Fayne Out, Who Steps In?

One of the things forgotten in an overtime loss the Buffalo Sabres handed the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday evening was the untimely exit of Mark Fayne. Fayne took himself out of the game in the first period after re-aggravating a leg injury that has kept him out of action for much of the season. In his absence, the Oilers made a comeback in the second period, but, ultimately fell short, playing with five defenders for more than two-thirds of the game.

It’s not so much that Fayne’s exit led to the Oilers loss. It definitely shouldn’t be argued Fayne is a dynamic defender that the Oilers count on night in and night out. Frankly, even when healthy, the Oilers don’t give Fayne a ton of on-ice minutes. Fayne is a smaller piece of a larger puzzle.

At the same time, Fayne represents another legitimate NHL defenseman added to a long line of injured Oilers defensemen. Because the Oilers don’t employ a true number-one blue line talent, they need to have at least six strong defensive options to stay competitive. The key to Edmonton’s defensive success will be to defend by committee.

The Current Dilemma

With the Oilers recent injury troubles on defense, finding six strong options looks like it might become a concern. Brandon Davidson has missed all but a portion of one game this season. He was expected to be a legitimate top-four option for the Oilers. Darnell Nurse went down long-term with a foot/ankle injury somewhere during the game against Winnipeg last Thursday. He was coming on strong as a defender and taking noticeable strides in his play. Eric Gryba was recently placed on injured reserve and Fayne was recalled — after healing from his own initial injury — to take Gryba’s place. Now, Fayne is out again.

Because the Oilers are left with Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson, Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell as their defensive core, the situation isn’t dire, but it is concerning. The Oilers finally had depth on defense, but the top-pair is often inconsistent and the bottom-pair now consists of rookie Matthew Benning and a question mark or two. Who might the Oilers call upon with the recent rash of departures?

Dillon Simpson

Dillon Simpson is a prospect in the Oilers system. He’s also the son of former Oilers forward Craig Simpson. Dillon has been a prospect for Edmonton since being drafted in 2011, but he’s yet to see any action in the NHL. He may see his first action on Thursday when the Oilers head to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers.

Simpson can best be described as a non-flashy, well-rounded, intelligent defender. He won’t dazzle you with blazing speed, he’s not overly physical and doesn’t possess a cannon of a shot. There isn’t really one thing Simpson is known to do extremely well. What Simpson has going for him is that he does a lot of things effectively. He’s consistent, versatile and flexible. Simpson is sound positionally, polished and makes the smart play with apparent ease. For a later-round draft selection, he’s increasingly improving as a prospect and he’s on the verge of being ready for the NHL.

Brandon Davidson

Brandon Davidson
(Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Simpson’s recall from Bakersfield may mean that Davidson isn’t ready to return to action, but most accounts say he’s extremely close. If that’s accurate, it has to be seen as a relief for the Oilers who could use the experience Davidson gained last season as one of Edmonton’s strongest defenders.

Of all Oilers defensemen, it can be argued Davidson possesses the best shot from the point. This is a weapon the Oilers clearly miss. Davidson also holds the title as one of Edmonton’s statistically strongest defenders. He gained a bit of notoriety last season as an analytics darling and has fans wondering what his status will be with the NHL Expansion Draft on the horizon. Some think he’s a lock to be taken by Las Vegas if left unprotected.

Overall, Davidson can be best described as an unsung hero in many Oilers contests. He offers a lot of good qualities but does not often get the praise he deserves. He was ready to become a fixture in a top-four role, only to have that status derailed by the unfortunate timing of two injuries.

Plan C, D and E

Reinhart Oil Kings
Griffin Reinhart hasn’t dazzled as an Oilers prospect.

If the injuries continue to be an issue, the Oilers may have to look to players like Jordan Oesterle, Mark Fraser or Griffin Reinhart. All may have been viable options for the Oilers last season, but this season, if Edmonton is required to use any of these three in regular roles, it has to be viewed as a real disappointment.

Where do the Oilers go now that another defenseman is down? Edmonton is a better team this season because their depth is real. Mark Fayne was part of that depth.

Can the Oilers find a short-term solution? Will they need to look at a long-term option? If the Oilers top-four on defense can stay healthy, this may be a situation that doesn’t gather much chatter. Lose one of those four, and the Oilers could have real issues.