Mark Fayne could be forgiven for wondering what it would take for him to find his way back into the Edmonton Oilers’ lineup. He has been very good in the AHL. His internal competition has been less good of late in the NHL.
The first time Fayne was waived, those factors were cited as reasons for his demotion to the minors. Yet now that they work in his favour, he remains trapped in the minor leagues.
Fayne should in theory be competing for the right-shot role on Edmonton’s third defence pairing, opposite second-year blueliner Darnell Nurse. The other contenders for that job are rookie professional Matt Benning and veteran No. 6/7 defenceman Eric Gryba.
Of these three players, the 22-year-old Benning has the most long-term importance to the organization. Like Brandon Davidson, Martin Marincin and Tom Gilbert before him, he had a relatively low profile as a prospect before delivering a varied and valuable skillset immediately upon arrival in the NHL. That he was recruited on Peter Chiarelli’s watch and from Chiarelli’s old organization should help him avoid the fate of his predecessors, all of whom were victims of change in Edmonton’s front office.
Of more immediate concern is the way Benning’s play has slipped over the last two months. All successful rookie defencemen are vulnerable to either injury or the training wheels coming off, and Benning has been hit with both at once.
As the excellent Darcy McLeod points out, the drop-off in Benning’s play began after a hard hit from then-Carolina forward Viktor Stalberg knocked him out of the lineup:
— Woodguy (@Woodguy55) March 20, 2017
We might also point to usage as a complicating factor here.
Early on, Benning was carefully sheltered. He spent a lot of time with Andrej Sekera (58 percent Corsi with; 51 percent Corsi without) and started a lot of shifts in the attacking end (three offensive zone draws for every two defensive zone draws). Now he’s being tasked with tougher minutes, starting more shifts in the defensive zone than in the opposition side, even as he tries to find his footing post-injury.
Speaking of potential Benning issues, background may also play a role. He certainly wouldn’t be the first college skater developed on a schedule of 40-odd games to hit a wall at midseason early in his pro career.
The fallback option is Gryba, who has sat out three straight wins after playing in eight of the previous 10 games. It’s debatable whether Gryba is even an upgrade on a struggling Benning; over the same time period and in a similar role, his 48 percent Corsi rating is almost a perfect match for Benning.
There should be an opening there. Moreover, Fayne looks like he deserves a chance to grab it.
— Bakersfield Condors (@Condors) March 12, 2017
Yes, that’s Mark Fayne selecting the breakaway pass from multiple options open to him and springing Jaedon Descheneau for the opening goal of a recent game against the Stockton Heat.
Fayne, known as a pure shutdown defenceman at the NHL level, has seemingly used his time in the minors to work on his game with the puck. He now has 15 points in 29 AHL contests, meaning his points-per-game rate is behind only Jordan Oesterle among Condors defencemen.
Griffin Reinhart, whose increased confidence with the puck has been praised in multiple locations, is doing basically half as well as Fayne in terms of even-strength scoring:
- Reinhart: 44 games, six goals, four assists, 10 points (0.23 points/game)
- Fayne: 29 games, two goals, 10 assists, 12 points (0.41 points/game)
In a late-January interview with 630 CHED’s Bob Stauffer, Bakersfield coach Gerry Fleming pivoted from praising Reinhart’s ability with the puck to the way that playing with Fayne had helped him:
Absolutely fantastic [attitude], he’s a real pro. He’s made guys better, no doubt about it. I think he’s helped Griff, like you mentioned, but not only Griff but he’s helped our team. We’ve got some young guys this year and his voice in the dressing room, his leadership on the ice, the way he approaches practice, nothing but great things. He’s come down here and he’s worked hard. He understands his role and he’s accepted his role. He’s really made a difference on our back end.
Those comments are of particular interest given the emphasis on veteran savvy in Edmonton the last little while. The Oilers are obviously a younger team, without a lot of NHL playoff experience. How much that matters is debatable—the idea that Jordan Eberle can handle representing Canada at the World Juniors but not the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs strikes me as insane—but it does seem to be something the coaches value, which is presumably why Matt Hendricks still plays most games.
With that in mind, Fayne is the only defenceman in the organization who has ever played in the Stanley Cup final, doing so as a 20-minutes/game man for the New Jersey Devils in 2012 (Adam Larsson played five playoff games that year, but none in the final.). Among Edmonton defenders, only Kris Russell has more career NHL playoff games.
He has also, at times, been a pretty decent NHL player. Last year his on-ice shot and goal metrics were middle of the pack for the Oilers, even as he played tougher minutes than the majority of the team’s blue line. Some of the credit for that should go to partner Andrej Sekera, but nevertheless Fayne is a legitimate major-league option.
His contract virtually guarantees that the Oilers will buy him out this summer. In the meantime, though, he’s still available to a team that has a sudden weakness on the right side of its blue line. It would be a shame not to use him if he can help.