Realistic Expectations

Nikita_Nikitin_2013-11-01

The Edmonton Oilers, as is well-known at this point, have signed Nikita Nikitin to a two-year deal with an average annual value of $4.5 million.

The interesting thing about the signing isn’t the deal itself, which was bad but defensible. It’s what it says about the Oilers. A team with Edmonton’s defence that prioritizes Nikitin cannot realistically expect to contend for a playoff berth in 2014-15.

One Shoe to Drop

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Stauffer said yesterday that he expected a two-year deal at a price point that was going to hurt for Nikitin, and I’m quite confident that he’s right about the Oilers’ further defensive ambitions. Who will that right-shooting defenceman be?

Here’s what MacTavish told Jim Matheson on Sunday:

We need somebody who’ll go north-south with the puck from the back end. We need defence that can move the puck better. That’s a priority, but there’s not much of that in the UFA market. Historically, a big percentage of those signings in the UFA season are poor anyway. You’re often better sticking with your own guys, guys you know. You have to do your homework with free agency. Hopefully, we make some good decisions. We are going to target some people. We’d like a third-pairing defenceman who can block shots and kill penalties. A Mark Fraser-type guy.

I don’t really see Nikitin as either of the guys described above, but MacTavish followed that question by telling Matheson that Justin Schultz “has enough game” and that “he’s not too needy out there.” Given Nikitin’s contract and MacTavish’s comment about “guys you know” (Howson has a history there), my read is that Nikitin is the big add on defence and that the Oilers are looking for a right-shooting shutdown type to round out the group. MacTavish mentions Fraser (a left-handed shot) but the name batted around for most of last season by Matheson was Deryk Engelland, who fits the bill as Mark Fraser but with a right-handed shot.

Hypothetically…

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Next year’s defensive plan probably looks something like this:

  • Nikita Nikitin – Justin Schultz
  • Martin Marincin – Jeff Petry
  • Andrew Ference – [Engelland-type]

Maybe they flip Ference and Marincin, because I have no idea who is supposed to move the puck on that third pair, but the idea of saddling Jeff Petry with the combination of Ference and tough minutes is almost as bad.

It would be nice to think that the seventh defenceman is going to be someone like Taylor Fedun or an external hire, but Mark Fraser seems the likeliest candidate for the job. Early in the year, of course, Darnell Nurse could get a cameo.

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If I’m on track with my guess above, I’d further suspect that the plan is for Oscar Klefbom to make the jump at some point during the year, either on the right side or with Ference switching to the right side, and with the Engelland-type shuffling into the No. 7 role.

It’s not nearly good enough. I like Nikitin more than some others and think he’s a legitimate No .4 defender, but that projected top-four is nowhere near good enough. Depending on usage, all four members of that group could be playing above their level of actual ability.

Which Means…?

Darnell Nurse

If all the above is wrong, and Nikitin is pegged as the shutdown guy with the Oilers eyeing a puck-mover via trade or free agency (Dustin Byfuglien or Anton Stralman, for example) the team’s blue line just might be good enough to contend for a playoff berth. A lot would still need to go right, but it would at least be possible.

More likely, Nikitin is the big add, and MacTavish is looking at the big picture long-term. It’s going to be very difficult to rebuild the Oilers’ defence via trade (the team is short of quality assets) or free agency (hello, $4.5 million cap hit for Nikita Nikitin).

That means the hope for the blue line is internal. Young NHL’ers like Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz, as well as the blue chip prospects (Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Martin Marincin) and maybe one of the next tier (Dillon Simpson, David Musil, Martin Gernat, Brandon Davidson).

If Nikitin is the big get, that must be the team’s plan. It’s a reasonable plan, and it might even be the best plan available, but it also means that we’re going to be talking about that wicked 2015 Draft by February.

That’s getting old.

Update

Howson, Scott

From Scott Howson, on the Oilers’ desire to add another NHL defenceman: 

“I think we’re open to anything. We want a good player and Nikita is a good player. We’re targeting three or four other good players. Some are more defensive oriented, some are sort of all around guys so there is no specific criteria they have to meet, we just want a good NHL player.”

This is going to be interesting to watch. A quality top-four addition could make next season extremely interesting, while the lack of the same would have the opposite effect. Based on Howson’s comments, the Oilers have some defensive ambitions yet.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • ubermiguel

    Man, I like Smid as a person just like everyone else BUT…the guy was a disaster his last few years here. Opposing players could walk around him like he wasn’t there and he was absolutely horrendous at handling the puck. He was a giveaway machine. Guys like Nikitin and Fayne might not be all-stars, but they’re far more effective than Smid.

    • Spoils

      Quadruple props button. Smid has been terrible the last few years. And all I see in these comments regarding Nikitin and Fayne is “so we are basically signing Smid for $4.5M. Why did they let him go then?”. Its laughable.

  • Spoils

    also – imagine if Hall and Nuge and Yak are a step or two better this year than last year…

    add Byfuglien and Nikitin have Klefbom play over his head. Marincin improve… Scrivens step up.

    hmmm

    I wish this summer would end already.

  • Jaxon

    Jonathan,

    Is there a remote possibility of Edmonton signing Chad Johnson for the right price (say 1.75m for 3 years) and then trading Fasth’s final year and retaining some (maybe 25%) of his contract to Boston for Boychuk? Boston has signed Svedberg as their future backup but I’m not sure they want to depend on him and with Fasth in his final year it might be a good fit as a safety while Svedberg gets his feet wet. If the Oilers eat some salary this year. Crazy talk?

    • I think the Oilers are set in net.

      I also think that with Rask in the starting position and cap problems galore, Boston’s probably pretty happy taking a cheap risk on Svedberg. Keep in mind too that leaves the Providence starting job wide open for Malcolm Subban.

      • camdog

        I was hoping for some depth in net. The Oilers seem to manage their goaltending like CFL teams used to manage their quarterback scenario. Starting QB goes down and the season is over.

  • camdog

    Phaneuf SHOULD be a #1. When he first came into the NHL I thought he was going to win multiple Norris trophies. It hasn’t worked out that way.

    On a good team he is better off on the second pair until he can fix the critical mental lapses in his game that come with heavy minutes/comp.

    • Zarny

      No, Phaneuf IS a top pairing D. He would be the best D on 20 teams in the league and that includes some very good ones.

      There are by definition 60 top pairing D in the league but yes their quality varies. It isn’t a requirement to be a Norris candidate to be a “true” top pairing D. That seems to be the misconception many have.

      The problem with Phaneuf is very similar to Gagner – expectations. You and many others expected Phaneuf to win multiple Norris trophies. The fact he hasn’t doesn’t mean he’s better off on the second pair.

      Lists are obviously subjective but Phaneuf almost universally gets ranked as the 12-16th best D in the league. He’s certainly top 20 which is a bona fide top pairing D.

      • Joy S. Lee

        How far down that list does Phaneuf fall when you include his perceived attitude problems and huge ticket? I would think those factors would affect a team like the Oilers’ desire to add him, too, and what they’d be willing to give up for him. Would you rather have a guy just a little less flamboyant, but close to same qualities, maybe not quite as talented, smaller ticket, and great attitude? I’m also sure the Leafs want to deal him for full value (not accounting for those factors), but that “more than meets the eye” is what makes these types of deals more difficult to assess and pull off.

        Ultimately, I’d like to see this organization go out and find an Anton Stralman, a Martin Jones, a Rene Bourque, Brandon Prust, Dale Weise, or a Mike Weaver type of find… the kind that come at a minimal cost (sometimes nothing more than offering an opportunity) to a guy who’s ready to take the next step. You’ll notice about 4 Habs in there, and that tells me they are identifying guys who can make contributions and don’t cost the farm. This hockey team needs some of that. Maybe Nikitin is some of that, and the salary doesn’t really matter because it’s a stop-gap measure, so I have no problem with the deal whatsoever, think it’s probably a good one for the team, too.

      • Joy S. Lee

        I did not say anything about needing to be a Norris candidate to be a first pairing D. That is a construct of your flawed comprehension or poor communication on my part.

        And yes, it is all subjective. I think you may be judging him based on his toolbox rather than performance. You have no way of knowing if he would be the best D on 20 teams in the league.

        His play certainly hasn’t suggested that.

  • Joy S. Lee

    BTW- although these lists mean very little to me, I searched for a couple of current ‘Top NHL Dman’ lists.

    The first one that came up on google was from NHL.com. Dion Phaneuf was ranked #44

    Next I checked the (updated April 15) TSN NHL Player rankings which claims to rate the impact a player has on the game. Phaneuf did not make the TSN list of the top 50 defencemen.