There has been no shortage of conversation this year about
the Edmonton Oilers’ obvious need at right defence. Possible candidates have
been investigated, with their abilities and the acquisition cost associated
with each discussed in depth. The assets that Edmonton has available to trade
in the right deal are also well-known at this point.
Less attention has been given to how easy it’s going to
improve on the players the Oilers iced at that position last year.
Todd McLellan’s Options
Hockey Reference has all kinds of cool options, including a tool
that makes it possible to search for individual games by teams or players. As a
quick way of determining which players got top-pair minutes last year, I searched
for Edmonton defenceman ranked by the most shifts in any given game. Then I took the top
164 games as ranked by total number of shifts (two players x 82 games) to
determine which players were being used in a top-pair role by Todd McLellan and
Then I placed these players on either the right or left
side. For simplicity’s sake, I have assumed that Darnell Nurse and Brandon Davidson
played exclusively on the left side and exclusively with Andrej Sekera in these
games; that probably isn’t true but it serves as a reasonable approximation. The result is a chart which should give
us an idea of how many games each player spent getting top-pair minutes:
That’s a pretty ugly picture.
Sekera & Schultz
With the exception of some of the end-of-year
evaluation/development stuff and a few one-offs involving depth options, we can
narrow the list of regular top-pair defencemen to five names.
On the left side, Sekera and Oscar Klefbom are the names we
would expect to see and both are fairly respectable options. Sekera is an
expensive veteran who plays a smooth two-way game and can help in all areas;
Klefbom is an up-and-coming rearguard with a similar range of abilities.
Neither player is likely to win a Norris Trophy next year, but if they are
competing for left-side minutes the team is in pretty good shape.
Unfortunately, an injury to Klefbom combined with a weak
right-side depth chart meant that neither player got to stay in that role very
Sekera spent much of his time logging heavy minutes on his
off-side while playing with a rookie defender—either Nurse or Davidson. It’s
debatable whether an off-side Sekera should be playing above the second
pairing, but he certainly should not be asked to play above that slot and
simultaneously be asked to carry a rookie. It’s not hard to imagine a
second-tier right-shooting defender being part of a more successful pairing (with
either Klefbom or Sekera) than the rookie/Sekera combination the Oilers used
far too often last year.
It’s also not hard to imagine a second-tier right-shooting
defenceman outperforming Edmonton’s other common top-pair right defenceman.
Justin Schultz has generally played well (I wrote
about his performance at the start of April) since being traded to
Pittsburgh, but he has been slotted in a No. 6-8 role. He has appeared in just
five postseason contests, and in four of them has received less than 14:00 of
total ice-time. The Oilers miscast him as a top-pair defenceman basically since
he entered the league, but his ideal placement is as an offensive specialist in
a depth role.
What’s the point of all this? I’ve read a lot of
doom-and-gloom about Edmonton’s right defence options this summer, but the
truth is that most of the players whose names have been discussed—Tyson Barrie,
Sami Vatanen, Jason Demers, etc.—would be massive upgrades on what the Oilers
ran at the position last year. Edmonton should get the best player it can, but
even a second-tier choice is likely to dramatically improve the club.