Would it be wise for the Oilers to attempt to trade Andrew Ference, both in the name of clearing dollars and gaining a more favourable position in the 2015 draft lottery?
The Benefits of a Deal
Robin Brownlee brought this topic to mind on Saturday, when he wrote about the merits of a Ference deal from a tanking perspective. Here’s how Brownlee put it:
Ference, 35, won’t be a part of the picture when the Oilers are any good. Many would argue the captain is not a significant part of the picture now. Ference won’t command a return of any note, but he might, however, be of some value to a contending team looking for experienced depth on the back end. Again, not much coming back, but his departure would open up a second spot and weaken an already overmatched blue line.
No arguments here. Ference, while not nearly a perfect player, is a veteran hand on what at the best of times is only an approximation of a real NHL defence corps. If he were to be moved at the deadline along with Jeff Petry that would leave the ‘veteran mentor’ role in the hands of Mark Fayne and, uh, Nikita Nikitin. It doesn’t take a degree in mathematical modeling to guess what that will do to the team.
But there are other positives to moving him.
Firstly, Ference is overpaid at $3.25 million relative to what he brings to an NHL team’s defensive group. When the Oilers signed him he was the No. 4 defenceman in terms of minutes at both even-strength and on the power play; that was nearly two years ago now and on a decent team he’s likely a pretty decent fit as a third-pairing defenceman and second unit penalty-killer. The overpayment involved isn’t ludicrous – the Los Angeles Kings will pay Matt Greene $2.5 million/season until he’s 34 for essentially the same minutes – but every little bit of efficiency gained against the cap helps.
That role perhaps isn’t ideal either. The Oilers have a bunch of defencemen coming in on the left side – Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, maybe Martin Marincin (though the signs that the team has soured on him are obvious) – and the team would be better served by a veteran presence higher up the depth chart, leaving the third-pairing minutes to youth. Granted, Ference could be shifted over to the right side but he’s been most effective on the left.
For size junkies, there’s an additional benefit to moving him. It’s not a secret that the Oilers are on the small side by NHL standards and Ference – listed at 5’11”, 184 pounds – is part of that. If it’s the fight in the dog rather than the size of the dog in the fight that matters that’s less of a problem; Ference’s work ethic has always garnered high praise and watching him play it isn’t hard to see why. He’s fiercely competitive in front of his own net, even if he isn’t 6’2” and 210 pounds. But it sure doesn’t hurt to be 6’2” and 210 pounds.
Moving Ference (assuming he’s moveable) would make the team worse in the here-and-now, which is all the better for tanking. It would clear salary and a roster spot for a bigger, better defenceman next year. Plus it would garner some sort of return (say a 2016 fourth round draft pick) and that never hurts.
The Case Against
There’s a pretty massive assumption underpinning the biggest benefit to moving Ference: That the Oilers can land a bigger, better defenceman who can play higher up the depth chart. Recall that last summer their answer to bigger-and-better was Nikita Nikitin, and they had to pay him $4.5 million per season to get him to sign.
The professional scouting group over the last few years has had several cracks at adding a top-four defenceman and simply hasn’t gotten the job done. Nikitin, Ference and Fayne are part of a group that since 2010 includes Nick Schultz, Ryan Whitney, Andy Sutton, Kurtis Foster, Cam Barker, Mark Fistric and Denis Grebeshkov. Some of those guys could play – Sutton in particular was a pleasant surprise for me – but could any one of them really anchor a second pairing? For my money Fayne’s the best of the group in terms of overall talent and ideally he’d probably slot in as a No. 4/5 rearguard.
But let’s assume for a moment that the Oilers’ search for answers this year sees them solve the obvious assessment problem the team has. This year’s free agent crop is nothing to write home about and there’s no guarantee that Paul Martin or Johnny Boychuk or whoever will be willing to sign with a team that contends with Western Conference travel, a northern climate and a never-ending rebuild. Really good defencemen have lots of options in a weak free agent year, and while money can mitigate that to a certain degree general manager Craig MacTavish is doubtless going to have some real challenges selling players on coming to Edmonton.
There’s another assumption involved, too: That the Oilers’ young defencemen really are best-served by jumping to the NHL immediately. I know how people feel about Darnell Nurse coming out of the World Juniors, but it’s worth remembering he’s still a few weeks from his 20th birthday and he has all of two NHL games under his belt. Is it really a good idea to be writing his name on the 2015-16 roster in ink at this point?
For me, the case for moving Ference basically comes down to faith in Edmonton’s management group; both their ability to find a better defenceman and their willingness to be patient with prospects. Based on recent history that’s quite a leap.