The Edmonton Oilers’ only move at the trade deadline was to ship Jeff Petry out East in exchange for draft picks, a move which makes one of the weakest defensive groups in the NHL weaker still. And yet, in his press availability yesterday, general manager Craig MacTavish once again praised the players currently comprising that group.
I’m reasonably comfortable going forward with Oscar and Justin and Nikita and Andrew and Mark Fayne. Nikita was playing better. He started off slowly, I don’t think he was in the best shape he could have been and we have to get that rectified next year but he was getting into shape. He’s a top-four NHL defenceman. We’ll see what Jordan Oesterle has coming forward, we’ll see what Brandon Davidson has coming forward; they’re both young players, there’s optimism there that they can develop. We’ve got Darnell Nurse coming forward. Who knows what we get in the draft; we could help ourselves not only at centre but on defence depending on how this team finishes and where the bingo balls fall.
This is a comment that deserves a deeper look.
The top pairing of Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz has figured prominently in MacTavish availabilities over the last while. He cited them earlier in Monday’s press conference as an example of the team moving in the right direction, he defined them as “a real good pair” a week earlier, and a month prior on Oilers Now he made a point of praising Klefbom’s impact on Schultz.
He’s right, but it comes with some caveats. Todd Nelson has had seven regular defencemen under his watch. Klefbom and Schultz rank 1-2 in quality of teammates, with a big drop to Ference at 3. There isn’t a big spread in quality of competition, but they do rank fifth and sixth, respectively. Schultz starts 64 percent of his non-neutral zone shifts in the offensive zone, Klefbom 61 percent and nobody else on the team is higher than 46 percent under Nelson. All this and Klefbom’s Corsi number is sitting at 50.5 percent and Schultz’s at 49.7.
Don’t like the numbers? We can put it plainer: They play with the Oilers best forwards, they get a big push in the offensive zone and they aren’t asked to shutdown top opponents. All this and (on a bad team, admittedly) they’re only flirting with break-even in terms of on-ice shots and goals (Schultz is minus-2, Klefbom minus-5) under Nelson.
What about Nikitin being a top-four defenceman? Let’s look at his role with previous NHL teams.
- 2010-11, 20th-place St. Louis Blues: 16:23 TOI/game, seventh of seven regulars.
- 2011-12, 30th-place Columbus Blue Jackets: 23:34 TOI/game, third of seven regulars.
- 2012-13, 17th-place Columbus Blue Jackets: 21:11 TOI/game, fourth of seven regulars.
- 2013-14, 14th-place Columbus Blue Jackets: 17:06 TOI/game, seventh of seven regulars.
If we write this season off owing to Nikitin’s poor conditioning (and seriously, since when is any player, let alone a massively expensive UFA hire, just allowed to play his way into shape?) the evidence still doesn’t suggest Nikitin as more than a No. 4 defenceman. He was once a No. 3 on the worst team in the NHL and that No. 4 rating came with a below-average team in a lockout-shortened year, so we’re being pretty generous with that No. 4 rating, particularly since his most recent non-Edmonton experience is as the No. 6/7 of a playoff bubble team.
So if we tilt our heads to just right the angle and squint it almost looks like Nikitin could be a complementary second pairing player on a middling team, if he bothers to show up in shape next season.
Mark Fayne hasn’t had a great year by any measure, though he’s a guy whose level of ability I don’t worry about too much. New Jersey used him in pretty tough minutes as a complementary piece with a good two-way guy (Andy Greene) and his role has become much tougher in Edmonton. Under Nelson he and rookie partner Martin Marincin (more on him in a moment) have led the team in quality of competition, come in dead last in quality of teammates and done it while hovering around the 40 percent mark in terms of zone starts. Give Fayne a little help and stop throwing him to the wolves and I suspect he’s just fine.
There’s a little more reason for concern in the case of Andrew Ference. Ference has had a rebound year in some tough minutes after being partnered with Jeff Petry. Prior to joining Petry, he struggled badly on a pairing with Justin Schultz. We’ve seen this with Petry before – Ladislav Smid has imploded since being moved to Calgary and other partners while Marincin (again, more on him in a moment) went from playing well in a shutdown role to exile in Oklahoma City after being separated – so if Ference struggles over these last 20 games we shouldn’t be surprised. My guess is that without Petry he can be useful in a third-pairing role if he isn’t asked to do too much heavy lifting.
Then there are the prospects.
Twenty-two year-old Jordan Oesterle, who has a proud 56 games of professional experience under his belt (including his two most recent games in the NHL) should absolutely be returned to the minors next year unless he really blows the doors off the rest of the way. The Oilers have made indications in recent months that they want to start giving their prospects more time; a guy like Oesterle who they clearly like will be a good test. For that matter, so will blue chip prospect Darnell Nurse, who can’t be hurt by starting next season in the minors but will be tempting given his obvious raw talent. Brandon Davidson delivered reasonably competent fill-in play when he was last with the team and unlike the other two guys on this list has served a long AHL apprenticeship. I spent a lot of time watching him last year and he’s a reasonably good defensive defenceman but he has a limited ceiling; my guess is that if he’s put on waivers next year he clears but he might show something down the stretch here.
The thing all three of those guys have in common is that none of them should be counted on for next year’s blue line.
That brings us to Marincin. We’ve talked a lot about Marincin, and understandably so. The 23-year-old has some flaws, but he also comes with a wide range of skills, including size and speed and smarts. He’s had a long apprenticeship to round out his game; he’s at 210 professional games and over half a season in 2013-14 proved himself as a guy with legitimate top-four potential.
The problem, of course, is that he didn’t make MacTavish’s list. MacTavish doesn’t talk about Marincin publicly; the last time I can find the general manager (in my reasonably complete but non-exhaustive archive of transcripts) spending a lot of time discussing the defenceman was out of training camp when he was explaining why the Oilers needed to keep Brad Hunt on the roster over the young Slovak. MacTavish did speak repeatedly in his most recent availability about competitiveness, a quality that Edmonton’s managers clearly value to a tee; unfortunately Marincin isn’t a guy who exudes that quality on the ice (neither is Schultz, but he always weirdly seems to get a pass on these things). Todd Nelson has talked up Marincin’s competitiveness in recent days; one suspects the interim coach is the player’s most dedicated advocate in a position of power.
Edmonton tends to telegraph its moves long in advance, as it did with Petry. Right now, the team is signaling that it doesn’t particularly rate Marincin.
We’ve now gone through the whole group of defenceman that MacTavish talked up (or chose to ignore) in Monday’s presser. In order we have:
- a top pairing that isn’t really a top pairing
- a guy who is maybe a No. 4, if he shows up in shape next season
- a good complementary NHL defenceman
- a competent complementary NHL defenceman
- assorted prospects who shouldn’t be trusted
- a good prospect who doesn’t seem to be valued
There’s one, and only one, real reason to be optimistic about management’s assessment of its defence. Craig MacTavish was basically asked how he reconciled his positive view of this group and desire to keep most of it with the team’s atrocious results. From his answer:
I see [the need for] three or four pieces, significant pieces going forward. With the development internally and with a few significant changes – obviously changes are necessary – I think this group can really move forward and I see a group that’s worthy of our support. They’re a highly competitive group. I have not seen the team compete and play for each other at the level that I’m seeing right now. I think Todd gets a lot of credit for that but a lot of the credit for that goes to the players.
In other words, in MacTavish’s view there’s a decent core of a team here but it’s a core that needs a boost from some big additions. One of the reporters at the presser suggested those missing pieces might be a top-six centre, a No. 1 goalie and two top-pairing defencemen, and that’s probably a reasonable way to look at it. If MacTavish agrees, he may be thinking he can land the centre at this year’s draft, the goalie through free agency and eventually fill one of those two defensive holes with Nurse, probably in 2016-17. If that’s his point-of-view, that strongly suggests that those draft picks the Oilers have been collecting will be used to go shopping for a top-pair defender, which might leave next year’s depth chart looking like this:
- Outside Hire – Mark Fayne
- Oscar Klefbom – Justin Schultz
- Andrew Ference – Nikita Nikitin
- Martin Marincin
There’s a lot of ifs in those projections, and even still it isn’t a group I’d particularly want to go to war with as a general manager.
It’s going to be an important summer for Craig MacTavish and the Oilers’ blue line. If he has something up his sleeve, the team might improve markedly. If, on the other hand, he really is comfortable with what he has than he’d be well-served taking a few minutes to polish up his resume.