It would be a great thing for the Edmonton Oilers if they could add a stud defenseman, a true number one who plays heavy minutes on the back end, contributes offensively and shuts down the opposition’s best players. But it’s not a necessity right now.
I say that for two reasons.
The Oilers are not going to win the Stanley Cup in 2012-13. Even if they could somehow trade two prospects and Nick Schultz to St. Louis for Chris Pronger, this coming season would in all probability not include a championship.
This is not a team that’s one player away. In all likelihood, this is not a team that’s three players away. This is a team that is a few players away, plus a few years for some of the young players they currently have away.
Therefore, if the Oilers want to address the defense through free agency, they don’t have to add the star guy right now. They can tinker, upgrade the top-four through trade or development or with lesser free agents (such as, for example, Matt Carle) and wait for that piece to become available.
As things currently stand, the Oilers should (assuming some positive strides are made) be in a better position to bargain in the summer of 2013. Free agents slated to become available that July definitely include Tobias Enstrom, Alex Edler, Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky. Assuming Shea Weber signs a one-year deal this summer, he’ll also be included on that list. The summer after – assuming no major changes in the CBA – will see Dion Phaneuf, Kris Letang, Jay Bouwmeester, Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, Joni Pitkanen and others eligible for UFA status.
If free agency is the route the Oilers opt for, this summer’s prospects are bleak. Ryan Suter is the only top defender available this July, and the Oilers – the league’s second-worst team last year – can sell the future, but there’s no way they can sell the present. A year from now, they should be on the upswing; two years from now, they might be able to pitch that they are a star defenseman away from contending for it all.
And hey, if everything falls apart, Seth Jones is a darn good prospect.
The By-Committee Apporach
Of course, the last time the Oilers went to the Stanley Cup Finals, they had a stud defenseman. Chris Pronger was (when healthy, he still is) one of the best in the game, a true difference-maker for any NHL franchise. The best defenseman on the team they lost to was Bret Hedican. Nothing against Bret Hedican, but if a 35-year old Hedican was Edmonton’s best defenseman today, I’m highly confident we’d be hearing lots of ‘the Oilers can’t win if Bret Hedican is their best defenseman’ in the comments section here. He was an excellent player, but not the star, number one defenseman people hope for.
As the Oilers try to build themselves into a team that can approach marquee free agents seriously, they could do worse than to pursue a by-committee approach to their own blue line. In Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry and Nick Schultz, they already have three very capable defenders. If Ryan Whitney returns to form – which is a long shot and not something I’d be comfortable betting on – they would have four. Andy Sutton will be a year older, but if there’s no degeneration in his play he’s an effective bottom-pairing option. The Oilers could add another defenseman in the same range – a player like Michal Roszival, Dennis Wideman, Barret Jackman, Johnny Oduya, Matt Carle, Carlo Colaiacovo, or one of half a dozen other names – and be improved over where they were a year ago. If they were able to do that and reel in Justin Schultz (far from guaranteed, given that virtually every team is going to want him) they could be vastly improved.
Over the long haul, the ideal situation would see the Oilers add that true, number-one rearguard, either through free agency (as Boston did with Zdeno Chara), via trade (as both the Oilers and Ducks did with Chris Pronger) or by way of development (as the Blackhawks did Duncan Keith). If that’s not possible over the short term, upgrading the defense to a respectable level in the meantime is a good alternative.
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