It’s going to be bad.
There is no way around that fact. The Edmonton defence had a lot of nice pieces when Kevin Lowe handed the reins off to Steve Tambellini, and the worst general manager in Oilers history burned it to the ground. It’s going to take time to recover, and there will be major growing pains.
What can Craig MacTavish do in the meantime?
What the Oilers Have
The simplest way to explain this is to look at Chicago. Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival is the defence pairing the Blackhawks try to hide from good players; that looks like a pretty interchangeable duo for Andrew Ference and Justin Schultz, who were the Oilers’ top pair for much of last year. Chicago’s No. 4 defenceman (currently shutting down Anze Kopitar with Niklas Hjalmarsson) is Johnny Oduya, who I’d put down as being a slightly lesser version of Jeff Petry.
That means that, by the (admittedly tough) standards of the defending champs, the Oilers have a No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 defenceman and a couple of young players in Martin Marincin and Oscar Klefbom.
Rounding out the incumbents are UFA Taylor Fedun, UFA Mark Fraser and RFA Philip Larsen. One of those guys (if I had a vote, it would be for Fedun) is a nice fit in the No. 8 slot; the other two should only be back on cheap two-way deals if at all.
It’s not a good enough group.
The Tough Job
It’s pretty unlikely that Craig MacTavish can grab three top-four defencemen over the summer. The big move, the one that’s going to be exceptionally difficult to pull off, is to add even one top-pairing guy.
Free agency is a pretty dicey solution – the options are sort of like the joke Gary Cole’s character on The West Wing told about the vice presidential seal: if you close your left eye and squint really hard and tilt your head just so some of the options look a little bit like top pairing guys. Andrei Markov and Matt Niskanen would both help, but the former is 35 and injury-prone and the latter was his team’s No. 4 option at even-strength and will cost a pile of money.
That leaves trade.
Dion Phaneuf’s name has been a fixture in the rumour mill for two years now, and there are a lot of ways that might be a fit for Edmonton, particularly since the Oilers have the No. 3 pick and Toronto has the No. 8. The Canucks seem a good bet to move a defender. Kris Letang keeps getting mentioned in rumours. Christian Ehrhoff and Keith Yandle are constantly speculated on, too.
Ideally, the defenceman going the other way in our hypothetical trade isn’t the Oilers only legitimate top-four defender (Petry), and ideally it isn’t one of the players with a pile of growing yet to do (Marincin, Klefbom). Given age, size, contract and level of play, Andrew Ference is the logical player to move but he has a no-move clause and the Oilers made their feelings on him clear when they gave him the ‘C’.
I’d guess Petry would be the player dealt.
The Other Free Agents
The Oilers have five NHL defenceman right now (counting Klefbom, not counting Darnell Nurse, who should probably go back to junior) which means they either need to trust in Taylor Fedun or add a minimum of two players (three if one goes away to add a legitimate top-pair player).
I’d be looking at the following free agents:
- Brett Bellemore. Ron Hainsey’s partner in Carolina, Bellemore is the kind of player Oilers fans love – he’s 6’4”, 225 pounds, heavily physical (he led Carolina in hits) and takes care of his own end first. If the Oilers want to add a Matt Greene-type player to the back end, this is the guy to get – he’s just 25, so he should be reliable for the next few years, and his underlying numbers are excellent.
- Mark Fayne. The defensive defenceman out of New Jersey would bring size (6’3”, 210 pounds) and competence to the Oilers’ back end. He’s played tough minutes for the Devils the last few seasons and looked awfully good doing it.
- Tom Gilbert. The most polarizing Oilers defenceman since Tom Poti, Gilbert’s here because he can keep his head above water in tough minutes and is going to cost barely anything. Seriously, this guy was $375,000 cheaper than Mark Fraser last year while playing No. 2 minutes effectively for Florida.
- Ron Hainsey. He could only get a one-year deal last summer, perhaps owing to his militancy during the last lockout. That should be irrelevant to the Oilers. He’s 6’3”, 210 pounds and did a nice job in a top-four role for Carolina last season.
- Rostislav Klesla. He’d be well down on my list, but at the right price he could be a third-pairing option.
- Andrej Meszaros. Meszaros has been in freefall over the last three seasons, which coincides with a stretch that includes back surgery (summer 2012) and a shoulder problem (2012-13). He rebounded a bit this year, and at the right price the big (6’2”, 223 pounds) 28-year-old might surprise.
- Nikita Nikitin. The 6’4”, 223 pound left-shooting rearguard looked like the next big thing two seasons ago. He’s fallen out of favour in Columbus but might be the steal of this summer’s free agent season.
- Kyle Quincey. He’s probably a No. 4 NHL defender; he becomes an attractive option only if he can’t get a contract early and comes on a bargain deal.
- Henrik Tallinder. At 35 he’s a stop-gap player, but he’s a big, tough-minutes defender who might be available.
The Bare Minimum
This isn’t a playoff-calibre blue line. It has a pair of No.4/No.5 defenders in the top two tough minutes roles. Remarkably, it’s a better setup than what the Oilers started with last season (Smid/Petry, Ference/Schultz, Schultz/Belov, Grebeshkov) which was itself better than what the team ran in 2012-13 (Smid/Petry, Schultz/Schultz, Whitney/Potter, Fistric).
What would a ridiculously, unreasonably good summer look like? Ference+ for a guy like Phaneuf, another top-four guy from free agency (since we’re daydreaming, let’s say Fayne), and a No. 7 who belongs in the top-six (and with injuries, the No. 7 always gets significant minutes).
What does that look like?
Even in this ridiculously optimistic scenario, young players are being counted on to play significant minutes and established NHL’ers are being asked to play above their proven level of ability.