Developing Defencemen

Edmonton’s farm team in Oklahoma City is loaded to the gills with defence prospects. Oilers fans got to see one of those – Martin Marincin – last night and over the course of the season have seen Taylor Fedun, Philip Larsen and come very close to seeing Brandon Davidson and Oscar Klefbom.

What’s happening with that group down in OKC?

Potential and Experience

There has been some grumbling about middling results from the group, but the fact is that aside from occasional minor-league stints played by Corey Potter and Denis Grebeshkov it’s been a very raw set of players on the Oklahoma blue line.

That isn’t to say they aren’t talented, but experience counts for a lot on defence.

“We have a lot of potential, we have some very skilled and hard-working guys back there. But it is, no matter how you look at it, it’s a big jump to move from junior up to play at this level,” Taylor Fedun said earlier this week. “At times we have to remind ourselves that they’re young back there, but that’s the way it is in this league – we hold everyone to a high expectation. Moving forward, we’re going to try and stop using that as something to lean back on.”

Why doesn’t Fedun include himself in that young group? Because 95 games into his professional career he’s the team’s blue line greybeard.

A Veteran Hand

That lack of experience can be a difficult thing for a coaching staff, both from the perspective of winning games and developing players. After Tuesday’s game against Texas, Todd Nelson spoke about Corey Potter’s demotion to the farm (he has since been recalled) and made it clear that he was looking forward to working him back into the Barons’ lineup.

“You can’t put a price on a veteran defenceman in this league,” Nelson said. “Right now we have guys that are trying to learn from other guys that are learning. Last year for instance we had Garrett Stafford, Randy Jones and Brett Clark for a while, and at that time when they came our young defencemen shot up and they played well. Now, the second-year guys are trying to help out the first-year guys but they’re just not as experienced, they’re still learning. You can’t put a price on a good veteran defenceman to help out the young guys; it’s invaluable.”

Nelson point to players like Brennan Evans (with Detroit’s farm team) and Maxime Fortunus (with Dallas’ farm team) as examples of farm teams employing an experienced guy in a mentorship role in the minors before turning back to the general difficulty with developing defenders.

“Defence is probably the hardest position to develop,” he said. “It takes longer, you have to read the play a lot more than a forward does and let’s face it: If you don’t do your job right it ends up in the back of the net. It’s going to take time, we’re going through that right now, and hopefully Corey [Potter] gives us a boost.”


That’s where we are now.

Up front, the Barons don’t have the same level of prospects as they do on defence, but they have some minor-league veterans in place to help carry the load. Linus Omark helps offensively, but guys like Derek Nesbitt and Matt Ford and even C.J. Stretch offer help in other areas.

The cast is much more limited on the blue line. The Barons went into the season leaning on a group of five young players: Philip Larsen paired with Brandon Davidson, Taylor Fedun paired with Martin Marincin and rookie Oscar Klefbom in the five slot. Larsen and Fedun have worked out as first-pairing defenders, but Larsen’s been promoted and seems likely to stay in Edmonton for some time to come. Klefbom has been rawer than hoped and needs time playing big minutes (he’s in the top-four at even-strength and on the top penalty-killing unit most nights), Marincin’s been good but not spectacularly so with Fedun and Davidson has struggled badly.

Behind that group, Brad Hunt is a useful player but not an all-purpose defenceman while David Musil and Martin Gernat are raw rookies, with Musil looking okay in a third-pair role and Gernat alternating between exceptional and excruciating.

In that light, the demotion of Denis Grebeshkov yesterday is a positive, providing Nelson with a veteran who (at least at the AHL level) is a defender capable of handling all situations and adding a little bit of support on a pairing with a younger player. But the real problem is that there is only so much room for developing ‘D’ on any blue line, and the Barons are at the saturation point (it’s the same reason why some of these prospects will find their way to other organizations, since Edmonton can only take so many) and don’t have the kind of Steady Eddy presence to stabilize the group.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

    • pkam

      If at all. There are no guarantees, which is something that some of us tried to explain to the hysterical fanboys who last year already had Klefbom penciled in for the 2014 NHL All Star game.

      I like the kid and advocated for drafting him with the second pick in the first round. The thing is, he played one season of small soft development minutes in the SEL before breaking his leg and missing nearly all of last season. He needs time.

      Everyone talks a good game about following “the Detroit model” and developing guys properly, that is until the next over-hyped messiah prospect comes along, then everyone gets all horny and wants him in the line up RIGHT NOW.

      Look at how much lip service the Oilers have given about all the resources put into the development system and yet they completely bungled Lander and MPS.

  • YFC Prez

    Gonna throw relevance out the window for a comment.

    Anyone remember the Oilers kid who looked like he was trying to swallow Horcoffs soul in a Wanye article from a while ago?

    Well there he is sitting at the goal line in that first picture.

    #Future Die hard fan…Props to ya kid

  • Czar

    I think the demotion of Grebs was a positive for the Oilers. Not sure I want the kids watching the give away machine on a nightly basis but at least he’s not doing it in the NHL.

    • pkam

      I don’t know where you get the idea that Grebeshkov is a give away machine. I know he was 4 years ago. But so far this year I didn’t see one turn over from him. I check NHL and he has 1 in 7 games, the least give away among Oilers defenseman except Marincin who plays only one game.

      Petry has 28 in 29 games, and Belov has 21 in 27 games, Ference has 20 in 30 games, Smid has 20 in 27 games (Edm and Cal combined), N. Schultz has 18 in 28 games, J. Schultz has 15 in 22 games, Larsen has 3 in 9 games, Potter has 2 in 7 games, and Fedun has 1 in 4 games. But for whatever reason Grebeshkov’s 1 in 7 games is the give away machine?

      • Czar

        Maybe I’m going by reputation but 1 so far?? Who’s keeping track his agent? By eye the guy is crap, give aways, turn overs, crap reads,poor coverage and positioning, take your pick they all apply.

        So you don’t think he deserves to be in OKC? I’d rather he go back to the KHL but that might not happen until seasons end so in the mean time keep him as far away from the Oilers as possible.

        • pkam

          What I see is Greb has lost a step or 2 to be an effective NHL defense. I don’t know if he can get it back. I see him beat by the opponents, I see him lose puck battles, but one thing I don’t see is he turns over the puck like he did 4 years ago.

          In the game vs the Coyotes, everyone said he turned over the puck. I watched the highlight and what I saw was he got the puck and was checked by 2 Stars with no support from his teammates. Instead of turn over the puck, he tried very hard to keep the puck but finally failed and the puck was taken away.

          I didn’t say I don’t think he deserves to be in OKC, did I? I just said that he didn’t deserve to be call turn over machine. The current Greb is anything but a turn over machine.

      • Hair bag

        Did you watch the Dallas game……it’s not about how many, it’s about when and the end result. Grebes has an uncanny ability to cough it up at the worst times of a game and it ends up in our net.

        • pkam

          I did watch the highlight several times. It was an Oilers PP, he was the 1st man back to get the lose puck. He turned to the right board and was checked by a Stars, he turned around and there was not one Oilers to help him. He got no support and no teammate to pass the puck, he was then checked by another Stars and he lost the puck battle. The puck was taken away from him, he didn’t turn the puck over. Imagine you have to battle two opponents all by yourself with no support. This is what I saw.

          • Hair bag

            Part of being an effective dman is awareness – did the two Stars players force him to cough it up, yes – but did he have time to realize that he was the last man back and that he was being pressured hard, yes – he should have realized that he needed to vget rid of the puck quickly – dump it to open space, fire it over the boards, hell pass it back to the goalie, don’t just let them take it away and go in on a breakaway! He had time to move it….

          • pkam

            If Greb is not an effective dman because he doesn’t have the awareness, how do you describe the other 4 Oilers on ice? The 2nd Star was coming from behind and you expect him to know that but not the other 4 Oilers on ice? I didn’t watch the game live so I didn’t know if any of the other 4 Oilers even yell to warn him. All I know if the other 4 Oilers should know better than Greb, he was checked by one Stars and that he was going to be checked by another again from behind, and none of them is doing anything to help him.

            Pass the puck back to the goalie from neutral zone, are you kidding me? Where do you learn to ever pass the puck to your goalie?

            We were on a PP and he should dump the puck away first instead of trying to keep the puck and find a teammate to pass?

        • BLAKPOO

          When it comes to giveaways and/or bonehead plays, Petry could have his own gag reel. No other team would have him at 1/2. I’ve honestly lost count how many times I’ve cursed at him through my TV.

          I also count at least one sweet tape-to-tape pass from Taylor Hall to a different colored jersey every game.

          Not fair to say it’s all Grebeshkov.. everyone has to be a little sharper on the puck.

  • Batfink

    JW, I always enjoy your well considered articles, but we walloped a good team last night. This is not a usual enough occurrence that we can ignore it. Maybe if we were Chicago or SJ. This is the article ON decided to run? Come on, where’s one of your fantastic game breakdowns? This article is all filler and no killer, baby.

  • Batfink

    So much success in hockey comes down to goaltending. A young defence can make learning mistakes with good goaltending, because it’s not demoralizing when every time a mistake happens the puck doesn’t end up in the back of your net.
    Last nights Oiler game is a prime example. 8-2 game, but if Dubnyk lets in one of those early shots, who’s to say it doesn’t end up 7-0 Colorado.
    Good goaltending on a bad team is like good sex in a bad marriage: It won’t fix what’s really wrong, but maybe it can help get you through a rough patch till you get everything figured out. Just don’t rely on it to make things last.

  • HardBoiledOil 1.0

    the Oil should try what the Isles did a few drafts ago and just draft all defencemen. they might have better luck developing a few good ones that way? 🙂

    • Manfly, are you crazy? The Oil are very thin on forward prospects and have almost 2 teams full of defense prospects. They have run out of room to develop D and you think they should waste every pic on D?

      They should probably do the exact opposite. Draft only forwards with at least average size and grit and some potential in the skill dept, and throw a flyer at a goalie prospect.

      • pkam

        We may have lot of defense prospects in our farm, but not that many in the juniors. We drafted quite a few in 2010 and 11 and they all turn pro now.

        In the last 2 years, other than Nurse, we drafted mostly forwards in the first few rounds. And we drafted 5 forwards and 2 defenses in 2012, and we drafted 8 forwards and 2 defense in 2013, and 0 goalie in 2 years combined.

        And other than Nurse is a 1st rounder, all we have a 4th and 5th rounder from 2012 and a 7th rounder from 2013.

        The situation will change drastically in a couple of years.

          • pkam

            I agree with you for 1st round pick. But you can’t draft BPA all the way and ignore the need. Once you pass the 1st round, you have to balance between the player’s talent and the franchise need.

          • HardBoiledOil 1.0

            need is a dirty word for some when it comes to the draft. and i agree to a certain extent that if you pick very high, you should take the BPA. if you don’t want to, you have the option of trading down (which the Oil may do this coming draft, unless they trade it away altogether). however, from the 2nd round on, there just isn’t a consensus BPA. you can look at many different draft lists and see different names at different numbers, not to mention every team’s scouting department will likely have it’s own rankings after the 1st round as well. at some point in the draft, teams will just take chances to try to find gems and fill needs. i have no problem at all personally taking for need from the 2nd round on.

          • pkam

            If I am the GM, I’ll always pick the BPA in my 1st rounder, unless it is a late 1st rounder in a poor draft year, which I’ll consider a high 2nd rounder. Never will I trade away a top 10 pick for lower picks. 1st, not very often you will get a top 10 picks, and 2nd, you are almost guaranteed to lose in that kind of trade. Other than that, I agree with you.

          • Ducey

            Your average 4th round pick is going to play two more years of junior and likely 3 more in the AHL before he is ready.

            You don’t know what you need will be in 5 years, so you just draft the BPA.

          • pkam

            That is the exact reason why you can afford to draft for need in later rounds. These players are so far from the finish products that any assessment or estimation is a crap shot so BPA really means nothing in latter rounds.

          • I think there is some confusion here between “NHL need” and “prospect pool need”.

            I don’t believe any team should ever draft a player based on the needs of their current roster.

            That being said, there may be (I’m not certain of it however)some benefit to maintaining a well balanced prospect pool. Meaning if you have a lot of great center prospects you might consider looking elsewhere later in the draft to fill out your organizational depth chart for future years.

            This could vary based on a number of factors however. If you happen to believe prospect defensemen hold more value than their forward counterparts you may choose to draft more D because you think you can trade them for better value.

            If you have a scouting staff that is better at scouting F than D you will likely lean towards forward and trade for D (while shopping for new scouts to evaluate D).

            Of course all of that come with a “all else being equal” caveat.

            I don’t think there is an obvious answer other than, if at any time a team believes they are drafting an inferior player because of his position they should stop immediately.

          • pkam

            “I don’t believe any team should ever draft a player based on the needs of their current roster.”

            I believe the whole purpose of drafting is for future need instead of current need. Even top 5 picks are not supposed to be for current need, IMO.

          • pkam

            Nobody knows the future, but all businesses do budgeting, estimation and inventory control. When you are low in certain merchandise, you add more.

            One thing I know is all teams need forward, defense, and goalie. If you are low on certain type of players, you draft more the same way business stockpile their inventory.

            Just look at our prospects, now we are loaded with defense, but thin at forward and goalie.

            In 2 – 3 years, we will be loaded with forward, thin at defense, and nearly empty in goalie if we don’t do something soon.

          • HardBoiledOil 1.0

            yup, i am NOT a fan of trading down and never have been….i was quite upset when the Oilers pulled that BS this past draft! remember though that the picks you take at the moment are players you are picking to fill your needs today and not necessarily 5 years down the road. in the Oilers case, with Hall, Nuge, Ebs and Yak, the core of the team seems set for now and you try to build around it, so you would be picking players based on today’s needs i would think? and you and I will just have to disagree on the BPA thing, for i firmly believe there isn’t a consensus BPA from about mid 2nd round on when it really becomes just a crap shoot.

      • HardBoiledOil 1.0

        ^yes i am….too many years of Oilers hockey! but i half kidded….i’d still like to see them take another potential high end d-man, then work on the forward talent with some grit and edginess. and for God’s sake, they should take a damn goalie already!!

        • YFC Prez

          Last year I kept watching the best goalie available (Fucale )at the draft drop further and further until he was selected right before the Oilers second round pick. I then swore at the TV.

          Apparently Mac T agrees with you cause he held out on that trade for a bunch of picks until he was off the table.

          • pkam

            Can you explain to me why Fucale was the best goalie available? I never understood that. His numbers are poor by most measures. I get that he won the memorial cup, but the reality is that the team in front of him was incredibly stacked.

      • They should probably do the exact opposite. Draft only forwards with at least average size and grit and some potential in the skill dept, and throw a flyer at a goalie prospect.

        BZZZZZZZZZZT. Incorrect. The correct answer is ‘BPA’, followed by trades for need.

    • YFC Prez

      Let’s not! One cannot put all the eggs in one basket! Every draft is important in stocking up for future years. Stacking up one area in the entire draft will back fire, guarantee! God forbid, if something is to happen to other parts of the team, you will be stuck with no replacements at all, no can do !!!!

  • Hair bag

    @ The Farmer … “good sex in a bad marriage”. LOL.!
    I’ve never really looked at goaltending that way, kinda sheds a new light. I’ve always thought about high save percentages as a good thing. Damned blocker saves! Tried faking glove and went five hole.

  • Ducey

    I am not sure I understand the concern.

    Fedun has one year in the AHL including a long stretch in the playoffs last year, but he is 25.

    Larson is only 23 but has 116 games in the Swedish Elite league, 104 NHL games and 66 AHL games.

    Belov is 27 and has 5 years experience in the KHL.

    Grebs is a vet.

    They may not have not that much AHL time but they are hardly rookies.

    I’d prefer this combination to two 30+ yr old AHL vets who are never going to make it. At least these guys have more talent and potential and can be moved up and down from the NHL as necessary. This provides more depth and as we saw last night, greater accountability.

    Nelson may not like it as much, because he just wants to win, but for the organization its better.

  • S cottV

    While nice to have a stable of guys in development, it would appear that they are all d3 to d7 with regard to potential. Nurse may work out to be an eventual d1 or d2 but will take a few more years.

    It really is bewildering that the Oilers have not had legit first pairing d men in the line up for a long – long time. Has to be some sort of systemic anomaly in strategy, scouting, drafting and development.

    Seems like – those who have been in charge, dont put a premium on needing premiere d men or goaltenders for that matter. It’s like they have to restore past “run and gun” glory in this seemingly endless rebuild, as the only honorable way to win consistently.

    Relentless free flow – pressure hockey and rely on our stable of high end forwards to consistently win 6 to 5?

    I dont know but I think Oiler fans would just like to win and a bunch of 3 to 2 wins, would suit most just fine…

  • pkam

    I thought Marincin looked okay out there. He was nervous to start with, as expected, but settled down as the game went on. His size/wingspan was noticeable, and he seems to have a decent stick. It will be interesting to see how long they keep him up during this stint, but I would not mind seeing him again later in the year to track his progress.

    As fans, we need to be patient re: the defence. This is why I have been saying the Oilers are still 2 – 3 years out as a solid playoff team – they need to build a better blueline (and depth) and this will require time for the prospects to develop. You can always add a depth UFA here or there, but the blueline needs to be homegrown to a certain extent as well.

  • pkam

    Something has to give eventually. We have too many young dmen for not enough spots. Our D corps will never get better by constantly plugging in rookie Dmen so it’s important that we give them time at the AHL level to develop and acquire actual NHL level talent back there. That hasn’t always been our mantra but at least Mactavish brought in some guys in the off-season so that Klefbom and/or Nurse wouldn’t have been thrown to the wolves this season.