Peter Chiarelli signed free agent defender Andrej Sekera and traded for Eric Gryba and Griffin Reinhart in the past week. He still has Oscar Klefbom, Mark Fayne, Andrew Ference, Nikita Nikitin and Justin Schultz on the roster and Darnell Nurse will turn pro this year.
Will the Oilers’ blueline be better than last year?
Your first response was most likely, “They better be,” which is completely understandable.
I believe it is virtually impossible not to be.
Here is the starting six for game one last year. I’ve outlined their ES minutes, because there was only six minutes of special teams play in the opening game.
Justin Schultz: 20:56
Brad Hunt: 18:02
Nikita Nikitin: 17:52
Mark Fayne: 17:42
Jeff Petry: 16:13
Andrew Ference 16:01
That is not a good picture.
Petry didn’t play in the preseason due to injury and Dallas Eakins didn’t want to rush him back. I guess he believed Petry at 80% wasn’t as good as Schultz or Hunt. It is obvious that some of the coaching decisions regarding icetime amongst the blueliners was highly questionable, but even when all the players were healthy the former coaching staff wasn’t blessed with an abundance of talent. That said, I felt too often they didn’t put players in the best position to succeed.
The Oilers starting lineup for 2015/2016 will be much better than the aforementioned roster.
Todd McLellan will have much better options to choose from.
Sekera shoots left, but he can play both sides. I believe Mark Fayne is better than his numbers showed last year. I felt he was underutilized and 64% of the time he was paired with Nikitin or Martin Marincin, neither of which was a solid defender. Fayne did not have a great year, but I expect he’ll be much better this year, used properly and paired with a more suitable partner.
Those two will be solid defenders in their own end.
I’m a big fan of Klefbom and if you pair him with one of those two, rather than Schultz, he will emerge as a solid top-four defender. Klefbom matured a lot last season, and he’ll be better due to learning some hard lessons. He is built to handle heavy minutes.
Nurse is the wildcard. He is the best skater of the bunch. He is aggressive and mean, but has the least experience. He has to win his spot on the team, which is great, rather than be handed icetime. I know many believe it will be best for him to start the season in the AHL, and I can understand that rational, but if he shows he clearly better than Nikitin, Ference and Reinhart then he needs to stay.
Schultz will be better this year, because he won’t be fed to the lions. It was asinine to have him play the most minutes on the team. It did not put him in a position to succeed. Schultz is not physically strong enough to play 22 minutes a game. He wasn’t conditioned for it, and you could see when he was fatigued. He should be playing 18 minutes a game, with about 14-15 of that at ES.
Schultz needs to be more competitive, but playing fewer minutes will allow him to utilize his maximum strength more often. He needs to train harder and get stronger, but he was put in a position to fail rather than succeed, by playing big minutes.
I don’t see that being an issue this year. He should receive 3rd pairing minutes at ES and PP time, because the Oilers have better depth on the backend.
HOW MUCH BETTER WILL THE “D” BE?
The opening night roster was a bit misleading, but I wanted to use it to illustrate the point that the Oilers started the season destined to fail. You were not going to win with that D corps, even if Petry played the most minutes.
The top minutes amongst Oilers blueliners last season was:
Schultz: 1.831 TOI (22:36/game)
Fayne: 1,327 (17:56)
Ference: 1,321 (18:52)
Klefbom: 1.319 (21:59)
Petry: 1,236 (20:57)
Nikitin: 824 (19:38)
Marincin: 764 (18:38)
Aulie: 443 (14:18)
Hunt: 214 (19:29)
Davidson: 181 (15:08)
Jordan Osterle played 88 minutes, David Musil 80 and Nurse played 34.
When you look at TOI/game, the only two I see playing similar minutes this season are Fayne and Klefbom, and both might be down a bit.
Ference will not play 19 minutes a game and Schultz definitely won’t be on for almost 23, which should help both of them perform better.
Sekera will play more than Petry, mainly because he is good on the PP, but their ES numbers will likely be similar. Petry is a better skater than Sekera, while Sekera is a better pure defender. Sekera will replace Petry, and I’d argue will be a slight upgrade. I’m not complaining about Petry, I feel Sekera essentially replaced him, and the Oilers record, even with Petry, was not that great. I like Sekera a bit more because of his offensive upside and his overall strength.
But the other five D will be better than last season due to more experience, more size and because I expect Todd McLellan and Jim Johnson to use them in positions where they will have a better chance to succeed rather than fail.
It was a refreshing change to see GMs show some fiscal restraint in free agency. Despite the rumblings that Matt Belesky would get more than $4.5 million he only signed for $3.8. Only four players receive contracts of 4+ years, Paul Martin (4), Belesky and Michael Frolik (5) and Sekera (6). The combination of the small increase in the salary cap and a weak UFA crops played a part, but I wonder if GMs have finally realized that overpaying players on July 1st doesn’t guarantee victories.
Phil Kessel might not be a leader and he won’t win any body competitions, but he is a hell of a scorer and the Maple Leafs gave him away for nothing. I’d argue the return they got for Kessel is just as bad as the return the Bruins received for Dougie Hamilton.
I understand if the Leafs wanted to change their culture, but giving away one of the league’s best scorers for nothing suggests Brendan Shanahan and Kyle Dubas have a lot to learn about being NHL managers. Kessel will flourish in Pittsburgh. He will not be asked to be a leader.
I’m sure he could be in better shape, and possibly a better influence, but even in supposed bad shape he has produced the 8th most points in the NHL over the past five seasons:
Claude Giroux: 376 points
Alex Ovechkin: 366 points
Steven Stamkos: 357 points
Martin St.Louis: 354 points
Sidney Crosby: 347 points
John Tavares: 347 points
Henrik Sedin: 343 points
Ryan Getzlaf: 339 points
Phil Kessel: 339 points
Despite his “conditioning” issues he never missed a game. He along with Antoine Vermette, Patrick Marleau, Andrew Cogliano, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Keith Yandle are the only players to have played every game. (376) the past five seasons.
**Yandle actually played 378 because of mid-season trade. Vermette was benched for a game in Chicago but due to mid-season trade still played 376.**
Kessel might not be a great leader, and the Leafs know more about his dressing room influence, but to garner that patry of a return for a 27 year old winger, who is one of the best point producers in the game was awful.
The Leafs roster current roster does not look great. They traded and signed for two players, Marincin and Mark Arcobello, who were not regular contributors on the Oilers, a team that has owned the NHL’s basement for the past six seasons.. Leafs fans will need to be patient, but they should be concerned that the first major trade made by Shanahan and company was incredibly one-sided in favour of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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