Todd Nelson’s in a really awkward spot. He’s an interim head coach, with no job security past the next few months, and he’s trying to make changes on the fly with an underachieving roster and no training camp to set things up.
One thing that might help him is reliable reinforcements from Oklahoma City, but at this point it seems either that there aren’t any or that general manager Craig MacTavish wants him to make do with the players currently in the majors.
The current group of forwards looks something like this:
- Taylor Hall – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Jordan Eberle
- Benoit Pouliot – Derek Roy – Nail Yakupov
- Matt Hendricks – Boyd Gordon – Rob Klinkhammer
- Matt Fraser – Anton Lander – Teddy Purcell
- Luke Gazdic
The Oilers are only carrying 22 healthy players at the moment (Tyler Pitlick is on injured reserve), so there’s absolutely no reason that Nelson needs to be stuck with his current group of 13 forward, but here we are.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that the coach has a problem with any member of his starting 12. He wants to scratch Purcell for a game because he’s unhappy with the effort, he doesn’t think Fraser is an everyday NHL player or someone is playing through injury and he’d like to give that someone a game off to recharge. In any of those cases, Nelson’s only option is Gazdic, a pure enforcer who has taken two bad minor penalties in his last three games and has no offensive or defensive game worth speaking of.
There’s no reason it has to be that way. Between Iiro Pakarinen, Curtis Hamilton, Ryan Hamilton and Steve Pinizzotto down in the minors there are a few different options available to the Oilers. Carrying a guy like Pakarinen (6’1”, 215 pounds and with a range of abilities) would create a day-to-day internal competition for a spot in the lineup that the presence of Gazdic simply doesn’t.
Either the Oilers really don’t believe that any of the guys down on the farm can help (which is interesting, given that Oklahoma City is first in the AHL as of this writing) or the team is so invested in the current starting 12 that they don’t see the need for internal competition. Neither is particularly encouraging.
It’s a similar story on defence:
- Oscar Klefbom – Justin Schultz
- Andrew Ference – Jeff Petry
- Nikita Nikitin – Mark Fayne
- Keith Aulie
Since Dallas Eakins was fired over a month ago, No. 7 defenceman Keith Aulie has had all of eight shifts in the NHL. He dressed for one game in place of Nikitin and took a match penalty at the end of the first period; he hasn’t been seen since.
And so we see the Oilers sticking pretty firmly with the same group of six. On the left side is one veteran third-pairing option, one raw rookie and Nikitin. On the right side is a pending free agent who is almost certainly trade bait, a veteran bottom-four option and Schultz. By my count there are exactly two guys in that group of six who should feel pretty comfortable that they’re going to be in the lineup every single night; instead, all six do.
It’s pretty interesting given that the team does have some minor-league options, notably Martin Marincin. Marincin had a pretty bumpy ride earlier this season, but he certainly hasn’t been worse than Nikitin this year. If he were recalled, it would give the coach the option of reuniting him with Petry, which was an awfully good defence tandem in 2013-14, and then sticking Ference with Fayne on a veteran minutes tandem. As Nikitin can play either side, that would also allow the coach the flexibility to sit anyone he liked for a game.
We end up in a similar place as we did with the forwards: either there’s absolutely nobody on the first-place Barons who can help, which is a damning indictment of what is supposed to be the Oilers’ strongest prospect position, or the team is so invested in the current starting 12 that they don’t see the need for internal competition.
All of this is moot at the moment, with the Oilers and the rest of the NHL enjoying the All-Star break. It’s just a little odd to see the coach of the best team in the AHL take the job behind the bench of one of the worst teams in the majors and then see him given no real latitude to play anyone other than the same motley crew of 18. With the exception of Lander’s recall, a move forced by the departure of Leon Draisaitl, Nelson hasn’t brought up a single one of the players he’s had such success with in the AHL.
Maybe that’s Nelson’s call; perhaps the options are all guys like Brad Hunt who excel in the minors but struggle to survive in the NHL. On the other hand, perhaps he’s being handcuffed by an organization committed to the guys currently in Edmonton.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how much movement there is the rest of the way.