The State of the Defence

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.

The Reserves

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.

Just Wondering…

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.

  • Zarny

    Hey Jon, two points.
    It seems to me on paper that the Oilers D shouldnt be as bad as it is. Right now, it seems like Smid, JSchultz and NSchultz have all sort of fallen off a cliff. Belov has been a nice suprise, Petry has been solid, and Ference looks to be what he was in Boston, no more than a #4 D man.
    I’ve recently had the revelation that a lot of the oilogosphere might have overrated Smid. This includes my own personal take on who he is as a player. Maybe instead of a top 4 guy, he’s more suited for a Matt Greene role. This isn’t a bad thing, but it means the Oilers have 4 D on the roster that should be playing in the bottom pairing and Ference and Petry, who are cogs of a number 1/2 pairing.
    Erhoff would be a hell of a pick up. I went to school in Van, watched the Canucks regularly. I think its easy to remember Erhoff turtling to adam Mcqaud in the cup finals versus Boston, but a lot of the Canucks-ogosphere remember him as probably the best D man the team had during that season. Edler was sort of expected to fill the void offensevily along with the Garrison signing, but the team’s D has never been as mobile without Erhoff. That 2010 D core included Bieksa, Edler, Hamuis and Salo. Erhoff was by far and away the most consistent puck mover that core had. It could be argued Hamuis was the best D man, but since Erhoff’s removal and Garrisons insertion, the Canucks have never quite been the team they used to be with him in their line up.

  • And further to my earlier point about dealing with the existing problem, why are we crucifying the D-men? Were all the missed assignments from the D? It seems to me the forwards have to contribute a helluva lot more while Mac fences with his fellow GM’s offers to “help us out”.

  • DSF

    I’m on board for acquiring Erhoff. A little leery of the price though. Buffalo is the only seller out there right now. Even Philly is still trying to make their current roster better in the Downie trade. Buffalo got a lot for Vanek.

    The Oiler 1st round picks should be off the table. If the Oilers finish bottom 10 this year and also traded away their pick, that would be a disaster upon a disaster. And you can’t trade the 2015 pick either. That’s the Connor McDavid lottery.

    • pkam

      I am not one bit worry about his contract. Erhoff is only 31 years old and he has 7 years left on his contract after this season. So he will be 38 in the last year of his contract. He should still be able to play if healthy. The worst part of his contract is the first 2 years. 4M now is already a great salary and cap hit, and in 2-3 years, 4M will be a steal. Not to mention the actual salary is just 1M in the last 3 year.

      Didn’t the Stars just signed Gonchar recently for 5M at age 39? Just imagine how much a 35+ defense will be in a few years.

      Erhoff is more of a #2/3 defense, but he is better than all we have at the moment. If he is willing to come to Edmonton and only cost us a 1st round pick, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. I’ll take him over Phaneuf any day and didn’t the Leafs fans say it will cost us Yakupov and some asset for Phaneuf.

      Remember, it is a relatively weak draft class and no McDavid.

  • oilerjed

    @ JW

    At what point do we look past the point where we have to over pay to improve our team and do it anyway. Is the market going to improve for us anytime in the future as the holes in the line up become more obvious. Quality is worth it, is it not? Is the development of our young players being impaired by not being able to ice a competitive hockey team?

  • Tikkanese

    @JW

    The problem with Petry is, even if he is our best defenceman(I would vote for Ference, he never stops competing), that just further shows what a sad state our defense is in. I think you are being generous saying Petry would be “probably best suited to the two/three slot on a better team”. To me, he’d be bottom pairing on a contender.

    I counted four goals against the last two games that Petry was the main cause of.

    We do have depth 4-12, all pretty much interchangeable and none of our D currently are top pairing worthy. Waiting 3-4 years for Klefbom and Nurse to become reliable top pairing worthy is going to be painful. Hopefully Mactavish makes something happen.

  • Tikkanese

    I was refering to the assets we’d have to give up for Ehrhoff. 2014 and 2015 1st round picks should be off the table. 2014 because we’re already projecting for a top 5 pick (yeehaw!) and 2015 because of Connor McDavid.

    Buffalo doesn’t have to deal Ehrhoff this year, if ever. They can afford to be patient and try to get somebody to overpay.

  • Zarny

    I agree with JW; Petry, Smid, Ference, Schultz and Belov are a solid 3-7 D group. The problem is no legit 1-2 pairing D.

    The real void on the Oilers’ blueline is a guy who can shutdown players like Crosby, Toews, Datsyuk, Getzlaf etc for 25 min a night.

    I don’t see any of the top 10 D in the league being available. Certainly not 15 games into the season.

    Which is why I would target both Ehrhoff and Coburn.

    The cap recapture penalty worried me with Ehrhoff until I saw his contract was only front-end loaded during the first 2 years. He doesn’t have the physical shutdown abilities of guys like Chara and Weber but he’s a solid top pairing D.

    Coburn can handle the physical workload. Big, strong, mobile and able to physically battle big F like Getzlaf, Perry, Toews etc.

    Neither is worth Hall, Ebs, Nuge, Yak or Schultz but everything else is on the table.

    Certainly prospects like Marincin and Simpson should be moved to upgrade the D. The core group of kids will be ready to contend in 2-3 years. They can’t be supported by a younger group of D still learning the ropes.

  • acg5151

    Yes to Erhoff. All day long.

    If we accept for the sake of argument that MacT has to be extra cautious about getting fleeced in a trade (i.e. other GMs will be throwing boat anchors at him because they sense the desperation), then Buffalo is an ideal trade partner – an equally crappy team with an equivalent amount of desperation.

    Flyers would also be a good trade partner on this logic, for obvious reasons.

    Also: JW: I appreciate your response to Cold Hard Truth falls into the category of “not suffering fools gladly,” but I think there is clearly an organizational lack of accountability. Bucky and Smith would have been long gone on any other NHL team. As would Lowe. And a competent owner would have actively pursued Nill (who was available) before hiring MacT. Croneyism is rampant in this organization. For christ’s sake, is Will Acton’s presence on the roster not proof enough?

  • acg5151

    Ehrhoff has good possession numbers usually on an awful team. Prone to defensive errors and misses the net a lot – but a solid #1 option and power play quarterback. When he left Vancouver it left a void that wasn’t filled until Jason Garrison. If the Sabres want to offload him, the Oilers could do a lot worse.

  • acg5151

    Mr. Willis,
    Yes changing personnel after 20 games isn’t wise but changing after 48 might not have been wise either. Unless Krueger and Eakins would have been Oil and water, maybe Eakins as assistant to Krueger would have at least maintained some stability going into this season instead of yet another coaching change. Don’t bring up Chicago’s success as a measuring stick to the mess the Oilers are in. Kevin Lowe is a far cry from the advising Scotty Bowman provided to Stan! I hope MacT will right the ship, but don’t mistake the fans frustration as a knee jerk reaction to what’s happened at the beginning of this season alone.

  • acg5151

    Brian Burke was soo right about Kevin Lowe.

    Wonder how Lowe feels now with Burke in his division.

    Resign Kevin L do the Oilers fans a favor.

    Maybe it is time to cheer for Calgary.