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
THE END OF 2012-2013
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
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
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:
N. Schultz J. Schultz
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
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
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
Smid Marincin Petry N. Schultz Ference J. Schultz
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
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.
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?
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 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.