Bruce Fedyck-US PRESSWIRE
As was the case in net, the Oilers defence is surrounded by questions: How will Justin Schultz fare? Can Ryan Whitney still play? What happens if anyone gets injured?
Having looked at the questions surrounding the Oilers netminders I now turn my attention to the team's blue line. Under Steve Tambellini's watchful eye the Oilers defence has been completely dismantled and rebuilt into one of the worst units in the NHL during recent seasons. The silver lining to Tambellini's vision for the blue line is that it resulted in a defence so bad that it actually gave the team an edge when it came to signing Justin Schultz.
But as nice as that signing is, the Oilers didn't do much this past offseason to reshape a defence that wasn't very good the year before. Cam Barker was thankfully not re-signed and the Oilers also just brought in Mark Fistric but that's it and so there are still a lot of questions about this group as the Oilers get ready to kick off their season.
We're all pretty confident that Justin Schultz will look good in at the oppositions end of the rink but what should we expect when the puck is in the Oilers end?
When he finally returned to the lineup last season following ankle surgery, Ryan Whitney was a shadow of his former self, is he going to be a dependable option for the Oilers this season and if not what does that mean for the team?
And since this is the Oilers it never hurts to ask: What happens if someone gets hurt?
Based on the line combinations that Ralph Krueger was using in camp it would appear that, at least initially, the plan is to play the two Schultz's along side each other. This will likely be confusing for the guys tasked with doing the play by play and also means that Justin, with his zero games of NHL experience, would be seeing second pairing ice time and competition.
Justin Schultz's play in Oklahoma City, simply put, blew away expectations but my hope had always been to shelter him at even strength by playing him on the third pairing and then letting him loose on the first unit power play. Bring him along slowly, let him get his feet under him before asking him to take on more defensive responsibilities. The Oilers plan seems to be more a toss him into the deep end way of doing things.
Is there any real chance this works out for the Oilers? A couple of other recent graduates from the hockey program at the University of Wisconsin - Ryan McDonagh and Jake Gardiner - did exactly what Schultz is being asked to do and they managed to keep their head above water so I guess there's a chance.
McDonagh and Gardiner both played a handful of games in the AHL after leaving school before being promoted to the NHL shortly thereafter. Looking at the data available from Behind the Net (McDonagh Gardiner) they both played second pairing competition and generally kept the puck moving in the right direction. Interestingly they also both had the highest PDO among defenders on their teams.
It isn't my preference to toss Schultz into a second pairing situation right from day one but it's something that has worked in the past so it might just work out for the Oilers as well. We'll likely know just how successful this experiment is going to be in about two weeks.
If Schultz isn't able to hack it on the second pair the Oilers will be in a world of trouble because it seems very unlikely that Whitney will be able to step in and take over for him. Of course nobody has seen Whitney in a game since April of last year but what we saw at that time wasn't encouraging. Whitney was slow and almost immobile at times. The last few months might have allowed his ankle to heal a little more, giving him a little extra jump but that's about the best we can probably hope for. His being paired in camp with Corey Potter would seem to indicate that the Oilers aren't expecting any significant improvements either.
Bruce McCurdy asked Whitney about the ankle and got the following response:
It's just something I cope with. I got to speak to a lot of people that have gone through what I went through. There’s a new hundred percent for me.
Either everyone is underselling it or Whitney is going to be a very expensive bottom pairing defender this season. If the Oilers need him to be anything more I suspect they will be disappointed in the outcome. If they get lucky though they could end up with a defence that isn't cringe inducing on a nightly basis. Unless of course someone gets hurt.
At times over the last few years it's seemed as if there were more Oilers player hurt than healthy. The sheer number of injuries this team has had to deal with is stunning. The best protection against injuries is of course depth but a quick look at the Oilers defence reveals virtually no depth so if injuries once again rear their ugly head the Oilers are going to have very few options available.
The Oilers have a lot of 5/6/7 defencemen and they have, at best, four players capable of playing on their top two pairs: Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry, Nick Schultz, and maybe Justin Schultz. If any of those four players spends any time out of the lineup with an injury the Oilers won't be able to replace them and the result will be a lot of very long nights for Devan Dubnyk and a large number in the loss column.
There is potential in this group but a lot of things need to go right for the Oilers to be successful. Hopefully the team is due for some good luck.