A Defense Rebuilt

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
Plante.

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.

  • freelancer

    I truly believe this team is one top defender away from being at least competitive. Nurse and Klefbom look posed to be this teams best defenders. However if you look at most of the successful teams in this league, their young defence talent has been sheltered by experienced SKILLED veterans.

    Once again we are looking at a team of players playing at least one spot higher than they should. Let’s just add in an imaginary top right D for a second.

    Klefbom-______
    Nurse-Sekera
    Reinhart-Fayne.

    The problem is that player is very difficult to acquire and usually has to be developed internally. On top of that this team has struggled to bring in veterans that can even tread water.

    Hate to even start thinking about next summer, but with lots of cap space freeing up at the end of this year hopefully we can see a more significant addition

  • Randaman

    Nurse – Sekera

    Klefbom – Reinhart

    Davidson – Shultz/Gryba

    By the time McDavid returns that should be the top 4 and it’ll be scary when they start to gel. That’s a ton of talent and all 4 are mobile and can move the puck – with Rienhart being the “weakest” of the 4, and he’s still pretty good with the puck.

    Trade Fayne for a useful 3rd line winger to replace Purcell/Korpi.

  • Randaman

    Return of McDavid:

    Hall – Nuge – Hendricks

    Pouliot – McDavid – Yakupov

    Lander – Draisaitl – Eberle

    Korpi/Gazdic – Letestu – Klinkhammer

    Nurse – Sekera

    Klefbom – Reinhart

    Davidson – Shultz

    Gryba, Ference

    Pleeeeaaasseee no more injuries.

  • Randaman

    I liked Reinhart’s game yesterday.

    Klefbom and Nurse have had better nights.

    Bad luck for Davidson on that Kane goal.

    Young and Inexperienced but I’m looking forward to their development.

    The Oilers need the offense to win a few games for them. I think the defense will improve throughout the year.

    I may be in the ‘wait till next year’ mode, at least I’m enjoying the games way more than last year. I still think we’ll see a marked improvement in their win/loss record.

  • camdog

    The Oilers need to be tougher to play against.

    A few years ago Kassian high-sticked Gagner with no retaliation.

    This year Manning put McDavid into the boards (by placing his hand on McDavid he did not help manners due to the speed of McDavid). Whether it was a penalty or you listen to Don Cherry indicating it was deliberate doesn’t matter.

    The Oilers have many problems – poor defense, goaltending, bottom 6 forwards, etc -but they should at least they should be tough to play against.

    Hendrix was on the ice and should have went after Manning.

  • Brad 21

    Why is Davidson not in the conversation? Why does everybody have Gryba ahead of him? Last night Gryba handled the puck like it was a live hand grenade. The play more often than not dies on his stick. When Shultz gets healthy sit Gryba and play Davidson he can hit and actually make a pass.
    And am I the only one who thinks we should stay the course? This is the first time in a long time that we have had this many young defenceman that cannot only play in the NHL and not chop the puck to pieces but are really holding their own.
    Stay the course these kids are only going to get better. Don’t bet the future to get a #1 which is not available anyway. At what point has any of these teams said they would trade OEL or Jones it’s not happening and I am sick of hearing about it. It’s sort of like talking about unicorns or flying pigs.
    Next summer when the cap space is there go after somebody like a big buff. Then all your looking at is cash. Why give away good players when we don’t have enough as it is.

  • camdog

    It’s fitting that you put a pic of Reinhart as an Oil King for your article because I believe that is where he peaked as a player and is best days are behind him. Huge overpay for a 6-7 dman…unless you guys are watching a different game that I am he’s decent but not top 4.

  • Brad 21

    That’s a great a great article.

    Part 1: “How the Oilers didn’t make all the wrong choices about the defesne”

    We now find ourselves watching part 2: “half our defense is young and the other half is poor”.

    How will the Oilers and Peter C. get themselves out of this jam? Stay tuned, folks.

  • I can’t stand it when people say things like “Chiarelli is an idiot, he overpayed for Klefbom” “Klefbom isn’t even that good of a defense. Can’t believe he got that contract”. The guy has 7 points, which is as much as Sidney Crosby. He can very well hit 30 points this season.

    • kboof

      Just to add to that.. when other GMs call about a trade with the Oilers. One of the players they are asking for is Klefbom. I personally see some good things happening,but the Oilers lose a game to the Stanley Cup champions and you all want to quit. And that is what I don’t see this year, there is no quit in this team. Says a lot with all the injuries they have had.

  • crackerjack14

    There will be no Shea Webber or Jones. Maybe Ryan Ellis could be traded for? Big moves would either be for Big Buff or Brent Burns.

    Nurse-Buff/Burns
    Klefbom-Sekera
    Reinhart-Ellis

    Not too shabby.

  • Danglishish

    A decade of frustration will do this to you but please ON, stop panicking, you are only making things worse by ramping up the pressure. Am I the only one not terribly surprised by how things have gone so far? Did you really think McLellan could some in and change the playing style and culture of the club this quickly? I was worried when I saw all the wildly optimistic pre-season predictions on this site and now those who were way off the mark want to trash new management for not achieving the impossible as they foolishly predicted.

  • hagar

    Henderson.. you have zero idea if Murray’s path in life would have resulted in injury, just like everyone else that says so.

    There is no way in the way things go, that he would have suffered his injury if drafted by the oilers.. that has no more weight than if you decided to stick around for a beer I offered to buy you, instead of leaving those 10 minutes earlier.

    I love Yak, and know for a fact he will be a star whether we make it happen, or another team does.

  • dougtheslug

    For a reasonable,sane and sober ( as opposed to hysterically shrieking) assessment of the Oilers season to date check out Dave Staples column in today’s Cult of Hockey, entitled “5 reasons to be bullish about the losing Edmonton Oilers”.

    There are reasons, both analytical and emotional, to keep hope alive.

  • Alligatorlover

    Former blogger, first time poster. To me, the Oilers are too shy to make any moves to improve the team. That doesn’t mean the organization has to make reckless, knee jerk trades or overpay a free agent. However, year after year, the team passes on suitable veteran NHL talent that would help bolster the bottom six and the defensive core. Now, other teams have obviously rejected some of these players due to issues with their play or due to injury. Yet, each season, the Oilers are constantly calling up amateur players who rarely stick, or trading for guys like Korpikoski, when there are chances that could be taken on several players. Look at these names (some signed, some still available):

    Martin Erat
    David Moss
    Devin Setoguchi
    Kyle Cumiskey
    Tomas Kopecky
    Keith Ballard
    Jordan Leopold
    Brendan Morrow

    Now, these dudes aren’t world changers. But, I would rather have their EXPERIENCE on our team than the carousel of newbies that has been the theme of the day since the eternal rebuild began. I agree the future of Edmonton’s defense is here, but we keep passing on decent talent that could be helpful. If this was year three of this rebuild, I would stay patient. With only five wins thus far, however, and the D core and bottom six simply not good enough, it behooves Peter Chiarelli to DO SOMETHING. The team needs more veteran presence, and fear of the unknown is something managers in Edmonton need to dispel to make the team better.

  • hagar

    You would need to be blind to not see things are different this year.

    The problem is that the oilers are showing great efforts to lose. I see things on the upswing compared to last year, but a fighter that learns to lose less, doesn’t help him win the fight.

    Yeah yeah… a couple close shots.. a couple missed calls.. we need more than that to justify all these players that would single handed turn a team around on a normal team.

    Detroit would win ten in a row with four first overall pics.. that isn’t even a question! Book it.. give Detroit four first overall picks, and they would get ten cups in a row.

    This is a joke how we keep making excuses.

  • Randaman

    The defense needs lot of work.

    Shooting for volume is shooting for corgi or some imaginary standard.

    Hitting for volume is like shooting for corgi.

    Without meaningfull impactfull timely process based CONTACT…the Oilers wont win squat.

    Outhitting a team by numerical volume does not mean you won the physical battle in the game.

    Hitting enough to support you own process is the key to winning….every NHL team MUST be able to GRIND down opponents the LONG HARD WAY and this is by getting your hands dirty and HITTING them……you MUST have this weapon in your arsenal.

    No defense will be sucessfull without a solid hitting game suppored by the System.

    No offense will be optimised without this same weapon,tactical process-demanded contact.Not just greenlit men making volume contact on every man with the puck.

    There has to be a BUILT-IN “reason” to lay hits….a System driven dictated and managed tactical reason.A surgical reason.Eric Lindros was King of the Stand-Up hit and he was poety in motion with the intent to always crush then remove an opponent from his feet to ensure he recovered first,lol.

    The Oilers now know what mcDavid can do and will move forward building from the Center positions out like they always wanted to do post-Gretzky ,all Forward assets were re-valuated once McDavid became an Oiler and Draisaitl proved to be for real, this means they need a new level of Team toughness and protective and territorial pro-activeness from Wingers and Defensemen,respect starts at the kitchen table and that is in the crease and d-zone.

    Every Defenseman save one must be able to execute the physical stand-up clear the crease and face-rub you on the way out type of hockey.

    The “mobile puck moving ” d-man era is OVER…passes have always moved faster than skaters and they still do,this IS A POSSESION/TRANSITION ERA and many winning teams have proto-typical mobile puck moving d-men…who cannot execute a Stand-Up check on any line on the ice and who cannot steamroll the crease and who cannot face-wash Chara.

    The Oilers needs have changed….they need nasty willing toughness and massive size as in literally more simple mass on defense now,you MUST be able to execute a stand_up center-body-mass bodycheck on an opponent on your blueline and stop his progress recovering first and on your feet,ideally with him on his back on the ice.

    This group also needs to work the Muscle side of things in 3’s….this helps a defense be sucessfull in spades….every winning Oilers Team had multiple FIGHTING PHYSICAL WILLING FORWARDS ,this meant the d-men were never left hanging 3 on 5 with their Wingers running for Foxholes as soon as the firing begins.

    For a big strong positionally and territorially sound defense to be sucessfull it needs strong fast aggressvie urgent Forwards who fore/backcheck at a high pace and level.

    A solid defense needs a Goaltender who is involved with the Process outside of his crease
    and is vocal at the right times.

    Reinhardt,Klefbom,Nurse,Gryba,Fayne,Davidson,Schultz….Justin is Coffey he isnt fighting….Klefbom either doesnt or no one wants to…Reinhadt holds his ground and seems very willing punchers chance guy who will be there…..Nurse is willing ….but what we need are PROTECTIVE AND TERRITORIAL men by NATURE…..so we need to see who wants these roles ASAP.
    Sekera
    Klefbom
    Davidson
    Schultz
    Fayne

    Reinhard,Nurse,Gryba,……who can fill the other spots.To be fair minus our 3 top centermen…who will be representing the forwards on all 3 lines for nasty fight and toughness to support the d-men with ?

    Hall
    Ebbs
    Pouliot
    Purcell
    Yakupov
    Pakarannin
    Hendricks
    Letestu
    Korpikosky

    If we dont have forward traction we arent going anywhere,so you pick em but the defense needs help ASAP as much as it needs more teeth itelf.

  • Randaman

    The conclusion here is flawed. When the Oilers started the rebuild, they should have been trading for young defenders around the time they drafted Hall and Nuge.

    They should have been hard after a Kulikov type back then, someone who would be entering their prime now. Picking up Reinhart now is too late.

    • CMG30

      Actually, they should have been focused on keeping the talent that they had instead of trading competence and puck moving in favor of ‘grit’ and other ‘intangibles’.

      Drafting has not been the problem with the Oilers defence. The real problem has been with successive GM’s who don’t understand what a good NHL defenseman looks like since the lockout. This has led to them undervaluing, ‘challenging’ and eventually flushing players who could help, while overloading the team with plugs who try to throw big hits and block shots but can’t get the puck out of the zone and up to the forwards.

  • TKB2677

    The smart thing to do was to trade down in 2012 and draft Lindholm or Reilly. If the draft was done today, I am not sure Yakupov would have been drafted even in the top 5. This isn’t me coming on here to hate on Yak, I just think that if you are drafted in the top 5, especially if you are the #1, you are supposed to be at worst a very good player and a difference maker.

    In looking at Yakupov, the jury is still out on if he will turn into an even good, consistent player. I think the ship of him being a very good, consistent play is currently being stocked with supplies and getting ready to sail. The ship of him being a difference maker has sailed. He’s a complimentary player who NEEDS to be with an elite player to do anything. I watched him live in Chicago on Sunday and the Oilers need him to be able to do something without riding the coat tails of McDavid and he did a whole lot of nothing.

    • camdog

      I was at the Pittsburgh game and Yak was getting jeered by some fans for making the right play. People really need to let his draft position go, it’s like hating on Horcoff for his contract. Yak right now is a 2/3 line winger and easily a top 9 forward on this team.

    • Señor Frijoles

      Three things;

      1) I like Yak. Big fan.

      2) Not all #1s are created equal. If we used an NBA analogy, Yak is Kwame Brown and McDavid is Lebron. One is a solid complementary player who will have a long career, and one is a game-changer. People really should stop blaming Yak because he isnt McDavid.

      3) There were 8 defencemen selected in the top 10, and all eight have played in the NHL now. But there were also NHL dmen selected in rounds 2/3, that are in the NHL. They knew they needed dmen and waited until round 4 to draft one. And he is in the NHL, but not for Edmonton. But Yak didn’t pass up Lindholm, or Severson (round 2) or Parayko (round 3). Fans really should stop blaming him because the Oilers don’t know how to draft dmen.

      Yak will be in the NHL for a long time, as long as his health is good. Appreciate the player he is, not who you expected him to be. He is a young top-6 forward on a reasonable contract. He competes hard, and he’s starting to get what he needs to do to be successful.

    • Danglishish

      Normally #1 Overall picks are incubated within an existing congruent process surrounded by a roster of players with defined roles.They may or may not be marinated in the AHL.A #1 overall pick will inevitably become a target especially if they are producing impacts early but one man CAN BE protected easily by process and player focus.

      In an extra-ordinary situation where you have back-to-back #1s the importance of having a large enough and provisional enough incubator grows exponentially.The options remain the same,the risks or mis-management of one of them rises however if both are tempered by fire and walked right into the NHL , but the benefits of 2 elite-level talents gelling and developing together is hard to deny as the advantages are many,again this dynamic depends upon here being a PROCESS AND ROSTER OF MEN WHICH CAN BE SUPPORTIVE OF THIS DYNAMIC….there must be an adequate INCUBATOR in place with IMPOVED PARAMTERES,more potent protectiveness and ability to protect TWO roster players.If you incubator wasnt strong enough for one and you add another….well you are now in very deep waters and are All-In.At this point the NHL should be taking note of your assets and and Team identity being skill-based and be sending a message to keep hands off of the #1s to support this skill based format which supports NHL League health optimally.

      If by some fatefull act of the Hockey Gods you end up with 3 #1 Overall picks and you temper them all in the fires immediatly…..well we all get the point,you better have built the best incubator money can buy because now you are harboring the future of the LEAGUE not just your Fanchise and at this point the NHL MUST BE heavily vested in protecting these 3 Players.

      If the Good Lady karma has deemed you deserving and you end up with 4 #1 Overall picks on one team and ALL have been tempered in the fires….baby you rock….you are like a Sheik in Vegas taking on the House,letting it all roll.

      The problem is that Halls “incubator” was 1/2 arsed and a cheaper model,it barely kept him alive.

      When Nuge showed up Ebbs was already stowed away tucked under Hall in the existing inadequate incubator,so Nuge had to squeeze in he couldn be himself completely he had to adjust immediatly.By the Time Yak showed up the “incubator” was like a Sardine Can and poor Yak was jammed right into any open space left down by everyones feet.Well lol when McDavidsky showed up what were we to do?

      No one “graduated” these men as required,they all began on different years but were not gradually weaned individually, hence Nail has been cut to pieces since day one when he SHOULD have been sheltered by tough as nails Hall and Ebbs and supported by Junior Nugey…..instead of anything resembeling normal evolution we have had a cluster-puck keeping individual men on the optimal evolutionary path.

      Hall then Ebbs the Nuge SHOULD have created an elite silk cushion for Nail and Dre instead they landed on concrete because the men before them were not incubated properly and the incubator was a cheap knock-off of the real thing.Who buys a Ferrari and parks it on the steet….who buys 4 of them and lines them up on the curb in Harlem on a Friday night?

      There is lots of work to do building the proper support cast and quickly graduating men one by one into their rightfull roles.It can be done,but a lot of non-core men must change or go and the Core must individually meet a new set of terminal expectations as per their individual evolutionary curves.No way the entire core passes easily,there is some splaining to do from the older siblings.

      The report cards MUST BE PRO-RATED to accurately valuate the current developmentel and evolutionry curves of each individual so as to then valuate the Process{s} they have been brought up through{lol}.

      Our defense should by now be an elite deadly serious steely eyed incubator capable of protecting and nurturing a McDavidsky and capable of protecting the Goaltender ,crease and blueline ….but it is not.

      Over to you Bob Nicholoson……PC….anyone?

  • Oilerz4life

    The problem is trying to fit the Shultz, Nurse, Reinhart and Klefbom D core into the salary cap along with the rest of the team when they mature and are worth their money. Hopefully they are the “new” core, a strong defensive core, to the Oilers future when the older offense core are past their prime. The problem I can see is Chiarelli’s tendency to sign older vets to extortionate long term contracts. DON’T GIVE ME THE ALL IS FINE EVERYTHING IS FINE STUPID ARGUEMENT.

    What would be nice to see is a future, future Edmonton Oilers that are built around good goaltending, a strong defensive core and Connor McDavid, along with money smart management. That’s the idealist argument anyway, in a perfect world.

  • Derzie

    The Oilers are 2 teams: one with & one without McDavid. Like a brilliant goaltender, Connor hides team flaws. He’s a force. Without him, the flaws are front & center. Both of those Oiler teams have young d-men that are 2-4 years away and sub-par veterans. 2 problems that need fixing in the short & long term.

  • TKB2677

    Trade Hall.

    Package him and get a solid defense man.

    Since he has been at the forefront, the Oilers have done nothing but finished at the bottom of the league.

    Observe how Hall’s attitude and production is while McDavid’s gone.

    The guy skates and acts like his dad owns the team. He maybe good at the sport but he is a poor sport.