It’s no secret that the Oilers have a crowd on the back end. Prospects Darnell Nurse, Griffin Reinhart and Brandon Davidson will all push for spots on the NHL roster. Newcomers Andrej Sekera and Eric Gryba are major-league veterans and will figure into the mix. Those five players will have to contend with a returning group of five who were on the blue line last season.
What gets talked about less is that the NHL roster isn’t the only place that’s crowded. The Bakersfield Condors have a long list of defenceman looking for AHL playing time, and one of head coach Gerry Fleming’s key challenges will be to find development time for all his prospects.
The Defensive Depth Chart
I’ve assumed here that the Oilers will keep eight defencemen in the majors, press-boxing disappointing veterans Andrew Ference and Nikita Nikitin. That’s not the only option available to Edmonton, and it’s entirely possible that we’ll see a player like Griffin Reinhart start the year in the AHL.
Even if he doesn’t, Bakersfield is going to have a full roster.
It’s assured that Darnell Nurse will get a ton of playing time if he ends up in the minors; he’s a good bet to be a top-pairing defenceman out of the gate in the AHL, assuming that he’s demoted and doesn’t make the Oilers out of training camp.
David Musil is another player who will get a lot of playing time; he’s entering his third professional campaign, got an NHL cup of coffee last season and this is a make-or-break year for him. In 2016-17 Musil will need to clear waivers to be assigned to the AHL and the 2011 second-round pick has a lot of good qualities. The organization has little choice but to play him a lot and he’s likely to earn his minutes on merit in any event.
Brandon Davidson will need to clear waivers to be demoted and is a strong candidate for NHL employment next year, even if only as a No. 7 defenceman. If he’s in the minors, he’ll likely be behind only Nurse on the left side depth chart.
Brad Hunt is the lone veteran in the group, and my guess is that he shifts over to the right side as he has in years past. He’ll power the Condors’ power play and likely get top-four minutes as a mentor to the younger players on the roster.
I have Jordan Oesterle and Dillon Simpson starting on the third pairing as they enter their second professional campaigns. Oesterle had an NHL cameo last season and should push for top-four work but there simply isn’t much room. Simpson too should be expected to push for top-four work as part of his progression as a prospect. There’s no real rush on either guy, but both should be in the NHL conversation next year at this point so they’ll have to be given a chance to show progress.
Outside the top-six on my depth chart are rookie pros Ben Betker and Joey Laleggia and imploding prospect Martin Gernat.
Gernat is in free-fall after previously being a prospect of significant interest; he’s a wildcard at this point. I wouldn’t be surprised if after a hard summer he shows well in training camp and gets some major-league consideration. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Oilers loaned him to a European club to make room. He’s 6’5” and he can skate and move the puck, so it would be a shame if he were squeezed out without getting another shot but it could easily happen.
Either or both of Laleggia and Betker might find themselves in the ECHL to start the year, and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since it would guarantee playing time. It’s a safe bet that at least one defenceman will be injured before the end of training camp, so one of these guys can probably force his way into Bakersfield’s top-six. I wouldn’t be surprised if both ended up playing about 55 games in the AHL, getting a cup of coffee in the ECHL and spending some time in the pressbox.
Nick Pageau is on an AHL contract and at age 27 can’t really be described as a prospect. He’ll likely start the year in the ECHL and only be brought up if injury opens up a need.