It’s certainly fair to argue about the quality of the top-end guys, but the depth on the Oilers’ blue line is unquestionably the best it’s been in some years. The team has six NHL veterans signed to one-way contracts, and Martin Marincin all but inked into a spot on the roster.
Given those numbers, how can two of the team’s most exceptional prospects – Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom – possibly crack the roster? Craig MacTavish was recently asked by TSN’s Bob McKenzie whether those guys had a shot at making the team, and Edmonton’s general manager made it abundantly clear what would need to happen for either of them to be in the opening night roster.
That’s why we have training camp. We just don’t know at this point. We don’t know how dominant Darnell’s going to be; we don’t know how dominant Oscar’s going to be. We’re not sure whether Marty Marincin will pick up where he left off last year or if he’ll be ahead of that… I really feel strongly that both Oscar and Darnell – and Marty’s in that mix too – are going to be excellent defencemen for the Edmonton Oilers for 10 or 15 years. Whether next year’s the first year of those 10 or 15 years, that I don’t know. They’re very good prospects, they’re going to be very good players; it’s safe to say that they’ve got to play somewhere near the top four for us to make a case to keep them.
As it Should Be
The Oilers have seven slots open on their NHL roster for defencemen, so why is the general manager talking about the need for Nurse or for Klefbom to clearly be in the top-four if they’re to make the team out of training camp? There are lots of good reasons.
Development. No team in the league is going to take a blue-chip prospect with miles and miles of waiver exemption left and stick him in the No. 7 slot on their team when that player could be playing somewhere between 22 and 28 minutes per game (and in all situations) in the AHL or back in junior.
Developing players need ice time. They need to get a chance to stretch offensive muscles that they might have to rein in at the NHL level right out of the gate. They need the opportunity to be used in the crucial defensive situations that are typically reserved for veterans. They need lots and lots of minutes and the opportunity to excel at one level before moving to the next.
Exhibition games are easier than NHL games. As anyone who saw Jesse Joensuu dominate training camp last fall knows, there is a massive gap between succeeding in exhibition play and succeeding in major league play. For a player the team isn’t really sure about – and nearly every prospect, no matter how good, is on that list – there needs to be clear superiority to give the benefit of the doubt to a prospect over a player who has proven that he can get the job done in the majors.
Does that mean that training camp isn’t a pure meritocracy? Yes, absolutely. Training camp matters, especially for the guys on the fringes of the lineup who have precious little gap between them, but it’s an awfully short time and managers would need to be crazy to throw out everything they know about the players in question based on such limited information.
Remember in 2009-10 when Mike Comrie and Patrick O’Sullivan were an unstoppable duo, lighting up opponents pretty much at will? There’s no reason anybody should; it happened but it stopped happening the moment the exhibition portion of the schedule did.
Real consequences. If the Oilers opt to keep Klefbom or Nurse for an extended period of time, room will need to be made. It isn’t as simple as dumping Aulie to the minors; the team will likely be trading a guy like Jeff Petry to open up a slot for the young defender it’s bringing in. That’s a move that can’t be undone, so if Nurse looks good for a brief span but hits the wall three games after Petry gets sent to New York Edmonton suddenly has a very real problem.
It’s not good enough for four of five dentists to say they prefer Klefbom to Ference on the left side of the third pairing most nights. There has to be a definite, obvious, undeniable edge that would make it obviously crazy to send Nurse back to junior or Klefbom back to the AHL, because if the team gets it wrong there will be real trouble.
If one of Nurse or Klefbom wants to play in the NHL out of camp in 2014-15, he will have to force his way on to the team. That’s how it should be; there’s no rush and absolutely nothing wrong with sending either of them back for more work if they don’t.
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