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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  • Serious Gord

    Twice I heard on sports net that it is assumed that Petry would be dealt to make room for the players acquired.

    If so I’m not sure that the d as it stands today is much better than it looked last year at this date – 99 days from when the first game of the season.

    And the draft picks mentioned really aren’t MacT’s doing.

    And are there any of these d in the top sixty in the league?

  • MacTastic

    Not near enough done by our underwhelming GM. Do the fans of Edmonton really believe that MacT has done anything to make this team a playoff contender? Absolutely disgusting moves by adding more grade B players. More of the same garbage on the way for next year. It does not matter how the fans or the media spin it. Bottom line MacT and his crack team staff have not made this team competitive. These move mirror Tambellini’s pathetic moves a couple years ago.

  • 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.

  • acesaaron

    I just wish that Mac T had signed Schultz and Petry at the end of the season. Should have just told Schultz “you’ll get the same bridge deal as PK Subban got with Montreal…now get out there and win a Norris”. Negotiating with Petry may have also been easier when the ceiling was Ference. He would have been happy with $4 million per season I think but now, maybe he wants a bit more (hence the trade rumours). Would also have given us a better idea of dollars heading into free agency but overall, I’m happy with what Mac T is doing. Of course, he could be waiting to see who is available from the overspent teams to see if a trade can be worked out but I think draft picks are the only thing that should be sent back. If Gagner and Crombeen go for a sixth and Gorges went for a second, a third and fourth-rounder should be good for almost anyone looking to dump a contract.

  • Fair and reasonable take by Willis. I’m not crazy about the D or the contracts but it is no doubt improved. I still don’t get the Pouliout signing. Is Mactavish getting ready to move out a winger, or is he planning to roll 3 scoring lines?

    • acesaaron

      I think he is rolling three scoring lines. He wants 9 reasonable forwards that can score a lot (Hall-RNH-Ebs) or a modest amount (Perron, Purcell, Yak, Pouliot, ?Arcobello) so that they can drive the play in the opposition end of the ice. These guys can learn to backcheck as a team and have improved defence and goaltending so that should all help their goals for / against. It makes sense that if you can have 3 scoring lines, why not use all of them and break the mold of 1st line = ++ scoring, 2nd line = scoring, 3rd line = checkers, 4th line = scrappers and guys to rest the 1st and 2nd lines. Use your top 9 forwards to score and drive play and have less of a need for playing in your own zone. Your 4th line (Gordon, Hendricks, ???) can be the only checking line you have and the rest of the time, you are looking to score goals. Works for me with all of the talented wingers we have.

  • bazmagoo

    Yes we have the makings of a underwhelming defence, but at least it’s an NHL defence. No playoffs until 1 of Klefbom, Nurse, or Marincin turn into a #1 d-man though. No pressure fellas, haha. Thankfully we’ve got 5 guys behind them with reasonable credentials as well. Davidson, Gernat, Musil, Oesterle, and Simpson.

  • what happens when Klefbom outplays ference and petry in TC? I don’t understand this hard on everyone has with sending him back to the AHL. He clearly elevates his play when playing higher quality hockey. If he starts in the A my guess is it wont be for long.

  • bazmagoo

    MacT has done extremely well so far at the draft and early in free agency.

    I am however convinced that there is at least one more move to come. He knows he needs a #2C. I expect him to make a deal with a team like the Bruins or the Pens to take on a player they can’t afford due to the Cap.

    I am concerned that it may involve either Marincin or Petry. I hope MacT gets a great return if he goes this route. (Boychuk, Letang)

  • bazmagoo

    Your criticism about the moves on defence, price and terms of contract is bitvere. He has been on the job as GM for just over a year and after this last couple of weeks I would think you would cut him just a little slack. Not only did he have to push the rebuild forward he had to undue the pathetic work of Tambellini before he could start to really put his plan into motion.

    Anyone could take what he did or didn’t do and take the antipodal position.

    They aren’t ready for a cup run but the D he signed as a bridge til the young guns are ready makes all kinds of sense. Combining the coaching/player moves are at leastlogical. I feel a whole lot better today based on the changes allowing the young players time to develop.

    • bazmagoo

      You seem certain that the prospects only need a few years in the minors And just like that they can come and be superstar NHL players and carry us to the promised land.

  • nuge2drai

    Oiler Domination To Follow

    Hall Hopkins Eberle

    Perron Grabovski Yakupov

    Pouliot Draisaitl Purcell

    Hendricks Gordan Pitlick

    Petry Marincin

    Nikitin Fayne

    Shultz Ference

    Scrivens Fasth

    If Grabovski wants 5 years, I would give it to him. He can move into the third scoring line when Draisaitl is ready. Grabovski is a good two way center and depth up the middle is never a bad thing.

    Our defense finally has size and each pairing has a solid puck mover. This years team will be much tougher to cycle against.

    The goaltending will be above average, which would be the first time thats happened since Rollie or Cujo played for the Oilers.

      • nuge2drai

        Oiler Domination To Follow

        I have a feeling that if the Oilers are doing well in November you’ll be no where to be found.

        Having bigger defenseman who can move the puck is something to be optimistic about.

        The team played well with above average goaltending when Scrivens arrived, that is something to be optimistic about as well.

        • Serious Gord

          There are many forms of optimism. Yours in this case is correctly termed “blue sky”. So many ifs in the line-up you present – not the least of which is it includes a player the oilers have yet to aquire.

          That said, it seems to be a lineup that is a little bit better than the one that existed a year ago, but not one that looks to be able to move out of the bottom third of the league even if it performs to modest expectations – still no 1/2 physicality down the middle (and really nothing to fear on the wings either) and no d-men in the top sixty in the league.

          And that’s just what is on paper.

          Many of these players are very unproven – little more than rookies at best – you have one on every line position and two in net. The oil is going to have to be remarkably injury-free (after years of being at or near the top for most-injured) to deliver even close to what you expect – is there another team in the league lacking depth more than the oil?

  • hallsyoilerforever5

    That MacTavish made the defence better is inarguable? Au contraire, Willis.
    I would argue he moved laterally. Nikitin and Fayne are phantom replacements of Smid and Nick Shultz. Did they blow anyone’s so lacks off? The answer to that question is the same to the whether or not they’ve improved his year on defence.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 .

  • 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 .

  • I guess the #1 D man we were hoping for just isn’t going to happen. The #2C is still a “?” But it won’t likely end up being anything better than Grabo.

    While our defense is looking better, it still isn’t looking good. Unless Marincin is 25lbs heavier and twice the player he was when he finished last season, we simply cannot expect this d core to get us to the playoffs. Nurse is 2 years away, and Klefbom is 1 year away.

  • 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.

  • Zarny

    I would really like to see both Lander & Arco on the team, Instead if rushing LeoD (assuming they get a solid 2C) why not deploy those two? Arco on 2nd and Lander on 3rd?

      • agreed

        I may be in the minority, but i’m quite tired of the Arco buzz…..if Arco truly was an NHLer with staying power he never would have been in the AHL last year…..all the BS talk about his advanced stats, etc…..what exactly did Arco do after the first 12 games last year……well, according to advanced stats he “didn’t hurt the team”…..

        So, the rationale that Arco didn’t hurt the team is the reason some of the media now tout him as surefire to play next year in the show……

        Arco can be a stopgap until someone with staying power can slot in, he is not a solution, so let’s stop acting like he is…..

  • 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

    MacTavish is just putting lipstick on a pig to make it look like something else. IT’S STILL A PIG. Who ever heard of Fayne? The defense is still the same as last year just a few diferent names at higher price tags.
    They don’t have a second line centre and now they have to try and negotiate with Petry and Schultz after they have over paid Nikitin. I know those two don’t have the same leverage as Nikitin had but they both are way better than him so looks like they will be in for some hefty raises.
    It’s nice to see that Eakins got another one of his boys here in Aulie, we seem to have luck signing those old Marlie players that are no good anywhere else.

    • Don’t agree with you. The oilers have signed guys with NHL experience, enough to actually stay and play on their old respective clubs. The Defence is different than last years additions which were either wash-ups in the KHL or had ZERO NHL game experience. Your comments are not accurate.

      These guys actually have NHL experience and will calm the back end down. This should help out the team, or at least make the games more competitive and hopefully bring the shots against down.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • ……has anyone else noticed what the rest of the west has done?

    Just to scrape for the 7 or 8 spot in the playoffs next year the Oilers will either need to play a responsible team game with a focus on possession + get very good goaltending……or Taylor Hall will have to score 136G (98 on the PP) and add 274A for a total of 410 pts, setting new records in all categories, win the Richard, Art Ross, Pearson, Hart, and why not the Selke and Lady Byng too…..either scenario works for me

    I love living in the Oilers bubble….so awesome.

    • Lowe But Now High Expectations

      You’re so right. The Oilers did improve themselves, but even a 20% improvement still keeps them light years from the playoffs. All of the free agents of ability wound up on western teams.

      • Quicksilver ballet

        They are so far away from being a playoff contender that some people actually think they are a contender. One big thing they have to improve is the Head coach. Until Eakins is gone and Craig Ramsey takes over this team is going no where. By far the worst coach in the NHL. Will be another year of meaningless games from January on

  • 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!!

  • 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.

  • 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 .

  • 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.