It’s been a key weakness for the Edmonton Oilers for literally years now, and despite a busy offseason it isn’t clear that the options available on defence have dramatically improved from what was on the roster a year ago. Now it’s up to Todd McLellan to get the most out of an uncertain group. How is he going to do it?
McLellan’s October 6 media availability gives us some idea as to the answer. Although he touched on a number of topics, he discussed rookies Griffin Reinhart and Brandon Davidson at length and spent some time talking about the defence as a whole.
His answer to a question from Jason Gregor about what he needed to get from the third pairing was particularly illuminating, and McLellan made a point of applying his comments to the entire Oilers’ defence corps:
Every defenceman in each pair has to have the ability to generate puck movement, relieve pressure, the ability to come out of our zone is really important, so we work a lot on that as a team. Then you get into more specific situations where size might come in, toughness might come into play, shot-blocking, penalty kill, leadership skills that aren’t often seen on the ice but are really important in the locker room, experience. There’s a lot of characteristics that each of those individuals has to bring, whether it’s in the top four or in the bottom four, because we have eight right now. We’re still sorting that out; I don’t know who the top four or the bottom four are. As we play games we’ll figure it out more and more.
The first sentence out of McLellan’s mouth said the same thing three different ways, and highlighted a real weakness to the current defensive group. Edmonton’s blue line lacks players who can move the puck, players who can relieve pressure, players who can exit the defensive zone. That lack of puck movement is likely to be an ongoing story all season, and my guess is that the team’s manager makes a move to address it pretty early on – whether through a recall (Darnell Nurse, Jordan Oesterle, maybe even Nikita Nikitin if he doesn’t go back to Russia) or a trade.
The State of the Defence
Notwithstanding McLellan’s assertion that the coaches haven’t yet settled on a specific top-four, it isn’t hard to figure out where the team will start. During the preseason we saw pairings most predicted, and those pairings lend themselves relatively well to specific roles.
Andrej Sekera and Mark Fayne are a logical shutdown pairing. Both players have played top competition in the past, and they have complementary skills. Sekera boasts mobility and a fine first pass; what he lacks is the size necessary to win every battle in the crease. Fayne’s neither speedy nor particularly adept with the puck, but he’s big and strong and generally in good position. My suspicion is that Fayne is a little vulnerable because he’s paid a bunch and it’s not that difficult to find a big defensive defenceman who is okay as long as he doesn’t have to lug the puck; with that said he’s still looks like Edmonton’s best option in the here-and-now on the right side of a shutdown pair.
Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz enjoyed some success last year, but if Schultz keeps playing the way he did in training camp some interesting options open up. If he doesn’t, this is a reasonable second pair. If he does, McLellan could either split this duo up with the objective of spreading out his puck movers, or he could keep them together and give them a pile of minutes. Klefbom does everything well; his only real issue is a lack of experience. Schultz is gold from the offensive blue line in, but his defensive work and his outlet passes have been only intermittently effective in the past; we’ll see if he reverts to form or if he’s legitimately turned a corner. The Oilers could really, really use some good development news here because it would make everything else so much easier.
Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba seem the most probable third pair out of the gate, which shouldn’t be a shock given that Peter Chiarelli acquired both this summer. Speed and puck movement are weaknesses (or at the very least not particular strengths) for both players and it’s hard not to look at this pairing and think that each player could use a quick, puck-moving partner. Gryba is an established player, so the hope here is that Reinhart’s play in those two areas can progress to the point where he can carry the puck-moving load for this duo.
There isn’t a lot of help behind them in those areas. Brandon Davidson has shown skill with the puck at other levels, but he’s still a developing NHL player and it’s a big risk to ask a guy with 17 assists in 150 career AHL games to carry the load when it comes to exiting the zone. Andrew Ference used to be fairly good at this sort of thing but his play has declined as he’s aged and if it weren’t for a no-move clause a case could be made that he should be in the minors with Nikitin.
It’s hard to fault McLellan for the plan he’s laid out to start the season, though one wonders a little if the team wouldn’t be better off with the passing ability of a Nurse or even Nikitin on the third pair. Not that it’s likely to make much of a difference; the real issue here is that no matter how the pieces are arrayed it’s hard to come up with an Oilers defence that looks remotely playoff-worthy.