THE 24TH MAN (IR)

Last season, Nikita Nikitin hit the IR early and often. As players age and their ability to play at a high level erodes, the wear and tear impacts more often and leaves those players on the sidelines with increasing frequency. A lot of talk these days about the Oilers having ‘too many defensemen’ but how many healthy blue do they have?

Last season, Edmonton employed 13 defensemen and the list of reasons for absence was long and impactful:

  • Niki Nikitin missed three games due to back injury (Oct. 27)
  • Andrew Ference missed three games due to suspension (Nov. 3)
  • Niki Nikitin missed three games due to back spasms (Nov. 4)
  • Niki Nikitin missed 10 games with a back injury (Dec. 7)
  • Oscar Klefbom missed two games with a foot injury (Dec. 14)
  • Keith Aulie missed two games due to suspension (Jan. 1)
  • Niki Nikitin missed 21 games with shoulder injury (Jan. 30)
  • Jeff Petry missed two games with a rib injury (Feb. 20)
  • Andrew Ference missed nine games due to a lower body injury (Mar. 21)
  • Mark Fayne missed eight games due to shoulder injury (Mar. 27)
  • Niki Nikitin missed four games with foot injury (Apr. 4).

There were others (Brandon Davidson had an early injury, Jeff Petry was wobbly enough to miss an early game) but those are the major items. Three defensemen (Andrew Ference, Mark Fayne and Niki Nikitin) were injured right at the end of this past season, so we’re not certain of complete recovery. I mention it because those injuries could have had an impact on buyout options (although there is no proof of such a development).

THE 2015-16 SEASON

  • Peter Chiarelli on the defensive depth chart: “Now we have nine D, I’d rather have nine than five.
    That creates competition.You can carry eight D. It depends on what
    happens in the next little while, and maybe it ends up in camp.”

If we create a list of those nine defenders (and I’ll include Brandon Davidson because he’s probably going to be a story, win lose or waivers) we get the following:

  1. Justin Schultz (missed one game last season)
  2. Oscar Klefbom (missed two games last season)
  3. Eric Gryba (missed seven games last season)
  4. Andrej Sekera (missed eight games last season)
  5. Mark Fayne (missed eight games last season)
  6. Andrew Ference (missed 12 games last season)
  7. Nikita Nikitin (missed 40 games last season)
  8. Griffin Reinhart up from the AHL
  9. Brandon Davidson up from the AHL
  10. Darnell Nurse up from junior

Remember, a season ago 13 defensemen played and eight of them played over 30 games. It’s reasonable to assume that—barring a trade or waiver loss—all 10 of these defensemen will play a significant number of games in the NHL this coming season.

ISSUES, WORRIES AND OPPORTUNITIES

When we talk about the Oilers in 2015-16, it’s probably wise to include the big money veterans in the starting lineup for opening night.

  • Klefbom—Sekera
  • Nikitin—Schultz
  • Ference—Fayne
  • (Reinhart and Gryba in the pressbox)

Remember, Chiarelli talked about (and it’s very possible) we see eight defenders on the 23-man roster. I think the Oilers will be very active during the season and it’s possibly two or even three of the men listed here move on during the season. Nikitin and Gryba are both UFA at the end of the season and could be moved along, plus Andrew Ference is a veteran blue and those players have strong value at any deadline. Complicating his trade? There’s one more year on his contract.

I think Oilers fans can assume a few things:

  • Sekera, Klefbom and Fayne are on the opening night roster and are here long term.
  • Justin Schultz is in the ‘show me’ phase of his Oilers career.
  • Reinhart and Nurse are going to push the other veterans out of work and that should happen early and often in the 2015-16 season.
  • The IR will become de facto 24th man. Oilers will be hiding older players who have been passed by younger men until they can offload them.

This is not a balanced defense but the work has only begun. Peter Chiarelli has added Andrej Sekera and some depth, with Griffin Reinhart hopefully ready to join the battle. Todd McLellan brings miles of experience and the understanding that possession means playing defense is a smaller part of the overall game. Count on a dozen defensemen this season, at least two of them currently on other NHL rosters. That’s a fair bet.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    “It depends on what goes on in the next little while, and maybe it goes on into camp.” Sounds to me like a guy who has a plan but doesn’t want to advertise it. Chiarelli’s done some nice stuff so far, but his biggest move was simply drafting the first overall player and let’s be honest here, I could have gotten that one right for a lot less of Daryl Katz’s money. He wants to do more before the season starts, he wants to put his name on this team, not the consolation prize for what was really a horrible season. It might take until the end of August, it might even drag into camp, but I’ll be much more surprised if this defence doesn’t see one more major summer upgrade than if it does.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    The intangible with Gio is his leadership. They made the playoffs without him, but they wouldn’t have had the hot start necessary to stay in contention if they didn’t have his calming influence on the blue.

    Or if, you know, we didn’t hold the door open for the Flames by beating the Kings.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    It seems a bit of a mess to me, so I’m really interested to see how this is all handled.

    Do you allow for the Captain to be scratched on a regular basis? This would paint Chiarelli as a bit more no-nonsense than our previous GMs, that put up with sub-par performance (including poor performance from a coach that went on for too long).

    Or do you allow more deserving players like Nurse go to the AHL when he has a better training camp than most of his peers? While Nurse could benefit from big minutes in the AHL, it’ll be very hard to explain to him, especially after acquiring Gryba and Reinhart.

    So I guess we’re going to learn a whole lot more about what sort of man Chiarelli is. I’m pretty forgiving whichever decision he makes, considering that he inherited some bad contracts that essentially ties his hands when it comes to improving our defensive roster.

    I’m ok with the Oilers biting their fist and going through this season without buying out contracts, without Nurse and Reinhart regularly in the roster, and with a less than ideal defensive roster. A large part of my acceptance is the fact that McLellan employed a team defense for Team Canada that worked remarkably well, I’m less worried about things being “catastrophic” and see them being more “less than ideal, for now”.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    I think without Chara, Hamilton will not be nearly as effective with Chara by his side. Having a ten year Norris Candidate and Oak Tree playing beside you will give you miles and miles of confidence. His play will drop off this year, hell if you put Justin Schultz beside Chara he’d look good. Just IMHO.

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      Come to think of it , in an international tourney Marincin looked really good playing beside Chara as well . Looked as good if not better than Hamilton .