In addition to the plethora of discussions taking place these days about how to improve the Oilers' blueline heading into next season, there exists another problem facing the organization with regard to their defense corps:
There are not enough chairs for everyone in consideration for a roster spot in Oklahoma City with the Barons in 2012/13.
It's common knowledge to everyone that the Oilers have an abundance of potentially quality Dmen coming through the pipeline, but that they are a few significant steps behind the forward group which already populate the NHL team. Well, the thing about that is, those players need a place to play every year while they develop. While this is a nice problem to have in the first year or two after they are drafted, once we get through this season, there will need to be some tough decisions made about which players the franchise decides to move forward with and which ones they cut loose. I don't want to beat a dead horse here, but everyone's favourite Mr. Dithers, Steve Tambellini has only made his own job tougher with some of the contracts he has handed out recently.
After the jump, I'll go through the organizational depth on the blueline, with particular focus on the developing cluster of blueline assets and provide details about where they are in their development, what the logical next step would be, and how many of those logical steps are in direct contrast with one another.
Heading into next season, the Oilers already have 6 players who appear to be able to lay claim to a legitimate expectation to have a roster spot that is theirs to lose coming into camp: Ladislav Smid, Nick Schultz, Ryan Whitney, Andy Sutton, Corey Potter and Jeff Petry. The first five on that list are already signed to contracts that extend through next season and Jeff Petry, who is potentially on his way to becoming the most valuable asset among the group is an RFA who will need a new deal this summer.
That's already enough to ice a starting line-up on opening night next season. In addition to those two, the Oilers will have two additional players who played predominantly at the NHL level this year in Theo Peckham and Cam Barker. If you ask anyone who has paid attention, the team would be out of their minds to offer Barker a qualifying offer on his current $2.25 Million contract. So, let's assume he is set free (although I have my doubts). The remaining player, Peckham, had a strong season for a young player last year, but has regressed this year. The team has invested years in his development, and while I don't know if he is in the organization next year, I find it unlikely that they will just walk away and not qualify him, which means Peckham will get a Q.O., and has to be considered in contention for that 6/7 battle coming into camp in the fall. That's a full roster of 7 blueliners at the NHL level, and the team has not yet even made any moves to address the glaring weaknesses that exist among the group.
Many have speculated the team wants to add at least one, if not two players to the group for next season, and while pieces could certainly be moved out in the process, the core pieces, Smid, Petry and Schultz (and possibly Whitney?) need to stay in order for the depth to be improved, and the remaining players are unlikely to yield the kind of return the team is after, so it is unclear that any of them are going anywhere. In the event the Oilers do sign even 1 significant piece on the back end (which I believe they will, even if it is not as significant a player as I hope for), that moves at least one player, likely Peckham or Potter, down to the AHL next year. Given performances this year, and the fact that Potter provides a right-handed option the Oilers lack at the moment, let's assume it is Peckham who is sent down. Peckham is subject to waivers, but given the amount his Q.O. would have to be in the neighbourhood of $1.1 Million, I suspect there is a good chance he would make it through.
Moving on to the AHL, if Peckham is in the mix, he only further complicates an already crowded situation. Already expected to occupy a spot in OKC next season barring any trades are first and foremost, Alex Plante and Colten Teubert. Plante's role in the Organization may have been on the line this year, but he held his ground and earned a birth in the AHL all-star game in the process. He is certainly still someone who may find a home with another team eventually, but he certainly has to be expected to be back manning the blueline for the Barons next season at this time. As for Teubert, he showed reasonably well in a call-up with the big club this year, and will likely remain the team's #1 call-up option at the start of next season. My only issue so far is that the re-signing of Sutton blocks someone from the Peckham/Plante/Teubert trio from playing a 6/7 role with the big club next season. I would rather have seen one of them have an opportunity to earn that spot, as having potentially all 3 in OKC next year will create a number of issues as you'll see in a moment.
From the current group of Barons, Bryan Rodney, acquired in the deal that sent Ryan O'Marra out of town, is a UFA and is unlikely to return just based on numbers alone. Additionally, based on reports, it sounds as if Taylor Chorney has begun to emerge as a significant player for the Barons and may be ready to make the aging Bryan Helmer obsolete. Chorney is an RFA, but I would expect him to be back and assume a bit of the mentoring role next season unless another team sees him as a potential NHL player, in which case he could be moved. I suspect he will be back.
A fifth roster spot with the Barons will likely need to be set aside for the return of Taylor Fedun. Fedun, who showed exceptionally well at training camp for an undrafted UFA signing, has missed the entire season recovering from his shattered leg, which he sustained during a race for an iced puck late in the pre-season. Fedun was likely to be a late cut from camp and among the top call-ups this year. If he is able to regain that form, he'll certainly be a big part of the blueline in Oklahoma City to start next season.
If we include those five players, that is a big part of the OKC roster full and we have yet to speak about graduating players and those on AHL only contracts. As I mentioned, this is where the problems begin.
The Oilers have a number of players eligible to graduate from the Junior ranks to professional hockey next season as well...
The top of that list is Martin Marincin who signed his entry-level deal prior to this season. Marincin is almost certain to graduate to OKC next season, as he is one of the team's most highly regarded blueline prospects. Marincin had a slow start to this season, but has played well since being traded to the Regina Pats, where he has 23 points in 28 games. Marincin will not only need to be given a chance to make the Barons next year, but play a significant role if he is able to perform at a high level. Looking ahead to the following season, Marincin will begin to be pushed by many others, so he needs an opportunity to establish himself this year as a significant AHL player.
In addition to Marincin, you can expect to hear the name Kyle Bigos a lot in the coming weeks. Bigos has been in the NCAA and just finished his Junior Year. He has performed well enough that I suspect he is regarded more highly now than he was when he was drafted (4th round, 2009). If he does turn pro, he will still need some time to develop, which would mean a spot with the Barons as well. Bigos does have the option of returning for his senior year with Merrimack, but if the Oilers allow him to do so, they will be in danger of losing his rights once his season is done next year. At that point, Bigos would be entitled to wait until the off-season and become an unrestricted free agent. Considering the depth of prospects in Edmonton and the log-jam in front of him, I would expect that is the route he takes if he does go back to school next year. If the Oilers want him in the organization, they would likely need to sign him in the near future. If they do so, it would seem likely that they have bigger plans for him than sticking him in the ECHL, however, based on the numbers game, that may become a necessary option.
Moving on, we have Jeremy Blain and Brandon Davidson, both of whom were drafted in 2010. Like Martin Marincin, both have played two additional years of junior hockey since being drafted, but unlike Marincin, they have yet to sign their entry-level contracts. They will both have to do so before the draft this year otherwise they are eligible to re-enter the draft and likely be lost to another team. Blain has had a tremendous year in the QMJHL with 50 points in 58 games, good for 8th among Dmen in the league. As for Davidson, he too has performed very well as a teammate of Marincins with the Regina Pats this year, outscoring his teammate's total offense on the year with 49 points in 69 games. Given the opportunity, I'm sure the Oilers would like to sign him as well rather than lose him. Blain is likely to be the priority here, but Davidson is a legitimate prospect to become a depth defender of the Corey Potter variety, so there is some value in holding on to him.
Just to look at some numbers so far, with the possibility of Peckham, Teubert, Plante, Chorney and Fedun being regulars next season, we're already down to two spots, including one as a frequent healthy scratch. With Marincin almost a lock for a role on the team next year, that leaves Bigos, Blain and Davidson to compete for a single spot. the alternatives for the remaining two are either to be left unsigned and likely let go by the franchise, or sent to the ECHL like Ryan Martindale and Cam Abney were this season, which, barring an amazing performance, is likely a death sentence in terms of their NHL prospects with the Oilers. Again, the return of Sutton forces one of Teubert or Plante down, which may end up forcing a prospect down into a scenario that stunts their development.
But oh wait...we're not done yet folks...
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: The following paragraphs have been edited thanks to a head's up from Jonathan Willis regarding an error in what I originally posted)
That marks the end of the truly difficult decisions, but those decisions will also impact the development of more of the team's highly regarded prospects. Oscar Klefbom is also eligible to play in Oklahoma next season. The reason things are not as urgent with regard to Klefbom is that he still has the option of returning to his current team in the SEL for another year. That option certainly helps the Oilers with the contract management, and it is likely Klefbom would return anyway for another year, but the option of keeping him in North America has been made almost non-existent due to the over-abundance of competition.
This leads me to my next point regarding two of the Oilers' other highly regarded prospects, Martin Gernat and David Musil. Both men will be spending another year with their current teams in the WHL. Gernat vastly outperformed his draft position this year, producing at a better PPG pace (9-46-55 in 60 games) than even Marincin did in his first post-draft season (14-42-56 in 67 games). This, even though Marincin was a highly regarded 2nd round pick and was considered to have had a strong season last year. Gernat was drafted in the 5th round this past year so his numbers have been truly a pleasant surprise. Gernat should hopefully continue to flourish in his final season with the Oil Kings, but this time next season, the need to further his development will throw yet another wrench in the plans.
The same can be said for David Musil. Personally, I feel that while he does not have the option of turning pro next season, that that is a disservice to his potential. The kid was considered one of the most NHL ready defensemen in his draft year, and based on his style of game, the next threshold for him is to prove he can be effective against the larger, faster players in the AHL. This is no fault of the Oilers of course, but, as I noted above, following the 12/13 season the team will have to deal with all of Gernat, Klefbom and Musil joining the ranks of the North American pro game, and with the three of them being so highly regarded, it is very important for the team to manage their roster well this year, because they will likely want to do what is best for all three of these players when their time comes.
If the Oilers do send Bigos back to school again, then it is likely that they intend to let him walk. If they were to sign him following his senior season, then the logjam at the AHL level would be even worse in 2013. If the Oilers are forced to put one or both of Blain and Davidson in the ECHL this year, then they could likely face the issue next season of having up to five prospects slated to become AHL rookies the following season, which is obviously not a plausible scenario. To avoid that issue, it is in their best interests to find a spot for at least one of Blain, Davidson or Bigos in the A next year in order to break up the timeline. My guess would be Blain, or possibly Bigos if he does sign. Davidson seems like the most likely ECHL option. Even if Blain, for example, does make the Barons next season, his development will still face some challenges as he will hard pressed to find significant minutes with the rest of that group. Another side effect of prematurely filling out next year's NHL roster.
For the sake of sanity, both my own and that of those reading this insanely long diatribe, I haven't even considered the possibility of bringing back any players destined for AHL careers like Kevin Montgomery, Dylan Yeo, Dan Ringwald or the already mentioned Rodney and Helmer. I'll also ignore the possibility of signing further undrafted UFA's from the NCAA, even though there are som potential targets which could bring value to the organization. As I wrote this, Jonathan Willis looked at that exact possibility here. The team's inability to explore the possibility of adding a player of value is another consequence of the ripple effect of created by not waiting until the summer to consider options prior to signing Potter and Sutton.
In order to make the pieces fit, the Oilers will need to move out a number of bodies or be forced to either push some of the blueline prospects down to a third-tier league like the ECHL or risk having them walk away from the organization.
I could write another thousand words on what I would do to manage this issue, maybe I will if there is significant response to this post. For now though, I'll stop at pointing out just how poorly Steve Tambellini is managing his organization, and that the contracts awarded to marginal NHLers like Potter and Andy Sutton in particular will not only affect the team's ability to improve itself at the NHL level next season, but are also potentially sending shockwaves downward through the system that will inhibit the development of some of team's prospects.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this FanPost are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of the staff.