KIDS AREN’T GOING TO SOLVE EDMONTON’S DEFENSIVE PROBLEMS

Going back at least as far as the day the Edmonton Oilers drafted Sam Gagner, fans of the team have been taught to place their reliance in young up-and-comers. 

It is an easy mindset to fall into on defence, where the problems are many and top prospect Aaron Ekblad may join an already strong prospect group at this summer’s draft. As tempting as it sounds, general manager Craig MacTavish cannot afford to make the mistake of falling into the trap of thinking the solution is youth.

The primary problem has to do with timelines. 

Edmonton’s NHL team has been in rebuild for a long time. Whether one subscribes to the party-approved line that the rebuild started with the drafting of Taylor Hall in 2010 or instead places the date at Chris Pronger’s departure for Anaheim, futility has been the order of the day for far too long. The fans are unruly, and the only way to turn it around is with winning.

Another factor is what Lowetide likes to call the heart of the order – players like Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the like – who are now established as NHL players. Hall’s being paid to produce like a first-liner, as is right wing Jordan Eberle. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will join them next season. These players are tremendously talented and entering the prime years of their careers but if they aren’t supported – and soon – the Oilers run the risk of losing them. Edmonton has already lost the cheapest years for that trio, which poses its own problem (Chicago won the first Stanley Cup for the modern era Blackhawks while Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were still on their entry-level deals).

So with the clock running on its young stars and the fanbase’s mood already turned to ugly, the Oilers have to start making considerable progress right now. To do that, they need good defencemen. 

Time & Opportunity 

There may not be a steeper learning curve at any position in hockey than there is on defence and the examples of players really putting things together after two, three or even four seasons of NHL hockey abound. Additionally, an organization can only devote so much space to prospect defencemen if they want to win.

A good example is the Oklahoma City Barons. At the start of the year the team’s defence was pegged as a great strength and why not – with some strong second-year pros (Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun, Brad Hunt and Brandon Davidson), a guy the Oilers felt might be NHL-ready (Oscar Klefbom), an actual NHL’er (Philip Larsen) and some extremely talented rookies (Martin Gernat and David Musil) pushing for time the Barons should have been set; they could ice two top pairings, and force the kids to fight with older guys like Hunt and Davidson for ice time

It hasn’t worked out that way. Call-ups and injuries and regression (particularly on the part of Davidson) mean that for much of the year the Barons have relied on three rookies – one for each pairing. That’s not a problem for the Oilers – these guys need at-bats and the AHL is a developmental league – but it’s a big part of the reason who the Barons are four points out of a playoff spot.

The NHL is even more punishing. Oilers fans have seen first hand how a defenceman coming off college and an incredibly dominant AHL run struggled to adapt to second-pair and now first-pair minutes. They saw Ladislav Smid find his way in the majors after being pushed there well before he was ready.

Edmonton doesn’t have a top-pairing defenceman right now. Even if Schultz is penciled in for a top-pair role next season on the assumption that he can handle it, the Oilers need a top-pair guy to complement him. Andrew Ference isn’t that guy, and it’s crazy to think Darnell Nurse or Oscar Klefbom or Martin Marincin or Aaron Ekblad will be either. The first three (and the fourth, if drafted) may evolve into the role but the Oilers need is immediate. 

As it is, phasing in prospects like those listed above (to say nothing of Gernat or Musil or Dillon Simpson) is going to result in growing pains, which means the Oilers will need to lean on experienced guys who can play hard minutes to off-set the talented youth. Jeff Petry and Andrew Ference might be those guys on the lower pairs, but there has to be somebody topside who can cast a long shadow for the other pairs while they figure things out. The Oilers don’t have anybody like that, and may not for years.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • Gordie Wayne

    Then should a complete rebuild start at drafting the blueline? Would’nt that be considered a plan. Does anyone know what the plan is or was exactly in edmonton? And I mean details, milestones and contingents. Did they think 20 year old kids were going to put this team on their backs and succeed with out proven top minute defense or a goalie. I find it hard to believe no one in the organization seen this coming

  • Gordie Wayne

    When drafting this summer, if I’m the oilers. I would take Reinhart over Ekblad. The centre is far more valuable especially with Sam not getting it done. I agree with Willis another developing D is not going to make us better. Ekblad reminds me of chris Phillips not shea Weber.

  • Lofty

    Then should a complete rebuild start at drafting the blueline? Would’nt that be considered a plan. Does anyone know what the plan is or was exactly in edmonton? And I mean details, milestones and contingents. Did they think 20 year old kids were going to put this team on their backs and succeed with out proven top minute defense or a goalie. I find it hard to believe no one in the organization seen this coming

  • Mustangheart wrote:

    Penner was the most useless Oilers in the franchise history especially when you have a guy with his size and weight. Can’t skate, doesn’t hit, doesn’t stand in front of the goalie to screen. Absolutely useless.

    I completely agree. I especially hated the lack of heart he showed in leading the Oilers’ in scoring by 22 points in 2009-10 when Pat Quinn and Steve Tambellini ran the franchise into the dirt.

    It takes a real lack of character to show up when the team’s imploding like that. I think it’s the same lack of character that had Penner playing important minutes for two Stanley cup winners.

    • Rick Stroppel

      DUSTIN PENNER? IS THIS A JOKE?

      Dustin Penner is a 230 pound man who plays like a 165 pound man.

      I do not get a chance to attend many games in person these days. About six years ago I saw Edmonton play Vancouver, right toward the end of the season, when the team still had an outside chance to make the playoffs. Penner was invisible, hugging the boards, afraid to go anywhere where someone might run into him. I asked another fan, is he injured? They said no, he plays like that all the time.

      I have a theory about Penners’ signing. Call me crazy. I don’t think Lowe scouted him and I don’t think Lowe wanted him to play for the Oilers. The whole point of the exercise was to make Burke overpay for Penner. Lowe wanted to get revenge on Burke because Burke fleeced him in the Pronger deal.

      • Rick Stroppel

        Penner was a beast. Exactly the type of player that people undervalue. By eye, people think he’s lazy but look at his stats every year. He was playing too high in the lineup here in Edmonton but that’s on the Oilers, not him. His last full season in Edmonton he got 32 goals and 31 assists in the 09-10 season. His career average is 0.54 points per game so let’s assume that’s what he will get every year. He is making 2 million this year playing for Anaheim, you know that team that never wins. Last year the LA Kings paid him 3.25 mill, you know that team that doesn’t know how to identify talent. The Oilers would kill to have a big body like Penner on the wing on their second or third line. We are paying Matt Hendricks 1.85 mill for the next 3 years after this one. The Oilers wish they had Penner at 2 mill for that term.

    • Yesterdays news, but JW you forgot to mention that Lowe dropped $25 million at his feet, and he show up over weight and out of shape for his first Oiler camp. This guy would be on the ice for 20 sec. and be waving his stick for a change.

      After he arrived on the afternoon bus, yes, Penner
      would stand infront of the net and score a few bouncers off his butt, or shins , even his lip once.
      Some teams can afford to have slugs on their roster, not he Oilers or even the Kings.

      Winkler beer league is the place for him

  • Prediction:

    Trade talks about Gagner and Hemsky will swirl from now until the deadline. Nothing will happen. The pundits will say it is better to trade them in the off season. Once the off season comes around, Hemsky will be resigned to a 5 year deal. MacTavish will say he is a cornerstone piece moving forward. The Edmonton sports pundits will applaud him. MacTavish will spool out some more hope, making everyone believe this is the year. The Oilers finish last again. MacTavish then fires Eakins, and admits he may have made a mistake. Messier is hired. This goes on for 4 more years. Fans begin to riot and Lowe starts receiving death threats. Lowe and MacTavish are forced to flee Edmonton by helicopter. Katz, running behind, grabs onto the landing arm of the helicopter as it’s taking off and dangles from it in a dramatic fashion.

    New management comes in and the Oilers start winning. The Edmonton sports pundits will then say that they knew all along that Lowe was no good.

    The end.

  • toprightcorner

    i don’t want to trade anyone anymore. keep everyone. i want them to just keep developing and drafting. i want to let this line of thinking run its course. see if they’ll come around.

    this would be fun. and funny.

  • toprightcorner

    No way any team can be competitive with more than 3 defencemen with less than 2 years NHL experience. No competitive team adds more than 1 rookie dman per year.

    If Marincin, Fedun and Klefbaum are all ready to go next year, then they should hold one back for a callup, trade 1 in package for #1 dman and bring only 1 up to the NHL. I think Klefbaum is the only one that could be added to a package including Gagner that would bring a #1 dman.

    adding rookies would potentially look like this

    2014 – Marincin or Fedun(likely only one will be NHL regular)
    2015 – Nurse
    2016 – Gernat or Musil or Davidson (likely only 1 will be NHL regular)
    2017 – not yet with team

    This makes the assumption that this years 1st is traded which it should be done.

    MacT needs to add a #1 and another top 4. bring in older veteran that competes hard like Sarich, Hannah, Tallinder or Murray for 1 year as a 6/7

    So far going with youth hasn’t worked well up front so cant make the same mistake on the backend

  • TayLordBalls

    Man, I am SO tired of all this losing and negativity. We all seem to think we know better than anyone else. We have started slamming each other, and everyone in the Oilers’ organization including the players. This has to stop, it’s bullying and is not acceptable – if our kids were slammed or bullied like this we would be up in arms. Until we are paid the big $$$, until we are NHL caliber players, until we have spent years honing our hockey skills and until we REALLY know what we are talking about, why don’t we throw some positivity on all of this and support our team regardless, after all, that’s what being a true fan is all about. Trash me all you like – I’ve had enough of this b*****it.

  • TayLordBalls

    “KIDS AREN’T GOING TO SOLVE EDMONTON’S DEFENSIVE PROBLEMS”

    Yes they are!

    It may take a few more years, but it will get done and when this team has matured – its going to be spectacular!

  • Rusty Patenaude

    St. Louis Blues 2010-2011
    Alex Pieterangelo age 20/21 yr. old: 79 gp 11g 32 a 43 pts +18
    Kevin Shattenkirk age 21/22 yr. old: 72 gp. 9 g 34 a 43 pts. -4
    Roman Polák age 24 yr. old: 55 gp 3g 9a 12pts -4

    Hmmm…they did alright going with kids.

  • Bucknuck

    Good article JW. This has been obvious to me for a long time, and obvious to you apparently. The question I would like to have answered is whether it is obvious to MacT.

    I like MacT and think he is going to get the job done. HOWEVER, if he hasn’t acquired a top D by the time next season starts, the man should be fired. I don’t care how articulate he is.

  • Old Retired Guy (A.K.A. Die-Nasty)

    There are NO easy outs here. We’ve dug ourselves into a 30th place hole. There is a price to pay for that. If we have patience and develop from within the pain comes in the form of time…several more years as a non-contender. If we want build a contender now, before moving into the new barn, the pain comes in the form of trading assets for something slightly less than fair market value. It means giving up players that we’ve already bonded with, losing a couple of prospects, a couple of stars ( like Ebbs and Yak) and a couple of picks including top 5 in 2014.

    I think that perhaps there are three types of people in this conversation. Those who preach patience, those who preach gitter done now, and those like me who see the pain coming either way and just can’t decide which pill to swallow.

  • Zarny

    Great article. JW is 100% right. Not only for the short term but for the long term.

    In the short term, it will be an unmitigated disaster if rookies play significant minutes on D. This year will look like rainbows and puppy dogs by comparison.

    More importantly, it will hurt the long term development of prospects like Nurse and Klefbom etc.

    Young players struggle at times. Mostly with consistency. On nights when they struggle you need to be able to pull them out of the deep end so they can catch their breath.

    We’ve seen the opposite with Hall, Nuge, Eberle, Schultz etc. On nights where they struggle they get thrown back in the deep end to take on more water. The get overwhelmed, they get frustrated, they lose confidence and it snowballs.

    It’s not about win right now damn the cost. It’s about setting up young players and the franchise to succeed for the next 10-15 years.

  • Zarny

    If you look at Keith, Weber, Pietrangelo and Letang you see commonalities.

    All of them took 3-4 years to make the jump to the NHL. Many did play significant minutes in their first full year but all were supported by veteran D and they weren’t tasked with the most difficult defensive assignments.

    During Keith’s first full year Chi had Spacek and Aucoin. Pietrangelo averaged 22 min/game his first full year but still trailed Brewer and Johnson.

    Letang was drafted in 2005 but his first full year was 2008-2009 when Pit won the Cup. Letang was only 22. The rest of the D blueline were Gonchar (35), Boucher (36), Eaton (32), Gill (34), Scuderi (30), Orpik (28) and Goligoski (23).

    You don’t have to mortgage the future for stop-gaps. They might not be the sexiest names and they might not be the perfect fit.

    They need to be able to take pressure off of the young kids, cover for their mistakes when needed, mentor the young kids and then likely traded away or allowed to leave just like Spacek, Aucoin, Brewer, Johnson, Gonchar, Boucher, Eaton, Gill, Scuderi and Goligoski.

    • pkam

      I don’t know what the team has to pay for any of the players you listed.

      But somebody here suggested to trade Eberle in a package for players like Ehrhoff or Byfuglien to bridge the gap.

      I’ll rather overpay to sign UFA.

      What do you think? How about if we can’t UFA, it is worthy to trade Eberle and some prospect for Ehrhoff or Byfuglien?

      • Zarny

        It depends on the package. In general I’m aiming higher than Ehrhoff and Buf if I’m moving one of the kids. The only way I would consider including Eberle is if Ladd, Wheeler, Kane or Ott were involved.

        Luckily I think there are deals for Ehrhoff or Byfuglien that don’t require Eberle or Yak. Gagner apparently has fans in Buf. Gagner + Marincin + a pick might get it done.

        The only pending UFA I really like is Girardi. If I was MacT he would be top of my list right now. I expect he gets traded and signs. I don’t think he’ll cost a 1st round pick or Eberle/Yak. He’s more Seabrook than Keith but he’s a legit #2 D. He’s the left side top pair until Nurse or Klefbom take over.

  • Zarny

    Put me down for not mortgaging the future as well.

    I think bringing in mid-level stopgaps like Errhoff wont cost much, will fill a hole in the meantime, while we can develop our future dmen in Nurse, Klef, Ekblad.

    Sign one UFA 4D, trade mild assets for Errhoff or Widemans bad contracts, and that will help without mortgaging the future.