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.
The Depth Chart
“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.
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.
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:
Fayne 57.6 Corsi but 47.2 when not on with Andy Greene
— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) July 1, 2014
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.
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.
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.