No position represented more of a challenge for Craig MacTavish this off-season than defence. The Oilers general manager made a number of moves to address the situation; some of them have worked better than others.
The Current Top-Six
1. Jeff Petry. I’m no longer surprised by it, but I still struggle to comprehend the level of ambivalence some fans feel toward the Oilers’ best defenceman. Is the all-situations workhorse probably best suited to the two/three slot on a better team? Sure. But as it stands he’s the one guy who does everything well – he skates and moves the puck without being the defensive nightmare others are, and he’s really stepped up his physical game. He’s not the problem, he’s not part of the problem, and if the Oilers had three of him they’d be much better than they are right now.
2. Justin Schultz. Schultz ranks second in total ice-time on the Oilers’ blue line. that’s not an especially misleading figure either, because while Schultz does get massive minutes on the man advantage he’s also the Oilers’ most-used defender at even-strength in terms of ice-time per game (18:11). His talent level is undeniable, but he seems to perpetually be in ‘cheat for offence’ mode, which may work fine in the AHL but has yet to produce the desired results in the majors. No defenceman on the team is getting minutes more slanted to offence, yet somehow Schultz’s on-ice shot rates are miserable. At this point, he’d probably be playing the role of power play specialist on a good team – assuming he wasn’t in the pressbox.
3. Andrew Ference. The first of Craig MacTavish’s defensive fixes, Ference has at times looked overwhelmed. Some of that may be thanks to a regular partnership with Nick Schultz, a partnership that not only puts Schultz on his off-side but also forces Ference to be the primary puck-mover on the pairing. Regardless of the cause, Ference looks to me like a guy who could do what he did in Boston: fill the four slot on a deep blue line.
4. Anton Belov. Craig MacTavish’s other big fix has been a very pleasant surprise. The Russian rookie started slowly, but his play has continually improved – he moves the puck well, gets in shooting lanes, and while understated physically he has a penchant for making smart hits that separate the opposition player from the puck and take him out of the play entirely. On a deep team, Belov would be a wonderful asset on the third pairing; in Edmonton (assuming an injury suffered against Detroit isn’t severe) it wouldn’t be a shock if he eventually slotted in as the team’s top left-side defender.
5. Ladislav Smid. It’s been a bit of a rough year for the big Czech defenceman. He struggled early with Jeff Petry, got bumped down to (an awful) pairing with Nick Schultz, and has since rebounded when reunited with Petry. There have been indications that Edmonton’s new management isn’t sold on Smid, owing to his struggles with the puck; one wonders whether he might not be the centerpiece of a deal that brought back a better defender the other way.
6. Nick Schultz. My personal opinion: Schultz could still excel in a third-pairing role in the right situation, ideally as the left-side defender playing with a solid right-shooting puck-mover. Instead, he’s mostly played with Andrew Ference or Ladislav Smid, and he’s mostly played on his off-side. A high number of own-zone starts probably hasn’t helped matters much, either. He’s an NHL player, but he’s declining and his skill-set is a sub-optimal fit for the Oilers’ current group.
One quick note: the guys below are arranged in order of proximity to a permanent spot on the NHL roster (as judged by me) rather than by their overall potential or anything else.
- Corey Potter. He’s played pretty well in the AHL early, but he still isn’t 100 percent physically after injuring his back in off-season workouts. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t work his way on to the Oilers roster at some point and stay there.
- Philip Larsen. Flashy puck-mover has been a point-per-game player for Oklahoma City. He’s a nice fit anywhere from the seven slot on in an organizational depth chart.
- Denis Grebeshkov. The hope was that a guy who had once been extremely effective for Craig MacTavish in the 4/5 slot would be again. Instead, Grebeshkov got behind the eight ball early thanks to injury and seems to lack the confidence of the coaching staff.
- Taylor Fedun. All-purpose defenceman lacks size, and I wonder if he’s doomed to being a ‘tweener as a result. He does everything well but his offensive production isn’t what one would hope for from a smallish puck-mover.
- Brandon Davidson. Defensive defenceman has been asked to do a lot by Oklahoma coach Todd Nelson, and he’s struggled with the workload at times. He does everything pretty well and has some size to boot.
- Oscar Klefbom. Talent-wise, this guy is clearly the defenceman in Oklahoma to bet on; he has Smid’s strength and physical game but adds puck-moving ability to the equation. He’s also in need of seasoning because he makes questionable decisions sometimes but he’s a credible call-up option if the Oilers run into injury.
- Martin Marincin. I wonder if Marincin might not be on his way out, just owing to the depth chart above him. He’s a big guy who can move the puck (he was great against the Chicago Wolves on Saturday) but he still has those occasional ugly hiccups and his offensive ability isn’t so amazing that he’s a must-keep player.
Recapping the list above puts some pretty solid conclusions in my mind, ones that I think will be uncontroversial with the readers here. The Oilers have good depth defensively, both in terms of players to fill out the bottom half of the NHL depth chart and in the minor-leagues. If the three through seven slots of your NHL team are filled with Jeff Petry, Ladislav Smid, Andrew Ference, Justin Schultz and Anton Belov, you’re doing awfully well. Having Potter and Grebeshkov and Larsen and Fedun and Klefbom and Davidson and Marincin all available in case a plague hits is an awfully nice luxury, too.
But all those depth players start looking like liabilities when they are forced into positions they simply aren’t ready to play. It’s much the same problem as last year: the top guys are slotting in one pairing ahead of where they would in a perfect world. The Oilers have more options, but they still lack top-pairing guys.
I wonder if one might not be available. A player like Nikita Nikitin or Braydon Coburn would help, but they also suffer from much the same problem Andrew Ference does: while good NHL players, they aren’t likely to fix the top pairing themselves.
The guy I have in mind is signed long-term at a reasonable cap hit. He’s 31, which means he should still have some good years left in him but he also has a wealth of experience. He’s played key minutes for good teams and while he isn’t a classic number one defenceman he’s a pretty solid top-pairing option.
Christian Ehrhoff isn’t a perfect fit, but it’s an imperfect world and I wonder if he isn’t the best alternative available to the Oilers. Shea Weber or Oliver Ekman-Larsson make for fun trade fantasies, but the odds of those teams moving those players have to be considered extremely low – and that’s even assuming Craig MacTavish is willing to move one of his core guys the other way. Ehrhoff, playing on the lowly Sabres and popping up in trade rumours, might be as good as the options get.