Is This The End For Andrew Ference?

The Edmonton Oilers have announced that defenseman and former captain Andrew Ference will be out the remainder of the 2015-16 season as he undergoes hip surgery.

Ference, 36, has played in just six games this season averaging just 13:03 TOI. That’s the lowest minutes in comparison to all 11 defensemen that have suited up for the Oilers  this season. Since signing his $13M/4 Year deal during the summer of 2013 Ference has been on a steady decline in his performance. This begs the question if the game has completely passed the defenseman by and if retirement is a serious consideration at this point.

When the Oilers signed Ference they were expecting to get an underrated top four defenseman to take the pressure off the younger developing prospects in the system. Unforunately the Oilers and former GM Craig MacTavish overvalued his worth in skill set and essentially created $3.25M in dead money.

His play dropped off dramatically and there was a serious consideration to buy out the contract this summer when Peter Chiarelli took over for MacTavish.

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They elected to forego the buy out and use Ference in a lesser role as a depth defender playing the bottom-pairing or as a spare defenseman.

Ference Has Fallen Down Oilers Depth Chart

If you look at the Oilers defense for 2016-17 it’s going to be hard for Ference to battle for minutes even in the bottom-pairing, he’ll find himself in a similar role if not worse off. Oscar Klefboom, Andrej Sekera and Darnell Nurse will likely make up three of the spots in the top four. It’s likely Edmonton either trades assets, signs a free agent or drafts a future No.1 defenseman (or very least top pairing defender). That’s the organizations biggest need at the moment and Chiarelli will be chastized if he doesn’t land something in that area.

That once again puts Ference in a battle for minutes.

Considering that Justin Schultz is an RFA this summer with his status still up in the air, Mark Fayne is a question mark to return, Brandon Davidson slowly developing into a dependable No.6/7 and Eric Gryba a pending UFA, Ference will be on the outside looking in as (at best) the Oilers No.9 defenseman.

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Can the Oilers reasonably pay $3.25M for a No.9 defenseman barring everyone is back and the Oilers bring in another top four defender?

Looking at Edmonton’s needs on the backend; a mobile puckmoving defenseman, a gritty player who’s not afraid to mix it up and/or a dependable two-way defenseman, Ference no longer fits any of those needs sadly. The biggest knock against Ference on the ice is his decreasing foot speed which has made it difficult to keep up with a game that’s getting younger and faster.

Here’s a quick look at his ice-time throughout the first three years of his contract ranked against the other Oiler defensemen:

Year 1: 2013-14 – 21:03 TOI (3rd)

Year 2: 2014-15 – 18:52 TOI (5th)

Year 3: 2015-16 – 13:03 TOI (11th)

Real Possibility Ference Won’t Be Back Next Season

Ference has seen his role with the team diminish and it was an uncomfortable scenario when everyone was talking about the big elephant in the room with the Oilers captaincy. The situation was handled between Ference, Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan and since then Ference has struggled to remain in the lineup, injury aside. His plays dropped off and now it’s a very real possibility that once healthy there could be a possibility the Oilers buy out the final year of his contract.

The buyout cost for the final year would be at two-thirds of the remaining year which would come out to $1.08M for two years. Considering how much money the Oilers have coming off the books this summer, highlighted by the $4.5M albatross of Nikita Nikitin’s deal, $1.08M is nothing.

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It’s never easy for pro athlete’s to say it’s over but it might be a unfortunate scenario for such a great addition to the Edmonton community. Not enough can be said for the involvement Ference has done. He’s truly made an impact in the community by launching numerous initiatives. The one that got the most publicity was the Spider-Mabel episode that pulled at the strings in our hearts.

Ference still has a lot to offer in the game of hockey, he’s a great mentor and his commitment through all these years is a great inspiration. There may be other options in hockey available for the 36-year-old entering his last year of quite possibly the last contract of his career, but the options may longer be as a viable NHL defenseman.