An NHL Defence

Craig MacTavish6

It’s possible to question the defencemen Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish added to the team’s blue line this week. It’s possible to argue that contracts were handed out that were too rich or for too many years. It’s extremely fair to note the lack of high-end players on the blue line.

But what is inarguable is that Edmonton’s defence has been dramatically improved from where it was a year ago. As far as I’m concerned, MacTavish deserves a lot of credit for taking the worst defensive group in the NHL and turning them into something vaguely resembling a major-league blueline group.

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The Depth Chart


Right Defence
Nikita Nikitin Jeff Petry
Andrew Ference Justin Schultz
Martin Marincin Mark Fayne
Keith Aulie

“It was an area that we talked about all year long, trying to improve our defence,” MacTavish told assembled reporters in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon. “When you look at the makeup of our defence now, it looks like an NHL defence, which it didn’t always last year.”

The Oilers now have five established NHL defenders and Martin Marincin (who for my money is better than some in that group of five) in the top-six. Keith Aulie, who has played 136 games and just turned 25 last month, is in the No. 7 slot. And that leaves Oscar Klefbom in the AHL.

There aren’t any really high-end five-on-five defenders in the mix, but Jeff Petry, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin are all capable of playing tough minutes. Marincin fared well in a brief stint last year, too. Add in Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz and this is a decent by-committee group.

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Nikitin’s contract isn’t good. The term is short, but the money ($4.5 million) is awfully dear for a guy who probably should slot in at No. 4 on the depth chart of a playoff team.

“We paid a decent price for him,” MacTavish admitted. “But ultimately we get the player.”

Edmonton wasn’t alone in overpaying for a player in the Nikitin range on a short-term deal. Detroit gave Kyle Quincey two years at $4.25 million per season. 37-year-old Willie Mitchell, who had some postseason struggles in a second pair role for Los Angeles, got the same money and term in Florida.

In each case, the team signing the deal was desperate for defencemen and had few options, and opted to hold its nose and pay the necessary price on the condition that the deal not go on forever.


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Fayne comes in at a smaller cap hit ($3.625 million) but at a four-year term. That’s not a huge concern if he turns out to be what he looks like – a 6’3”, 210 pound rearguard who can both defend and make smart plays with the puck.

“He’s a 28-year-old defenceman with great character,” MacTavish said on Tuesday, “We felt like he really fit into what we’re trying to build here with his character and the way that he plays. He’s just a really solid player, a solid person, so we were happy with the term with Mark.”

The concern is that he was being carried by Andy Greene in New Jersey:

I’d be a little worried about signing any Devils player – New Jersey plays a system different than any other team in the NHL and seem to have an ability to make anybody look like a decent puck possession player – but I’m not too worried about the Greene effect.

Looking at the five-year trend, Fayne and Greene have an excellent 54.8 percent Corsi over 1,800 minutes together. But in 2,000 minutes away from Greene, Fayne managed a 53.1 percent Corsi. That’s a pretty long track record of playing well with guys not named Andy Greene.

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From MacTavish’s presser:

Later on in the day we were able to add Keith Aulie, who we feel has an opportunity to be one of the players on a one-year deal that really enhances his value through this period. We were looking at Benoit, we were looking at Anton Stralman, all these players that had come in the year before and really added all this market value to their ability. Benoit in particular was in New York on a million and a half deal or slightly less than that, and he commands this price as did Anton Stralman and I think Keith Aulie has that ability. Duane Sutter on our staff was a real advocate of bringing him in, and we think that he’s got an opportunity because of his age and his skill set to have a significant impact on our team.

That’s an awfully optimistic take on Aulie, and I’m not sure it’s one I buy, but his numbers aren’t terrible and he scratches the size itch that the Oilers have.

At least as importantly: not only is this a cheap, one-year deal for a depth player, but the Oilers opted to sign a depth player who has both NHL experience and youth on his side. Too often, teams grab 34-year-old third pairing guys and are surprised when it turns out they are no longer good enough to be third pairing guys. Here the Oilers got someone who they know is good enough to fill the No. 7 role and who is young enough to be a pleasant surprise for the team. That he has history with Dallas Eakins doesn’t hurt either.

That’s a pretty reasonable player to slot in that position on the depth chart.

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  • Cheesenaka

    Don’t want to be a Debbie downer but let’s all just relax. We have all been here before and the results have been poor. Eager, Belanger, souray ect. I am curious to see how this group gels and performs. Can scrivens and fasth be for real? Can yak score 30+ goals?

    All the young kids are a year older as well so theoretically they should be better as well. Theoretically.

    • MacT's Neglected Helmet

      I agree that we should tread lightly and keep our optimism on hold.

      That said, MacT’s bets are not quite as risky as Tambellini’s were. Well, except for that whole Eakins thing last year. And Dubnyk/Labarberra. Oh, and Belov/Grebeshkov. Ok, never mind… I’m feeling pretty Debbie-downed now 🙁

    • v4ance

      I think the are better, but are in no way close to making the playoffs. I don’t think people are thinking we are a playoff club yet, do they?

      San Jose, Anaheim, LA, Chicago, St. Louis, Minnisota, Colorado are locks. I think we can compete for 9th or 10th.

        • Mason Storm

          Colorado does not need Statsny. They are deep down the middle with McKinnon, Duschene and Reilly. They got similar production with Iginla for less doe, which allows them to improve their overall depth. Mckinnon alone will make them better.

          Minny just got a sniper. There a lock down defensive team that just added a 30 goal scorer.

          I don’t know what Colorado’s corsi fenwick stats were like or what their shooting percentages were like TO, but TO was expected to correct last year because the season before their unsustainable shooting percentages allowed them to win when they were grossly outplayed. Maybe the same happens to Colorado.

          • Mo Playoffs Mo Problems

            I believe MacKinnon and O’Reilly played a lot on the wing this past year. Either player can make for a very strong 2C behind Matt Duchene.

            One thing I wonder about is how Iginla’s footspeed will hold out over a 3 year deal. I haven’t watched him or Colorado enough to know, but it seems that he played more of a bump & grind game with BOS and if MacKinnon centers him then they may play more of a high-flying speed game.

            Anyhow, long story short: it looks like Edmonton got a bit better, but almost everyone of significance in the West looks like they got a lot better.

  • nuge2drai

    I like the signings, first of all because we now have 7 actual NHL D-men who should be able to play an effective defense-by-committee approach, and secondly it lets Klefbom play in the AHL all year where he belongs.

    My only other wish is that MacT can fill that 2nd line center spot with either Legwand or Jokinen on a 2-year deal, letting Draisaitl play in junior where he belongs as well, and letting Arcobello play 3rd line.

  • smith

    The defense looks mildly better but not due to the signings, but more by the growth of youth. Aulie, Fayne, Nikitin are maybe mildly better than Belov, Shultz and Smid.

    • nuge2drai

      Oiler Domination To Follow

      I think it has more to do with all the aqcuistions since MacT took over last year…

      Perron, Scrivens, Fasth, Ference, Gordan, Hendricks

      You would recognize these players as the only players who give a shtt each night other than Hall…

      And now…

      Draisaitl, Purcell, Fayne, Nikitin

      Soon the Silver Fox will add a #2C with the cap space we have and we will have the most complete lineup since MacT left nearly a decade ago…

      • nuge2drai

        Oiler Domination a Delusion

        By your very words you’ve hit the nail on the head re: Oilers problems. The “core” don’t really Give a S*** (exception Hall) and yet you’re unwilling to accept they’re a major part of the problem. Nothing will significantly change till that is addressed. Good luck shuffling the second tier players, unless one or two of them have the gumption to slap some sense into the Fab5, and then survive MacT for not toeing the company line of superstar ‘potential’ just waiting for the right support players.

  • Cheesenaka

    I am quite pleased with what MacT has been able to do in his year of work. While he had a few swing and misses to start (Grebs etc) Perron, Scrivens, Fasth, Nikitin, Pouliot, Fayne all look to be upgrades. Crappy team in a cold climate, he had to overpay in dollars, but he kept most of the term manageable.

    Question – 5 teams in 5 years for Pouliot. The guy has had great possession stats. Are there any underlying issues that caused him to bounce?

    If not, I absolutely love this signing.

    • v4ance

      Researching Pouliot’s history, he was a high draft pick of Minny and established himself as a big body presence on the 4th line.

      He’s occupied that role in Montreal, Boston, TB, and NYR based on TOI/G. During the most recent playoffs, he was boosted to a 3rd line role as well as being a net front presence on the PP and still thrived.

      The common denominator for the past 5 teams is that he’s a regular season beast with 4th line minutes winning the corsi battle and getting into the top 9 scoring of each of his teams.

      Summary: He’s mostly gotten 4th line minutes but produced at the rate of a 2nd or 3rd liner outscoring his role. Think of him as a slow developing Brodziak or Glencross

  • Cheesenaka

    Better that Aulie sit in the pressbox than Klefbom, who can be the next call up from AHL.

    And, you never know, could be that a guy like Petry might come in play for a 2 nd. line center.

  • Jordan1126

    great work mac t…..imagine if tambellini drafted hall and nuge and actually added some size, depth and nhl experience as well.

    if mac t had this team 3 years ago we would be on the verge of being a contender…

    i love the improvement….we will be tougher to play against!!

  • Just stirring the poton a slow news day.

    Guess Hemsky hated our organization based on this quote after signing with Dallas
    “Yeah, we talked a lot the last month,” said Hemsky. “They showed the most interest. They have a great team with Jamie Benn and Seguin and now adding Jason Spezza, it’s a great fit for me. Finally I can enjoy hockey again and that’s a great city too. I’m really excited.”

    • Wax Man Riley

      One can read I hated playing in Edmonton and for the Oilers.


      I am glad to come to winning team and look forward to winning again.

      Knowing the quality of person Ales is, and that he adored by Edmontonians, I go with the second thought. Also English is not his first language and albeit he is fluent, sometimes there are better ways to say stuff.

      • Wax Man Riley

        Players don’t tell the media what they really think. Occasionally though you get little slips, which, when reading between the lines, gives you an indication of what a player really thinks.

        I don’t see Hemsky looking back on Edmonton with fond memories — save for the 2006 run — once he gets established on a real team like the Stars.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    This was the Oilers opening day roster last year:

    Smyth – Hall – Hemsky

    Perron – Arcobello – Eberle

    Joensuu – Gordon – Yakupov

    Gazdic – Acton – Brown

    Ference – J. Schultz

    Smid – Petry

    N. Schultz – Belov



    Last year Yak was stuck with Gordan and Joensuu on his line. I’m much more optimistic about this years lineup.

    • nuge2drai

      You’re optimistic about every years’ lineup. You don’t excercise any judgement; you just faithfully boost your team. Your opinions, therefore, mean little.

  • v4ance

    I’m satisfied with the signings on D. As stated, it doesn’t have a #1 but will do it by committee (IF it works properly).

    I’m really happy that the Oilers made reasonable bets on guys below 30. History has repeatedly shown that guys over 30 are well into the years where they have a slow to sharp drop off in playing ability.

    Signing guys around 27 years old is a high probability bet to get most of the prime years of ability and experience of a player.

    The last remaining hole to fill is at #2C with Grabovski or maybe Vrbata. 33 yr old Legwand showed too many signs of decline in his stint with DET. If we sign him or Olli Jokinen, it has to be only a ONE year bandage deal.

  • nuge2drai

    We appear to be markedly better defensively now than last couple of seasons . How might they mesh and line up ? Nurse and Klefbom are knocking at the door as well . Hope Nurse is ready for the jump , as he’ll probably be the most exciting to watch for us Oiler fans . How much we improved on defence should determine whether we move up in the standings . Nikitin , Marincin, Fayne , Petry and Schultz give us more stability but to get to next level I believe we need Nurse or Klefbom to make a big contribution . Aulie , I like , but is still a project at this stage and doubtful difference maker like Nurse and Klefbom are trending . Could be an exciting defence if Nurse makes the squad and should help the possession and transition game .

  • O.C.

    Yep, paid a higher price.

    The question is what does it cost you if you don’t bring in the players?

    All the “Does Nurse go to OKC, does Klefbom fill in or earn a spot” questions are nice problems to have.

    Centre. That remains the focus. The only focus.

  • Wax Man Riley

    Oilers last year was buoyed early by Grebs and Larsen , as well as Belov . So this year will be better . We also were buoyed /strapped with underperforming goalies in LaBarbara and Dubnyk . All our defence should play better this year and that should be expected . Our youth should show a much better season as well .

  • Serious Gord

    The optimism is running high. Once again the bottom six are moved around. A second line center, and top pairing defence men are still missing. The Oilers are now better, only if ALL the pieces work out, which they never do.

    Purcell, a healthy scratch in Tampa.

    Pouliot, five teams in five years.

    Fayne, Devils wouldn’t resign him, but I think he is good.

    Nikitin, is a #five to #six NHL caliber Dman

    They all have good size, which I like. Are these four guys really better, then Smid, Belov, Schultz, Hemsky, Smith, or Gagner?

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    Solid work by MacT. Both in terms of the players he signed (particularly Fayne & Poo) and the players he didn’t sign (hello Deryk Engelland!). Still has a lot of work to do (centers are pretty important..), but a great start.

    You have to appreciate that he took care of some business late during the season (Scrivens, Fasth, Hendricks) and even before free agency (Gagner, Nikitin) to reduce the amount that he’d have to do post-free-agency…

  • Cheesenaka

    My take:

    The Oilers need cushion years for their young defensemen to mature. These signings allow them to do that. Also, this is a better d-core than they had last year. Hopefully, they can shield the goalies better than they did last year.

    We are not able to attract the high end players, but we did a decent job of filling alot of our needs. MacT is smart, he just needs time.

  • nuge2drai

    What type of injury history do these new players have? The team looked ok last July as well then we were down two centres when the season started. So it’s worth asking how big of a drop-off between 6 to 8,9, since it should be expected that at some point 7, 8, & 9 might see some ice time.

  • Zarny

    Good summary by JW.

    I really like the Fayne signing. Nikitin was certainly overpaid but the term is good and he’s a legit 3-5 D. I like Pouliot the player but the contract is an overpay in terms of dollars and term. Not ideal but that’s how it goes when you are Edm in free agency.

    I think you have to be realistic though. Adding Fayne, Nikitin and Pouliot to a 28th place team isn’t exactly a makeover. Last season was marred by starting 4-15-2 but with better G and a legit NHL blueline an additional 10-15 pts should be low hanging fruit.

    That would still only put the Oilers in 26th place last season and while the blueline has certainly improved the 2 biggest needs (top pairing Dman and 2C) remain unaddressed.

    The depth at C (Nuge, Arcobello, Gordon, Lander and Draisaitl) remains woefully inadequate. MacT needs to address this before the season starts.

    The positive is that the Oilers are a better team now. With continued improvement from young players like Hall, Nuge, Yak, Schultz etc and some bounce back years I think it’s realistic the Oilers could move up to “battle” for 17-20th place but I don’t see them making the playoffs unless we see some major breakout years by Nuge, Yak and Schultz.

      • Wax Man Riley

        As was mentioned Fayne was on the top pairing in New Jersey with good possession number. Nikitin has been in a top role elsewhere but not recently. Fayne has excellent abilities in keeping pucks in at the blueline, and Nikitin is puck mover. Both are bigger bodies, and the defence has five or six caliber NHL defenders this year rather then 3 or 4. Its a defence by commitee approach. If nothing else you got good trade assets.

        Schultz was a bottom pair defender when he got here, and Smid was when he left.

      • Zarny

        Surely you did not type such a ridiculous statement with a straight face.

        Fayne and Nikitin are undoubtedly better than Smid and N. Schultz. Go check their corsi, Vollman sledgehammers or just watch them play hockey. It’s obvious.

        I would say it’s probable the Oilers still lack a true top pairing D. Fayne and Nikitin certainly aren’t Shea Weber and Erik Karlsson.

        The simple reason why the defense is better this year is that they are all legit NHL Dman.

        No, we’re not talking Team Canada here but Fayne, Nikitin, Petry, Ference, Schultz and Marincin can all average 18-20 min a night and any one of them playing above their heads is better than Belov, Grebeshkov, Larsen, Fedun, Smid or N. Schultz.

    • nuge2drai

      Overall not bad summary, and likely “correct” that Oilers have improved the team. Unfortunately, most of the western conference teams also should be improved, some of a similar, slight, amount, others by a large margin. These would be IMO Anaheim(Kesler, prospects), Dallas(FAs trades), St Louis(Stasny), Chicago, Calgary(FA,prospects) and Nashville. Relatively speaking Oilers will be in tough to repeat at 28th spot overall, especially with Florida, NYI and Buffalo looking to jump substantially too. Think realistically Oilers more likely battling it out with TML, Carolina and perhaps Florida/Buffalo/Calgary/Vancouver for 30th…

  • Zarny

    It seems there’s a lot of people out there who don’t understand the difference between being an RFA and a UFA, especially when it pertains to salary negotiations.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Outside of Steve Ott and Dustin Penner, is there any other interesting options out there?

    Now would be a good time to offer Petry and a second (or a version thereof) to Philly for Coburn and Couturier. Would save the Flyers 3 mill in cap space.

    • agreed, very little options…..pretty thin UFA list remaining that the Oilers would IMO consider. i don’t think Ott would be a great fit, but i’m just an armchair critic…..

      C: legwand, fiddler, grabo (but not at 5 x 5)
      LW: pyatt, winnik, penner
      RW: vrbata (but prob too much $$), stempniak, kulemin

      D: is there anyone left of value? not really

      G: F-it, why not sign Marty!!

  • Quicksilver ballet

    So I hear the hype and bashing of the UFA moves and trades and believe we are a better team from it all, but wonder if we got better and only to see the teams above us getting even more better.

    Did we move up the line closer to the bar, I think yes, but I think the bar moved higher than we did.

    Hard to be a fan

  • Spydyr

    I think you are being optimistic about Nikitin. There is a very real possibility he is the third pairing / healthy scratch guy he was in Columbus last season. In that case we have almost eight million tied up in Ference and Nikitin to play third pairing minutes and force Schultz up the line up. That’s bad.

    Plan for the worst and hope for the best, not the other way around.

  • Serious Gord

    At least 5 teams have cap problems and will have to shed a good player(s) to give them some breathing room for the 2014/15 season.

    There are at least 7 more good players that will be available for a cap shedding deal.

    We should be active.

  • billythebullet

    So if Leon sticks with the Oil his cap hit is 3.75m including bonuses please correct me if I’m wrong,we need to sign Petry,Shultz,and get a top 2 line center.Defence on this club is more important than a winger so my guess is we will have to trade a wing for a center or to clear money to sign one,we just picked up Purcell and Pouliot so in my opinion it’s even more likely to be a winger on the way out just not sure which one it will be any suggestions?

    • billythebullet

      Here is my best shot.

      Jultz will be 2.5m x 2/3 year bridge deal.

      Petry could vary depending on whether they buy UFA years. If they do shorter term then it could be as low as 2-3m x 2 years or long term at 3-4m for 4 or 5 years.

      If a 2nd line center is brought in either Petry is moved as per what makes sense, or Draisaitl is in jr which seems contrary to what MacT said. Or Draisaitl could get the 900 k tight cap Lamorello no bonus deal?

      If by paying 4 mil x 5 years for Poo, and over 4 m for Purcell means they are trading a reasonable top four defender to pay 3rd liners, then it is stupid. I think either another shoe drops, or Draisaitl and Arco are thrown to the wolves, and no bandaid 2nd line center is in the cards.

      Or they could send send a couple to OKC and only half their salary goes against the cap, which may save a couple million in cap, or someone like say Hendricks is dumped for picks.

      This is why I don’t get the Gadzic signing. You think he would get Petry and Jultz done.

      • bazmagoo

        I can’t see any agent worth a you know what thinking a top 3 pick signing etc with out max out bonuses included is a good play for his client,yes some are speculating that because of Fayne being a right shot that Petry is expendable but have we not seen years of how a subpar defence and bad goaltending kill a team.I know Petry is not my ideal dman but he is an actual Nhl caliber player so it may be him out the door but I personally hope if the choice is him or a winger jet the, defence and goal are my building blocks.I like Eberle and Perron but who else can be traded for a top 2 line center because we will be starring at the potential of Mcdavid if our c depth is Nuge,an 18yr old Leon,Arco/Lander and Gordon

          • bazmagoo

            We are all just voicing our opinions so no worries but this is a topic for debate!Im not claiming to be a know it all I’m far from it but,this may be the best D this team has iced in years insert sarcastic comments here!The oil do have some bargaining power with Petry and Schultz being rfas but even if they except bridge deals with these moves if we sign a center and keep Leon
            For soft 3rd line role all of the sudden we will be darn close to a cap team and we have know business being one if we aren’t a playoff team!

  • MacTastic

    The best part of this is that we don’t have to rush Klefbom or Nurse to the NHL. I’m not a huge Aulie fan but I’ll take him over Fraser any day of the week.

  • nuge2drai

    Add Ference as well that I forgot to add last blog . Like Pouliot and his game -solid addition there , and Purcell helps as well . Both welcome upgrades from last season . More to come I suspect , and probably a noted center addition .

  • CMG30

    Really like what MacT has done so far. Targeted realistic players who then signed with the Oil. No more Heatly or Nylander embarrassments.

    MacT signed proper players to support the core and improved the back end to the point you might be able to call it an NHL defense.

    My only concern is that none of these new players are true top paring guys thus they are going to be thrown in over their heads and end up getting ‘Petry-ed’ by the fans.

    It really looks like the only way we’re going to acquire a true top paring defenseman is by giving up one of the core via trade or waiting till one develops.