One of the big storylines through training camp was head coach Todd McLellan’s decision to run NHL-style lines immediately. The thinking went that this would allow the Oilers’ players to gel as units and allow the coaches to get a firm read on what they could expect from lines and pairings.
With that in mind, it’s interesting that the signals sent out on Monday indicate that Griffin Reinhart will be scratched for the second consecutive game and that Eric Gryba will get his third defence partner in as many nights.
Oilers D this morning: Davidson-Gryba, Klefbom-Schultz, Sekera-Fayne, Reinhart-Ference
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) October 12, 2015
Responding to a question from Bob Stauffer on the likelihood of Brandon Davidson and Anders Nilsson playing against Dallas on Tuesday, McLellan all-but-confirmed both names.
“There’s a chance that both will get an opportunity to play tomorrow,” he replied. “It’s early in the year. Davy’s here; we’d talked about wanting to use him and see what he can do, give him a chance to perform. He’ll likely get that opportunity.”
Obviously, McLellan might shift things prior to Tuesday’s game, but barring illness it’s hard to imagine why he would and if he doesn’t, it looks like we’ll see Davidson and Gryba as the Oilers’ third defence pairing, playing behind the established tandems of Oscar Klefbom/Justin Schultz and Andrej Sekera/Mark Fayne.
Managing Eight Defencemen
There’s no good way to manage eight defencemen. Regardless of how a coach does it there’s always a choice between a) not using everybody or b) icing sub-optimal lineups.
In 2012-13 Ralph Krueger had eight defencemen on the roster for a big chunk of the year, and he elected to run a steady top-four (Ladislav Smid/Jeff Petry and Nick Schultz/Justin Schultz) while rotating Ryan Whitney, Mark Fistric and Corey Potter on the third pair. No. 8 defenceman Theo Peckham got into just four games all season. In 2014-15 Dallas Eakins also started the year with eight defencemen, and some weird stuff happened, with Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse sitting out some games and even Petry being scratched on one occasion. The former scenario saw the Oilers basically write Peckham off even as he took up a roster spot, while the latter saw several games in which Edmonton iced less than their best lineup.
In the early going McLellan’s approach has split the difference. Like Krueger, he has opted for firm pairings at the top of the lineup and seems to have settled on Gryba as his No. 5. However, like Eakins, he hasn’t picked a No. 8 defenceman to basically exclude from the rotation, despite Andrew Ference being a logical candidate for the role.
There seem two obvious explanations for McLellan’s approach.
The first is that this is the plan, that with eight defencemen in the mix McLellan wants to rotate through his options and we’re going to see a revolving door on the third pairing (or possibly just the left side of the third pairing). If it’s the plan, it isn’t a good one. A top prospect like Reinhart needs to be playing, and an AHL ice surface is infinitely preferable to an NHL press box, if that’s what it comes down to. A player like Ference, meanwhile, isn’t a mystery and there’s no reason for him to be playing NHL minutes after the season he just had. That was confirmed again – not that it needed to be – on Saturday.
The second possibility is that the Oilers’ coaches and management are still making decisions on how to deploy personnel, that like the Eakins/MacTavish duo last season McLellan/Peter Chiarelli are going to spend the early part of the year getting a read on things. That means rotating players in and out to see what they have.
That certainly fits with what both have said. For example, here’s how Chiarelli fielded a question on October 5 about Brandon Davidson having made the Oilers:
What I’ve seen from him here is that I feel he’s one of eight. He’d have to clear waivers. What I see is someone who can skate and has a little physical element to his game. For me, he still has to prove himself to be a full-time NHL player but I like the grit and the skating that he brings and I think he’s a good complement to our group. That doesn’t mean he’s a full-time NHL player but right now he’s on the roster.
The next day, McLellan was asked about what he was looking for from the third pairing and after a brief explanation of the qualities he wanted to see acknowledged that he didn’t know what mix was going to work best.
“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,” he said. “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. ”
Normally, this sort of tinkering at the edges wouldn’t be a big deal, but in the Oilers’ case it might actually matter. It’s too early in Reinhart’s career to make definitive statements about the player, but he’s certainly looked a cut above the rest of the third-pair mess; if anything I would have expected him to be fighting for top-four minutes, not fighting for a spot in the lineup. It’s also far too late in Ference’s career to be figuring out what he’s capable of. He spent last season being the worst regular defenceman on one of the NHL’s worst teams, and at age 36 it seems the magic which powered a modestly-skilled and undersized rearguard to a 900-plus game NHL career has finally run out.