Edmonton Oilers’ Defence Corps: 2015-16 vs. 2014-15

21-Ference-6

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.

The Holdovers

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

Changes

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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.

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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.

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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.

Assessment

Darnell Nurse

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.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • I was pretty excited about Sekera being signed (have liked him for a while, like many others) and I have always liked Petry, so it was tough to see MacT bungle that one. When you phrase it as Sekera replacing Petry, I’m a lot less confident in this year’s D changes. That said, I think Sekera is actually better than Petry, although it may not be by that much.

    This team really needs another higher end D-man. Not Franson, in my opinion, but I’m not sure there’s really any good options. Maybe Ehrhoff since he looks like he’ll be cheap, but of course that also comes with a risk, thanks to injury problems.

    • The Claymax

      There is literally no other option, other than franson for the right side D.

      The best we can hope for is that nurse/klefbom develop into studs and carry their pairings.

      The Reinhardt trade still doesn’t make sense with sekera nurse and klefbom all occupying the left side.

      I miss Petry.

  • Anton CP

    Not a lot of reason to buy out Nikitin, the best way is to pretend he is not even there. No point to buy out someone with a year turn left unless the Oilers desperately need that little cap room (considering buy out will still take a cap hit for an extra year) then just lock the door behind and don’t ever whisper his name again.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    I’m not sure where or when Jeff Petry became such a top flight NHL defenseman?? Not sure what hockey games some posters on here were watching, but for me, Montreal can have the $5.5 million per on their books and I will take Sekera at that same price any day of the week…

    As far as the defense is concerned, I will agree that Chiarelli inherited an absolute mess on the blueline, but to think that Edmonton’s defense is much better than last year is very optimistic. I would say as of today it is mediocre at best. Since Chris Pronger left town, this team has been in need of a horse, yet every offseason we add a couple of 5,6,7,8 defenseman and think its an improvement. Garbage in, garbage out. We need a stud. Darnell will be that guy….in 2-3 years. Does that mean we waste 2-3 more years of our 1st overall draft picks careers waiting for Darnell to maybe become that guy?

    If we don’t add either Franson or Ehrhoff to the mix, it will be another long season for us Oiler fans. Not that I’m a huge fan of either player, but the fact that they’re reliable, legitimate NHL top 4 Dmen will help everyone on the team.

    The whole hoping that Talbot posts the same numbers with a much worse defense, is a long shot. Hoping young inexperienced defenseman will come in and be top 4 defenseman in the best league in the world, is a long shot. McDavid is a dream come true, but to think he’s going to carry us anywhere with this defense, is a long shot. All these long shots add up to another season near the bottom of the ultra-tough Western Conference. I do like what Chiarelli has done thus far and more importantly, what Nicholson has done for the entire optics of the organization, but this team, with all the bells and whistles on the top 3 forward lines, still lacks bigtime on the backend.

    • Reg Dunlop

      I am largely in agreement with the above. I do however draw your attention to 2 things:

      1 Most fans completely ignore the fact that Klefbom has been very successful playing a RHD position at the World Championships.

      2 Most fans are still “whale hunting” when they are waiting to acquire Seabrook or Byfuglein. These same arm chair GM’s are turning their noses up at players like Ehrhoff or Franson.

      DO NOT FORGET, the Oilers have had a lousy D Corps for a long time and even an incremental improvement can be significant.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    @ Wintoon

    I am a big Klefbom fan…if the Oil can lock him up to a long term contract at reasonable dollars they should get on it soon. I look at that like Nashville did with Roman Josi. Got him committed before the rest of the world realized how good he really is.

    However, the combination of him and or Nurse is still a few years away from being able to shutdown the Kopitar/Getzlaf/Thornton/Backes etc of the Western Conference. Having a legitimate top 4 NHL defender help bridge that gap would help significantly. I agree the Oilers have had very bad defensive corps, and that some help may improve this team, but I don’t think it will be good enough against the other teams. Because we’re bad and get slightly better, doesn’t make the other teams any worse.