Nikita Nikitin, the Oilers’ D and Mr. Right

The Oilers have made some real progress in improving the
back end of their roster. The addition of Mark Fayne from New Jersey checked
off a lot of boxes, adding a guy with size and solid underlying numbers who is
capable of playing tough minutes and should be for years to come. Nikita
Nikitin probably isn’t as good of a player, but like Fayne he’s a big veteran with
a history of at least competence at the NHL level.

But it’s still a weak group, as Nikitin’s injury last night
demonstrates.

While according to head coach Dallas Eakins said last night that the injury isn’t
severe and shouldn’t cost him more than two weeks of playing time, it does
highlight the current fragility of the left side of the defensive depth chart.

Behind Nikitin on that side, the Oilers have team captain
Andrew Ference, who on merit probably shouldn’t be playing above the third
pairing. They have 44-game man Martin Marincin, for my money the best player in
the group right now but also a guy who supposedly wasn’t a lock to make the
team until a couple of strong preseason games solidified him there. They have
rookie Darnell Nurse, at least for now; if they send him back to junior he isn’t
an option going forward. They also have rookie Oscar Klefbom and reserve
defender Keith Aulie, who has improved over the course of the preseason but who
has significant flaws.

Assuming the Oilers intend to run a shutdown pairing
anchored by Fayne and an all-purpose heavy minutes tandem featuring Schultz
(which is the plan that their preseason usage hints at, and fits the Chicago
mold the team has smartly been mentioning all summer), that leaves the two best
candidates as Marincin and Ference. Marincin’s a maybe, while both Schultz and
previous shutdown guy Jeff Petry posted worse totals with Ference last year
than with the dog’s breakfast of other partners they had.

Mr. Right

2-Petry-11

One option in Nikitin’s absence is to hope that
Ference/Marincin can get the job done in the short-term. Another option is to
promote (if healthy) Jeff Petry to top-four work and move him to the left side.

It’s an odd idea in some ways; teams very rarely move
right-shooting defencemen to the left side. There’s a good reason for that:
coaches like players to play their own side of the ice and right-shooting
defencemen are rare when compared to left-shooting defencemen. Over the last
five seasons, according to Hockey-Reference.com, 107 left-shooting defenceman
have played in at least 200 games; that compares to only 59 right-shooting
defencemen. As a result, lots of teams end up being forced to use lefty/lefty
pairings but very few use righty/righty pairs.

But it does happen, and it can work wonderfully. Matt Niskanen
is a good example. When he broke into the league with Dallas, the Stars had a
bunch of good right-shooting defenders, a group that included the fantastic
Sergei Zubov as well as Stephane Robidas and Philippe Boucher. So Niskanen
spent a lot of time on the left side, generally playing with Zubov and sometimes
with Robidas. It worked well; with Niskanen Zubov posted a 52.9 percent Corsi
(as opposed to 50.8 without him) while in limited minutes Robidas managed a
58.2 percent Corsi. Now there may well be other factors at play, but the point
is that this can work, just as a lefty/lefty pair can. Niskanen, incidentally, continued to switch to the left side at times in Pittsburgh. 

If it works, it kills two birds with one stone, because it
shores up the left defence and at the same time gets Petry off the third
pairing and into some real minutes. If he can switch sides, Petry’s a much more
proven option for a shutdown pairing with Fayne than anyone else on the roster,
including Marincin. He’s also a better safety net for a guy like Schultz than
anyone else on the roster.

It might well be worth a look. It leaves Ference on the
third pairing, where he can play either side as the veteran mentor for
whichever of Klefbom/Nurse end up on the team. If it works well, it gives the
Oilers the option of icing an entirely veteran top-four group (Nikitin/Fayne,
Petry/Schultz) and sticking Marincin with Ference in a third-pairing role,
something that duo should be able to handle successfully.

  • Craig1981

    This is the very reason people belief Petry gets traded after 60 games confuses me. If he has a good season, the Oilers do not have near enough depth to feel they have to push him away…..this is barring salary cap issues of course

  • Does Nikita’s injury demonstrate that the group is weak? I think it demonstrates depth, since there’s still good reason to send down Nurse. It also shows that Nikita could be the next Whitney if his ankles bend to the slightest rut in the ice. Getting wooped on the shot clock at a rate of 59-41 all year shows how weak the defense is.

    Also, Petry can never be Mr. Right on the left side with that weak ass Mustache. Maybe for two weeks tho.

      • I think from Eakins’ perspective I’d rather keep Nurse on the team because the Oilers should win more with him in the line up this year. His job is on the line. But i cant say hes clearly outplayed Klefbom. They’re neck and neck IMO. From a fans’ perspective, I’d like Nurse to season for one more year in Jr then step in as a top 3 d man.

  • One of Nurse Marincin and Klefbom has to make this team at the end of training camp.No if ands or buts. If the Oilers have any hope of a future these kids have to start being put in on defence at the NHL level and get the experience they need.

    You can’t just going to the FA market year after year and hope there is a guy who will fit your system and is willing to be overpaid.

    Asking Jeff Petry to step up is perfect. He and J Shultz were pretty much told to put up and get paid at the end of the season. Time to put up is now.

    • The Last Big Bear

      Ference is no longer a top 4 NHL defenceman. He is still a very serviceable 5-6-7 man. We knew that he would he would be bumped down in the lineup once other dmen were brought in and the kids started pushing for jobs. At 36 there is a lot miles on that body. But to say he is not an NHL defencemen is ridiculous.

  • Decent questions to raise. But JW, Jason Gregor always raises the questions marks regarding the right side D-men playing their off side. Im just lost. He says we have too many left shooting Dmen and now I’m reading we don’t have enough left shooting Dmen? (seriously lost. not trying to sound like a d!ck)

    • The Oilers have left-shooting D in volume, but not in quality.

      And Gregor’s absolutely right to raise questions about guys playing on their off-side. It’s less than ideal. It can be done and it can work but it’s best if a team has 3 LHD and 3 RHD.

      • We do have 3 LHD and 3 RHD though.

        L=Ference, Nikitin*, Marincin, Aulie, Nurse, Klefbom

        R=Fayne, Petry, Schultz.

        I agree that we have quantity but not necessarily quality on the left. My question is that with Nikitin out for 2 weeks max, Aulie, Nurse, or Kelfbom can bandaid that gap and it shouldnt hurt us too much.

        and, our RHD seem pretty quality to me for where we are as a team no? Most teams would be happy to have 3 RHD.

    • Burnward

      I find Willis’ argument about the lack of LH defencemen bizarre in the extreme. The Oil have 3 RH dmen who can claim NHLT status (Petry, Schultz and Fayne). That its. The next in line in 2nd year pro, the undersized Brad Hunt. One of the attributes of Nikitin is that he has played a lot of right defence and that this ability gives the Oil a bit of an option on the right side.

      LH dmen might be the position of greatest depth in the Oil organization. Marincin, Nikitin and Ferrence are NHL defencemen. Klefblom has had an average camp but showed a lot of promise at the end of last year. Nurse has had a good camp and may get an audition. Aullie is a Mark Fraser type who can fill in with limited minutes and is able to fight.

      Almost all of the OKC prospects are LH Gernat, Musil, Simpson et al.

      If they Petry on the RHS who fills in on the left? Brad Hunt is their only option. Would you rather have Brad Hunt playing than Klefbom or Nurse?

      I suspect the Nikitin injury will open the door for Nurse to stay at least for an audition.

  • Petry has never played the left side, and is coming off an injury, hasn’t played a preseason game, and you want him to be the shutdown guy.

    I understand that you are a big fan of Petry, he is a good player, but he is far from the saviour you constantly try to write that he is.

    Other than Corsi, which is a very misleading individual stat, what does Petry do that is so incredibly great?

    Marincin or Klefbom can easily play the left side with Fayne for a few games until Nikitin returns.

    Keep Petry on his proper side. Good coaching is putting players in positions they are comfortable with. Petry is not comfortable on the left side, and since he won’t be up to game speed why force him on the left side.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Not south on hwy. 2. It’s Good times for us.

    And it’s a small bit of Karma for the Feaster Ryan OReily Fiasco. Oiler fans had a hay day at the Flames expense. Thank God uncle Jay isn’t here to pull the trigger on anymore bonehead moves.

  • Admiral Ackbar

    Maybe a blessing in disguise , as others that should make team on merit in preseason may now get that opportunity . Flash back to last year where very few defenseman pressed the likes of Larsen , Grebs , Belov . etc.. Bought in Klefbom and Marincin later and defense picked up . This year Nurse can also have an impact if Oilers don’t get to conservative again and revert back to failed default errors . Even Arco surprised for a while at least, but looks outmatched this season with new size and physicality of new youth . Time to go with what looks like the future , and transition out of the error filled defaults which had negative effect on results anyways . The more we do the sooner we become more competitive on a consistent basis .

    Takes about 20 games before new personnel fits in well , just like trade deadline deals .

  • Jaxon

    It’s almost a nice problem to have as it makes the decision to keep Nurse up for 9 games an easier one.

    1st 9: Nurse – Fayne / Marincin – Petry / Ference – Schultz / Aulie or Hunt

    After 9, send Nurse back to junior. If Nikitin is still out: Klefbom – Fayne / Marincin – Petry / Ference – Schultz / Aulie or Hunt

    After 9, send Nurse back to junior. If Nikitin is back: Nikitin – Fayne / Marincin – Petry / Ference – Schultz / Aulie or Hunt

    The next injury, Klefbom gets the call-up.

  • Jaxon

    Glad to hear about Nikitins injury. I’m really hoping the oilers have another typical pathetic year. Sooner or later KLowe will have to be dismissed right?!

  • pkam

    All I know is that anybody that actually had any notion that this team had a shot at a playoff spot is missing the glaring problem on this team. DEPTH. There is none. Maybe on Wing.. thats it. And guess what injuries happen. Petry, Ference, Nikitin… this is before the season even started! Face it. The team was better before the season started but thats not the team we are even starting with .. let alone finishing with. Here comes another rough rough year.

  • Burnward

    “If they Petry on the RHS who fills in on the left? Brad Hunt is their only option. Would you rather have Brad Hunt playing than Klefbom or Nurse?”

    I meant if they put Petry on the LHS who fills in on the right? My bad.

    • As soon as good players unblock Oilers management from their phones.

      Look guys. It’s not as easy as you think for this team to get actual decent NHL’ers like Boychuk. I’d be willing to bet MacT is in on almost every decent deal out there. To say they’re not/don’t care just ignores the painful reality of our situation.

      Until we become a winning team it’s gonna be almost impossible for us to acquire the Boychuks of the league.