draw-hand is his right, and so earned the moniker as a reference in most Latin languages to a one-armed man. The title is a nickname and not the name of the character.)
Because We Can’t Go Too Long Without Bringing Up Gagner…
I don’t know about Sam Gagner. Maybe he stays, maybe he goes. But if the Oilers can manage to draft a good center this June, then I think we can safely assume that the clock is ticking. For what it is worth, I think the team with Gagner on it is stronger than without, in part because of his level of competitiveness and commitment to the team. That aside, if there are viable replacements, and trading Gagner nets you that Tikkanen-esque forward the Oilers would love to add, then by all means.
What I can say with certainty is that Gagner has to stay on the roster for the time being as there are no 2nd line center alternatives. Until such time as a player emerges ready for that role, we should get comfortable with him locked down in that position.
If the biggest problem this team has is upgrading their 2nd line center then we really are talking about 1st world problems here. Gagner is a perfectly serviceable player for that role and there are probably many teams around the league that wish their top six forwards offered as much potential. Would I like to have Sean Couturier in that position? Sure. Is there much chance of that happening right away? Nope.
The defense actually looks pretty settled and if a person were to take 200 paces back and stare down the Oilers’ rebuild they might almost be able to discern some sort of plan – draft elite scoring early, build up defensive prospects in the middle rounds of the draft, and add the depth winger required with the longshot picks here and there. And maybe find a goalie down at the local Dry Goods store.
Next up is a review of the prospects as a whole with an eye to parsing out a reasonable success rate for players as a group. I warn you now, stats ners and math junkies, this is a very unscientific perspective and is based on a generous helping of anecdotal evidence and gut feeling.
DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME!
Gian Maria Volonte always had the best death scenes.