MacT’s Defense

Craig MacTavish10

We can agree universally on just a few things when it comes
to the Oilers. We all agree the team is bad, sure, but what about beyond that?
There are factions of Oiler fans who think Hall should be traded. There are
factions who don’t believe in Yakupov. Heck, there are still people defending
Scrivens’ season. But one thing that isn’t a question is this: Craig MacTavish’s
defense is substandard. He has been on the job for two years and it is no better today than when he started.

Goalies have weird seasons where it looks like they can’t
stop a beach ball then somehow turn it around. Devan Dubnyk was traded from
Edmonton AND Nashville then buried in the minors by Montreal before he had his
not so bummer summer and rebounded to the point where he warrants Vezina
consideration. So we can forgive MacT, just a little, for thinking he made good
bets on Scrivens and Fasth to at least be league average goaltenders. His
rearguards, however…

THE END OF 2012-2013

Smid and Petry

To be as fair as possible to the situation, MacT inherited a pretty weak defense at the end of the 2012-2013 season. Sorted by order of Time
on Ice per Game, this is what that team looked like:

Jeff Petry 21:56

Justin Schultz 21:26

Ladislav Smid 20:19

Nick Schultz 18:37

Ryan Whitney 18:28

Theo Peckham 17:38

Corey Potter 17:27

Mark Fistric 15:20

Some things to consider: Ryan Whitney was at the end of his
NHL career. He would go on to play just seven more games for Florida and that’s
all. The foot problems that were known before he was even traded for by the
Oilers and later exacerbated by an accident involving a rut on the ice had
robbed him of the mobility needed to make him an impact player.

Also, Theo Peckham appeared in just four games that season. He
would not play another NHL game. He was undone by reportedly appearing at camp
in physical conditioning closer to your average blogger than your average NHL
player.

Corey Potter and Mark Fistric would be pending UFAs who
would be allowed to hit market as well. I, personally, liked the way Fistric
played. He was mean and hit everything that moved. He also led the defense in
Corsi For and Corsi For Rel despite having the lowest percentage of Offensive
Zone starts among regular defensemen, but lots of fans and bloggers weren’t keen
on him either.

So from that initial group all Craig MacTavish was left with
were Petry, Justin Schultz, Smid, and Nick Schultz. This had made up the top two
pairings for the Oilers, a team that had finished the highest it has ever done
since beginning the official rebuild and despite playing only Western Conference teams
all year.

MacT would add to the potential core of the defense via the
draft, taking Darnell Nurse who still looks like a Blue Chip prospect today.
Unfortunately Nurse was destined to be a more distant future Oiler and the team
still needed to add bodies to strengthen the blueline.

In terms of an NHL depth chart it looked like this:

Smid Petry

N. Schultz J. Schultz

Blank Blank

It was a defense with obvious holes but the team had a lot of flexibility with the position the moment MacTavish seized control of the club.

THE 2013-2014 SEASON

Larsen

To round out the team MacTavish added Ference, Belov, Larsen,
and…Grebeshkov. The addition of Belov seemed an interesting one. He won’t be
remembered well but I don’t think he was as bad as some made him out to be.
Perhaps, as we know now, the problem might have had more to do with Eakins than
we knew at the time. Well maybe one tell was that he actually said he could have re-signed with Edmonton but didn’t want to stay with the coach. Perhaps the answers were too obvious for us to think they could be real.

Larsen was a fun little player and maybe if he was number six
on a good team with bigger players ahead of him he could have found a home, but
on the Oilers he was exposed against bigger teams. Nobody remembers decent possession
numbers or times you play well against the East when the Western teams dominate
you physically. It’s not all his fault, but some key games against big teams
like the Sharks and Kings sealed his fate. And Grebeshkov was a disaster from
the moment he was announced to the team.

As for Ference, he remains a solid third pairing
player. That’s not the role MacT envisioned for him, but he is an OK number six on
a bad team with two more years left on his contract. He had a tough fist season
and was less terrible this year although since the absence of his regular
partner he has all but disappeared. Moving forward I think we can expect
Ference to start catching more games from the press box even when healthy.

Of the new additions the only one to stick past that season
was indeed Ference. The rest of them went on their way in the KHL.

However, Craig MacTavish made some in season changes to that
defense as well. For starters, to make room for all that junk he would later
lose to free agency because his coach was terrible, MacT traded Jeff Petry’s
playing partner Ladi Smid. The Oil sent Roy and Smid to the Flames for Brossoit
and Horak. Brossoit is now Edmonton’s top goaltending prospect, so that’s a plus
even if he probably is a couple years away from NHL action. Still though, Edmonton
lost a defenseman without adding one at the time.

MacT would add another defenseman later in the year by way of Mark Fraser, trading the Leafs the rights to Hartikainen and Cam Abney. Since Hartikainen
wasn’t going to play for the Oilers and Cam Abney can’t actually play hockey it
was almost reasonable. If Hartikainen ever plays a single game for the Leafs
they will win the deal but that’s not assured. Mark Fraser was/is slower than
the Oilers rebuild itself and that doesn’t lend itself well to staying on with
the team.

Mark Fraser

At the deadline MacTavish shipped out veteran defender and pending UFA Nick Schultz for a 5th round pick to Columbus. The trade lost the Oilers 800+ games of experience on the blueline and gave them virtually nothing in return but he had been struggling all year and was unlikely to re-sign with Edmonton anyway.

One positive from last year was the emergence of Martin
Marincin in the second half of the year. He looked good playing with
Petry and the two of them performed well in the fancy stats, which makes it
easier for bloggers to praise him too. He looked good and seemed like a solid
addition. As a drafted and developed player he was exactly what the doctor ordered for this team. 

If we take a look at the 2013-2014 defense when the season
was finished compared to what MacT inherited a year earlier this is what we
get:

Smid Marincin Petry

N. Schultz Ference J. Schultz

Blank Blank

And so moving forward the GM had effectively replaced Schultz and Smid with Marincin and Ference, one player starting his NHL career and one who is reaching its end. Little else had been accomplished on the back end.

THE 2014-2015 SEASON

Nikitin Jultz

MacTavish had taken one year and effectively spun his tires with the defense. All of the gambles came up Double Zero and he failed to get any live defensemen in return for Smid or Nick Schultz. Luckily, reasonable bet (to still be an NHL defenseman at this time) Andrew Ference and rookie standout from the season before had been able to step up to fill the void somewhat. Still, MacT needed to bolster the team.

Not one to learn from his mistakes, MacT made another gamble last summer to attempt another patch job of the defense. He would trade a 5th round pick to Columbus for Nikita Nikitin and then offer an inexplicable 9 Million dollars over two years to the Russian defender who had played his way out of Columbus’ top six. Making insane claims about the defense like “Schultz has Norris potential” or “Nikita Nikitin is a top four defenseman”, MacT had yet again set himself and the organization up for soul crushing failure.

The GM also added steady hand Mark Fayne and Keith Aulie via free agency. Aulie spent some time in the AHL this year and was at one point on waivers, but Fayne has been 17-18 minutes of quiet capable defense. He has been a good addition to the depth of the team no doubt.

Almost immediately, though, the organization turned on Marincin, playing him with Aulie in outmatched preseason games then claiming he didn’t have enough “compete”. He was banished to the AHL despite being clearly superior to several who would remain with the big club.

Brad Hunt, who had played for MacTavish when he was coaching the Chicago Wolves, stuck with the team for 11 games on merit I’m sure. The team also bumbled around at the beginning of the year with Darnell Nurse a bit before returning him to junior. So there was a lot of flux to start the season.

Justin Schultz struggled mightily early despite (because of?) a heavy push by Eakins and the organization and eventually a combination of injuries and ineptitude forced the Oilers to recall Oscar Klefbom. Like Marincin the year before, Klefbom has looked good this year. He has the physical tools to be a top four defenseman and perhaps even more if we account for the fact that he is just 21 years old and his development is almost impossible to project. He skates like the wind, is strong enough to compete for pucks, and has a wicked shot. 

Eventually MacT’s coach of choice was let go and Todd Nelson started filling the team with Oklahoma City Barons, which oddly enough made the team better than it had been. For my money Martin Marincin has looked every bit as solid as he had been the year before but without the benefits of playing with Jeff Petry. Which takes me to the next major change.

petry

Craig MacTavish never made a serious attempt to re-sign Jeff Petry despite the fact that he had been the best defenseman on the team. There had only been a half-assed push by the team to appear as if they tried to sign him about two weeks before the deadline but it was more show than anything else. Ultimately the Oilers turned Jeff Petry into a 2nd round pick and a conditional 5th round pick in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Losing what was their most effective rearguard for next to nothing only created another hole to fill.

Since the deadline the Oilers have been in a complete injury meltdown that could have been at least partially predicted by depending on older and injury prone players like Nikitin and Ference. We are talking about the Oilers though so naturally every experienced defender caught the plague, tore up his shoulder, or broke his back.

WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE US?

gernat-marincin-klefbom-musil

At any rate, the Oilers are about to close out yet another season and we are now two years removed from the defense that MacTavish inherited. So how has it improved? What are the big improvements he’s made in 48 months on the job?

Well, here is the depth chart:

Smid Petry Klefbom Schultz

N. Schultz Marincin Fayne

Nikitin Ference

Nikitin and Ference occupy the BLANK BLANK spots that used to be there and will cost real dollars to vacate if the team wants to chop off the lower tier of defenders in order to add without first taking away from the better parts. Klefbom and Marincin are extremely inexperienced though have varying degrees of talent. Schultz has regressed as a player but occupies a spot higher on the depth chart than he did when MacT took control of the team and Fayne is likely holding down a spot one level above his head.

This is the MacTavish defense just two years into his tenure.

He was given the reigns to a club with a poor defense but with flexibility and has made it worse while also removing a lot of the flexibility. It’s impossible to defend the consistency with which he dealt away NHL defensemen from the roster while adding none in return and that doesn’t account for the verbal assaults to our collective common senses. 

What the defense has are a lot of gambles. As we’ve seen with the way he’s built this defense, that shouldn’t surprise anybody. Perhaps the only one whose performance is almost a given is Mark Fayne. Beyond that, the Oilers are gambling on Justin Schultz to stop a two year slide. They are gambling on Oscar Klefbom to continue developing in a straight line. They are gambling that Nikita Nikitin will spend an entire season as Dr Jekyl (as opposed to Mr Hyde). They are gambling that Andrew Ference ages like Benjamin Button. And they are gambling nobody notices when they shuffle Marincin away despite the fact that he’s probably right now their second best defenseman.

48 months on the job and the best two blueliners on his team were drafted before he got there and started the year in OKC, he’s traded three NHL defensemen away for a 2nd round pick and two 5th round picks along with a prospect goalie, and the only UFA that looks like he can perform up to his contract is Mark Fayne. 

Defending MacT’s defense is almost impossible. There’s no question about it, this team will go nowhere if this is the level of performance we can expect from General Manager Craig MacTavish.

  • Serious Gord

    Matt:

    You have the depth chart order incorrect

    2013-14

    Blank blank

    Smid Petry

    N. Schultz J. Schultz

    2014-15

    Blank blank

    Marincin Petry

    Ference J. Schultz

    2015-16

    Blank blank

    Klefbom Schultz

    Marincin Fayne

  • Micbilly99

    So if this is your starting defense in 2015-16:

    Klefbom Schultz

    Marincin Fayne

    Nikitin Ference

    A few things have to happen.
    1. Nurse stays in the minors until at least January. No point throwing him to the wolves right of the bat. Let him gain some experience in the minors and for god sake teach him something!
    2. Schultz needs to develop some sort of one-timer slapshot, if he does not, then move him off the power play. Teams know he has no shot and therefore play the pass with him. All good power play units have a big shot from the point. Schultz needs to develop that or move him off the PP
    3. Marincin has to put on some weight, muscle and grit. Too often he gets pushed of the puck, or gets outworked. That can’t happen to guy that big and that talented. Time to send him to Gary Roberts to work him out for the summer.
    4. Nikitin needs to show up in September healthy, in top shape and ready to play. Showing up fat and out of shape is not acceptable. The Oilers paid big bucks for him and he showed his gratitude by showing up with a piano tied to his ass. Not cool. If it happens again, they should waive him. No one will take him with that crazy salary and he can work his way back to the Oilers from Bakersfield or where the Oilers want to send him.

  • Andy7190

    Well, I can’t see any reason to keep MacT on the job by looking at his Blueline… or his Goaltending.

    That brings us to the forwards, none of the core being his group.

    So, I think a fairly safe case can be made for firing MacT and Howson and all sorts of others including scouts.

    Let the new GM decide Nelson’s fate.

  • A-Mc

    In the real world, MacT would be heading into his final year as GM if he does not turn the team around. He’ll have this draft, this summer and 3/4 of next season to get the team headed in the upward direction. Unfortunately for us, Oilers ownership and management has their heads in the clouds, so the end is nowhere in sight.

    “The best thing they were going to be was a non-factor” (April 2013). Oilers finished with 45 pts in 48 games, purely vs the west. Projects to ~77pts over 82 games

    “Our most ardent detractor would have to admit that we are a better hockey team visually” (Dec 2014). Oilers will finish the season in 28th place with ~61pts in 82 games.

    Two drafts, two summers, and now two full seasons later, the results are speaking for themselves. How does a team of “non-factors” finish better than the “Visually Better” team we have today? The disconnect is obvious.

  • A-Mc

    My suggestions if we win the lottery:

    For the past two years, most of the posters (incl columnists) have been saying we don’t need any more 18 year olds. I believe that Gretzky in his prime couldn’t haul this lineup into the playoffs. We basically have a handful of good players, 2 handfuls of average players and one handful of never-will-bes.
    The fan base wants a competitive team now, not having to wait another 3 years for youth to develop. Let’s build a playoff team now.
    Tim Murray has let it be known he would cut off both of his mother’s ears to get McDavid. So:
    McDavid to Buffalo for #2 pick plus Bogosian plus their 1st pick in 2016. (We can throw in a prospect or 2 if necessary). This puts McDavid in the Eastern conference where he can only beat us twice a year. Then we move the #2 to Arizona along with Yak for #3 plus OEL and MAYBE their 1st next year if we can get it. (Arizona is even more desperate than us for top end forwards and this gives them an American superstar to market to their fan base). If Arizona won’t trade, then we end up with Eichel and Bogo and an extra lotto ticket for next year; then we look to trade for a guy like Seth Jones or Josi which is much more plausible than Weber. If we get OEL, we use the #3 pick on Strome.
    For 2016/17 our defense shakes out as a 1 and 2 Dmen of OEL-Bogo with some mixture of Nurse Klefbom Shultz Fayne Marincin and other spare parts to round it out. Down center we have Nuge, Drai, Strome, Lander, Yakimov and we extend Gordon for another two years and/or try to get Sobotka from the Blues. On wing we have Hall, Eberle, Pouliot, and the extra centers who can play wing; we also have guys like Pitlick, Slepshev Hendricks etc. At worst we might have to get a couple of bottom 6 wingers on the market.
    This gives us from this July to Sept 2016 to find a #1 goalie. We could be Cup contenders in our first year in the new barn.
    Now go ahead and laugh, then think about it. It works.
    IF WE WIN THE LOTTERY.

  • Andy7190

    Why isn’t New Age Systems here telling us how they just need another castaway D to fully implement the Hammer & Anvil strategy as they swarm their opponents?

  • 916oiler

    Yep. No wonder why goalies do so well elsewhere. Tough to have confidence as a goalie with a defense like that in front of you. Not only does the lack of confidence in your defense get to you, but the losing wears on you over time despite good games here and there it’s too tough to overcome in the long term.

  • A-Mc

    The fact that Mac T thinks bringing in the smallest and probably the slowest defence man ( Ference) in the league, was a good addition…….is all I need to know about his ability to judge talent.

    NN…….same
    Aulie…..same

    The guy is standing in the forest……and to him everything looks like a tree. This is not a good skill-set when you are the GM of the team.

    Mac T has this summer to fix all of his ridiculous errors…….I’m starting to think he is the problem.

  • McDaddy

    I have this sinking feel that we will “land” Phaneuf at the draft for something along the lines of Marincin and the Pitt first (with salary retained).
    Im not endorsing this deal by any means but he will instantly be the oilers best defenceman, which really holds this article true to the fact that this defence is downright pathetic. Just imagine for a second Phaneuf and Jultz on the ice at the same time (shudders)

    BTW, I didn’t mind the long read what do we have better to do then to read about hockey?

    Cheers

    PS, is it strange that every single AHL callup (Oseterle, Musil, Davidson etc) have been better then Ference and Nikitin AKA $8M 7th dmen? Can Mac T fix the defence? If you have to ask the question, you probably know the answer 🙁

  • A-Mc

    There is a top pairing D man available, Dion Phaneuf, but trading for him, assuming we are not on his NT list, would be a huge gamble. He doesn’t seem to be well liked wherever he goes, and his long-term, high-pay contract is an anchor. I think it is $7 or $8 Million a year. Theoretically he might be the key to giving us an NHL defense, but the risk is so great. Again, he might be unwilling to come.

  • Ready to Win

    Signing Nikitin alone should cost Mac T his job….what were you thinking. He was many times a healthy scratch last year. Bad bad call.
    Lowe, what do you do? Do you have any accountability to this organization? Doesn’t matter how fast the blades are spinning, nothing sticks to you. Do the honorable thing and quit.
    Big oiler fan, not to excited about the future. Management has got to pull it off this year

    • Hemmercules

      Considering how terrible the defence looks and how much Mact loves Nurse I would probably bet my life on him playing second pair minutes in game 1 next October.

      I’m thinking same situation as Draisaitl was in this year: Keep him until they get eliminated from the playoffs in December and send him down to dominate for a couple months where he belongs.

  • Ready to Win

    If you’re going to trade the Pitt #1, it should be to move up in the draft. Otherwise, you draft the BPA (preferably a C or D).

    Even with all of the lottery picks, the Oilers prospect pool is not ranked very high. So you have to build it up.

  • Ready to Win

    I think any hope of the Oilers turning things around under MacT’s leadership depends on him recognizing his weakness. He needs to find a scout highly regarded for his ability to evaluate defense and offer the guy a job as assistant GM.

    • Hemmercules

      I think its a hopeless situation. Mact and Lowe just aren’t cut out to build team from the ground up and I can’t really see any indication of them getting let go anytime soon. I’m just wondering how far these guys are going to take this thing? 5 more years of no playoffs seems totally feasible to me at this point.

  • camdog

    So how is that internal audit by Bob Nicholson going? Great article, MacT has done a brutal job in building this defence…he and Six Rings should have long ago been escorted out the door. Nothing will change next year unless MacT and the Oilers fix the D and goaltending. I have no faith that this will happen

  • camdog

    All I know is they are visually better looking with Nikitin and Ference out of the lineup and replaced by rookies or AHL defenseman. THAT alone says everything you need to know about MacT’s ability to assess D men. He’s brutal.

  • camdog

    I wouldn’t be writing this but for your educational bionotes. Those five-syllable words can be tricky. “Exasperated”means “extremely frustrated,” not “a problem whose negative consequences are increased by.” That word is “exacerbated.”

  • WTF2

    MacT’s performance is indefensible. A pathetic failure. for this alone he should be dismissed. He is 2 years on the job an very likely we manage this team to a decade without an appearance in the playoffs.

    His time is up. The sooner he is fired the sooner the team can hire a real hockey guy to steer this sinking ship in a positive direction.

    • camdog

      And the Grebs contract and Barker deal a few years back. I didnt mind Belov, might be because whom he was surrounded by rather than his own game. I would have liked to see what he could have done with a better coach and a year of NHL conditioning rather than KHL conditioning. Big difference between the 2, being in game shape in the KHL is not game shape in the NHL.

    • HardBoiledOil 1.0

      because like the rest of us you want to believe things will get better next season….then next season comes and goes and it doesn’t. us Oiler fans are used to this by now.

  • MacT essentially choose Schultz, and NN over Petry. Which is a very poor evaluation of talent on both accounts.

    Oilers better be focusing all their efforts on getting the best available D man with that Pittsburgh pick. We really need to see a payoff for giving up Perron.