If you're a frequent reader of this site you've undoubtedly come across a post where the depth, or lack thereof, of the Oilers blueline was mentioned. As part of their offseason plans the Oilers needed to add at least one more defenseman to their roster that was capable of playing minutes on one of the top two pairings. Instead they added Cam Barker through free agency and traded Kurtis Foster for Andy Sutton, neither of which is the top four defenseman that was needed.
A quick glance at the depth chart and the Oilers blueline looks to be okay. Not great by any means, just okay. At least it's okay when everyone is healthy. If one of the top four go down with an injury, then the likes of Barker, Theo Peckham, or Sutton will need to fill in. Each of those three players need to be protected to some extent and forcing them to play a pairing above where they belong will not bring good results. So with the news that Whitney has a "minor sprain" of his surgically repaired ankle, should the Oilers be looking at the remaining unrestricted free agents just to be safe?
The short answer to that question is yes. Whitney is the Oilers best blueliner but he's had issues with injuries throughout his career. He had surgery on his ankle in January and seven months later it's still a little tender. I'll admit that in the seven years I spent in university I didn't take any medical courses but that seems like a very long recovery time to me. And now we've got news of a minor setback. Considering how big of a role Whitney plays on this team, any setback in his recovery should be cause for concern.
Injuries happen to every team every year, they are a fact of life in the NHL. Still, there has been a lot of talk around Edmonton of late that if the Oilers can stay healthy they'll be a better team this season. While that statement is technically accurate it's a stretch to think that this, or any, team is going to go through a season without a few injuries. Considering how thin the defense already is and the questions surrounding Whitney I think the Oilers should be looking for help now.
The pickings available from the free agent defenseman scrapheap are certainly thin but there is one name that is worth considering, Bryan McCabe.
Last season in time with the Panthers and Rangers, McCabe scored seven goals and added another 21 assists. Hardly anything worth getting too excited about but still more than any Oiler defenseman scored last season. McCabe's detractors point to his defensive shortcomings and the stats from Behind the Net back those claims up. His relative Corsi ranks him near the bottom of both teams he played on last year and the quality of competition shows he wasn't playing the toughest minutes either. So he would need to be protected a little bit, that's fine because he wouldn't be coming onto this team to play as a top pairing defenseman, he'd be an insurance policy. He isn't the top four defenseman I was hoping the Oilers would acquire this offseason but the ship has sailed on that front. McCabe still has value though and he'd be a good pickup.
The simple fact is that while he may be a defensive liability at times McCabe can score and the Oilers could use a little more of that coming off a season where they finished with the third fewest goals in the league. At even strength McCabe's points per 60 minutes last season was higher than all the Oilers current defensemen not named Whitney. On the powerplay the numbers tell a similar story with McCabe's production ranking him behind only Whitney and Tom Gilbert. McCabe, not Barker, would be a far better option in the Foster/Sheldon Souray spot on the Oilers blueline.
But aside from just goals and assists, with over 1100 games played in the NHL, McCabe would instantly bring another veteran voice to the very young Oilers dressing room as well. Jason Strudwick was that veteran presence among the defensemen for the last couple of seasons but with him now gone and not coming to camp as an invite there is a void in the Oilers dressing room that McCabe would be well suited to fill. He was the captain of the Panthers before he was traded to New York last year so the role of leader is something he is more than a little familiar with.
For whatever reason the calendar has turned to September and McCabe still finds himself without a contract. Perhaps he's just asking for too much money or is waiting for a team to suffer an injury to drive up his price. Maybe he wouldn't even want to come and play here. But at a minimum the Oilers should be on the phone trying to find out. This is a guy who scores goals and can be a veteran voice in the dressing room. Considering the available information McCabe would be a good insurance policy for the Oilers very thin blueline.