On Tuesday Derek started our Oilers season previews with a look at the forwards. Today I keep the ball rolling by taking a look at the blue line which has been the topic of much discussion throughout the offseason and even more so now as the injuries, which are starting feel as if they're inevitable, start to mount much sooner than usual.
The Ins and Outs
Most of the changes to the Oilers defense has been at the bottom of the teams depth chart. Gone from last season's roster are Jim Vandermeer, Kurtis Foster, and Jason Strudwick. Vandermeer left as a free agent to join the San Jose Sharks. Foster was sent to Anaheim in exchange for Andy Sutton, and Strudwick, although still looking to land a job, is probably finished playing in the NHL. Between them, these three played 179 games on the Oilers blueline and contributed 10 goals and 28 assists. Certainly not significant holes in the lineup but holes that needed to be filled nonetheless.
Brought in to fill those holes were Cam Barker, signed as a free agent on July 1 to a one year deal worth $2.25M, and Sutton who was acquired in exchange for Foster. Also on the first day of free agency the Oilers added Corey Potter on a two way contract. Looking at these moves it appears that Tambellini's plan was to have Barker fill the powerplay role vacated by Foster, Vandermeer's physical presence would be replaced by Sutton, Potter adds some depth in Oklahoma, and Strudwick would simply be replaced by a younger player.
The Depth Chart
|Ryan Whitney *||Tom Gilbert|
|Ladislav Smid *||Jeff Petry|
|Theo Peckham||Cam Barker|
|Andy Sutton||Corey Potter|
|Taylor Chorney *||Taylor Fedun *|
* currently injured
There isn't a lot of good to find in one of the worst defensive units in the NHL but the one thing this group does have going for it is age, they're all very young. This isn't necessarily a good thing for this year but more for the future of the franchise. Of the players listed on the depth chart above Sutton is the elder statesman at 36; Whitney and Gilbert are the next oldest at 28. With Smid only 25 and Petry 23 this is a defense that appears to have some young talent and one that should be able to give management multiple options to fill other roster holes through trade as the next generation begins to demand roster spots of their own and that is very good.
Take a look at the depth chart above and the bad jumps right out at you, there is zero depth. The Oilers top two pairings won't scare most teams when they're healthy and if the team is short a man or two we'll be seeing players like Barker, Peckham, and Sutton forced into playing top four minutes on a consistent basis. To put it bluntly that will not end well. All three are defensive liabilities who should be protected and put out against against weaker competition whenever possible. When that doesn't happen they will get eaten alive against tougher competition. Considering that the Oilers already appear to be at that point and the season has yet to start is bad.
The asterisks on the depth chart show which players are currently injured. Four injured players out of ten would be ugly on most teams but this is the Oilers. On this team only one of those asterisks really matters and that is the one beside Ryan Whitney. I really doubt that there is a player who means more to the Oilers than Whitney. He is the teams best defenseman, he contributes on the powerplay, and he's a leader. Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky are great up front but there are others who can pick up the slack if they get hurt, with Whitney there is no one available to do that. It's been nine months since Whitney's season was ended by surgery, that he didn't play a minute in the pre-season and might start the regular season on the IR is down right ugly.
This is going to be a long season for the Oilers defense. The injuries and lack of depth is going to put a rather weak group behind the eight ball right from opening day. Gilbert and Petry will be bright spots as they continue to progress and they will have two of the better seasons among the Oilers defense. Petry will show he belongs in the NHL on a full time basis and will have more people talking about him as an option for the top pairing by seasons end.
On the other hand, Barker will disappoint. The man drafted third overall will not live up to expectations or his contract. I doubt he even matches the offensive numbers put up by Foster last season, the man he's supposed to be replacing. Both he and Sutton will move from the inbox this year to the outbox next year at this time.