Something funny happened on Sunday. With the Edmonton Oilers down a goal and the net empty, Andrew Ference was sent over the boards to try and help the team make up the difference. It was suggested that this was evidence of how thin Edmonton was on the blue line (it certainly is) but it was that moment that I recognized that on merit Ference was the best left-shooting defenceman at Dallas Eakins’ disposal.
That’s a problem.
The Defensive Depth Chart
On Sunday against Arizona the Oilers deployed their defencemen as follows:
- RD Justin Schultz: 22:25 TOI total, 16:57 at evens
- LD Nikita Nikitin: 21:05 TOI total, 15:49 at evens
- RD Jeff Petry: 20:52 TOI total, 17:46 at evens
- LD Andrew Ference: 19:33 TOI total, 16:19 at evens
- RD Mark Fayne: 15:50 TOI total, 12:17 at evens
- LD Keith Aulie: 12:47 TOI total, 12:33 at evens
That’s brutal, especially at the top end. We’ll ignore the problems on the right side, though they are significant (looking for offence or not, the usage of Justin Schultz and Mark Fayne this year has been difficult to understand) and instead focus on the left.
At the very top of the depth chart is Nikita Nikitin, who has been wildly inconsistent but was understandably allowed to try and play his way out of trouble. Andrew Ference sits second, and he’s actually been reasonably good this year, particularly with Jeff Petry (it’s almost like some of his struggles last year came from trying to cover for Schultz) but it’s a stretch to project him any higher in the lineup than he is already. At the bottom of the list is Keith Aulie, a limited player who has done a really decent job of surpassing expectations since being put in the lineup.
Oh, and Martin Marincin, who has been a healthy scratch since Ference returned three games ago.
Martin Marincin isn’t a top pairing defenceman, but it wasn’t all that long ago that he was providing a pretty convincing performance in tough minutes. In 2013-14 he played 44 games (mostly with Petry), averaging 19:09 per game and dramatically out-performed the Oilers’ Corsi numbers despite brutal opposition and a tough zone start. A 6’4”, 203 pound defenceman with speed, smarts and a two-way game, Marincin was one of the most encouraging finds of 2013-14.
It’s easy to forget that, partially because Marincin hasn’t been great in the early going and partially because the Oilers have done a great job of putting him in a position to fail.
But in the big picture there is no question that Marincin should be playing.
For one thing, the Oilers need to find a legitimate top-four defenceman on the left side. Ference is a known quantity and in the back nine of his career; he’s been serviceable on the second pairing this season but isn’t going to get any better than he is right now. The organization seems to be holding out hope for Nikitin; given his contract there isn’t much choice in that regard. Aulie’s limitations with the puck makes it difficult to imagine him as anything more than a third-pairing option. And then there’s Marincin, whose range of skills means he probably has the most potential of any of these players.
From a winning right now perspective, it’s more important to find a competent top-four defenceman than it is to see if Aulie really has what it takes to be a No. 5/6 guy. Marincin at the top of his game is miles better than Aulie at the top of his, and the Oilers need a difference maker way more than they need to reclaim Aulie as a third-pairing guy. We know the current group isn’t good enough, even with Aulie at his best, so it’s worthwhile to take a chance that Marincin can get back to where he was a year ago.
It also makes sense from a long-term organizational perspective. Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom are waiting in the wings for their chance, and it would be the height of stupidity for any team to run three totally unproven blueliners on the same defensive unit. Marincin’s window to establish himself is *right now* or else he risks getting lost when the organization inevitably promotes the guys it really likes.
Ideally, the Oilers would go out and get a good defenceman to stabilize the unit, but that’s going to be close to impossible at this point in the season. Failing that, they need someone internally to take a step forward and Marincin is their best bet. It’s just impossible for him to do anything when he isn’t able to find his way out of the press box.