General manager Craig MacTavish sat down for a one-on-one interview with Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now last week and laid out a blueprint for next season’s defensive group.
It’s a plan that doesn’t lack for boldness, though its wisdom is very much open to debate.
The First Pairing
After explaining to Stauffer that the Oilers now have a top-two defence pairing that he was pleased with, MacTavish elaborated on the duo:
[Oscar Klefbom is] impressive to watch. I really feel very strongly about the way he’s playing. You have to be optimistic and enthusiastic based on the way he’s playing and asserting himself in the game. He’s got a head for hockey, he closes gaps quickly, he protects gaps in the neutral zone, he can break the puck out under pressure. He’s got the leg strength that he can hold the tight turns under pressure and still make plays. He’s never tired on the ice, he’s in incredible shape and we’re seeing more of an emergence of an offensive game. He moves the puck very well and he’s had a very, very positive effect on Justin Schultz.
My Cult of Hockey colleague Bruce McCurdy already wrote a piece on the usage of Klefbom/Schultz, noting that Oilers coach Todd Nelson has carefully managed their matchups and zonestarts. While it’s certainly true that the Klefbom/Schultz duo has been impressive lately, they’ve largely been impressive against bottom six forwards and with a bunch of shifts starting at the fun end of the rink.
The really odd thing is that MacTavish knows this. Before he was the general manager, MacTavish was an excellent NHL head coach, a guy who paid incredibly detailed attention to the matchups and doubtless hasn’t forgotten the tricks of the trade just because he’s now sitting upstairs rather than standing behind the bench.
He’s also seen enough hockey to know that development is far from a linear process. Klefbom is 21 years old and has all of 48 games under his belt; it’s going to take another two seasons of NHL hockey before we can describe him as even a young veteran and it’s a good bet those seasons will have some ups and downs along the way. He’s a superb young player, but given his age and experience level prudence would dictate treading carefully here, rather than simply expecting him to be one half of a top pairing.
Schultz, of course, is the player the Oilers just can’t quit. He’s been ordained a high-end defenceman since he stepped into the majors out of the AHL, and the organization has never stepped back from that for any prolonged period of time. Now 24 years old and with 174 games under his belt, Schultz has never showed a consistent ability to log the kind of minutes the Oilers insist on giving him effectively. Apparently, that hasn’t dampened the team’s willingness to keep handing him those minutes.
The one note we should make here is that the Oilers seem set on a Chicago-style approach to the defence. The Blackhawks have a Duncan Keith-anchored top pairing, but often they rely on Niklas Hjalmarsson and the second pair to do the tough and ugly shutdown work, preferring to deploy Keith in a lot of minutes but against less impressive foes. That’s been the Oilers’ pattern this year, and it’s likely that approach has been dictated the general manager’s office.
So who anchors that shutdown pairing in Edmonton?
The Rest of the Defence
I also feel like with Nikitin, before he got injured, went through the back problems, wasn’t in as good of shape coming into training camp as he should have been in and was just starting to get up to speed when he separated his shoulder, I’m optimistic that he can come in with Mark Fayne who has played very consistently all year long and give us a second pair as well going into next year. Then we have Andrew Ference and we have a number of developing players too as well that gives us a foundation of something going forward and some familiarity of personnel going into next year. There’s not going to be 10 new bodies coming in that dressing room; there may be one or two or three new bodies. There’s some areas of our game that we have to address and get better and we’re going to do that.
I’ll say this for the Oilers: They’re consistent. Call it the courage of their convictions, call it bull-headed stubbornness, but the Oilers under MacTavish set a path and they tend to stick to it. They signed Nikitin as a veteran stabilizer, and after an incredibly difficult season in which he’s been mostly injured and/or ineffective it seems the team is still committed to him in that role. On the one hand, it seems certain that Nikitin is in fact better than he’s shown this season (particularly back in 2011-12, when he was really impressive alongside Fedor Tyutin). On the other hand, he struggled apart from Tyutin that season and outside of that campaign there’s never really been any evidence that he can reliably anchor a pairing with heavy responsibilities.
The Oilers could buy him out and take $3.0 million to market in a year where teams will be hard-pressed to pay free agents. Instead, apparently they’re going to save a spot on that second pairing for him, right next to Mark Fayne. Fayne’s a solid player in his own right, but much like Nikitin his greatest success have come as a complementary player alongside a top-end puck-mover.
Even if we’re optimistic that Nikitin is going to bounce back, that’s an awfully patchwork second pairing and it’s one that’s going to be counted on to do a lot of heavy lifting in this plan – Klefbom/Schultz certainly isn’t going to do it and neither will Ference/“a number of developing players”.
And that takes us to the third pairing. Ference has had something of a bounce-back year, but he’s also been playing with Jeff Petry. Ference has played just under 10 hours with Petry, with the duo combining for a 48.0 percent Corsi in tough minutes on a bad team. In five hours apart from Ference, Petry has a 55.3 percent Corsi; Ference in four hours apart from Petry sits at 45.1 percent. We’ve seen this a million times – Petry makes his partners better, in some cases much better. So sticking Ference as the veteran hand next to a prospect seems ill-advised, particularly if it requires a left-shooting D to switch to his off-side (as it very well might).
For sure [Petry is the player other teams ask about in trade talks], and that’s a real tribute to Jeff and the way that he’s played. Certainly the last 20 games he’s really settled into what I think is his best hockey as an Oiler. He’s aggressive, he’s assertive making decisions, he’s decisive on the ice, he’s jumping up on the play at a level that he did from time to time but he never really felt comfortable doing it because he’s a conservative guy by nature. He’s playing the game and he’s playing the game to win and everybody around the league is seeing that. He’d be a valuable piece for anybody to add and pending his UFA status there’s motivation on our part to move him or get him signed. It’ll be one of those things.
Pretty much every prominent media insider with an opinion has explained their belief that Petry would be dealt at the deadline. Stauffer hinted broadly at that in the same show in which that interview aired; guest Elliotte Friedman said pretty much the same thing and noted that he’d said it many times before.
Petry doesn’t seem to be in the plans.
If Craig MacTavish is presenting his honest appraisal of next year’s team and not trying to under-promise/over-deliver (history suggests that what he says is a pretty reliable indicator of what he’ll do) this is a pretty devastating interview for fans with high hopes for the team next year.
The tough minutes pairing of Nikitin/Fayne would be a great idea if it were Paul Martin/Fayne or maybe even Paul Martin/Nikitin; that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. If the Oilers decide to rest the heaviest responsibilities on two complementary players, one coming off a horror show of a season, they will almost certainly pay for it heavily next year.
The top minutes pairing of Klefbom/Schultz might be a great idea two years down the road and with established veterans on a tough minutes pairing; obviously that doesn’t seem to be happening either. Klefbom’s incredibly raw as an NHL player and Schultz has consistently shown he’s not as good as the Oilers think he is; if Edmonton banks on that duo to play 22 minutes/game next year they will pay a price for it.
Ference has had three regular partners in Edmonton. Justin Schultz struggled mightily with him, so did Nick Schultz (both have been far better away from the veteran). The only guy who hasn’t drowned on a pairing with Ference is Petry, and even Petry’s been far better apart. Now it seems likely that Petry’s on the way out and the organization will stick a developing player next to Ference on the third pair. Can that raw rookie do what the Schultzs couldn’t? It seems unlikely.
Maybe MacTavish and the Oilers plan to go hard after a veteran to shore up the blue line (I don’t know where they’re getting the money if Nikitin isn’t bought out, but that’s another matter) and just don’t feel like broadly advertising that fact lest they try it and miss. But if they’re seriously looking at the current group and saying ‘you know, if we replace Petry with a rookie it’ll all be good once Nikitin gets healthy’ there’s an incredibly serious problem in the front office.