The Oilers defense corps currently looks something like this:
LD: Grebeshkov, Souray, Smid, Roy
RD: Gilbert, Visnovsky, Staios
We can toss in some of the kids on whatever side (Hrabal, Peckham, Chorney) but the odds are really good that none of them are even-strength difference makers in their rookie seasons- and that's where the Oilers biggest team weakness lies. Which pairing of defenders would you trust to play against the Jarome Iginlas of the world?
Looking at the Quality of Competition numbers for last season, it really appears that MacTavish/Huddy went for a defence-by-committee approach. Staios, Souray and Gilbert were the coaches first options against tough minutes. Pitkanen, Smid and finally Grebeshkov each played against opponents of descending toughness. Matt Greene was sheltered, as were whichever injury-callups who were playing that night. What were the results?
Pitkanen broke even, Grebeshkov came out ahead, and Gilbert was just under even in terms of even strength scoring. Staios, Souray and Smid were all buried in goal differential (although, in fairness to Souray it wasn't so much that his GAON/60 was bad as it was that his GFON/60 was atrocious). Matt Greene evidently can't play hockey. Also, for those of you wondering about Visnovsky, last year he was buried in a second-pairing role (although historically he hasn't been bad in 2nd-pairing assignements).
So, who gets which assignments? Gilbert is the one player who seems to be destined for top-pairing duty at even strength. Beyond that, Staios needs a reduction in terms of responsibilities, as does Smid, while Grebeshkov can be bumped up the chart. Basically, I'd tier the defenders in this order:
1st Pairing: Gilbert
2nd Pairing: Staios, Souray, Visnovsky, Grebeshkov
3rd Pairing: Smid, Roy
with the caveat that these are players I expect to have a reasonable chance of breaking even, not excelling, in their roles.
Now, barring a Souray trade, a 1st pairing even-strength defender is frankly not a possibility. Who's left on the free agent market that can play tough opposition? Here's a brief list, cannibalized from the one Mirtle put up the other day:
M. Malik, J. Smith, J. Modry, A. Zhitnik, M. Weaver
That doesn't show how bad it is, really. The numbers for the Philly guys (Smith, Modry) are not good, and show neither as capable of handling tough minutes, even if some allowance is made for Smith's injury. Zhitnik was well below even in medium-strength minutes in Atlanta, and even if we allow him some slack because of how awful his team was that doesn't put him out there as a lead candidate for tough minutes. Mike Weaver should find a home somewhere, he excelled with 3rd-pairing minutes, but he isn't a viable option for top-pairing work. In point of fact, there's only one viable option for top-pairing work.
A man described as "soft for a big man" and called "high-strung" after a public squabble with Rangers head coach Tom Renney (by the way, the squabble was about Renney's tendency to healthy-scratch Malik, and Malik was almost certainly in the right). He played the toughest minutes on the Rangers last season, and posted the best goal differential of any defender on the team. He also happens to play left defense. I've praised Malik previously, and in my opinion he would be a perfect (and cheap) fit. Then the Oilers could run the following pairs at even strength:
Malik - Gilbert
Grebeshkov - Staios
Souray - Visnovsky
Feel free to trade Souray and pop Smid into the top-six if you would like ;). I am not at all concerned about having Smid 7th on the list; the 7th defensmena always ends up seeing a substantial number of games (40+). Otherwise, this team is running a group with a high-water mark of just breaking even.
Update: Robin Brownlee over at OilersNation reports that the Oilers have had preliminary discussions with Jason Smith.
Update II: TSN reports that Smith has signed a two-year, 5.2-million dollar contract with the Ottawa Senators. This is a great addition for an Ottawa team that desperately needs the leadership and nastiness that Smith can provide.
Update III: Regular Oilersphere commenter Misfit has pointed out below that a thread was started on this same subject yesterday at HFBoards by the aforementioned Misfit. Looking through the comments however, there really doesn't seem to be much concern about this team's ability to handle tough opposition.