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
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.
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.
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