Ask an Oiler fan who the ‘problem’ defensemen were last season, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear something along the lines of “NSF”. As in: Nikitin, Ference, and/or Schultz. The song hasn’t changed this year.
But two of these things are not like the other!
I’ve been commenting for about two months now that I feel that Peter Chiarelli is a smart man, has looked at the Oiler D with an experienced eye, and has recognized (as do pretty much all Oiler fans), that “NSF” is the weak link. Really, if you think Chia doesn’t get that, you have to think he’s a moron. It’s kind of stark raving obvious.
The tougher question is what he can do about it.
Of that trio, Schultz contributes significantly at the other end of the ice. A substantial portion of the Oiler offense last season flowed through Schultz when he was on the ice, and faltered when he wasn’t – moreso then most would like to admit. I don’t think it’s coincidence that all three of Schultz’s previous coaches made him the defensive ice time leader.
Given what he brings, the reality is that it’s more important to keep him contributing, and get him playing D competently, than it is to get rid of him (I recognize not everyone shares this viewpoint with me). But I think Chia and TMc and others do, and the one year “show me” contract was exactly the right move. And so far, the early returns are looking pretty good.
In other words, when it comes to NSF, it’s really S – and then NF.
Now, Nikitin is another strange duck in many ways. He looks (really) bad by eye but not quite as bad by fancystats. This implies that he does at least a few things well that the eye doesn’t give him credit for. I have an upcoming post that digs into this. One thing the stats suggest is that what Nikitin does better than any other Oiler defender is clear rebounds.
As Jonathan Willis recently commented, Nikitin’s lack of mobility gets him in trouble when the other team is on the rush. But when it comes to responding to an established cycle, getting the puck and getting it moving the right direction, he’s one of the better Oiler D.
The fact that there are some positives to Nikitin’s game, the possibility that he might have been injured last year, the fact that his contract has just one year left (which means that buying him out turns a one year problem into a two year problem), and the harsh reality that the Oilers may not yet have two better options than Nikitin on the bottom pairing is why he’s likely still around.
In other words, when it comes to NSF, it’s really S, then N – and then F.
And so we get to Andrew Ference. You know, I feel bad every time I say something negative about The Captain, because he just seems like such a darn good guy off the ice.
But this is about hockey. And at the game of hockey, as of today, the ravages of age have have torched Ference’s game. He wants time to stand still, but experience slips away.
By eye, he’s done.
By fancy stat, he’s done.
By WOWY, he’s so done.
F is NSFW
Just take a look at these numbers. They’re so bad, they’re practically NSFW:
|Overall||With Ference||Without Ference|
|Oilers 2014-2015 5v5 CF%||48.0%||45.1%||49.2%|
Or how about these (5v5 CF%, minimum 45:00 TOI):
|With Ference||Without Ference|
(stats courtesy of www.puckalytics.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
Is it possible to have a worse profile than that? I’ve never seen it if so.
Add to that two more years of $3M+ contract with NMC, and you’ve got a problem – he’s not going to retire, he can’t be waived, and who the hell will trade for him?
So it has to be the pressbox for him. Has to.
To reiterate, when it comes to NSF, it’s really S, then N – and then F.
Addition by Subtraction Plus More
Now on to the issue of what the Oilers can do about it. Before we get too down in the dumps about the Oiler D this year, go look once again at the CF% with and without Ference. There is an obvious move here, and it involves addition by subtraction.
My feeling since the trades happened is that Chia has brought Gryba and Reinhart into the organization so that a. Reinhart would take Nikitin’s job, and b. Gryba would take Ference’s job.
Regarding last night’s pre-season game against Vancouver, I do not think it is coincidence that Nikitin-Ference and Gryba-Reinhart were pairings. I think that was an audition to see who’s going to man the third pairing. Least terrible wins!
I can say that based on the results so far, only a blind man could argue that Ference hasn’t played himself off the team. (And I suspect even somebody who can’t watch the game can hear the problem clearly!)
Conversely, to my mind, Griffin Reinhart has earned the right to stay with the team – and now has to prove he can handle the real thing. Bring his best effort each night, and keep getting better. Based on visuals so far, I think he will do fine. BUT, he’s a 21 year old rookie defenseman, and he’s going to have plenty of rough nights … let’s not forget this. But I expect his rough nights will probably be no worse than Ference’s average nights!
That means that, with one game left in the pre-season, Gryba and Nikitin should now be auditioning to see who gets 6D and who gets 7D. Neither has looked particularly good, so Brandon Davidson may be in the mix as well.
After last night’s disastrous outing, most will declare the “obvious” odd man out to be Nikitin, but let’s not forget that ANYONE paired with Ference is going to look like a tire fire. In previous games, Nikitin has been mid-pack or better amongst the defenders. And Gryba and Davidson haven’t exactly lit the world on fire (unless its that aforementioned tire fire).
Overall, it seems to me that Nikitin hasn’t earned any accolades, but he hasn’t entirely played himself out of a job either, at least not yet. I might remind you that last year Nikitin started the year as the Oiler 3D! This year he’ll be lucky to make 6D.
So I expect for the last game of the pre-season, we’re going to see the top 4 playing to get in one last tune up (Sekera, Fayne, Klef, Schultz), and Gryba and Nikitin auditioning for the last spot on the bottom pairing. It sounds like Klefbom may not be able go; if so, I assume we’ll see Davidson in his place.
To reiterate: Chia is a smart man. He knows NSF – really, F and to a lesser extent, N – is the issue here. And I believe he’s done something about it. Certainly, not as much as I’d like or he’d like. But something.
So no need to panic.
Unless Andrew Ference is in the starting Top 6 D when the regular season kicks off.
That means we’re F’d.
Then go ahead and panic.