There has been plenty to be excited about if you’re an Edmonton Oilers fan in 2015-16 regardless of a 3-7-0 start which is two points worse than they were to start last year. Connor McDavid has been a revelation leading the Oilers in scoring, Nail Yakupov is playing the best ten-game stint of his career and Taylor Hall has some pressure off his shoulders.
Even with that Cam Talbot has given the Oilers exactly what they needed when they acquired him this off-season, someone to keep them in the game. Talbot Anders Nilsson to a lesser extent has been solid as well despite the wheels falling off in a loss to Washington on October 23rd that saw him allow six goals on 17 shots.
Despite these improvements there is one constant that has carried over; the defense is still not up to par. With that said the Oilers are currently looking in house to improve the group most notably with the early season call-up nine games into the season for Darnell Nurse.
Nurse alone isn’t going to solve the problems, but there isn’t much else to help on the trade market right now. Even if there was the Oilers are bidding against 29 other teams in the NHL that are also looking for a defenseman right now. Boston and Columbus are making the most noise looking for a defenseman but it’s already proven difficult to make a move, hence why the Blue Jackets ended up with no other options than firing head coach Todd Richards.
Nikita Nikitin is buried in the AHL right now for $3.5M against the cap and Edmonton is going to want to find a taker at some point if possible, but this is a player with negative value right now and might cost you more in assets to get rid of than what you’d get in return.
Rumored On The Market
Kris Russell (Calgary Flames) – Age: 28 Contract: $2.6/1 year
A pending UFA the Flames are going to have to likely make a decision between keeping Russell or Dennis Wideman. Currently Wideman is outplaying Russell who has just 1 assist through 10 games this season. The hard sell is Russell’s under performance this year despite the fact he’s getting more minutes than Dougie Hamilton and getting the second most minutes on the Flames PP. The Flames have Ladislav Smid returning as Mark Spector (Sportsnet) touched on this so something has to give but Edmonton doesn’t need to add a struggling defenseman to it’s group at this point in time.
Dennis Wideman (Calgary Flames) – Age: 32 Contract: $5.2/2 years
Wideman fits the Oilers needs the most if you’re looking at the player and not the contract. Unfortunately it’s a business and the contract can be absorbed but it’ll push the Oilers up against the cap unless they move something in return aside from a pick and a prospect. Wideman has a NMC and is currently playing 25:58 for the Flames right now as there top minute muncher and point producer with 6 assists in 10 games. That time will come down once TJ Brodie is back to full-time minutes as he transitions back into the lineup. He’s been decent on the PP as well, in fact the guy is at times under-rated, still he’s inconsistent. This could be a player to watch but still the Flames being a rival will make the Oilers pay a heavy price for the blueliner.
Ryan Murphy (Carolina Hurricanes) – Age: 22 Contract: $863K/1 year
Murphy was the 12th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft but hasn’t amounted much success at the NHL level. He’s playing a No.4 role on a defense that only boasts one true top four defenseman and would otherwise be a No.5/6 on a good NHL defense and the Oilers don’t need that. His hero chart reflects that. Lyle Richardson (Spectors Hockey) touched on Murphy’s availability as well. Edmonton doesn’t need another young defenseman who can’t play a 200 ft game and has a reputation as being defensively irresponsible.
Ville Pokka (Chicago Blackhawks) – Age: 21 Contract: $925K/2 years
Like Murphy last thing the Oilers need to do is insert another young inexperienced defenseman into a thin defense corps which hasn’t been a drastic improvement over their 2014-15 counterpart. A rival club inquired about Pokka but was shutdown in negotiations for now according to Elliotte Friedman (Sportsnet). Pokka has 4 assists in 8 games with the AHL Rockford Ice Hogs. Chicago has there own defense worries with Duncan Keith out 4-6 weeks so taking a defenseman from a team looking to acquire another defenseman doesn’t make much sense.
Brian Campbell (Florida Panthers) – Age: 36 Contract: $7.14M/1 year
Say what you will about a 36-year-old defenseman but Campbell has performed well for the Panthers. George Richards (Miami Herald) believes Campbell’s future is up in the air. He’s a UFA at the end of the year and there have been some lukewarm contract conversations but you’d have to think a player with a NTC isn’t going to waive it to come to a team that likely won’t be a playoff team in 2015-16. Campbell plays a big role on the Panthers in taking the pressure off youngsters like Aaron Ekblad. If Campbell is moved it’ll be to a contender of his choosing closer to the trade deadline if anything, he’s too important in the here and now to help the Panthers.
Carl Gunnarsson (St. Louis Blues) – Age: 28 Contract: $2.95M/1 year
Gunnarsson is a UFA at the end of the season and the Blues are primed to make a deep run. With that said they’ve had some pleasant surprises in the early part of the year with Edmonton area product Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson on the back-end. It’s still too early to take a gamble on two rookies to play top four minutes, despite Parayko leading the Blues defense with 6 points in 9 games on an average of 19:35 per night. Gunnarsson hasn’t been a slouch himself despite playing in a No.5 role (minutes wise) for the Blues, he’s just behind Parayko with 4 points. That kind of depth is hard to come by so you just can’t see the Blues wanting to make a move like that right now.
Matt Carle (Tampa Bay Lightning) – Age: 31 Contract: $5.50M/3 years
Carle might be an option for the Oilers here, but like a few others he’s off to a slow start offensively. Still the Lightning are up against the cap and need to free up some space to get Steven Stamkos’ monster deal done rumored to be over $10M per season. GM Steve Yzerman is going to want to get this done without giving up too much upfront (ie. The Triplets) and moving Carle’s contract and putting a heavier load on Victor Hedman and investing minutes in the rest of the defense might be the way to go. Bruce Garrioch (Ottawa Sun). Edmonton could give up a prospect and a pick to land Carle but still you’d have to hope he can bounce back from a slow start. Change in scenery could help.
Best Course Of Action?
Unfortunately the Oilers defense right now is going to have to find a way to work itself out of this funk. There are options on the trade market but very few, as you can see, that make sense for the club to pursue at this time. GM Peter Chiarelli can go after Russell, Wideman and Carle but even then they gave up quite a few assets and dollars to try and improve the defense with Andrej Sekera, Griffin Reinhart and Eric Gryba coming in.
It’s still early.
Sekera is still finding his footing and at the current standing looks like he’s being really stretched as the Oilers No.1 defenseman. The season is still early and Chiarelli can’t panic on his 5-year investment 10 games into the deal just yet.
Justin Schultz is injured right now and will be out for a few weeks. His offense numbers might not be there but he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder and improved his defensive play so that has to count for something. His injury opens up a spot for Nurse and Reinhart (when healthy) to prove themselves as solutions to the problem this year.
Oscar Klefbom hasn’t been bad, he hasn’t been outstanding but he’s playing steady as a true No.3/4 thus far. Give him some time and he could very well be the No.1 defenseman in Edmonton when 2015-16 is done. Todd McLellan also has to give the guy a chance here with a capable partner even with the injuries. His partner heading into the Montreal game was Brandon Davidson a guy fighting for the No.6 spot.
Mark Fayne is struggling right now defensively which is a bigger deal considering that’s his bread and butter as a shutdown defensive defenseman. He was penciled in as a natural fit with Sekera on the top-pairing to start the year but has found himself playing an average of 16:44 a night, fifth among Oiler defenseman who have played over nine games this season.
Eric Gryba is playing just fine as a No.5 for the Oilers right now he just needs a consistent partner in the third-pairing and the carousel has to solve itself here between Reinhart, Davidson and Andrew Ference. A regular partner will help him get some consistency in the bottom pairing and help him be more successful. That said he hasn’t been a terrible puck-mover for a guy who was brought in just to be a brute defensively.
Nurse had a stellar debut this season with a highlight reel goal but the jury is out on what he can take on as a rookie. The injuries on the backend will give him an opportunity to grab the brass ring and make it hard for McLellan and Chiarelli to have to send him back down once Reinhart and Schultz come back from injury. The opportunities are being given to him, he was on the ice during the final two minutes in a one goal game against Minnesota so McLellan is throwing him in the fire to prove he can stay.
It’s still early the Oilers are entering or have finished their 11th game of the season (depending on when this gets posted) and have plenty of time to turn this around, they just need to find their comfort and identity. There are teams in the league that are in much worse shape.