While not initially written to be, this post serves as a decent companion piece to Derek Zona's recent analysis of young defensemen. I highly recommend reading that article along with this one if you have not done so already.
As Derek stated, long before the Oilers won the draft lottery on Tuesday night, there were many of us advocating the possibility of trading their top pick in the draft this season for immediate help for a blueline that is simply not NHL calibre. With the Oilers defying the odds and winning the opportunity to select 1st overall this June, things change a bit. I haven't backed off my stance that the Oilers need to at least consider parting with either the #1 pick or another significant asset to get some much needed defensive help, however, given how rare the opportunity is to add a player with the potential of a Yakupov (even though the Oilers have made it look easy in recent years), I am willing to concede that there is some validity to the notion of the Oilers keeping all of their main offensive assets and trying to find alternative measures to fix their ailing blueline.
(Sidenote: Listening to Tambellini speak in the days since the lottery, he sounds very much like a man who has his mind set on trading down. Of course it is completely possible that this was the plan pre-lottery when they thought they had #2 and Kevin Lowe just hasn't had a chance to tell Tambellini what he is supposed to think about this new reality yet...Apparently Jonathan Willis agrees with me.)
After the jump, I'll look at some of the targets the Oilers could consider pursuing to improve their back-end without landing a single young impact blueliner in the mold of Oliver Ekman-Larsson, P.K. Subban, or Cam Fowler.
If the Oilers intend to build their blueline around solid depth rather than add a cornerstone-type player, then all of the below-average NHL talent needs to go. First and foremost, that means (as if it needs to be said) goodbye Cam Barker. Secondly, it also means possibly not qualifying Theo Peckham, or signing him with the understanding he'll likely be waived at camp and if he is lost, c'est la vie. A similar fate would befall Corey Potter, who would serve as a nice insurance policy as an AHL call-up. Let's say Andy Sutton stays aboard as the #7/8 man on the blueline.
I'm not sure what you do with Whitney, but I know that if you're serious about competing, you can't depend on him to be a significant contributor. One of the first rules of project management is that you never get to "hope" for a positive result. To hope implies that you are uncertain the outcome will be positive. Ryan Whitney could bounce back, but at this point, all you can do is keep your fingers crossed that he will be better if he can get totally healthy, you can't expect it. A good GM would plan for the eventuality that he cannot return to form and make alternate arrangements. At that point, any positive outcomes are a nice bonus.
If I had my way, he'd be #6 or 7, preferably #7 on the depth chart heading in to camp (depending on how much I was able to accomplish over the summer). I consider it unlikely they would buy him out.
So, that leaves three spots to fill. That's some heavy lifting for management, but if you want better results, you need to make some serious changes. Here are the five players I would target among the non-blue chip class. In order to complete the transformation of the blueline the Oilers would need to acquire three of these guys, which is a tall order for one off-season, but none should require parting with any of Eberle, Hall, RNH or Yakupov:
#1 - Justin Schultz. One of only two possible free agent signings of the group. There has been some buzz that Schultz may have a realistic shot at landing in Edmonton, primarily based on Bob McKenzie suggesting the Oilers as a potential destination on an episode of the NHL on TSN Quiz. I don't know if it is likely, but the guy is limited to signing an entry-level deal, so if I'm the Oilers, I offer him the best deal you can and try to make the compelling argument that he'll have elite offensive skill to play with and immediate opportunity to play. He's a Western Canadian kid, so you hope that opportunity and the chance to play close to home is enough to convince him to sign with the Oil. For those unaware, Schultz was taken in the same draft as Jordan Eberle, but has been in the NCAA since that time. He now has the option of taking advantage of a clause in the CBA that allows him to become a UFA this June at the age of 21. Schultz is a smooth, puck moving powerplay quarterback and happens to be a right-handed shot, which the Oilers are in dire need of. That fact pushes him to the top of my list.
#2 - Nikita Nikitin. Niktin really took a step forward this season following a trade from the Blues in November. After going pointless in 7 games with the Blues, he put up an impressive 7g-25a-32p in 54 games with Columbus (in his first full season in the NHL). Nikitin has some decent size at 6'3" 217lbs., he's only 25 and given his performance this year, may have been one of the best bargains in the league at a 1 yr. $600,000 cap hit. He is an RFA and is certainly due for a raise from those numbers. The lack of prolonged performance at a high level from Nikitin is the one item that should give teams potential reason for pause. His performance made a drastic turnaround after coming over in the trade from St. Louis, which is either indicative of receiving an opportunity he had not previously had, or perhaps being paired with another solid defender, namely Fedor Tyutin in this case (with whom he played the vast majority of his time), whose performance could have artificially inflated Nikitin's numbers. Some research would be required to determine if Nikitin was being carried by Tyutin, but based on my limited review of their advanced stats, he appears to hold his own in some very difficult situations. Considering he and Tyutin faced the toughest quality of competition on the team (it isn't even close among the rest of the team's defensemen), and the team's goal differential of -60, his +/- of -5 seems downright heroic. Lastly it can't go unsaid that his zone start/finish differential of +6.8 is absolutely oustanding and an indicator that he knows how to get the puck from the defensive zone into the attacking zone. If the Oilers believe that Nikitin's performance from this season is sustainable going forward, they should absolutely grab him now because his value will climb exponentially the longer he performs as he did this season.
#3 - Carl Gunnarsson. When people talk about the Leafs trading some of their defensive depth, the two most common names tossed around are Jake Gardiner and Luke Schenn. I think that is partially driven by the Toronto media, who assume that those two are the targets of rival GMs as a result of the hype surrounding both players. However, Carl Gunnarsson has been a far more effective player. In a recent post, I pointed out a number of similarities between the performances of Jeff Petry and Carl Gunnarsson this year, and I think if I offered you the chance to have a 2nd Jeff Petry to put on the Oiler blueline next season, you'd likely take it. Gunnarsson is signed to one more year on an incredible value contract ($1.325 Million) and he's also only 25. He played on the tough minutes pairing for Toronto this season (paired with Phaneuf), had the highest PK TOI/Gm. on the Leafs and was on the 2nd PP unit as well. He's a left-handed shot and offers some decent secondary offense. Certainly not a 40 point guy, but he can move the puck and has proven his ability to push the play towards the offensive end.
#4 - Andrej Sekera. The Buffalo Sabres have a ton of depth on the blueline and a number of additional prospects coming along the pipeline. They are certainly in a position to deal a player like this. Sekera has played significant, yet not astonishingly high minutes for Buffalo over the last few seasons. He plays some of the toughest minutes of any player on the Sabres, and has been tasked with protecting Tyler Myers, which, despite what some may think, has not been an easy task. He plays significant PK minutes, and was the 4th option among defensemen on the PP for the Sabres this year. He is a left-handed shooter, and typically plays on that side, but like Nick Schultz, he has spent significant time on the right side in the past, which provides some nice flexibility. He is also, you guessed it...just 25. He is signed for three more seasons at a $2.75 Million cap hit. He was used in similar roles to Gunnarsson in that he played tough minutes with a heavy dose of defensive zone starts, and he actually handled it better than Gunnarsson did (who did a pretty good job himself).
#5 - Matt Carle. I'm not someone who has been a huge fan of Carle, but his performance this season cannot be disputed. Like the others on this list Carle has faced uphill battles in the quality of competition he has faced and the percentage of defensive zone starts he was on the ice for, although not as tough as the others on my list. He is slightly older at 27 and his current contract, which is for just under $3.5 Million is up at season's end, at which point he will be a UFA and likely due for a substantial raise given recent trends for unrestricted free agents. Carle has shown he can be a very good defenseman this year, and he is certainly a good fit for the Oilers. However, given the likely salary he will command and the comparable cost of others on this list, I would pursue the other names first. That said, he is still the right kind of player for the Oilers and a viable target.
For a chart outlining exactly how well these players handled their responsibilities, once again, I refer you to Derek's post I linked to above.
Selecting three of these players at random as an example, here is a quick look at what a potential defensive depth chart could resemble by the time camp starts in September:
Smid - Petry
Gunnarsson - N. Schultz
Sekera - J. Schultz
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, even if the Oilers were able to land three of these players, there are no young, top pairing, all situation stud Dmen among the group. However, no matter which players they got, it would be a top six D that would be very solid defensively in front of Dubnyk and there is some mobility and offensive potential.
I'm quite certain that the likelihood of accomplishing all of this is very small, but in theory it should demonstrate that there is a way to build a legitimate blueline without parting with one of the big four (assuming Yakupov joins the existing three).
Personally, I'm partial to a blueline that includes at least one dominant player, but, if that type of move is not in the cards then balance, depth and defensive responsibility should be the focus in order to allow them to become competitive.
In a follow up post, I will look at the three players who would need to be acquired by trade, and try to determine if there is a potential match between the two teams.