The much maligned Oilers defense is the biggest piece that could help the team rise from the ashes or keep them right where they are in the basement. Offensively, the young guns are rounding into shape setting up for a bright future. However, defensively they have not been above average for quite some time. Over the past 5 seasons the Oilers defense has gone from an offensive set that were defensively challenged, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, a bunch of lead footed defenders with very little offensive acumen. Very little middle ground in that. Puck possession and puck movement will be the key for this group going into this season. The transition game will be a big part of the Oilers going forward. The Oilers are going to need defensemen that are responsible with the puck. Building a hockey team is a lot like stringing together a bunch of sewer pipes. If one of the pipes are broken, you’re going to end up with sewage all over the place. The Oilers defense is a lot like a broken sewer pipe. Let’s have a look how the Oilers defense shakes down going into 2013.
Ladislav Smid – Jeff Petry
- This tandem should be the top pair. Big enough to handle the bigs and quick enough to handle the speed. While they are still growing into their own as players, they have the tools to handle tough opposition, night in night out. What they will continue to need is experience in these situations. Smid was a hit giving, shot blocking machine on the backend for the Oilers last season. He will need to continue to grow as an all around Dman and perhaps take another step in contributing offensively. Scored a career high of 5 goals last season, after only scoring 4 goals in his previous 5 seasons with the Oilers. Smid might have to produce a bit more considering the amount of minutes he will be absorbing. Jeff Petry had a fine first full season, putting up 25 points but only 2 goals. Petry played a very stable game for most of the season but faded towards the end. It showed in his underwhelming performance for Team USA at the World Hockey Championships. Hockey is all about adjustments and Petry will have to make his. Petry will have to find a way to get more shots on net with his above average shot. Its something the Oilers could use in the very near future. With the way the Oilers defense is shaped, a regression from either of these two and that will likely lead to the demise of the Oilers once again. I don’t think any other two players on the team outside of Devan Dubnyk, face more pressure going into this season.
Ryan Whitney – Taylor Fedun
- To most people’s surprise, I have Taylor Fedun not only making the club but playing in a top 4 role. Main reason is because the Oilers need more of a push the pace dimension from the backend that Fedun will be able to handle. Fedun’s season was cut short after a devestating leg injury ended his season in the preseason. In those games he looked real sharp. Hopefully he can get back to the level he was playing at. The Oilers have a couple of options in this spot. Both Schultz’s, Nick and Justin could also be reprised in this role. I think we all want to see how Justin Schultz’s game translates to the NHL, I would prefer to ease him in slowly, but ultimately he is the player that will be playing above them all. Nick Schultz is a safe player with little offensive acumen. All three have their ups and downs. Because of the lack of finding a veteran defenseman through UFA or trade as of this moment, the Oilers will be forced to run through some kids to see who will make it through to opening day. As for Ryan Whitney, they’ll need to sqeeze every last drop of hockey ability out of him. He is a UFA at the end of the 2013 season. Essentially, his slot in the lineup will be determined by his play. The better he plays, the better off the Oilers will be. Anyway you slice it, Whitney will likely be playing with an inexperienced defense partner and they will need his veteran leadership to shine through.
Andy Sutton – Justin Schultz
- The difference between Justin Schultz and Taylor Fedun, in terms of hockey experience, is one set of preseason games. Both are technically still rookies, but Fedun is 2 years older, but I feel Justin Schultz’s potential is a lot higher. It’s just a preference, but I’d feel a lot more safe bringing Schultz along more slowly since his curve is a lot more steep. Justin Schultz is an “A” grade prospects but will have to learn how to deal with the grind of an 82 game schedule. I have little doubt that Schultz will get looks in the top 4, and will keep his potential arrow facing upward. I have Andy Sutton in over Nick Schultz at the moment because the Oilers are going to need a hammer on the backend and Sutton has made a career out of instilling fear with his size and penchant for using it. Sutton could end up being Schultz’s security blanket.
- Much like Eric Belanger on the forwards, Nick Schultz is slotted as a pressbox player that will be on the ice far more than up in the pressbox. In today’s game where injuries are very apparent, having slottable depth players is very important. Nick Schultz is a swiss army knife type defender, can do a little bit of everything but doesn’t really excel at anything. Veteran experience and safe play are his calling cards. Might play in the top 4 if both Fedun and Justin Schultz falter.
- Theo Peckham is coming off a subpar year. Lost his edge that he needs to play with in order to be effective. Has battled concussion issues over the past couple of seasons that has hampered his ability to be engaged in the game. If Peckham can’t instill fearmongering back into his game, his game doesn’t have enough of anything else to make up the difference. Peckham needs to be tough and play tough. It becomes a survival game out there for him. Right now, slotted as the #8, potential injuries could open things up for him if he returns to form.
- His shot it his calling card, and its a hit and miss shot at that. Potter was the beneficiary of Taylor Fedun being injured in the preaseason last season and parlayed that into a 2 year extension. Potter’s mobility and defensive awareness is subpar and if Fedun or Justin Schultz gets bumped for Potter because of contract options, the Oilers would be crazy to do so. Right now, I have those spots for Fedun and Schultz to lose. If they do, then Potter becomes an option but not until then.
All in all, what the Oilers need more of on the backend is mobility and reliability. What the Oilers determine to be more important of the two will reflect upon the lineup. How the Oilers play their hand on defense will determine what type of hockey they will play. The Oilers have the forwards to run and gun with but they need the defense to comply. Puck movement and puck distribution should be the key to this group going forward.