There should be no question what the Edmonton Oilers’ greatest necessity is. The club desperately needs a top-pairing rearguard, preferably a No. 1 left-shooting defender. That player isn’t easy to find; even with a concerted effort the Oilers may not be able to land him and it isn’t at all clear that the team is willing to put the legwork in.
If there’s one benefit to Edmonton’s nasty skid of the past few days, it might be that the obvious need for a top defenceman has been made abundantly clear to management. The great fear is that it hasn’t.
It is likely that general manager Craig MacTavish will give a state of the team availability at some point not too long after the conclusion of the Oilers’ season. When he does, he needs to make it clear that his viewpoint has changed since his last major presser, back on March 2:
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.
MacTavish may or may not still feel that way. We’ve seen the Oilers get blown out of some recent games, but injuries have also forced the club to ice Justin Schultz and the Oklahoma City Barons on the blue line. That leaves open the possibility of two very different conclusions:
- Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz have been forced to take on tougher minutes and have been found wanting; therefore they had better not be the Oilers’ top pairing in 2015-16.
- This losing is terrible, but things would be a lot different if Andrew Ference, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin were healthy and supporting the defence.
If the Oilers brain-trust comes to the former conclusion, they have plenty of time to do something about it. If they come to the latter conclusion, 2015-16 is already a write-off.
What Can One Man Do/Can One Man Be Found?
Ideally, the Oilers would be extremely active this summer. Failing that, they need to make sure the moves they do make are big enough to have a real impact on the club.
One good defenceman could go a long way. Paul Martin is a pending free agent and the player I’m going to use as an example, mostly because he seems like a guy who might shake loose and who might be attainable. If the Oilers were to add Martin and do nothing else, they could potentially ice the following depth chart:
- Paul Martin – Mark Fayne
- Oscar Klefbom – Justin Schultz
- Andrew Ference – Nikita Nikitin
- Martin Marincin
It isn’t ideal. I’m not at all convinced that Edmonton should be married to the Klefbom/Schultz pairing, I’d have Nikitin headed for a buyout, I’m skeptical about the abilities of several players there to live up to their positions on the depth chart and I don’t think there are six better options than Marincin. But it has the virtue of being plausible, both in terms of being attainable for a team in the Oilers’ position and being at least hypothetically palatable for MacTavish and company.
And it’s a group that might just be middling enough for the Oilers to make some headway in the standings. Martin has been facing tough minutes for ages, can contribute at both ends of the rink and has a lot in common with Andy Greene, Fayne’s old partner in New Jersey who he had good success with. Klefbom and Schultz have had good stretches in a somewhat sheltered role; with a little progress from one or both they could potentially be a decent second pairing. Ference and Nikitin aren’t exciting but should be able to tread water as a third pairing; if not Marincin is a seventh defenceman who can play.
Adding someone at least as capable as Martin may or may not be enough to make the defence serviceable. It should be seen as the bare minimum for MacTavish and company.
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