One of the problems that the Oilers have to address between now and whenever they’re going to be competitive is the state of their defence. It’s been a weak point for ages, and has never recovered from the Steve Tambellini-led dismantling it underwent at the start of the current rebuild.
The Internal and External Options
We might as well start with the defence as currently constructed; players below are ranked by total ice time this season.
- No. 1 RD Justin Schultz. He plays massive minutes at evens and on the power play but is likely better-suited to a lesser role given his defensive struggles. He’s an RFA this summer; it should be a difficult negotiation.
- No. 2 RD Jeff Petry. He plays in all situations and is the best all-round defenceman on the team, though he’s probably a No. 3 defenceman on a decent team. He’s a UFA this summer and a strong candidate to be moved before the trade deadline.
- No. 3 LD Andrew Ference. Ideally he’d be the team’s veteran No. 5 but he’s been a top-pairing option for much of the season because of the Oilers’ weakness on the left side. Signed until 2017.
- No. 4 RD Mark Fayne. The rare veteran who is slotted right where he belongs, Fayne plays a lead role on the penalty kill and tough but limited minutes at evens. Signed until 2018.
- No. 5 LD/RD Nikita Nikitin. The Oilers’ veteran stopgap has played much better over the last few games, but needs to have a brilliant second half to undo the damage of the early season. He’s signed until 2016, but if the Oilers had to make a decision today he’d be a very good bet for a buyout.
- No. 6 LD Oscar Klefbom. Klefbom’s climbing rapidly, and is at present the team’s top option on the left side. The 21-year-old veteran of just 36 NHL games combines size and speed in one package and has likely seen the last of the minors.
- No. 7 LD/RD Brad Hunt. A power play specialist, Hunt has not been good enough at even-strength at the NHL level. He’s an RFA this summer and may or may not be signed to a two-way deal.
- No. 8 LD Martin Marincin. The blogosphere’s favourite prospect, Marincin excelled in a cameo last season alongside Petry but struggled this year playing mainly with Fayne and is now in the AHL. He’s an RFA this summer, but a prime candidate to be sent away in trade.
- No. 9 LD Keith Aulie. A fringe NHL defenceman who is big and tough but awkward with the puck, Aulie is a reasonable option as the Oilers’ No. 7. He’s an RFA this summer and shouldn’t be very expensive at all, though the team might opt to go another direction.
We should also add prospects to the list above. Darnell Nurse is highly-touted and likely to spend all of next season in Edmonton, while any of the AHL quartet of Brandon Davidson (who needs to clear waivers to be demoted again), Dillon Simpson, Jordan Oesterle or David Musil might also find their way into the picture.
Then there are external options. There are a handful of significant defencemen currently bound for free agency; in no particular order I’d suggest that Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin, Andrej Sekera, Francois Beauchemin, Johnny Boychuk, Cody Franson and Zbynek Michalek would all be awfully valuable additions to the team. It’s hard to know what will be available to the Oilers in trade and at what cost, but of course that’s a route the team could go, too.
Given their contracts, we can probably put the names of Andrew Ference and Mark Fayne in ink on the roster next season. The question is who rounds out the group.
There are a bunch of kids vying for positions on the left side, with Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Martin Marincin (in that order) all viable candidates for NHL employment. The Oilers should probably keep all three and may end up doing so but if I had to guess I’d say Marincin is sent out of town.
On the right side are two defencemen in very different positions. Jeff Petry is a good defenceman who should be valued much more than he is but will probably play his last game as an Oiler sometime this spring. Justin Schultz is not a particularly good defenceman and should be valued much less than he is but will probably be re-signed after a tough negotiation this summer.
Nikita Nikitin can play either side and may redeem himself between now and the end of the year, but I’d guess he gets bought out over the summer.
I expect too that we see the Oilers add one high-profile defenceman, either via trade or free agency; that’s something the team absolutely should do though of course Edmonton also needs to be prepared in the eventuality that such an addition is not possible.
If it were me, I’d add a high-profile defenceman on the right side to holdovers Fayne and Petry, sending Schultz out of town in trade. On the left side, I’d bring back Ference, Klefbom and whichever of Marincin and Nurse looked the best out of training camp, bumping the other down to the AHL for further development. Edmonton’s in a bit of a box in that it needs to develop its left-side prospects, so the trick here is to make the right side good enough to have the defence at least passable next season.
What I expect to see is the Oilers add a high-profile defenceman to holdovers Schultz and Fayne on the right side, with that trio playing with left-siders Ference, Klefbom and Nurse. Edmonton seemingly made its decision on Petry last summer and will probably trade him before the deadline, and given the team’s apparent indifference to Marincin and the logjam of young defenders on the left I’d expect him to be traded as well.