The Oilers D on opening night – it might not be as bad as you think

The Edmonton Oilers D this year is not a finished product, we know this.

Much of the promising future has now become the anticipated present … but some waiting remains.  The Oilers need Nurse to become a top pairing stud, and Reinhart to become a shutdown stud.  These things will take time.  There’s a realistic shot at being really good, but patience is needed.

BUT DAMN YOU PATIENCE, I’M TOO IMPATIENT TO SIT AROUND WAITING FOR YOU!

No better?  You’re kidding, right?

But, patience aside, I’ve heard some very loud voices arguing that the Oilers D is no better than last year – that we’ve swapped Sekera for Petry and that’s it.

To which I say: balderdash!

If you think the Oilers D on opening night won’t be better than it was on opening night last year, then you’ve blocked out the memory of how godawful that defense was.  I don’t blame you, because it hurts the eyes to see it, and it hurts the brain to think about it.

But this kind of pain is good, because it reminds us of how far we’ve come.  So suck it up, buttercup!  And take a good hard look at your Edmonton Oilers even strength defensive ice time leaders from Game #1 last year (data from war-on-ice):

Player EV TOI Comment
Justin.Schultz 20.3 #1 with a bullet – a recurring theme
Brad.Hunt 18.3 Brad Hunt #2D. FFS.  BRAD HUNT?!?
Nikita.Nikitin 17.4 Nikita Nikitin #3D.  AYFKM???
Mark.Fayne 16.8 Actually, his partnership with NN was surprisingly successful
Jeff.Petry 16.1 A fast ship stuck in dock.  Hey Habs, you’re welcome, and also FU.
Andrew.Ference 16.1 The anchor for said ship.

Note: if you include all situations, the ice time becomes Schultz-Hunt, with Nikitin, Petry, Ference, and Fayne all at 18+ mins.

I apologize for making you live through that again, but as I said, sometimes pain is good if it leads to healing.

A level of putrid that is hard to fathom

When looking at that lineup, the combination of bad roster decisions (e.g. Hunt over Marincin) and bad ice time decisions (Petry third pairing – seriously?!?) made that defense a level of putrid that is hard to fathom.

Yet here’s the surprising thing.  You may have blocked this out of your memory as well, but the reality is that the team overall looked competent defensively the first few games – an effort sewered by horrendous goaltending (particularly the soft goals at the worst times).

The teams EV CF% over the first three games, all Pacific Division rivals: CGY 66%, VAN 44%, LA 54%.  EV SF% over those games were 61%, 48%, and 58%.

Those aren’t bad numbers!  Actually, they’re excellent numbers, especially against LA.  What’s bad is the record: 0-2-1, outscored 10-3.

What condition is my condition in?

Now let’s compare last years opening roster D with this years opening roster D.  Just as a guess, the roster by ice time might look something like this:

Sekera-Fayne
Klefbom-Schultz
Gryba-[one of Nikitin, Ference, Reinhart, Nurse]

No doubt we’ll see lots of Sekera and Klefbom in all situations, Fayne will get PK time, and Schultz will see lots of time on the PP.

Pair for pair, I expect this lineup is an upgrade on the ice, in some cases substantial, relative to last year.  I’m going to compare this on the basis of usage:

⇒Shutdown pairing: Sekera-Fayne > Nikitin-Fayne.  By a wide margin.  Fayne has had success in the past as a shutdown defender when paired with an all-tools guy like Andy Greene.  That’s really what we’re counting on here.  I think Sekera is too good and too reliable for this not to be an effective pair.

⇒Offense pairing: Klefbom-Schultz > > Schultz-Hunt.  Let me say it again: Hunt.  On the top pairing.

We have heard and no doubt will continue to hear (rightly) about Jultz’s defensive shortcomings, but I expect this pairing gets loaded up with OZS behind the top 2 lines – and they did a very good job in that role last year.

⇒Gryba-whoever = Petry-Ference.  The competition for this one remaining spot is fierce, but I think whoever wins this one (unless Nurse or Reinhart turn into superstars overnight) still won’t match up to Petry.  But I think Gryba, who faced tough minutes with some very questionable partners in Ottawa, is going to be a bigger stronger tougher version of Ference, and this pairing will be able to handle rough-and-tumble third and fourth lines just as well as Petry-Ference did.

That’s two of three pairings better.  One roughly on par.  And whoever doesn’t make the third pairing leaves a ton of depth available for the inevitable injuries.

Admit it.  That’s a really nice step from last year.

Now I can hear one objection already – why am I comparing to last year’s opening night roster instead of the end of season roster?  Well, Petry’s departure for one.  The other is that this is as close to an apples-to-apples as you can make when looking at a team’s changes year over year.

The end-of-year team gets the benefit of player development and also potentially trades over the course of the year to improve (or in the Oilers case last year, get worse).  I fully expect that if this starting night roster doesn’t play or doesn’t develop as fast as he’d like, Peter Chiarelli will make further changes.  That’s a consistent part of his history as a GM.  The word ‘dither’ is not in his dictionary.  One way or another, the end of season D will be better than the start of season D.

So that’s why I compare starting night to starting night.  And this year’s starting night is a whole world better than last year.

If the Oilers get some actual bona fide NHL goaltending to back up a strong defensive effort to open the season, I believe their story this year will be written along entirely different lines.

It’s not just the defensemen

But it’s not just the defensemen.  Defense is a team concept.

And I think overall the team is also likely to play better at both ends of the rink than they did to start the season last year. Why?  It’s a coaching thing, and it’s a confidence thing.

Most will agree that Todd McLellan represents a huge step up in coaching quality from last year.  (Who the hell out there doesn’t?  Whoever you are, please go back to working on the Trump campaign).  Sunil Agnihotri has written a nice series of articles that give us an idea what the Oilers might look like under TMc.

What isn’t talked about very much, and which I think might make a surprising difference next year, is Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle’s experience with Todd McLellan.

We know by their words that they became huge fans of TMc, just like many of TMc’s players in San Jose already are.  And they now have the experience of playing with Crosby, plus those shiny gold medals around their necks. I expect those two are going to be pumped about this season – and I’m sure they won’t be shy about broadcasting it to their teammates.  Imagine two high profile guys – who, unlike Ference, have the skill to back up their words on the ice – raving about TMc to their mates. With the bling to prove it.

Contrast that with the last couple of years.  Rookie GM.  Rookie coach.  No track record of success in the NHL.  Strange and often confidence-damaging speeches and decisions and slogans.

Does it not make sense that the players over time, despite their own best efforts, might have had their doubts about those two?  “OK Dallas, I hear what you’re saying.  But I’m not 100% sure I believe you.”

Even a tiny bit of doubt can play out in insidious ways, on and off the ice.

This year, the players have no such excuses with Chia and TMc. I don’t buy, and never have bought, the whole “blame the young players” bullshit we’ve seen around the Oilers the last few years. But on the other hand … if as a player, you can’t buy in 100% to what TMc is coaching this year, you need to be gone.

But I don’t think we’ll have that issue this year.  At all.

“Things that I once dreamed of … have become reality.”

This team is not a finished product.  We need to see Nurse and Reinhart get some experience and get some real NHL action.  Once we know what we’ve got (or likely got), then Chia needs to figure out what he really needs to finish off the D – and then make it happen.

Those things will take some time.  Barring miracles or Flames-like horseshoes, this is not likely a playoff bound team this year.

But I do expect it to be a markedly better team each and every night than what we saw last year.

And I believe that would have been true even if we didn’t have the best player in a generation joining the team at 2C.

But we do.

See what I did there?  I pointed out that the defense this year is better than last year.  Then I brought it back to Connor.   All roads lead to Connor.

HAIL MCDAVID!

GO OILERS!

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3 thoughts on “The Oilers D on opening night – it might not be as bad as you think

  1. This article is so phoney. Hunt played like 2 measily games for the Oilers last year… Who cares if he was in the opening lineup?

    If you want a true comparison of last season’s defensive group to this years… Then compare players that played the bulk of the games last year, to players likely to play lots of games this year.

    Sekera = Petry
    Schultz = Schultz (But will hopefully improve as the year goes on)
    Fayne = Fayne
    Klefbom = Klefbom (But will hopefully improve as the year goes on)
    Schultz
    Marincin > Gryba
    Nikitin = Nikitin
    Ferrence = Ference
    Nurse + Reinhart are definitely better than any call up option we had last year.

    The defence this year is virtually identical talentwise to last seasons with one meaningful exception… We don’t know yet when Nurse or Reinhart will make the team, and how they will compare to Marincin last season in a tough minutes role.

    Don’t lie to me and say that Sekera will be substantially better than Petry.

    Don’t act like a 6th defenseman such as Gryba is going to substantially improve the defence.

    If the defence does improve, it will be mostly because of better coaching, natural maturation of guys like Schultz and Klefbom, better goaltending that makes them look better than they actually are, or maybe someone like Nurse surprising everyone as a rookie.

    But don’t tell me that substituting Petry and Marincin for Sekera and Gryba isn’t a lateral move at best… Because its not. And don’t even mention a guy like Hunt who played 2 games… He’s totally irrelevant.

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    1. So, what you’re saying (if I read you right) is that you disagree with my initial premise, which is that it is somewhat simplistic and misleading to simply compare personnel one for one.

      And you further disagree, or simply choose to ignore, the main premise of the article which is that these things also matter: roster selection (i.e. keeping your best players in the NHL), roster deployment and role (i.e. playing your best players more), effectiveness of pairings and not just individuals, and coaching, system, and player buy-in. You mention them later, but ignore them in the article.

      Yes, I guess if you ignore every point in the article, it is “phoney”. Carry on.

      P.S. Hunt played 11 games. But he played most of those on the top pairing. So he’s an example of both bad roster selection AND bad deployment. Davidson played 12 games, Oesterle 6, Aulie 31, Musil 4 – much of that while Marincin sat on the farm for half the season. Roster selection. It matters.

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    2. Your points are valid on all fronts EXCEPT Hunt. Played far more than 2 games, and was put in a situation to fail with an equally incompetent partner. Having two offensive minded, “soft” players playing on your top line against other teams top players? Gunna get boned.

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