They made some strides this offseason and acquired 34 year old Edmonton native Andrew Ference to play in their top four. They also got a number of intangibles with him and a new captain in the deal.
They also added some depth pieces with Denis Grebeshkov and Anton Belov from the KHL and puck-mover Philip Larsen in the Shawn Horcoff deal.
None of wich will be confused with a Norris Trophy candidate, but certainly a help, especially in the case of Ference.
Early into this season, the team as a whole has looked suspect defensively, although it has been just two games and with a new head coach and system implemented.
One of the keys to improving the defense has to come from within, and that’s the play of fourth year man Jeff Petry. With the struggles of the defense through two games, Petry has not been one of those in question and has been arguably the best of the group through two games. A good sign for the Oilers, albeit a small sample size.
Petry’s play be it good or bad could be the biggest indicator of how the group is doing as a whole. That’s not to say he has to be the team’s best defenseman, although he has the ability, but he has to be at his best and playing consistently.
He has the most well rounded skill set of the group and can be a factor in all facets of the game. On a good defense, he would be a solid second pairing defenseman. If the duo of Ference and Schultz play well, he could be that guy for the Oilers too. If he’s playing well and is still on the second pairing, that bodes well for the Oilers year.
Petry has been the overall ice time leader for the Oilers in the past two seasons. He plays in all situations, primarily 5 on 5 and short-handed, but has also seen power play time. The fact he has led the team in ice time in some ways shows the lack of depth the Oilers have.
A second round pick by the Oilers in 2006, he has all the tools to be an elite defenseman. He has good size at 6’3″ and 200 lbs, he’s one of the best skaters on the team with a long fluid stride. He also makes a good first pass and has a cannon of a shot from the point.
He and Ladislav Smid have paired together the last two seasons and have been the shutdown duo going up against the team’s top line which indicates his proficiency in the defensive aspect of the game. Two seasons ago, they progressed very well and had a lot of success in the role and big things were expected last year. Unfortunately last season they regressed and were inconsistent over much of the season. Their play reflected that of the team as a whole which was excellent on some nights and disastrous on others.
The reason Petry is so key to the Oilers success, is that of the group he has the best two way skills set and he has the most potential to give much more than he does. For all the tools at his disposal, he is very inconsistent in his play and has yet to use his size effectively. As solid as he can be defensively, he is far from physical and on many nights he may as well be 5’10″ 160 lbs for the amount he takes the body.
He does have much more upside, and if can take a step forward from the defenseman he was in 2012, he could take the Oilers defense from a very weak group to at least one that is average.
Even with his inconsistency he was very good on many nights last year, which leads Oiler fans to wonder just how good he could be if you took those inconsistencies out.
What you’re going to get from the rest of the group is pretty evident. Justin Schultz of course also has the potential to be much better, but until he proves otherwise, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll get 20+ minutes from him, great puck movement and offensive chances and some deficiencies defensively. He is still a young player and the mistakes that come with growth are still expected and understood from him. He is still the most talented on the team and very well could lead them in ice time this season.
Ference will also give 20 minutes a night and be a hard nosed, gritty player who will be in the opposition’s face all night. Smid and Nick Schultz will provide steady, responsible defensive play with little if any offence and the rest of the group will give third pairing minutes and are not expected to give more than that.
Petry is not a rookie anymore and at 25, almost 26, cannot be forgiven the mistakes that were made earlier in his career. For the Oilers to make a run at the playoffs, Petry needs to be consistent and effective in all three zones. The 20+minutes he plays must be productive ones and not take any shifts off.
No one is saying he needs to be a Norris candidate or even be the top defenseman on the team, but because he can contribute in all areas, even strength, power play and penalty kill, he is a big key to the success of the group. No other defenseman on the team has that ability in all areas, at least not to the degree he does.
Justin Schultz is by far the best offensive player on the backend, but he won’t give you much on the PK or in his own end. Smid, similarly, is arguably the best defensive defenseman they have, but you can expect almost no offence. Petry is able to be involved in all facets, and is potentially the best all around player on the defense. Perhaps not the top in any one category, but certainly top three in each aspect and relied on for all.
Ideally for the Oilers, Petry and Smid would return to their 2012, take the next step and do the heavy lifting against the other team’s top line and allow the Ference-Schultz pair to play the rest of the big minutes at even strength. Petry has been solid through two games, and they’ll need that to continue.
The key for Petry, as well as the Oilers, is for him to prove with his play that he is that well rounded defender. If he is at his best and playing consistently it will mask a lot of the deficiencies the defense has and translate to success for the Oilers as a team.