When the topic of Edmonton’s rebuild inevitably comes up,
the most common complaint is that Edmonton has somehow managed to completely
ignore its defense. But if you look down the left side of the blue line today,
then you’ll see a 22 year old, 21 year old, and a 20 year old.
Let’s start with the accusation that the Oilers completely
ignored the defense during their rebuild. There are four first overall
picks in the top two forward lines, plus Leon Draisaitl, Jordan Eberle, and
Pouliot kicking around as well. It’s an incredibly talented group that
was built primarily through the draft.
There’s a natural bias towards forwards at the top of the
draft. They stand out early and are much easier to project than defensemen. It
takes a lot for a blue liner to go first overall in the NHL draft. Here
are the years Edmonton drafted first overall, and the very first defender taken that year.
Taylor Hall 2010 (Erik Gudbranson third)
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 2011 (Adam Larsson fourth)
Nail Yakupov 2012 (Ryan Murray second)
Connor McDavid 2015 (Noah Hannifin fifth)
The reality is that the only opportunity for Edmonton
to take a defender with that top pick was to choose Ryan Murray. If they had done
that we would be talking about how the Oilers blew that pick on an injury prone
player. He missed 70 games last season alone. He missed 16 games the year
before that, and almost an entire season in the WHL after his draft.
Despite (correctly) not using one of those first overalls on a defenseman, the team has still found ways to add three quality
youngsters with high pedigree to the roster. The trio of Nurse, Klefbom, and
Reinhart can be found in a row down the port side of the ice.
The future of Edmonton’s defense is now.
The team did their best to keep this from happening so soon,
but injuries and ineffectiveness combined to put all three of these kids in the
lineup at the same time. In a perfect world for the Oilers, the d-corps would
have been good enough to keep Nurse on the farm until at least Christmas. That’s
just not the case.
Having Ference and Nikitin slated to play in your top six was
always going to mean the chance to earn a spot was there. Add in a
Justin Schultz back injury and the door was flung wide open for all of these
kids to play big minutes.
And the kids aren’t just present, they’re contributing. One
can make a case that each of them is the anchor of their respective pairing.
Nurse is a stud, Klefbom is studly, and Reinhart looks like
he has ice-water in his veins. The eldest among them is still only 22 years
old. All three were taken in the first round of the
draft, and only Klefbom was taken outside of the top 10.
What stands out as a negative, obviously, was that the
Oilers started collecting this trio well after the rebuild had officially
begun. All those responsible for the mess of blueline drafting, developing,
and retention have been moved out completely or pushed to the fringe. As
such there isn’t much sense in calling for people’s heads right now.
However, there’s no denying that failing to draft defenseman
in the first round or quitting on developing players who were taken in
rounds 2-7 has really hurt the Oilers. Edmonton has given up on Petry,
Marincin, and Gilbert. They’ve outright whiffed on Musil, Gernat, and Alex
Since I mentioned him, perhaps the biggest reason Edmonton’s
defense has been bereft of drafted prospects is because before they took
Klefbom 19th overall in 2011, the last two first round
picks used on defensemen by the Oilers were Alex Plante in 2007 and Matthieu
Descoteaux in 1996.
Mix that history with the fact that it didn’t make sense to
use their own first round picks on defenders between 2010 and 2012, and what you get is the organization’s glaring weakness.
Chiarelli, appropriately, identified a young defender who was already further
along in his development at the 2015 draft. What he came away with was Griffin
Reinhart, former fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft.
Edmonton’s defense looks like that of a rebuilding team.
These three young men are going to be the defensive backbone for the
foreseeable future. They are a seventh overall pick, a fourth overall pick, and a 19th overall pick. The worst skater among them
is probably Reinhart, and that’s more of a complement to rest of them than a
negative against Griffin. They are all huge men at 6’3” or taller and
roughly 215 pounds. Klefbom and Nurse have more natural offensive instincts.
What these three don’t have is experience. Combined they
have just 115 NHL games, and Oscar Klefbom owns 92 of them. Nurse has just eight games under his belt while Reinhart has 14.
When you look at the defense as it stands right now, it’s
tough to say the club has ignored the blueline during the rebuild. They were
forced to pick up forwards first because of their draft position, but the
entire left half of their top six is comprised of highly drafted kids. It’s taken longer to see as defenders naturally take longer to develop, but now it seems they have a solid core to build around.