We know the Oilers mismanaged their defense last year — from Marincin being sent down in favour of Brad Hunt, to the constant trotting out of Justin Schultz no matter his quality of
play, to the Petry saga — there was a definite disconnect between what the team
was doing and what many of us on the outside were seeing. Chiarelli has
changed the makeup of the defense, and added veteran coaching to the Oilers, so
perhaps the gap between what the club does and what we see won’t be so drastic.
Since Sekera was added to the roster the looming question has been who his
partner would be. One of the most common suggestions has been Mark Fayne. Is he
up to the challenge?
The seemingly unanimous viewpoint among pundits outside of the Oilers
organization is that Justin Schultz needs to play significantly less than he did last
season. Doing so should benefit both him and the team. He was at his best last
year when he was playing no more or less than Jeff Petry. I think the Oilers
can find ways to reduce Schultz’ minutes but it will require changing the role
of Mark Fayne.
Fayne is a complementary player who was put in the position
of complementing inexperienced or deeply flawed players while also soaking up
some brutal zone starts. In other words, the way the Oilers used him last year meant
he would find himself in a lot of bad situations. Still, by my eye, he finished
most games without too many black marks. He was in a role where if you didn’t notice
him it was probably a good night.
Fayne played 1088 minutes 5v5 last season for the Oilers. To break that down further, 331 of those minutes were with Marincin, 294 were with Nikita Nikitin, and 218
were with Oscar Klefbom. Those were his three most common partners. They are a far
cry from what he was used to in New Jersey when he played most often with first
pairing defender Andy Greene. Interestingly enough Fayne’s possession numbers
were best with Nikitin, suggesting that when he wasn’t being thrown to the
wolves with rookies in bad starting positions he could help keep the puck
moving in the right direction.
Mark Fayne spent four seasons patrolling the blueline for the
Devils. He played 3844 minutes 5v5 in that time with 1811 playing with Greene,
1081 with Tallinder, and 367 with Salvador as a distant third. Based
on how he’s been used in the past, we can safely assume that he would be
a solid choice to play with Sekera as a low event partner.
The interesting thing about Fayne playing the majority of
his time with high end defenders in New Jersey is that even then he wasn’t played
a significant amount. His primary playing partner consistently played more
minutes at even strength than with him on a TOI/G basis. Below I listed the average time on ice per game at even strength played by Fayne in each of his years with
New Jersey, as well as those of his most common partner. In years where his second
most common partner was very close to the first in overall minutes
played with Fayne, I included that player’s average as well. For example, in
2011-2012 Fayne split the season with Greene and Tallinder very evenly, so I
2010-2011: Fayne 16:32, Tallinder 19:37
2011-2012: Fayne 17:14, Greene 17:15, Tallinder 18:04
2012-2013: Fayne 15:30, Greene 18:36, Salvador 17:44
2013-2014: Fayne 16:16, Greene 18:39
Fayne with the Devils had a solid track record in regards
to possession and he played with some talented defenders. But even still his
coach wasn’t playing him step for step with them. If we assume that New Jersey
was competently deploying their defense over that period of time then we should
also assume that Fayne likely won’t play in lock-step with Sekera. Given what
we know about Fayne’s offensive shortcomings it is probably safe to assume that
in certain situations the Oilers might find it more beneficial to spot in
Sekera with someone like Schultz when they feel they need to score. That might
not be a sound idea, but it would be understandable.
That said, Fayne’s resume definitely suggests that he should
be able to be Sekera’s primary partner this coming season. Sekera should still
play more than Fayne — the former Devil might still never play more than 16-17
minutes at even strength — but when together Fayne should allow his
partner to shine. The Oilers didn’t have enough quality LHD in 2014-2015 to allow
Fayne to do what he does best, which is complement his partner by playing solid
if unspectacular defense. Instead he was forced into a shutdown role with
partners who weren’t ready for the challenge either.
Importantly, having a pairing like Sekera-Fayne can’t help
but relieve the pressure off of Klefbom and Schultz. If the coaching staff can
keep Schultz’ minutes down by utilizing a different pairing then the Oilers are
in a much better spot than most of last season.
At this point it looks like Fayne should be able to jump up
to the top pairing with Sekera. If it’s not him then it’s going to be Justin
Schultz and I’m not sure my heart is ready for that just yet.