The Oilers have badly missed Andrej Sekera on the blueline this season. The veteran, jack of all trades defender seems thoroughly solid yet unspectacular when he plays, but during his absence this season, it’s become noticeable just how valuable he is to this Oilers team.
Sekera is skating with the team and will apparently be back in late December or early January. When he returns, the Oilers will have to jettison one of their depth defenders from the roster. A couple months ago, it seemed Yohann Auvitu would be the obvious choice, but after a rough season, Eric Gryba is likely the better option to be the odd man out.
Gryba was acquired by the Oilers as one of Peter Chiarelli’s first moves after taking over as general manager back in 2015. Chiarelli dealt enigmatic defenceman Martin Marincin to the Maple Leafs for a fourth round pick and then flipped that pick to the Senators for Gryba. The goal here was to make Edmonton’s blueline tougher and Gryba filled the role very well.
He’s a big, lumbering, tough defender who plays with an edge to him. But as the game has sped up and teams around the league are quickly pivoting to favour speed and skill over grit and toughness, Gryba has had a difficult time keeping up and being effective in his niche.
At the beginning of the season, Gryba was consistently slotting into the lineup on the team’s second or third pairing and was playing roughly 15 minutes a night. But as of late, Todd McLellan has opted to use Gryba less. In the team’s last eight games, Gryba has slotted in only five times, and he had his ice time dip to around 10 minutes in three of them.
lol 2-0 pic.twitter.com/MJubb6xI8W— The Leafs Nation (@TLNdc) December 1, 2017
Gryba was exposed in night’s game against the incredibly fast and skilled Maple Leafs. He played just 10:28 of ice time and was nowhere to be found in the third period. Late in the second, he took a terrible penalty which led to a power play goal that gave Toronto a 4-3 lead. Gryba was also involved in two of Toronto’s first period goals. First (pictured above), he turned the puck over and let Dominic Moore of all players to walk right in and score an easy goal, then second, he got spun around and allowed Matt Martin to be completely wide open at the side of the net. Getting buried by guys like Auston Matthews and William Nylander would be one thing, but this is Dom Moore and Matt Martin we’re talking about here.
Big picture, Gryba doesn’t have a point through 19 games. His possession numbers are solid, but a good chunk of that has to do with playing major minutes with Darnell Nurse, who’s been a monster this season. Gryba has allowed a lot of scoring chances against despite playing against the other team’s middling players, and his penalty differential in the worst of any Oilers defender. Edmonton’s penalty kill has been wretched this season and having a defenceman that frequently ends up in the box because of unnecessary plays isn’t helping.
Yohann Auvitu has played in 12 games thus far and has seen his usage increase over the past few games. In those 12 games, the French defender has one goal and three assists and has done an exceptional job at driving offence.
The reality here is that the Oilers have a one-dimensional player who isn’t fulfilling that one dimension, which is shutdown defence. On the other hand, there’s Auvitu, who, while not without his own flaws, has been able to fulfill his calling card. Auvitu is a zombie defensively, there’s really no doubt about that, but he moves the puck up ice and drives offence. In a sheltered role, he can be an effective player for an Oilers team that desperately needs a spark offensively.
Come late December or early January when Andrej Sekera is ready to return to the lineup, assuming the Oilers haven’t suffered another injury to one of their five main defencemen, Auvitu is the better No. 7 defenceman to keep on the roster.
Obviously this isn’t a major issue and it isn’t going to make or break the team, but the Oilers are best to keep the player with the skillset that can help them more, even if it is a minor difference. Both Gryba and Auvitu would have to clear waivers if sent down, and I would venture a guess that another team in the league is more likely to take a flyer on Auvitu and his unique skillset than Gryba, who’s seemingly had the game pass him by.