How is Todd McLellan going to run his defence?

Defensive mess

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 Take

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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

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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. 

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Those options will be reduced considerably when/if they have to go to overtime. 3 or 4 of those guys don’t even have the wheels to be a viable OT option when it comes to crunch time.

    I’m thinking Reinhart, Gryba, Fayne and Ference would all struggle with that much open ice.

  • S cottV

    It’s gonna be a problem because of the lack of a true top pairing.

    Put’s the corps – generally, in over their heads – for many situations.

    With unproven goaltending and forwards that are either incapable or unwilling to provide more than normal – d support, I think we are in for a rougher go than most people think.

    • Coach Todd has been re potty training the forwards to give some semblance of an option for an outlet pass that doesn’t involve the equivalent of hitting a fleeing target as it disappears over the horizon

      • The Soup Fascist

        Unless the forwards come back and literally take the puck from the D, they still need to be able to routinely make a 10-20 foot pass on the move (and to a moving target).

        The bottom pairing struggled at this all preseason, and while Fayne is probably about average in this regard, he’s more of a glass and out kind of D.

  • McLellan good for beating around the bush , as he simply does not seem to know as yet what he has . He knows what he wants but is unsure what he has . I suppose typical of a new coaching staff . Chia seems much the same right now . Not like MacT. and group that made bold predictions that rarely came to fruition . Mind you I liked that about former group .

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Would be helpful to have Darnells quickness on that back end. If they’re going to carry 8 d’men they could even let Nurse wreak havoc up front with those forwards for the odd game or two if needed. Brent Burns and Dustin Byuflingoogenheimer have had success at times doing that.

    • ziyan94

      Would be nice. I like seeing Davidson getting some success.

      If Davidson or Fayne can get a good return in trade then Nurse will get some time with the big club in an open spot.

      Has the puck dropped yet? Come on ref!

  • Spydyr

    Hhhmmm, well I guess the Seabrook dream can die now. I wonder with the emergence of Shlepyshev, and Draisaitl being able to play RW, if that doesn’t make either Eberle or Yak expendable?

    Don’t get me wrong, I love both of those players, but if it meant say Brent Burns, I would probably be okay with seeing them go.

    I also don’t believe San Jose would make that trade straight across, or really even at all. Maybe Yak and the 2016 1st round pick?

    I know it’s early so comments like this are stupid. But, Top-pair point-prodcuing physically imposing D man trumps 70 point right winger every time.

    Heck that also makes Schultz expendable.

    Klefbom – Burns

    Nurse – Sekera

    Reinheart – Fayne / Gryba …

    … yep.

  • 15w40

    I can’t see Nikitin terminating his contract and walking away from $4.5M. If anything the Oilers might be able to get Omsk to pay a little bit of the salary but either way, my understanding is that he’s on the cap.

    It will likely take the 1st few games for the coaches to figure out what pairings are going to be successful and then likely whoever lands on the 1st 2 pairings are going to see 23 to 25 minutes a night.

    The 3rd pairing will do between 14 and 17 minutes a night and they will try their best to not over use them.

    Really the lynch-pin is Jultz. If he proves that he is now a capable defender, then they will have two goodish pairings. If not then get ready for fire drills all over the place and plummeting GAA’s for a new set of tenders.

  • ComeAtMeDog

    We need the Defence to keep us in the game in the First Period , No soft goals and hope we can get a lil confidence going ..

    Gonna be tough job but please boys hold her together for first period at least …

    I have High hopes . Hope Never dies !!

  • 15w40

    With the new style of play the Oilers are embracing………mainly intercepting passes in the nuteral zone, and ” driving the puck into the offensive zone”, you do not need to be Drew Doughty.

    The style of play that Mcllelan has introduced is interesting and seems to be a complimentarty fit with the type of defencemen we have. Only time will telll if this style works in todays NHL……….but gone are the days under Mac T where eveyplay was brought behind our net and then out.

    Gol Oilers!

  • 916oiler

    People seem to forget that we essentially switched out Petry for Sekera. Our defense is largely the same as last year, with arguably a better 3rd pairing.

    The best argument for the improvement of the defense from last year to this year is that Klefbom and Shultz are now more experienced. Gulp.

    You got this Talbot!!

  • TartanArmy

    It’s going to take a handful of games to figure out the d-pairings. I think we’ll see some different looks in those games, but I’m hoping we’ll see Nurse brought back up sooner rather than later.

    Klefbom – Sekeras,
    Reinhart – Schultz,
    Nurse – Fayne

    Extras: Ference and Gryba

    I just don’t see Davidson sticking with the team. At some point, we’re going to have to either risk losing him to waivers and send him down or some kind of early trade will have to happen him with him added in.

  • A-Mc

    So reauestion is why didn’t the bungler, Chiarelli, fix it ?
    Why are again talking about a defense that can’t play NHL hockey?
    Why do hang on the assets that could have fixed the problem?
    What did Chiarelli do this summer? Anything fundamental?
    NO!!!!

  • A-Mc

    TIME TO CALL THE NURSE! Dont wait until the team is bleeding chances, The Nurse can handle this!

    As soon as Nurse makes this team, I’m buying an orange jersey w/ his name on it. I cannot wait for him to get into the NHL. When he’s ready, i think that will mark the turn around for the Oilers.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I see some posters believing that another gm in the league would be willing to trade a top pairing defensemen for an assortment of Oiler players. That is not going to happen so we need to stick to the plan of growing our own and they are close real close so let it be at least for now. When Nurse gets here he will ready to go and Klefbom will have more experience under his belt and they can be our top pairing that plays half the game. With that said the whole team needs to play better defense and hopefully the coaches have convinced these guys to play the right way.

  • TheBirdOfAnger

    Prominently available to form part of a package(s), over the course of the season:
    -Fayne
    -Schultz
    -Davidson
    -Oesterle
    -Yakupov
    -Purcell
    -Scrivens
    -2016 R1 pick

    While there are a lot of permutations there, I expect most of the appeal would come from teams needing individual D and secondary scoring towards the trade deadline (or cap space to facilitate adding D and secondary scoring).

    The opportunity for a 2-for-1, which is most interesting, would seem to depend on being in a buying position at the deadline.