Blue on Blue (Defense)

In the pre-cap era, the Oilers would employ three established NHL defensemen, one or two projects/discards and a couple of up and coming prospects. During that time, the club routinely had 5 hands with legit NHL experience. Coming out of the lockout, the team still had a fine group of veterans, and added Chris Pronger to the group that wonderful summer.

Listing the D roster with their NHL games played during that era gives us some insight into the experience on the roster:

  • 05-06GP: 3333. This was the Stanley team, led by Pronger (722) but also featuring Jason Smith (710), Igor Ulanov (702), Cory Cross (603), Steve Staios (537) and MA Bergeron (59).
  • 06-07GP: 1844. Jason Smith (786), Steve Staios (619), Daniel Tjarnqvist (278), MA Bergeron (134), Matt Greene (27) and Ladislav Smid (0) made up a group that included some nice help in the PB but Hejda was unable to find the lineup early in the year.
  • 07-08GP: 1764. This was the nadir for Oilers experience and depth on defense. Steve Staios (677,) Sheldon Souray (506), Dick Tarnstrom (258), Joni Pitkanen (206), Matt Greene (105) and Tom Gilbert (12).

Since the stampede of defensemen heading out of town in 2006 summer (Oilers dealt Pronger, lost Tarnstrom and Spacek), Edmonton hasn’t really had a full deck 1-6 on the backline.

As we enter the summer of 2010, things do not look terribly promising. Defensemen take longer than forwards to develop, and they tend to be a poorer bet (injury is a huge factor) so the group bubbling under currently will likely be halved or more because of wear and tear, stalling as prospects or not being able to keep up with the speed of the NHL game.

Left Defense: Ryan Whitney had a very strong run after coming over at the deadline. He’s huge, has more grit than we were lead to believe and moves the puck efficiently and is a very good skater. Sheldon Souray has a mean streak, a shot from the point that is breathtaking and is very physical. He asked for a trade and may get one, but it is vital the club gets a solid defender in return. There are rumors that Eric Brewer might be in the mix, a quick glance suggests he’s still playing well but injuries are a concern. Theo Peckham has impressive size and is also physical; an eager fighter, he had a nice run at the end of the season. Very aggressive player, Tom Renney has mentioned him as a player he’s looking forward to seeing in training camp. Peckham would probably be exposed as a regular this NHL season, but looks like an interesting option for the 6-7D (depending on who they sign for the third pairing).

Right Defense: Tom Gilbert is a fine defenseman with a wide range of skills. He’s a smart positional player, moves the puck efficiently and has outstanding instincts in the offensive zone. An underrated player. Ladislav Smid is a big, mobile defender who has reached the point (253 NHL games) where the team should be able count on him in important situations. He has (to this point) been paired with a veteran defender and one hopes the Oilers have an experienced partner for the second pairing by the fall. Taylor Chorney is a fine skater and when paired with a quality veteran the games slows enough for him to flash significant offensive creativity. He has major holes defensively and he is not close to being strong enough to compete against NHL wingers. Renney might prefer sending him to Okla City for the season. Alex Plante is huge, is capable of intimidating the opposition and showed very well in a late season stint. Skating is an issue and he looks a little clumsy, but this young man can play. Unlikely to have a major impact this season but could get an extended look when injuries hit. Jeff Petry is another college defender, but he’s bigger and stronger than the other members of that group. He also has very good offensive potential, although that will take time to show up at the major league level.

Projected Depth Chart (Current GP: 1594)

  1. Whitney (354)-Gilbert (258)
  2. Souray(650)-Smid (253)
  3. Peckham (31)-Chorney (44)
  4. Plante (4)
  • Needs on D: The Oilers need at least 3 actual NHL defensemen (including the Souray replacement). A veteran for the 2nd pairing, and then two veterans to push Smid and allow the team to send two of Peckham-Chorney-Plante to the minors.

Even more than the forward position, we’ll get a really good idea about how serious Tambellini is about the ’10-11 season (and contending) when the defensive signing and trades come across the wire. I think it is a mistake to look for “name” players and am hopeful the team finds more players like Jan Hejda and fewer men like Jason Strudwick.

The Oilers have $40.1M dedicated to 14 roster players after the buyout. I don’t think they’re going to spend to $50M for ’10-11, meaning we should look for mid-level signings and trades for depth players. The Oilers used to be very wise in this area (Staios, Bergeron, Hejda, others) and one of the keys to this rebuild will be value contracts devoted to quality defensemen.

There is no Duncan Keith bubbling under.

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