First, a quick apology for the delay in preparing the last few articles. Time for writing has been scarce the last few weeks.
In my last article, I looked at the development of the current crop of Oiler forwards over the next two seasons. In the following paragraphs, I will apply the same analysis to the team's blueline and goaltending assets at all levels of the organization.
First, let's look at the assets the Oilers currently have for their blueline. Under contract for next season are Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Nick Schultz, Ryan Whitney, Corey Potter and Andy Sutton. The team also holds the rights to impending RFA's Cam Barker and Theo Peckham.
It goes without saying that many of us would be shocked to see Cam Barker play another game in an Oiler uniform, and considering the contractual commitment that would have to be made to qualify him, let's assume he is not tendered contract and is permitted to walk away as a free agent. Theo Peckham is a slightly more interesting case in that he is young and has in the past shown some level of promise. That said, his play was abysmal this season and if I'm making the decisions here (which is the premise of this initiative), I see if I can trade his rights at the draft for a mid-round pick, and if not, I would let him walk away as well. There are simply too many players coming up through the system to employ a player whose skill set is so redundant (and relatively unimpressive).
Moving on to the six already under contract for next year, I have already outlined my opinion on how the Oilers should approach these assets. I believe the Oilers have three legitimate top six D-men for a playoff-calibre team (Smid, Petry and Schultz) with the possibility of a fourth if Ryan Whitney is able to regain some of his previous form after a full off-season of training. I have my doubts that he can, but if he does, he would certainly be among the team's top four as it stands today.
Let's start with the good...Jeff Petry. Unquestionably the high point for the team's NHL defence corps this past season. Petry emerged as a player who can handle heavy minutes, including many difficult ones while playing in all situations. He has shown the ability to push the puck towards the offensive zone and contribute offensively on a team that severely lacks production from its blueline. Petry is the only legitimate option for a top four spot on the team next season that shoots right and naturally plays the right-hand side, which makes him even more valuable. He must sign a new contract this summer as he is an RFA, but one that is taken care of, Petry should form a very solid 2nd pairing with Smid in the years ahead. In fact, Petry still has the potential to develop into a top-pairing blueliner, although for the time being, an expectation for him to continue as a strong piece of a 2nd pairing is all the team should plan for. Perhaps those expectations can be revisited in year two of the development plan, but it is too early in his career to project Petry's ceiling to be that high.
Sticking with the positives, this brings me to Lady Smid. Smid took an enormous step forward this year. He emerged as a player who can be relied upon to play against the opponents top players and perform well under those circumstances. At this point in his career I think it is safe to say that he is not expected to develop any type of significant offensive game, but if he can sustain his play from this season as he enters the prime years of his career, he is a very valuable piece on the left side of a 2nd pairing. Barring a trade or injury, Smid should be among the most consistent things on the team's blueline over the next 24 months.
Moving on to Nick Schultz, I need to remind people (and sometimes myself) that I like this player. In fact, a year ago I was championing the prospect of his acquisition. That said, through no fault of his own, Schultz got off to a rough start as an Oiler by being the asset obtained in a trade the team lost. Schultz will turn 30 this off-season, and, as such, is right in the prime of his career. He should be counted on to continue providing experience and a steady hand on the blueline over the next two seasons. He would make an incredible #5 Dman, a solid #4 and a lackluster #3. His value, as with all of the team's blueliners, is dependant on where he is slotted on the depth chart.
Ryan Whitney is the wild card on the team's back end right now. If Whitney can remain healthy and become even 80% of the player he was during his first season in Edmonton, then the team has filled one of the many holes it has on defence, but if he cannot, then a contingency needs to be ready for the team to exist without him. As such, I would plan to slot him in at 7th on the depth chart and give him the chance to be a pleasant surprise next season as opposed to slotting him 4th and setting him up to be a disappointment. This is a player whose body just doesn't seem willing/able to do what he wants it to anymore.
In Corey Potter and Andy Sutton, the team has two veteran pros, both of whom you can pretty much bank on what they bring to the table. Potter can be a nice help on the power play, but cannot be counted on for significant minutes at even strength and Sutton brings a physical element and can help killing penalties, but again, at 5v5, he is a below average option. Neither player can be asked to develop into anything more than they are at this point in their careers, and if they are asked to play significant minutes, the team is facing an uphill battle again.
Stepping down to the Oklahoma City Barons, the team has a number of players who have legitimate aspirations of an NHL career, however very few who are likely to become mainstays in the top six within the next two seasons. The team's top call-up option this season was Colten Teubert. Teubert is big and mean, and appears as if he may have what it takes to be a middle of the road 3rd pairing player in the NHL, but I think that is about where his ceiling lies. He is a suitable replacement for the aging Andy Sutton, and could potentially find a home as a #6/7 player along the blueline at some point in the next two seasons. Alex Plante and Taylor Chorney appear to have closing windows when it comes to a full-time NHL career. Plante showed significant progress this season, but is blocked on the depth chart by both Teubert and Sutton, who the organization appear to value more. If Plante does eventually make the jump to the NHL, I suspect it may be for another organization. Chorney appears to be a valuable veteran for the AHL and an available call-up option in a moment of desperation, but nothing more.
The one potential exception to the "fringe NHLer" group would be Taylor Fedun. Everyone knows the story of the injury that wiped out a tremendous training camp and his entire season. Unfortunately, the loss of his rookie season as a pro, and the severity of his injury makes it difficult to evaluate exactly what level of prospect the team has heading into training camp next fall. Fedun will almost certainly begin next season in OKC, but could end up anywhere from a bottom pairing AHL player to an NHL regular over the next two seasons. He will be perhaps the most intriguing prospect on the team over the next 12 months if only because he is an unknown commodity that could arrive in the NHL at as soon as his level of play dictates he is ready. Fedun is a physically developed older prospect similar to Jeff Petry when he turned pro. The team should likely expect him to play the full season in OKC, and, as with Ryan Whitney, allow him the opportunity to over-achieve.
Looking to the organizational depth outside of the pro level is where the hope truly lies. Sadly though, as is the case with most defensive prospects, asking any of these players to be major contributors over the next two seasons is unrealistic. (If you are looking for the argument against drafting Ryan Murray...well...this is one of the biggest ones.) I looked at the team's issues with developing so many Dman prospects earlier in the spring. As I stated at the time, the team has a number of interesting assets in the system. I'll list them off quickly here because my commentary is essentially the same for all of them:
- Oscar Klefbom
- Martin Marincin
- David Musil
- Martin Gernat
- Brandon Davidson
- Jeremy Blain
- Kyle Bigos
- Dillon Simpson
All of the young players listed above have some measure of NHL potential, however, with the possible exception of Marincin should he take a quantum leap forward during his first professional season, the likelihood that any of them are significant players for the team over the next two seasons is unlikely. Klefbom will stay in Europe for one more season and then likely require at least a partial season in the AHL to adjust to the smaller ice surface. Musil and Gernat will both play another year in Junior before turning pro (as will Bigos in the NCAA), and will likely need at least one full season in OKC before they can be considered for a roster spot. The team would be wise to allow Dillion Simpson to stay in the NCAA for a while longer in order to widen the window in which their defensive prospects are graduating. Davidson and Blain would be considered lower level prospects (although I personally like Blain's skillset) who likely would need multiple seasons of professional hockey before making the jump to the big show.
In summation, if the team is going to improve their defence significantly over the next two seasons, the majority of the assistance will need to come from outside of the organization. I will look at those options in the next stage of my analysis.
The team's goaltending is much more cut and dry. Barring a change in course, Devan Dubnyk and Nikolai Khabibulin will once again man the crease for the Oil in 2012/13. Assuming Dubnyk signs a multi-year extension this summer, he will likely remain part of the tandem in 2013/14 and possibly beyond. Khabibulin should be finished as an Oiler already, but since the plan appears to be to have him return for the final year of his contract, this coming year would most certainly be his last (again, this is assuming I make the decisions). Perhaps the biggest decisions for the team will lie in the replacement of Khabibulin one year from now. Olivier Roy will be graduating to the AHL next season and based on his stellar performance in Stockton this year, should be given the chance to play a significant number of games. The team will need to sign another veteran to support him (Yann Danis is a great fit unless he receives a better offer, and David LeNeveu is also worthy of consideration). Overall Roy's level of play will determine if he merits an audition for the back-up job to Dubnyk in 2013/14. I'm inclined to think he may need an additional season in the AHL, but his play will dictate his advancement.
A year behind Roy is Tyler Bunz, who at this time may be the most promising goalie prospect in the organization. Bunz was the WHL Goaltender of the Year this season, and will follow in Roy's footsteps and assume the starting role in Stockton next season. By 2013/14, if he plays well, Bunz will still likely just be beginning his first season in the AHL, and is therefore a non-factor in the team's NHL plans for the next 24 months. The need for the team to go out and sign a new NHL netminder in the summer of 2013 will be determined by the performances of Devan Dubnyk and Oliver Roy over the next 12 months.
In part two of this series, I will begin looking at the specific gaps on the Oiler depth chart that will emerge over the next two seasons through attrition of contracts or the changing of roles for current players. I'll be examining the best manner to address those gaps (trade, free agency, internal promotion) and why, and I'll also look at which players may be considered expendable due to organizational redundancy. Finally, I'll examine the possibility of changes within the coaching staff, which, as of yesterday, is obviously in the cards for this summer.
Previously in this series: