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.

  • A-Mc

    Why would you blame a coach for being a lousy GM? is it a huge surprise that a guy with no experience of being a GM anywhere, let alone in a competent winning organization, isn’t a very good GM. Go figure eh!!

    You should blame the idiot that hired a coach to be the GM,

    • A-Mc

      A coach likely has no negotiation experience but something you wouldnt expect a decent coach to have is a completely wrong read on players and player performance.

      MacT may not get the players at the right price, or for the perfect return, but you’d expect that he would be getting the right players. This has not been the case. He’s getting the WRONG players at the WRONG price and this is how he’s failing as a GM for me.

  • 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

  • freelancer

    But they are Visually better right?

    The visuals presented in this article… show they are visually and visibly worse…

    Mac-T has to be the worse GM in the league…
    I must say that even Kevin Lowe was a better GM..

    • Numenius

      McT’s colossal mistake was hiring Eakins and that tainted everything else he did, including the bets on D.

      Without Eakins, more of those bets, like Belov, might have worked.

      • Mike Krushelnyski

        Not only the hiring but the stubborn stupidity of retaining Eakins past mid season last year when it was clear the guy was a bust. Had he made that move and hired Trotz we’d be in a much different discussion today. That stubborn streak along with the smartest man in the room attitude deserves pink slips Monday the 13th.

  • freelancer

    I will be very interested to see what MacT says about the defence at his year end presser. I can’t think of a single intelligent argument to why anyone would want Klef-Schultz to be the locked in top pairing for next season. If MacT can’t bring in a top defender, maybe a vet top 4 guy as well than we might as well write off the 2015-2016 season as well.

  • A-Mc

    So what you’re saying is that over the summer, MacT will trade Fayne for a 2nd and 5th round pick, play NN and Ference as the new 3/4 pairing, force Marincin and Nurse to play as the 5/6, and keep aulie around as #7.

    Also, our first round pick will likely go to the only non-Defense Non-centerman in the top 5 (Crouse), and he will be forced to play in the NHL on the 2nd line with Dr Drai.

    Is this what we have to look forward to? You may sense some tongue in cheek but sadly.. history states that this scenario is more likely to come true than not. *cries*

  • Zarny

    No, you can’t defend MacT’s defense. They are arguably the worst blueline in the league. That MacT suggests he is comfortable moving forward with a D core responsible for another garbage season is either an outright lie or stupid beyond belief.

    The problem, or at least a problem, is MacT’s refusal to actually give up something to fix obvious holes. He’ll gamble on retreads like Nikitin and rush prospects while throwing them in over their head, but he won’t part with anything of value to actually get what he needs.

  • 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 🙁

  • 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

    Yes Mact should be fired from just this list above of atrocities. How him Low and co cant figure out you need NHL defenseman to compete is astounding.

    I have a WWYDW question:

    Imagine Pitt misses playoffs giving us two lottery picks. Now imagine the Pitt pick wins lottery.

    How would you fix Oilers Team if we had 1st and 4th pick going into this draft?

    I realize its a pipe dream but hey never know.

    • A-Mc

      1st – McDavid
      4th – Strome

      This, every day of the week. I understand that the picks have huge value and could bring in experience, but this kind of a lucky scenario just doesnt come around very often. McDavid and Strome are on the same team and play on the same line at times if i’m not mistaken (Eventhough both are Centers), so They come w/ instant chemistry already.

      The addition of these 2 would free up another high profile player to move out in trade for a defenseman imo. An Eberle or Yak (if he regains value, which i think he is doing). I dont know this to be true but i would think Eberle would have more value than Strome, because he’s already NHL proven. The 4th pick probably doesnt bring in as much as Eberle would and with Strome being another CEnterman that can play wing, we now have a scorer that is flexible with his positioning. You can never have too many centers!

          • Micbilly99

            I completely disagree. Chicago has to make space under the cap for a Brandon Saad extension, raises for Rundblad and Kruger, and $8.4 million in increased salary to Toews&Kane. Seabrook will be in his final year at $5.8 million, and will command $8+ million on an extension in 2016. (that would be a $2.2+ million increase for the same player)

            Perhaps Chicago views him as irreplaceable and they move heaven and earth to keep him. Maybe they give away Sharp and Hossa this year, and Bickell in 2016. Those moves would clear $15.175 in space for a 2016 Seabrook extension.

            Chicago would have to replace those top two forwards anyways (psst, they’re old). But for the chance at Marner, Strome or any one of the other highly rated forwards at #4, maybe they see the early loss of Seabrook (and the dumping of the ridiculous $6 million Crawford deal) as acceptable.

            Perhaps Chicago goes all-out this offseason, trading Hossa, Sharp, and Bickell. That would leave them the necessary space to retain their other players. That would also leave them short a top six forward (Saad would move up) and two key bottom six forwards (Saad would move up). Aaaaaallllll of this, and their second line center is a 34 year old UFA.

            They have 12 RFA/UFA who contributed the NHL roster. They have set this summer up as a significant year. If they don’t plan to throw money at Seabrook, this will be the time to get him.

      • A-Mc

        Totally agree that’s what I would do to.

        For me makes any winger available for trade possible Drai too, to shore up the defense. Package one of those wingers with picks in 2016 or later round 2015 and see if we can bring in 1D and another D or G. Sign a vet C for season like maybe Roy….

    • 15w40

      #1 McDavid

      #4 Trade for #1 Defenseman or use the pick and trade one of Eberle/Draisaitl/Yak to obtain a #1 Defenseman

      Oilers do not need 2 more 18 year olds. They don’t need one more 18 year old for that matter but McDavid would be the exception.

    • Draft McDavid with the 1st,

      Package the 4th with a prospect D such as Marincin for a top defender I’d be curious if we could pry Oliver Ekman-Larsson out of Phoenix. Maybe also look a deal for Justin Faulk out of Carolina.

      I’m not to keen on changing our goalies a whole lot until our Defense is fixed. But we do need to find a goalie, if our defense is solved by those deals I think we could look at giving up one of our young forwards for a goalie. The best think to look at would be at a rebuilding team with a good goaltender for 4-5 years as I think Brossoit is going to develope into a starter. We could also look at Anaheim who has a large amount of solid young goaltenders at this stage, and two likely starters in Frederic Andersen and John Gibson. With the way Nuge and Eberle have stepped up to end the year, along with Yakupov’s improvement as of late, the two possible young forward pieces I see being possibly moved would be Hall or Draisaitl.

  • So basically the current bottom pairing of this team runs a cool 8 mil a season.. Good to see Mac T up on his money management skills!

    Great article Arch, but “wow”, this is seriously depressing.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Micbilly99

    MacTavish’s decisions regarding defenseman are just mind-boggling. Based on these choices alone he should be replaced.

    You’re probably right that Belov won’t be remembered fondly, but I do remember quite liking him early last season. Later on Belov became one of the few players I’ve ever seen that made me really angry when I watched him play. He was so big, could skate so well, could shoot bullets, could make and take a pass, but somehow he could just not be bothered to put everything together every game. I can’t stand “all the tools but no toolbox” players sometimes, you see them and they just have all the physical gifts and talent in the world but they either can’t or won’t make themselves the player they could be. Nikitin bothers me much the same way this season, and while he can’t skate as well as Belov the fact that he’s making five times as much to play so badly makes it even worse.

  • 786

    Never understood why Lowe and MacTavish are not so keen on Petry who is their best D man. But being irrational is typical Lowe and MacT. I’d suggest neurologist to these guys.

  • 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.

  • Off topic but please Oilers don’t draft MA Pouliot, I mean Gagner, I mean Strome.

    Could he turn out to be a good player? Of course. But learn from your past mistakes drafting players who play with superstars in junior. Before anyone says it, yes I know they were rarely on the same line 5v5. But that means he got nice soft minutes 5v5 and played with the next Crosby on the PP.

    Not worth the risk in a deep draft.

    • LibrarianMike

      It’ll never happen. The only thing the MSM has over bloggers is access to the team, and they’re too reliant on that access to genuinely shine a light on the rot within this organization.

      Instead, they are content parroting the messaging from on-high, crafting lazy narratives focused on things that don’t actually matter (i.e. when a player leaves practice), and resting on laurels they earned three decades ago.