Crowded. That’s the way I would describe Edmonton’s defense
at both the NHL and AHL levels. There are a finite number of positions that come with significant playing time, and right now there are more players than open spots.
In The NHL
Edmonton’s NHL defense is currently log-jammed with one way contracts and particularly heavy on fat contracts to third pairing
players. We’ve lamented about this all summer. Going strictly by
what makes sense, based purely on contract status, the blueline should look
something like this:
It will be extremely difficult to knock any of those players
out of their spot on the roster if they can all show up to camp looking like the
NHL veterans they are. If their skill-level is at an NHL level then opting to
send one of them to Siberia (or Bakersfield) will be a tough pill to swallow.
The worst part is that the Oilers have $9 million dollars tied up in their 5-6-7
defenders, and if Gryba is playing that means either 3.25M or 4.5M will be
sitting dead in the press box every night.
This is obviously less than ideal, but Ference has a no
movement clause and sending Nikitin to the AHL would only clear up roughly $900k
from the books. From my perspective the path to the NHL for the prospects is
blocked until there are injuries, contracts expire, or Chiarelli can make a
trade. Two of those things can happen at any time but I don’t have my Voodoo
dolls out yet, and only Chiarelli knows how close he is to pulling the trigger
on a deal.
In The AHL
Assuming the seven names above will make up the defense on
opening day, the Bakersfield Condors will be left with a log-jam of their own.
The addition of Darnell Nurse and Griffin Reinhart to the roster for Edmonton’s
AHL affiliate will mean some players who were expecting to be in the AHL might
find themselves in the ECHL instead.
Let’s assume that Griffin Reinhart is close to NHL ready (as
Peter Chiarelli believes) and we can trust Condors’ head coach Gerry Fleming when
he recently said on Oilers Now that if Darnell Nurse was returned back to the AHL,
he would be on the top pairing. That should leave a Condors defense
that looks something like this:
The youngest players on the roster are most likely to also
be their best. Reinhart played much of his WHL career on the right side and
given the strengths of the Oilers and the Condors respectively, it makes sense
to keep him on the right side. Hunt was the fourth highest scoring
defender in the AHL last season and if he hadn’t been called up by the Oilers
he would have probably been number one. He was a first team AHL All-Star
and while he shouldn’t be in the NHL, he is a very good AHL player. We also
know that Brandon Davidson has a lot of support within the organization and he
was clawing away at an NHL job too. There are your top four Condor defenders.
That leaves five more prospects vying for the final two regular
positions and potentially a third player who would sit out a
significant amount of time. And, for simplicity’s sake, I’m not even including defenseman
Nick Pageau who is on an AHL contract. The math doesn’t hold up and unlike in
the NHL where it’s fine to have a reserve player waiting in the press box, the
whole point of the AHL is to serve as a developmental league. It doesn’t make a
lot of sense to have prospects sitting around instead of playing hockey.
Something Has To Give
Obviously teams want to have competition. Competition is
good. It’s the very backbone of professional sport. What teams don’t want is an
environment where things are so crowded that there’s no room to maneuver.
Having many NHL quality defensemen is fantastic for the Oilers. Lord knows they
haven’t had enough of them for a long time. Having many NHL quality defensemen
on contracts that are impossible to move to other teams or even out of the way
for younger/better players is problematic.
Without the ability to climb upwards, Oiler prospects like
Nurse or Reinhart are going to be fine in the short term. They both stand to
play 20+ minutes a night for Bakersfield. It’s the players below them on the
depth chart that are going to lose playing time. That’s not the end of the
world, but it could lead to the end of a few prospects within the organization.
Nothing says, “You aren’t in the plans” like a demotion to the ECHL in October.
Of course, if someone like Darnell Nurse comes into camp and
makes himself indispensable to the Oilers then something has to give. Hands
will be forced into action. Is this really a problem? Not at all, it’s just the
way things stand right now if I’m seeing them correctly. No matter which league you’re talking about, the Oilers have more defenders than they have available spots. Something has to shake loose soon.