The Oilers are in a not-very-funny place at the moment. The season is a loss once again, as every season since 2005-06 has been. The head coach likely has twin mandates at this point: first, to do everything he can to get the current roster to show some signs of life and, second, to develop players for next season.
On defence, those two mandates are actually surprisingly compatible.
Looking at the Past
(courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
The chart above shows the even-strength Corsi numbers for the Oilers’ defence pairings in 2014-15. An orange bar indicates that a duo has spent at least 100 minutes together; grey text indicates less than half an hour in partnership.
The results are pretty straight-forward on the right side of the blue:
- Everyone plays reasonably well with Jeff Petry (given the tough zonestarts Petry draws, this is particularly encouraging).
- Everyone but Martin Marincin plays reasonably well with Mark Fayne (given the tough matchups Fayne draws, this too is particularly encouraging).
- Everyone but Martin Marincin plays reasonably poorly with Justin Schultz (given the butter-soft minutes the coaches have attempted to deploy Schultz in, this is particularly discouraging).
The coaching staff has shown some promising signs of late but has long-hesitated to reduce Schultz’s minutes. That may or may not be their fault; no smart coach alienates the general manager and Craig MacTavish has made his feelings for Schultz abundantly clear.
It’s time to move past that. The results of the right-side defencemen make it plain that Schultz is the team’s third-best option; further they indicate a pretty obvious strategy the rest of the way.
Looking at the Future
At even-strength there is pretty much no question as to how the Oilers should proceed.
Mark Fayne should anchor a tough matchup pairing, as he has for most of this season. He’s big and strong and reliable and has a history of getting results against a murderer’s row of opponents. He plays pretty well with pretty much anyone, but it says here that he should probably draw Andrew Ference as his partner – Ference has been at his best alongside Fayne, and this gives the coaching staff a pair of veteran hands to toss into the deep end whenever they feel like it.
Jeff Petry should keep doing what he does with a tough zonestart. To me, it was baffling that the Oilers only signed him to a one-year deal last summer and they really ought to be doing all they can to get him under contract, but if they can’t they might as well use him while they have him. He’s done a solid job bringing along young defenders and there really isn’t a bad option for his partner; I’d suggest that Oscar Klefbom is the most logical fit here since it’ll expose the young defender to tough minutes and we’ve handed off his current partner to Ference.
Justin Schultz should be playing 15-18 minutes per game depending on power play time and should be deployed with the utmost care by the coaching staff. He’s been destroying mediocre veterans like Ference and Nikita Nikitin in more of a feature role, but he’s had good results with Martin Marincin in both the AHL and NHL and there’s no reason not to give that pairing a longer looksee; it gets Marincin into the NHL in a sheltered role and gives Schultz a partner that he’s had a measure of success with. For the time being, Keith Aulie is a reasonable substitute while Marincin gets some practice in the minors but in the very near future Marincin should be back and playing with Schultz in that soft minutes role.
The No. 7 defenceman doesn’t really matter. Aulie’s big, cheap, hasn’t been terrible so he’s fine in the role. The team will have a choice to make when Nikitin comes back, but given how difficult diagnosing back injuries is, how bad Nikitin’s been away from Fayne and the likelihood that he’s heading to a summer buyout there’s every reason to leave him on injured reserve until it’s no longer possible to do so.
Why Does It Matter?
The season’s over, so why should anyone care how Dallas Eakins arranges the deck chairs? Two key reasons:
- 1. It’s important that the current Oilers’ group shows something. We’re at the point now where there’s at least some danger of flushing the Hall/Eberle cluster, and resetting the rebuild clock is a terrible idea. Like “there’s no way the Germans can come through the Ardennes” bad.
- 2. The defence is a mess that’s going to be hard to fix, so salvaging everything possible from the current personnel is awfully important.
Ference is signed long-term at big dollars; it’s important to make him useful or at least tradable. If he can play tough minutes successfully with Fayne, even if he isn’t driving the results, that’s a big step in the right direction.
Schultz is much-loved by management but has been at best a third-pairing option since about the 10-game mark of his major-league career. He’s probably better than the criticism he’s getting at the moment, but that criticism is long overdue; he got a free pass for a long, long time despite playing badly. It’s important to find a slot where he can have some success because he probably isn’t going anywhere.
Marincin never rates a mention with guys like Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, but I’m convinced there’s a player in there. Getting him on-track might convince Edmonton’s management of that; at worst it should mean a better return in trade when the team flushes him because his gritensity isn’t high enough.