We’ve been staring at the Oilers defense for what seems like decades. Six men who do the tough work every game, keeping themselves between the puck and their goalie. It’s a tough job in any sport, but hockey decided to make these poor men do it on skates and at lightning speed. How many "actual NHL players" do the Oilers have on D? How many more do they need in order to be average?

THE FOUNDATION

Edmonton has some nice things on the blue, and some are young enough to grow with the very good forward cluster that includes Hall, Eberle and the Nuge.
  • Jeff Petry (age 24). Led all Oiler defenders in TOI per game in 11-12 (21:45) and one would think Petry could increase his minutes on the PP (1:16) and PK (2:29) next season. Right handed, played very well in all areas last season (and was effective) and should be considered a cornerstone for the blueline moving forward. Petry is RFA and should get a healthy raise, especially if the club plans on buying free agent years. Does $4M times 5 years sound reasonable for one of your 4 major pieces on defense?
  • Ladislav Smid (age 26). Played 20:54 a night this past season, his special teams strength is the PK (3:22) and Smid is now a quality veteran. I don’t think Oiler fans have much worry over this player aside from health. He is a UFA next summer but given the lack of depth at the position–and his relative youth–it’s probably safe to assume there will be a great deal of effort devoted to signing him.
  • Nick Schultz (age 29). Steady, reliable defender. He showed Oiler fans what calm feet can do during his late season showing after coming over from the Wild. 19:42 every night, and as with Smid he does strong PK work (2:25). Every successful team in NHL history has a couple of these guys, and coaching staffs love them for their consistent play. If he’s leading a rush he’s concussed. Schultz is a $3.5M cap hit and is signed through 2014 summer.

RYAN’S HOPE

When healthy, Ryan Whitney is easily the best defenseman on the club. Boasting a complete skill set, Whitney’s signature play is a stunning headman pass tape-to-tape on the fly. It’s gorgeous, beautiful, sublime. Whitney (age 29) has one more year at $4M remaining on his contract and played 20:57 when in the lineup in 11-12. His PK time (53 seconds) and PP time (2:15) were well back of normal for this player.
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A key element of this team’s success in 12-13 rides on Ryan Whitney’s return to something resembling 100%. Jonathan Willis wrote a brilliant item on Whitney not long ago (it is here)
  • Willis: Whitney’s improved play late in the season provides reason for optimism that he can bounce back, at least to some extent, next season.  It would be best if the Oilers did not have to rely on him as heavily as they did one year ago, but it seems likely that he’ll be a better player next season than he was this year.
I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the Oilers would be wise to use Whitney in the third pairing to start the season and then move him  up the depth chart as he finds his way. If he can deliver at 80% the Oilers and the fanbase should be thrilled with Whitney. He’s a helluva player.

THE REST

I thought Andy Sutton had a solid year in the 5-6 role and we can look forward to similar performance next season. After that, Theo Pechkam (rfa) will need to take a step forward and Corey Potter will also be in a battle for playing time despite coming off his best pro season. Minor leaguers Colten Teubert, Alex Plante and the recovering Taylor Fedun are also in the mix.
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Which brings us to the question: one lump or two? If the Oilers decide to run a third pairing of Whitney-Sutton they’d need an addition for the top 4D to play with Smid, Petry and Schultz. I would like to see them bring in two defensemen this summer, but suspect it’ll be one NHL defenseman for the group. A second NHL calibre defender could arrive if Justin Schultz decides to sign in Edmonton. That should be considered something less than certain. 

THE RIGHT MIX

I make the same mistake every year: in discussing defensemen for next season, we only discuss the top 6 or 7. In fact, the Oilers are going to use a 10 or more defenders next year and that’s proven by history (it was a baker’s dozen a year ago) so we should be well aware of the names in OKC during the regular season.
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I think the Oilers need to add a veteran for that top 4 role. Right handed, puck mover, he could play with Schultz until Whitney is playing at a level that allows him to be on the ice and effective for over 20 minutes a night. Justin Schultz is more of a third pairing option, certainly for the first year or two.
That’s the challenge for Lowe, MacTavish and Tambellini. Two lumps, one a veteran and the other Justin Schultz or similar.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

I think there are three different discussions that always get caught under one subject line: defense. They are:
  • Acquiring an actual NHL defenseman.
  • Grabbing a quality defender in the draft.
  • Justin Schultz.
They are in fact three different issues, and each player should have far different roles in 12-13. One would play alongside Nick Schultz or Ryan Whitney; one would be mentored by Schultz or Andy Sutton.
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And the other would play in junior.