One of the odder moves the Edmonton Oilers made this summer was the trade with the Ottawa Senators that brought Eric Gryba to town.
That’s not to say Gryba isn’t a useful NHL defenceman; he certainly is, particularly in the right circumstances. The trouble is that he was almost the exact wrong kind of depth defenceman to add for the Oilers.
The Case Against
The case against Gryba is that the defensive depth that Peter Chiarelli inherited/built over the summer has a lot of duplication in terms of both strengths and weaknesses.
Try finding a puck-mover outside of the top-four. Griffin Reinhart isn’t totally incompetent with the puck, but it’s not a real strength. Ditto for Brandon Davidson. Andrew Ference isn’t good with it these days. Nikita Nikitin is reasonably competent but is prone to the ugliest of possible gaffes when he does make a mistake. Outside of Darnell Nurse, who started the year in the minors, there really isn’t anyone in the group who can move the puck. Add this to a top-four which has its own issues in that regard (Schultz has been better this year after a tough 2014-15, Fayne isn’t a puck-mover) and this is a glaring weakness for the team.
While we’re at it, try finding a good skater outside the top-four. Reinhart isn’t as bad as people sometimes say, but this isn’t a strength. Davidson’s okay. Ference used to be fast, but he lost a step somewhere along the way and it’s done a number on his career. Nikitin does a wicked impression of molasses. Again, outside of Nurse there isn’t a player here who brings speed to the mix.
Those are not the right circumstances in which to add Gryba, a slower defenceman who struggles with the puck. Designating him the No. 5 defenceman virtually guarantees a third pairing that lacks speed and a first pass, and which is going to struggle every night to get the puck out of the zone when the time comes. Edmonton would have been better served by a mobile, puck-moving rearguard in this role, and the promotion of Joey LaLeggia over players like Nikitin and David Musil seems to confirm that the team is starting to recognize this.
The Counter Argument
I’ve yet to see a hockey team that was big enough and mean enough for Oilers fans.
Gryba’s a useful NHL player because he’s wonderfully effective in these areas. He hits to hurt and he’s good at winning physical battles in the corners or in the crease. He’s also not half-bad positionally in his own end of the rink. The man has the frame, the disposition and the smarts to defend. That has value, and particularly in an Edmonton market that has always loved this player-type.
The acquisition of Gryba may have been Peter Chiarelli shoring up the competitiveness of his new team; it may also have been him sending a message as to the kind of depth player he likes. Additionally, with Gryba slated for free agency next summer, Chiarelli may have had in mind paying a low price for the player at the draft (when picks have their highest value) and flipping him for a higher price at the trade deadline (when every competitive team seems to have a need for defensive defencemen).
Still, to my mind it’s a reflection of a misreading of the Oilers situation, either by Chiarelli or by Edmonton’s existing staff who continue to advise him. Gryba’s a useful player, and the Oilers can certainly use his competitive fire, but taking into consideration the roster the team would probably have been better off with a mobile defender with puck skills. It’s a good bet that Chiarelli and his staff find a way to add that element which has so far been missing from the team.