Given the rich tradition of defensive and all-zones centers in the Oilers' franchise history, it's odd to write a sentence that includes the words, "The Oilers desperately need a defensive center..." Management has done such a good job of sourcing and signing men who can play the game and cover assignments for younger developing players, it's a true surprise that the Oilers are in need of such a player.
Oh, who am I kidding? For the fifth consecutive season, the Edmonton Oilers are in desperate need of a center capable of winning faceoffs, killing penalties and playing his own zone. For the fifth consecutive season, it's unlikely that the Oilers will address this problem. It's not the team's biggest need, but it's one that can help every forward on the team. Even though this one signing creates a domino effect throughout the lineup, the Oilers will probably ignore it. As an Oilers' fan, it's something one comes to accept.
If, however, the Oilers were to target a center to help out with a hole in the lineup that's existed since Ales Hemsky was 22 years old, there's one out there that goes together with the Oilers like peas and carrots.
In the "Oilers and Free Agency" article I wrote last week, I implored the Oilers to seek a center to play between Magnus Paajarvi and Linus Omark, one who can win faceoffs, kill penalties and play defense. I mentioned Vern Fiddler, Marty Reasoner, Eric Belanger, and Marcel Goc as candidates, but the best fit is Edmonton's native son Vern Fiddler.
#38 / Center / Phoenix Coyotes
May 09, 1980
Hometown: Edmonton, Alberta
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Thanks to the venerable and terrifying Gabriel Desjardins' Behind The Net Player Card feature, Fiddler's recent underlying stats are easy to view and understand. However, these numbers don't tell the entire story behind the role that Fiddler has played for the Predators and Coyotes over the last four seasons. His Corsi On and Corsi Rel values don't look so hot, but when his Corsi is adjusted for his zone start position, the numbers change drastically.
Over the last four seasons, Fiddler has taken only 40.8% of his faceoffs in the offensive zone, a number amongst the lowest in the NHL over that span. His faceoff percentage over the period was 53.0%, impressive given the large number of defensive zone faceoffs. Adjusting his raw Corsi value for zonestart shows that Fiddler was a breakeven player by possession metrics. I've included his penalty kill time on ice in the above table as well. Fiddler has been a first-option penalty killer for two different coaches over the last four seasons, something the Oilers desperately need to shore up their terrible special teams.
Fiddler is the ideal center for a pair of wings like Paajarvi and Omark. The two were outstanding possession players, for rookies at least, towards the end of the 2010-2011 season. They struggled in the defensive end and could use a center with Fiddler's pedigree, one who can win the puck in the circle and get it up the ice and play nursemaid to the high-flying rookies. The addition of Ryan Smyth means that Smyth and Shawn Horcoff will probably be the first two forwards over the boards on the penalty kill, but Fiddler's faceoff ability makes him the ideal match for newly-minted PK ace Andrew Cogliano. Fiddler's faceoff ability would also allow Tom Renney to move Fiddler up to play with Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky late in games, especially when protecting a lead, or taking a defensive zone faceoff.
There's also the matter of Fiddler's birthplace. He was born and raised in Edmonton, and his family still lives in the area. He played bantam hockey in Edmonton and went to Kelowna for his stint in the WHL. He was undrafted but worked his way into the NHL as a bottom-end player and has turned himself into one of the best faceoff centers in the game. Apropos of nothing but the story I'm trying to create, he was also named the Phoenix Coyotes hardest-working player in 2009-10.
The Oilers number one need remains a top-pairing defenseman and that should remain the priority. Vern Fiddler would fill a role that's been empty for four years and improve everyone around him at even strength and even help the penalty kill. Fiddler's not going to post enormous traditional numbers, but he's going to do all of the little things to allow the younger, less-experienced, offensive-minded forward to succeed. There are Reasoner, Belanger, and Goc could also fill that role, but none fit quite as perfectly as Vern Fiddler.