The summer of 2015 will be remembered as a time when sanity prevailed in free agency, when the contracts were reasonable and quality players lasted late into July. Given the odd surplus of quality players on defence, it’s worth taking a look at how Edmonton’s weakest position last season has changed over the summer so far, just to see if there’s a need to add another piece.
Five regulars from last season are currently slated to return.
Oscar Klefbom emerged as the Oilers’ best left-side defenceman by the end of last season and is a great mix of size, speed and skill with the puck. Heading into his sophomore season, the 21-year-old should be improved, but it is well worth remembering that development often isn’t a straight line. If he has ups and downs and makes only tentative progress, nobody should be overly surprised or look too harshly at the player. Still, he’ll likely be better.
Nikita Nikitin had a disastrous campaign, missing a bunch of time with injury and looking positively lost when paired with Justin Schultz (he was better with Mark Fayne). He’s at an age where we shouldn’t expect massive improvement or massive erosion, but he’s been a better player in previous seasons and he should rebound from the worst campaign of his career. Of course, he could also be bought out this weekend.
Justin Schultz is the team’s incumbent No. 1 defenceman. He’s 25 years old and has 203 NHL games under his belt, so massive advances may not be on the table and to-date in his career he hasn’t established himself as a legitimate top-four defenceman at even-strength. I’d peg him for significant improvement on the power play but I’m skeptical he’ll be all that much better at five-on-five (and for those inclined to bring up coaching, it wasn’t all that long ago that Craig Ramsay was supposed to fix him, so let’s put a pin in that conversation).
Mark Fayne is in the same age range as Nikitin, but unlike his fellow he delivered reasonably solid play for the Oilers. He had some down moments, particularly when asked to do too much with the puck, but is a solid citizen and should deliver reliable minutes next season.
Andrew Ference is in the downswing of his career. Jeff Petry managed to breathe some life into him for a portion of the season, but post-deadline he was lost. He’s 36 years old and given his age there’s no reason to believe we’ve seen the worst of him yet. It’s going to be a long year for the veteran, assuming he stays with the team.
Three regulars from last season have been replaced, and two younger players who got some minutes will be looking at expanded roles.
Jeff Petry, who was criminally underrated by Oilers management and by NHL management more broadly, suddenly found his reputation sharply on the rise once he arrived in Montreal and got to play with a good team. He’ll be replaced by Andrej Sekera, who is a similar two-way player in many respects. Sekera’s a good player, but he’s also replacing a good player so I don’t know that this represents more than a marginal upgrade, if that.
Keith Aulie is gone after one ineffective season, replaced by Eric Gryba. Gryba brings a similar game in terms of size and physical play to the Oilers, but is a much better defenceman overall. This improves the team, but again we’re looking at a No. 6/7 defenceman so the improvement can’t be expected to significantly move the dial for Edmonton overall.
Martin Marincin was shipped away at the draft, and (at least) three players will by vying to take his minutes. Griffin Reinhart, the No. 4 pick in the 2012 Draft, has to be the favourite to claim a roster spot after a year rounding out his game in the AHL. Darnell Nurse, the No. 7 selection in 2013, is likely the better prospect but may find himself starting the year in the minors. Finally Brandon Davidson impressed in a cameo last year and may stick as a reserve defenceman given that he’ll need to clear waivers.
There’s long-term promise in this group, but in the short-term there’s also a lot of risk. The addition of Sekera helps a lot but basically just erases the mishandling of Petry a year ago. The hope for improvement largely rests on the ability of Klefbom to give more and for Reinhart/Nurse to deliver legitimate top-four performances as rookies. That seems sub-optimal both from an ideal development perspective and from a winning hockey games perspective.
Peter Chiarelli’s in a tough spot because the veterans brought in to be stopgaps – particularly Nikitin and Ference – haven’t delivered but are still under contract and the last blue chip kid brought in to be a cornerstone (Schultz) is still a long way from being reliable.
Ideally, the Oilers need to add another top-four defenceman if they want to feel sure that this group is better than last year’s group. They can do it if they buyout one of their ineffective vets. They probably should.
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