Accelerating the defensive rebuild

The Oilers’ rebuild has hit on a basic problem. The top end of the forward group is made up of NHL difference-makers, players ready or very nearly ready to contribute to a contending team. The top end of the defence corps is still very much a work in progress.

Head coach Dallas Eakins talked over the weekend about how he doesn’t like the Oilers being referred to as a young team, and his point is well-taken – as much as the elite talent taken near the top of the draft matters, at the end of the day it generally doesn’t win Stanley Cups by itself (as, say, the Atlanta Thrashers could attest). Further, as coach, Eakins needs to reach everybody, not just the handful of elite players he has.

However, great teams need great players at the top of the lineup, and while it’s possible to lose with them it’s very difficult to win without them. In that sense, the Oilers’ rebuild remains dependent on finding players to fill those top spots, and most of those players will be found via the draft.

The Young Forwards

  • Taylor Hall, 1st overall 2010: He was the best left wing in the Western Conference last season, and in my view the NHL (sorry, Chris Kunitz). He’s ready.
  • Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 1st overall 2011: Had a bit of a down year offensively and he’s coming off major surgery, but this is a guy who helped push puck-possession against the NHL’s best. He might not be ‘top centre on a Cup contender’ grade out the gate this year but we’re counting the days.
  • Jordan Eberle, 22nd overall 2008: Fantastic player who tends to get either more or less than his due, depending on which segment of the fan base one talks to. He was a key part of a legitimate top line last year, and there’s little reason to think he’s anything less than a first-line caliber right wing.
  • Nail Yakupov, 1st overall 2012: He’s still raw, but the talent level is off the charts. His year one shooting percentage was through the roof, and right now we don’t know if he’s a Stamkos-like shooting talent or just a very good shooter coming off a great year (like Eberle in 2011-12). For what it’s worth, I think he’s the best pure shooter I’ve ever seen in an Oilers jersey (keep in mind I missed the dynasty years). He’s still a ways from being the player he’ll likely top out at but he was a top-30 NHL goal-scorer last year; he can help.
  • Sam Gagner, 6th overall 2007: Outscored every Oiler not named Taylor Hall last year, and in his role (second line centre) he’s a nice fit.
  • David Perron, trade with St. Louis: We haven’t seen what he can do in Edmonton yet, but a year ago he was Ken Hitchcock’s fourth most-used forward on a contender-calibre Blues team. He’s an established second-line forward with a variety of abilities.

Some will point out that the top-six is lacking certain qualities (size and, uh, size) but it’s a lot easier to find a Bryan Bickell type to plug in on the wing of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane than it is to find Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. There may be some finessing to come here, but the Oilers have a top-six group that should be capable of wreaking havoc on opponents. It’s the single-biggest reason I think the team makes the post-season this year.

The Young Defence

  • Justin Schultz, free agent signing: Outrageous offensive talent wasn’t able to excel in a second-pair role for all of last season but had no choice but to try. He’ll round out his game with time; he can help right now and probably isn’t too far away from being a difference-maker.
  • Jeff Petry: 45th overall, 2006: Petry’s a surprisingly controversial player among Oilers fans; as far as I’m concerned there should be little-to-no doubt he can hold a second-pair role on a very good team today.
  • Ladislav Smid, trade with Anaheim: Limited in some ways, Smid is still a legitimate top-four NHL defensive defenceman.
  • Oscar Klefbom, 19th overall 2011: My view – one that seems to be in harmony with the coach – is that Klefbom needs to start this year in the AHL. I think he’ll see NHL time at some point, but he’s still likely some distance from being an effective top-four (or better still, top-pairing) NHL defenceman.
  • Darnell Nurse, 7th overall 2013: Fantastic player with obvious physical talents, but one who is just as obviously years away from NHL employment.
  • Martin Marincin, 46th overall 2010: He enters the year as a top-pairing caliber talent in the AHL; it will be interesting to see how coach Todd Nelson balances the ice-time given what he has on his blue line. He’s probably a year away from NHL employment, and at least another year away from being top-four ready.
  • Martin Gernat, 122nd overall, 2011: Just entering the professional ranks this season, he’s years away.
  • Dillon Simpson, 92nd overall 2011: Unsigned college defenceman has to be considered something of a flight risk, given Edmonton’s defensive depth chart.
  • Brandon Davidson, 162nd overall 2010: In terms of draft pedigree he’s well back of most of these guys, and if he makes it at all the smart money says he’s a third-pairing defenceman. But everything I’ve seen says this is a guy who is going to be a real threat to pass by some of the more highly touted prospects in the system.
  • David Musil, 31st overall 2011: Just entering the professional ranks this season, he’s years away (and might never arrive).

There isn’t a single top-pairing defenceman in the organization today; the hope is that some of these players –mostly guys who have never played a professional game in North America – get there eventually. I think a contending team would do pretty well with Petry-Smid-Schultz in the 3-4-5 roles on their blue line today, but this is about filling the top spots and clearly this group is going to need some time to get there.

The idea of a top-four of Nurse and Schultz and Klefbom and Petry is appealing in theory, but even a wildly optimistic scenario has that two years away from happening.

Rapid Fashion

Craig MacTavish started saying smart things from his first day in the general manager’s chair, and his comments early in his introductory press conference energized the fanbase immediately:

I’m an impatient guy, and I bring that impatience to this situation. I think that we’re at the stage in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things. We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion.

MacTavish was unable to completely overhaul the defence, but his additions make the Oilers a better team today and may speed up the process of putting together a playoff-caliber defence.

  • Andrew Ference: A top-four defenceman on a Stanley Cup-contending team. He’s nearing the point in his career where there will be a drop-off in ability, but in June he was logging 21:34-and-up for the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. He helps this team get better now and should be seen as a player who can cover while the prospects find their legs.
  • Denis Grebeshkov: Reclamation project was brilliant in the number four role in his final season coached by Craig MacTavish. Maybe he doesn’t work out, and maybe he only works out on the third pairing, but he isn’t yet 30 and might emerge as a guy who can play the four/five role for the next five years or so.
  • Anton Belov: A total wild card. He’s a huge defenceman with puck-moving ability and an elite player in the world’s second-best league. The possibilities range from “never plays an NHL game” to “establishes himself as an integral part of the top-four” and everything in between.
  • Philip Larsen: Maybe he was a throw-in on the Horcoff deal to help balance the money, but two years ago Larsen was a strong young prospect on a top-four trajectory. He’s 23 years old and has 95 NHL games under his belt; it might be that the Oilers have added a real player who learned his toughest lessons (and made his worst mistakes) in another NHL city.

The top end of the forward corps is ready for playoff hockey. The defence, not so much. What MacTavish showed this summer is that he isn’t content to wait for Klefbom and Nurse to arrive. It’s hard to add top-end players at any position but especially on defence; with these signings the Oilers have done the next best thing and added plausible middle-pair types in large numbers.

Recently around the Nation Network

At Flames Nation, Kent Wilson takes a long, thoughtful look at Brian Burke’s track record and what it might mean for the Flames. It’s an interesting look at a guy who is likely to have a major impact on one of the Oilers’ division rivals and well worth the read. Wilson wraps it up this way:

Brian Burke has spent a lot of time in the league, much of it as a high level executive who could pull off incrediblely beneficial trades for his organizations. That’s the good news. On the other hand, he was unable to meaningfully improve the Leafs in his last front office job, he apparently has little use for new methods of analysis and it’s unclear how well he will fit in to an increasingly crowded Flames font office. Flames fans have to hope Burke’s strengths will win out over his weaknesses and the various personalities heading the Calgary organization will be able to work harmoniously together.

Click the link above to read more or check out some of my recent stuff below:

  • Where is the physicality in that group? Can Darnell Nurse be that shut down guy in a few years? I sure as heck hope so. But hope is a few years away. Who is the solution for todays team? Belov? Smid? Petry?

      • 916oiler

        Everyone that occured during last season.(Other than Mike Brown.) Prior to that he made safe trades and signings. With the exception of khabby and Hemsky’s contracts.

        Tambo was at the helm of a deliberate tank job. The Oilers were not suppose to win since Feb of 2010.

        • That’s one of the funny things of tambi’s reign of suck that I always like to bring up. He did a marvelous job of tanking the team, getting high draft picks and most importantly doing so badly in the free agent market that almost everything screwed up except the growth of the players he drafted.

          Intentional or not we got 3 first overall picks and a 7th and a cupboard full of potential defencemen and most of them look like they are going to be awesome players for a very very long time. Time will tell but it seems very good to me.

        • pkam

          If I remember correctly, Tambo only made 3 moves last year. A 3rd rounder for Fistric at the beginning of the season because Peckham was out of shape coming to the training camp. The 2nd move was a 4th rounder for Brown to add some toughness to the team. The last one was a 3rd rounder for Smithson to add some depth at center and to help the F/O.

          I consider those band-aid moves. He may give up a little too much but none of them I consider stupid. The Paajarvi + 2nd rounder for Perron may turn out to be the worst trade if Perron fails to deliver what we expect.

          • pkam

            How do you know you already won the deal before the players even play a game.

            Some Blues fans in another web site loves that deal. They just hate Perron like some Oilers fan hate Hemsky. From their comments, he took a lot of stupid and selfish penalties. Not really that physical and don’t think he will be as effective without Backes.

            Paajarvi just turned the corner and started to become productive. He may be a bust or he may as good as Perron, or even better in a couple of years.

            I am not ruling out on Perron. What I said is wait until he plays at least a few dozens of games before calling that trade a win or a loss.

      • 916oiler

        Not referring to a specific move. It’s more of a label – like how after scoring a touchdown one might “Kaepernick”. A “Tambellini” type move would tend to move you closer to the bottom of the league standings.

        • pkam

          So given the choice to stay near the bottom and draft high, or stay near the playoff and draft near the middle, which one is the stupid move.

          Are you telling me that the Oilers were good enough not only to make the playoff but to compete for the cup in the past 2-3 years with a few moves?

          I don’t know what magic some of you expect Tambellini to do. Even after stockpiling for 3 years, we still have holes in our roster and we still very thin in forward prospects.

        • pkam

          You can call me tambo as I like most of what he did in the past 3 years, except a couple of moves this past season. Think he overpays for Fistric and Simthson.

          I’ll rather tank for a few years and build a cup contender than to try to make the playoff like Kevin Lowe did prior to 2010 and the Flames did in the last 4-5 years.

          The moves I really don’t like is the signing of Khabibulin (think it is 2 years too long) and his attempt to land Heatley.

      • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

        Good sir, I must respectfully disagree. This is the year to stop drinking the koolaid as it looks like we finally have a team that can compete. The years gone by, the koolaid was the only thing that kept me sane. Cheers!

  • Chico Santana

    Hey JW. Can Dillon Simpson become a free agent or was that loophole closed in the new CBA? Sounds like a terrific prospect. Really hope another team does not Schultz him from the Oilers.

  • pkam

    We all know that defense and goalie take longer to develop, usually 5-6 years after the draft year.

    And without a farm team before 2010 when we started the rebuild, is it a surprise we don’t have any defense ready only 3 years into the rebuild?

  • Can we all admit that without Krueger’s Krappy D-System that every returning D player will be better than last year and Dubnyk won’t face nearly as many shots?

    I think because of that aspect alone, we will see a drastic improvement 5v5.

  • 916oiler

    I count seven guys who can currently, within a certain spectrum of optimism, play second pairing minutes. I count four additional guys projected to be able to do so within two years, and two guys projected to play top-pairing minutes in 2-3 years.

    Folks need to be traded. Preferably Eberle and Musil and someone else (or something like that) for a top pairing defenceman.

  • Sometimes I forget how young you are………..like the article and it does cover a lot of what we can expect.

    One small correction…….the greatest, and I mean the greatest of all time shooter was Jarri Kurri.

    There will never be another pure shooter like him, probably ever again. Yes Gretzky was his passer, but even when he was traded to LA and not playing with Gretzky, Kurri excelled! All this playing with wood hockey sticks.

    Watch some of his tapes, the guy was truly amazing.

    • pkam

      And i guess you were too young to have seen Bossy. Or perhaps you don’t watch stamkos highlights, or Brett hull’s or half a dozen others. Kurri was over-rated.

      • Do what Weight did?

        I haven’t seen Stamkos but I did see Bossey and Kurri. You are wrong about Kurri, he was a great goal scorer. Mike Bossey certainly fit in that category as well though. Brett Hull, also great.

  • Yakupov better than Craig Simpson?!??!? OH boy this is gonna be good. Didn’t Yakupov break Stamkos’ Sarnia Sting record? MAN this is gonna be good! Didn’t Yakupov break Eberle’s hand with a wrist shot!?!?!? There is a small bit of pee escaping from my body as we speak!

  • John Chambers

    Back to the Willis post …

    Yes, this tem needs to turn a few of its 8’s and 9’s as LT would put it, into some Jacks and Queens on D.

    It’s nice that we’ll have no fewer than 10 NHL defensemen in 2 years time, but I’d prefer 6 really good ones.

    • pkam

      The problem is who is going to trade their Jacks and Queens for our 8’s and 9’s. They will want the Jacks and Queen in our top 6 forwards, like Hall, RNH, Yakupov, Eberle.

      Just ask yourself, will you trade away our Jacks and Queens in our forwards for others 8’s and 9’s? If we won’t, why would the others?

  • Batfink

    1. Gagner is absolutely NOT a “nice fit” 2c for this team. He would be one on a lot of other teams, but what this team needs In a 2c gagner doesn’t have

    2. The kind of mature backend talent takes years to draft and then develop – at least three or four unless your name is Orr, Park or perhaps lidstrom or karlsson.
    And the oil don’t have that much time – four years tops – before the current roster begins to disintegrate from cap pressure inertia. Thus finding them through the draft should not be considered an option. The better way to go is to trade prospects and picks for turn-key talent.

  • pkam

    1. Gagner is absolutely NOT a “nice fit” 2c for this team. He would be one on a lot of other teams, but what this team needs In a 2c gagner doesn’t have

    2. The kind of mature backend talent takes years to draft and then develop – at least three or four unless your name is Orr, Park or perhaps lidstrom or karlsson.
    And the oil don’t have that much time – four years tops – before the current roster begins to disintegrate from cap pressure inertia. Thus finding them through the draft should not be considered an option. The better way to go is to trade prospects and picks for turn-key talent.

  • judgedrude

    From Kent Wilson’s snippet on Burke: “it’s unclear how well he will fit in to an increasingly crowded Flames font office.”

    Personally, I find it very refreshing that the Flames have an entire office dedicated to fonts. This way, everyone can comment on how nice the captains’ letters are on their jerseys while their team is constantly losing.

    Maybe if Tambo would have created a font office the last few years wouldn’t have been so hard. (I’m sure Wanye skills could have been used, and he would have worked just to get signed Eberle photos.)

  • DSF

    I watched the young guns tourney in Penticton and it was painfull at times for sure.I have heard Nurse has Pronger qualaties at times but never seen him play till the young guns tourney.It is very evident that the 18 year old and I stress the 18 year old has talent,poisse and a mean streak similar to Pronger.What really pissed me off was the know it alls complaining he never met there excpectations.The friggin kid is 18 years old and every team in the league is going to want him in 4 or 5 years.

    • H4LL

      I totally agree with this.

      After watch Nurse play in person at the U of A tonight, I thought he was the best player on the ice in an Oilers jersey. He’s mean, aggressive, he handles the puck well for a d-man, I thought he was a good passer… he kind of reminded me of a player who wore #44 in 2005-06. He was playing against the Golden Bears, not NHL players. But I think in a few years time he could to be our no.1 d man in Edmonton.

  • Do what Weight did?

    Grebeshkov and brilliant don’t belong in the same sentence, unless it’s referring to the move that convinced Nashville he was worth a 2nd round pick

  • Do what Weight did?

    I watched the rookies play the Bears last night. Davidson couldn’t accept a pass on the point to save his life. So many times the cycle died going over his stick and out.

    We have zero forward talent. Again and again the Bears easily stopped rushes into their zone, and very rarely could the rookies even set it up. There were two or three chances that should have been buried, including a break away, but nothing was done.

    The two players, of course, that really stood out were Klefbomb and Nurse.

    Klefbomb, although not the biggest guy on the rookie defence, was just so crafty. I watched him knock a puck out of mid air that was headed out of the zone, then tee up a blast for I think a tip in that scored.

    Nurse, on the other hand, was simply on a different level. He was the only player on the entire ice that looked like he should have been drafted to the NHL. Every time he was on the ice, it was like the Golden Bears vs Nurse. I know he’s not ready yet, but I am just ecstatic to see what this kid can bring in two years.

  • Toe-Dragger

    For this reason, and the reason that he’s a proven stud, Yakupov + Schultz for Pietrangelo + Sobotka would make sense. Have to turn one of the forwards into a D.

  • Toe-Dragger

    Just to follow up on your talent assessment of Yakupov, I was here for the dynasty years and I’ve seen some great goal scorers. Jari Kurri was my favourite player growing up. Great goal scorer. Very smart player, always found gaps in the D and Wayne always put it right on Jari’s tape. You expected them to score just like you expected the Oilers to win the Cup every year.

    Yak has the goalscorer’s instinct. He always seems to be in right place at the right time in goal scoring areas, just like Jari did. In addition, Yak’s stick seems superior to what I recall of Jari’s. I’ve never seen a player so consistently get everything on a puck that’s flying in the air and score goals. I’m pretty excited to see what the ceiling will be for this kid.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I fail to see how sending Darnell Nurse back to the OHL will help his game.

    One year from today he’ll still need to learn to play with pro players. Don’t see how sending him back to play with a bunch of kids will help him at all. It’s unfortunate 1st rounders don’t have an AHL option. Seems like a waste of a year for a team with this many holes on the roster.