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.

  • Captain Ron

    I thought this piece was written by Lowetide, based on the assessment of Petry.

    # 2 / 3 slot on a better team???? Are you kidding me? This guy is a bottom pairing blue-liner on a decent team. # 2 means top pairing blueliner. I will assume that was a typo.

    We have been watching bad hockey players for so long, anybody that can skate and handle the puck a bit deserves 3M +.

    The closest thing we have to a top 4 defenseman, based on past performance, is probably Ference, and he is a 5.

  • 24% body fat

    I also laughed out loud at how you stated whom Petry has been facing in terms of opposing forwards. What are you trying to prove by listing those players? That one can only do so well against tough competition like that? LOL, this is the NHL bud, get used to it. The competition is not going to get easier as the years roll by so why state the names of good players in an attempt to justify the poor play of others? ” Oh well Petry was on the ice against Thornton so its ok that he got beat there cuz Joe is a good player”. Do you see the obvious problem with that?

    Sticking up for Petry how you do is honestly laughable.

    • pkam

      If we agree that Petry at best would be a 2nd pairing defense, then why would we surprise that he play poor against top forwards.

      If all 2nd pairing defense should be able to play well against top forwards, can you tell me why do teams still need to sign top pairing defense?

      • DoubleDIon

        #3 defensemen play against top competition. You’re entire top 4 does. Petry isn’t a top 4 defenseman.

        In San Jose the second line is Couture Marleau and Havlat.

        In LA it’s Richards Carter and Brown.

        In Chicago Kane Pirri and Saad

        That’s a pretty tough assignment for Petry. If you want to contend, your second pairing needs to be able to handle those types of lines.

        • Actually, in Los Angeles it’s generally been Carter/Richards/rotate-a-winger. Brown generally plays with Kopitar and Williams on the top line.

          But in any case: there’s a big gap between Hossa/Toews/Sharp and Kane/Pirri/Saad. I’d be pretty comfortable with Smid/Petry out against the second group, and not very comfortable at all with them primarily matching against the first.

          • DoubleDIon

            In LA it’s been Brown/Toffoli on that line with King once. I’d be OK with Smid playing against those guys, definitely not Petry.

            There is a difference between Chicago’s 1st and 2nd line, but that second line will be lights out by the end of the season I think. You can see the skill and high end hockey sense already. I deliberately left out some other prime examples in the east obviously. At any rate, as a Flames fan I hope things get better for you guys, but if management and the fan base continues to think like you do about guys like Petry they won’t.

      • DoubleDIon

        Why? Why is it that he is being outclassed by #1 competition? Are we the fans supposed to sit idly by and justify that by saying he is a #3 d-man? Is this some kind of joke? Why then do we have to have this conversation? Why can we not match other teams top fwds with our top d-men? If he simply isnt good enough to be matched against these players then fix it. Dont continue to play him again and again expecting a different result. Do you know what the defenition of insanity is?? Repeating the same action again and again but expecting a different result. This is what its come to in Oil country? Insanity? If you can’t see the point that im trying to make then you my friend are the one who is wildly hopeless.

  • Zarny

    Fair enough, you did state that on a good team Petry would be a 3rd defenceman, I don’t even believe that to be true. But while you’re busy defending your article and attempting to point out the flaws in what im saying, you also said “he stands out as the one guys who does everything well”. Well…hmm, I suppose he does turn the puck over pretty well, and he does get burned pretty well, and he does make stupid plays pretty well, so I guess you are correct. You simply cannot make as many mistakes as Petry makes and be told, ” you’re playing well”. It is a sad state of affairs on the Oilers blueline when Petry needs to log 23 minutes of ice time a game. In a game where small mistakes can cost you big points, Petry makes way too many and anyone who knows defence will tell you the same thing. He’s not nearly as good as you have just given him credit for.

  • **

    The first goal from the red wings the other night is the reason why I don’t go head over hills about Petry. For all he does right he seems to make stupid mistakes like that one and most of the time they end up in his net. Or like an own stick deflection in one of the first games that beat Dubnyk from the blue line.
    If Petry is compared to the rest of the Oilers D men, yes is is the best probably, but how is this team going to improve at all if it goes by that type of comparison. Compare him to the rest of the league, and at best he is a top 4 guy. He will probably end up playing on a third pairing for most of his career.

  • DSF

    The Oilers are on the ice for practice at the Florida Panthers practice facility in Coral Springs, FL.

    Line combinations based on jersey colour:

    Smyth-Gagner-Yakupov (white)

    Eberle-RNH-Hemsky (light blue)

    Jones-Gordon-Arcobello (dark blue)

    Gazdic-Acton-Eager (black)

    Joensuu, Hall (yellow)

    Wearing orange are defencemen Petry, Ference, Larsen, Smid and Nick Schultz plus winger Ryan Hamilton taking a turn on D.

    Goaltenders: Dubnyk, LaBarbera

    Justin Schultz and Anton Belov are not skating. David Perron is not on the trip.

    • Spydyr

      I don’t agree with trading the first. It could be another first overall pick. I do agree with a trade like you suggested needing to be made. The make up of the team is wrong. It is obviously not working.

  • Death Metal Nightmare

    Petry has some real Male Bimbo/Surfer factor to his game. “yo, i’m so sexy, check out my relaxed good looks – WHOOPS – i just drove my Woody into the ocean.”

    he’d be a 2 with a hall of famer next to him.
    he’d be a 3/4 otherwise on a competitive team. point being: his game needs to be MASKED like numerous players on this team. this isnt a “team”. it’s a bunch of complimentary guys waiting for “improvements” to augment their low IQ games.

    just way too many weird brain farts. his giveaway pass to no one on the second goal vs. Detroit the other day was another one. trying to be way too fancy through the neutral zone with a soft pass the forward wasnt ready for (and could have been absolutely murdered on at the blue line if it hit his tape). “get the puck deep” F-that. it’s sexy time. whoops, 2-0.

  • @GriddCity:

    You are really sold on Petry? Lol, anyone who thinks he is a viable number 1 defenceman on any team is either hockey illiterate or just simply not watching.

    If only I’d addressed that somewhere in the piece… wait, what’s this? “Is the all-situations workhorse probably best suited to the two/three slot on a better team? Sure.” Huh. It’s almost like that ‘if you think Jeff Petry is a number one defenceman’ argument is a total strawman.

    As for the rest of your comment, do you know what happens when a number three defenceman gets asked to be a number one defenceman? Well, he does his best but he’s not going to look very good.

    Petry’s most common opponents the last three years? Joe Thornton. Joe Pavelski. Henrik Sedin. Corey Perry. Mikko Koivu. Louie Eriksson. Daniel Sedin.

    It’s a lot harder looking good against Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin than it is Daniel Winnik and Jiri Hudler.

  • 27Ginge

    Trades? Seriously? Who the hell wants to be traded to Deadmonton?
    Just imagine for a second that you’re a defenseman from Philly, Buffalo or even Florida…. Then your coach rings you only to tell you to report to Edmonton. How would you feel?

    • 27Ginge

      I would still feel pretty good probably. I don’t think I would be crying my self to sleep every night just because the signature on my paycheck is D. Katz instead of E. Snider.

      • **

        Almost too cute…:)

        In any case I believe – and strongly do – that the problem is not the players. I am also very confident that readers will concur.
        The problem since post 2006 playoffs directly points to one man: Kevin Lowe.
        For the past seven seasons Kevin “I know a thing or two about winning” Lowe has done repeatedly, absolutely nothing beneficial for this organization. Nothing. Except perhaps to devide the fan base with his “we have two types of fan” horsesh$t.

    • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

      Fortunately for the Oilers, the only players who have a say in the matter are the players who have that right written into their contract.

      If I were one of those players, I’d feel like it’s time to start looking for a place to live in Edmonton, because that’s my job.

      • I see you are not a NHL player…
        ‘Cause if you were, especially in the southern USA your wife/girlfriend would not be very happy to move to the frozen tundra and you would join a perpetual loser that is the Oilers organization. As well your personal stats would highly likely go down and you would enter a dressing room every single day where a negative atmosphere would prevail.

        • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

          With all the free healthcare up here I guess they could get their feelings checked out on the cheap.

          What you’re getting at really has nothing to do with anything. If you don’t have a NMC/NTC in your contract, your opinion of the destination city does not factor into the discussion.

          Additionally, being a professional hockey player involves periodically relocating. That is part of their job.

          I’m going to Churchill, MB (an actual frozen tundra) on Friday for work and leaving my girlfriend down south. That is my job, though, so I suck it up and enjoy the polar bears.

          • DSF

            “What you’re getting at really has nothing to do with anything”.

            This applies to your rebuttal. I’d agree to disagree with your reasoning. I bet that 99% of NHL players with NMC have Edmonton in it. For the reminder their agents would resist any trade of their client to Edmonton.
            You’d think with all our talented young players that would attract more interest, right? I bet Justin Schultz bitterly regrets not staying in Anaheim by now.

  • DSF

    Unfortunately, Ehrhoff has a NMC and I would think it unlikely he would waive it to join the 6 Ring Circus ® in Edmonton.

    More likely he is moved to a contender at the deadline.

  • 27Ginge

    I never understood the Smid signing at the end of last season. I thought it was an overpay, as people seemed to forgot how badly he struggled for the 1st half of last season. Everyone was extremely loyal to him in the fanbase, saying we need this tough defender, who hits, blocks shots, etc while choosing to ignore all his shortcomings. Offence dies on his stick on the offensive zone, and he is terrible at making outlet passes.

    The only positive is his contract isn’t so much where he is untradeable, but it’s going to be tough.

    I just question how much of an improvement Smid is over Fedun or Marincin currently?

  • Hemmercules

    Coming soon to a theater near you……….

    “REBUILD, PART DEUX: CRAIG McTAVISHED!”

    Watch in shock and awe as the one known as “The Silver Fox” pulls bold move after bold move. Stare in amazement as he pulls a rag tag bunch of Tambellini losers out of the ashes and into distant future playoff glory. Laugh along as Lowe and company try to ruin everything. The promise is compete. The guarantee is heart. The result is the worst season in franchise history. Starring a bunch of guys who will be playing for real NHL teams next season. Don’t miss this reoccurring epic!

    Just read the reviews!!

    “K Lowe was my favorite character, he single handedly ruined that franchise in a few short years”…….Calgary Flames fan.

    “Those guys are so soft, I wish we played them every night”…..Lars Eller.

    “Thank god I got outta there when I did”….Every player who played on the Oilers in the last 20 years.

    And don’t miss the special sneak preview for:

    “INFINIBUILD:6 MORE YEARS??” – Summer 2014

  • You are really sold on Petry? Lol, anyone who thinks he is a viable number 1 defenceman on any team is either hockey illiterate or just simply not watching. While Petry does have an upside it in no way makes up for his blunders in other areas. For every good thing Petry does, he does 3 things poorly. He is consistently out of position, passing into shooting lanes, missing assignments and playing an overall weak game. Simply because he has made a few body checks this season does not take away from the fact that he gently caresses the other teams forwards in front of the net, clearing no one out of the blue paint and screening his goalie, causing goals against in the process. He turns the puck over at an alarming rate, nearly as much as N Schultz with his patented pass up the ice directly back to the other teams defence. Petry is not to blame for the oilers record but he certainly deserves no credit for playing well either. This is professional hockey and just because you show glimpses of brilliance (Yakupov) does not mean your overall game doesn’t stink big time.

    The Oilers blue line is a mess and they need at least 2 legit top defenceman to change that. How they attain these players has yet to be determined but the one thing we can say is that the Oilers D are among the easiest to play against in the entire league and your pal Petry fits that mold perfectly. He is easy to play against period.

    • S cottV

      One shift may not be a general indicator but the killer in the Red Wing game was an awful shift by Petry. A top 2 d man or any d man cannot take an “all in” chance on a bouncing puck with an opposition forward behind him. Then – Eakins leaves him out (a bad decision in hindsight) and Petry throws a tentative lame duck ugly pass up the middle creating an immediate and dangerous counter attack. Back checking forwards add to the gaffe by looking at the puck and not picking up the Red Wing trailer. A bad start was the last thing this depleted and demoralized group needed, particularly from a solid top 2 d man….

    • acg5151

      I don’t think you read the article at all and just looked at the numbers beside the names. He said that presently Petry is the Oilers best defenceman and that it’s a problem that he is. He said that on a good team Petry is a number 3 dman, which he is. Also we get to watch/listen to 82 Oiler games a year so we see and hear about every mistake the Oilers make. We only see highlights on other teams so we don’t get the entire picture but dmen on other clubs make mistakes when playing 22-24 minutes a game. For the most part they are able to recover from their mistakes and can make good plays or their defensive partners are capable of bailing them out, which Smid does not seem able to do.

      I know that Petry made an ill advised pinch on Detroit’s first goal and the fact is he is being relied on too heavily by this team. If he was in the same position as Dan Hamhuis or any other no.3 dman than he’d be much better off. Presently Petry/Smid is still the Oilers best pairing and that’s why they’re 3-10-2.

  • 27Ginge

    Trade smid and one of the young d on okc (not klefbom)for erhoff. Next trade the 2014 no 1 pick to Philly for wayne Simmonds and Coburn-If they demand more we got lots of other assets that wont be missed.