As we head into day six of training camp on Monday one thing is becoming blatantly apparent: the Edmonton Oilers will have a vastly different looking defence then they did last season.
Throughout the course of the lockout-shortened 48-game schedule last year the team struggled to transition the puck to the potent high-end talents of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner.
The Oilers often employed the following “D” pairings last season: Nick Schultz-Justin Schultz, Ladislav Smid-Jeff Petry, Mark Fistric (or Ryan Whitney)-Corey Potter, with Theo Peckham hanging around as a #8 depth defenceman.
As we all know, General Manager Craig MacTavish elected to not bring back up Whitney, Fistric, or Peckham.
Whitney had some strong moments as an Oiler but never seemed the same after a foot injury in December of 2010. Fistric and Peckham are legitimate NHL’ers in my opinion but strictly 6/7 guys in the new-age NHL that places less emphasis on hulking shutdown defencemen and more on guys that can move the puck.
The Oilers off-season signings of Andrew Ference, Denis Grebeshkov and Anton Belov, along with the acquisition of Phillip Larsen in the Shawn Horcoff trade, clearly is a move in the direction of having greater puck-moving capabilities on the back end.
It would not surprise me if Head Coach Dallas Eakins started the regular season with the following three pairings: Ference-J. Schultz, Smid-Petry and Grebeshkov-N. Schultz, as his top six.
Ference possesses strong leadership skills, is a winner, and has the fitness level to play 18-19 minutes a night without significant drop-off. He can also move the puck.
It is a given that Justin Schultz has elite offensive skills, but it should be noted that he appears to be stronger in his core which should allow him to compete more in 1-on-1 defensive situations. I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibilities that he could be a 50-point D-Man this season with a vastly improved +/-.
Smid and Petry will be in their third season playing together and will be the Oilers shutdown pair. Petry is in great shape and had a stellar performance in Calgary on Saturday night. Petry should see some second-unit PP time possibly paired with Grebeshkov.
Smid is better when he simplifies his game when he has the puck. But there is no question he is a hard-nosed reliable defender who is well-liked by his teammates.
Grebeshkov was exceptional for the first 25 minutes against the Flames Saturday night at Rexall Place and then struggled.
By his own admission Grebeshkov needs to work his way into “NHL shape” after spending the last three seasons in the KHL.
But what cannot be denied is his ability to let the puck do the work, make long stretch passes and provide an offensive presence in the “O” zone.
Let’s not forget Grebeshkov had 39 points and went +12 for the Oilers in 2009-10 in Craig MacTavish’s last season as Head Coach in Edmonton.
He fell out of favor during Pat Quinn’s tenure in Edmonton and then basically priced himself out of the NHL for three seasons.
Now Grebeshkov is looking to jump-start his NHL career.
It is my belief that Grebeshkov will be successful in a third pairing role with some second unit PP time.
Nick Schultz is a capable veteran NHL defenceman who is better suited as a 5-6 D than in a top pairing. He can also play the right side.
Belov is a wild card who is expected in Edmonton shortly after being held up by immigration issues. The fact that he missed the first few days of training camp won’t help his situation but he is nonetheless an intriguing player to watch especially after a strong showing at last May’s World Hockey Championship.
According to Grebeshkov, Belov has improved tremendously, possesses a big shot and can move the puck.
Potter has been held off the ice for a few days at camp with an undisclosed injury but once again is a D-man who possesses an offensive dimension.
The re-occurring theme for this new look Oilers defence, puck-moving capabilities and this is also potentially in place down in Oklahoma City as well.
Three players who saw regular time down in Oklahoma City last season: Martin Marincin, Taylor Fedun and Brandon Davidson moved ahead of them. Marincin, Fedun and Davidson can all move the puck, and though likely slated for OKC to start this season, all three were impressive in Oilers split-squad exhibition play on Saturday night.
The Oilers top-two prospects long-term in the organization are also defencemen with the ability to transition the puck.
Darnell Nurse, the Oilers top pick (7th overall) from the 2013 has already showed what he can do through the Rookie Camp in Penticton and into the first few days of training camp.
Nurse has a special skill set. He can really skate, has vision and also possesses a degree of “gamesmanship” as he plays with an edge. Nurse looks like the type of player who could be a top-2 defenceman down the road.
Oscar Klefbom, who the Oilers selected 19th overall (with L.A.’s #1 acquired in the Dustin Penner trade) in the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins draft in 2011, has had a slow start to training camp after not playing for 11 months due to a shoulder surgery.
Nonetheless in the second game Klefbom played in Penticton and against the Alberta Golden Bears he showed solid offensive instincts.
We have seen a philosophical shift occur within the Oilers organization with an increased emphasis on having transition defencemen. This should play right into the strength of the current team and for years to come. It will be interesting to see if it comes to fruition.
Bob Stauffer is Radio Analyst of the Oilers Broadcasts on the Oilers Radio Network and Host of “Oilers Now” Monday thru Friday Noon to 2:00PM on 630 CHED. You can follow him on Twitter at @Bob_Stauffer
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