The Oilers defence has not been one of the team's strengths in recent seasons. Of course on a team that has finished last, last, and next to last in the last three years there haven't been many strengths to be found anywhere on the roster. But it has seemed to me at least that the defence was worst than most. You could see improvement among the forwards and the same could be said between the pipes, but on the blueline things have not appeared to be getting better.
The acquisition of Justin Schultz was really the first positive move for the blue line during the Steve Tambellini era and even that had a lot to do with how badly he had managed the defence up to that point. Bringing in Mark Fistric to replace an out of shape Theo Peckham was also a positive but upgrades to your number 6/7 defenceman are only going to get you so far. The defence was a group that I didn't have a lot of faith in before the season. I thought that there was "potential in this group but a lot of things need to go right for the Oilers to be successful."
With the season now a quarter complete how has the defence fared? Well, it's been a combination of good, bad, and ugly.
In all honesty good might actually be underselling it a little. The Schultzs - Nick and Justin - have been superb for the Oilers so far this year. For Nick Schultz this isn't exactly uncharted territory. After being acquired in exchange for Tom Gilbert at the trade deadline last season Nick Schultz quickly showed why the Oilers wanted him. He was the perfect shut down defenceman, a player capable of playing 20 plus minutes a night against tough competition without getting killed. Basically he was exactly what the Oilers needed and had his presence in the Oilers lineup not come at the cost of Gilbert his acquisition might have been Tambellini's finest hour.
This season Nick Schultz picked right up where he left off last season logging big minutes and killing it against tough competition. His zone starts are a little easier this season than they have been in the past but that is likely a by-product of playing with Justin Schultz who is obviously an offence weapon and is being used as such. There are things to complain about with the Oilers defence but Nick Schultz's play is not one of them.
But where Nick Schultz had been expected to play at the level that he has there were questions surrounding his partner, the newly acquired Justin Schultz. As a rookie dropped into the deep end of the NHL being asked to take on a top four role I don't think anybody would have complained had the younger Schultz struggled from time to time as he adjusted to the NHL but that hasn't really happened. There have been hiccups along the way but Justin Schultz has looked on a number of nights like he might already be the Oilers best defenceman. Through the season's first twelve games the Schultzs are the only Oilers defencemen with a Rel Corsi in the black but it's the player usage chart (courtesy of Greg Sinclair) that really shows you just how good they've been. Justin Schultz isn't being sheltered and it looks so far like he doesn't need to be.
All of this and I haven't even mentioned Justin Schultz's offence yet. With 4 goals and 3 assists he's leading the Oilers defence and his six power play points tie him for the team lead with Sam Gagner. His ability to play both ends of the ice is an unexpected surprise and that is why he and Nick Schultz have been what's good about the Oilers defence.
Had you asked me before the season who the biggest disappointment on the Oilers blue line would be it's doubtful that I would have come up with Ladislav Smid and Jeff Petry but that's exactly what the Oilers number one pairing has been so far this season. After tremendous seasons from both last year I had high hopes that they would establish themselves as a true top pairing this season but that hasn't happened yet. In fact it hasn't been even close to happening.
A good portion of the Oilers lineup found work elsewhere during the lockout but not Petry. The last action he saw was as a member of the United States team that lost in the quarter-finals of the World Championships. So maybe his slow start is more the result of rust than anything else and we'll soon see the return of the player we saw last season. I'm leaning a little towards rust being the cause (read also: hoping) because Petry hasn't been bad each and every night, there have been flashes of the true Petry, and that could easily be explained by a player who is just half a step behind where he wants to be. The next dozen games should tell us for sure.
Maybe Petry's play can be attributed to rust but we can't say the same for Smid who spent to lockout in the Czech Republic playing with HC Bílí Tygři Liberec. Going on two weeks now, and remember the season is only three weeks old, Smid has looked almost lost on the ice at times. By my eye he seems to be spending a lot of time on the ice trying to block shots, more so than I remember from previous seasons. I don't know if it's intentional or not but there is a good chance that it's taking him out of position more (I can't imagine how it could possibly help) and as a result his play is suffering. Whatever the reason he and Petry have been bad and they need to be better.
The Oilers bottom pairing and the four players that play on that pairing fall into the ugly category. Ryan Whitney can't skate. Theo Peckham can't be bothered to show up in shape and as a result is basically a waste of a roster spot right now. Corey Potter (or Potter, Corey if you prefer) alternates between passable and awful, usually on back-to-back shifts. Mark Fistric is the only player on the Oilers bottom pairing who has shown that he might be able to play in the NHL but he's only dressed in half the games the team has played and is averaging at least two minutes less ice time than any other defenceman when he does play so it's really hard to tell.
As I see it the Oilers have two options when it comes to this group: Either find some help by way of a trade or see if the NHL will start playing 50 minute games because as long as this group is on the ice for 15 minutes a night the result will be ugly.