After taking a closer look at what players have followed a similar path to that of Justin Schultz, I concluded that the Oilers have a very good player on their hands who will likely be a top four defender for a long time to come. I also concluded that he's not ready for that role this coming season, and would be better off either starting in the AHL, or more likely, starting on the third pairing. That of course means that the Oilers are still in need of another defender capable of playing top four minutes alongside Nick Schultz this season. Is this a position that the Oilers can fill in free agency?
The first thing we need to do in order to answer that question is establish exactly what it is that the Oilers need, both in the long and short term. As such, a brief look at the team's depth chart seems helpful:
NHL Depth Chart:
Ladislav Smid (Age 26; UFA 2013) - Jeff Petry (Age 24; RFA 2014)
Ryan Whitney (Age 29; UFA 2013) - Nick Schultz (Age 29; UFA 2014)
Andy Sutton (Age 37; UFA 2013) - Justin Schultz (Age 22; RFA 2014)
Theo Peckham (Age 24; RFA) - Corey Potter (Age 28; UFA 2014)
AHL Depth Chart:
Martin Marincin (Age 20; RFA 2015) - Colten Teubert (Age 22; RFA 2013)
Brandon Davidson (Age 20; RFA 2015) - Alex Plante (Age 23; RFA)
N/A - Taylor Fedun (Age 24; RFA 2013)
N/A - N/A
Other Leagues (Alphabetical, Signed/Unsigned):
Oscar Klefbom (Age 18; SEL; RFA 2016) - Kyle Bigos (Age 23; NCAA; RFA)
David Musil (Age 19; WHL; RFA 2016) - N/A
Martin Gernat (Age 19; WHL; RFA) - N/A
Erik Gustafsson (Age 20; SEL; RFA) - N/A
Joey Laleggia (Age 20; NCAA; RFA) - N/A
Dillon Simpson (Age 19; NCAA; RFA) - N/A
The first thing that jumps out to me is the amount of flexibility. The Oilers don't have any NHL defenders signed for more than two seasons, so there's not a lot of contract risk to deal with here, which is good. On the right side, I think it's safe to say that the Oilers probably have Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz penciled in as their two men in the top four in the long term. In the short term, Schultz will need bottom pairing minutes and a couple of other options ready in case he struggles. The Oilers have all those needs covered with Nick Schultz acting as a solid transition player in the top four for the next year or two, and Corey Potter, Colten Teubert, Alex Plante and Taylor Fedun all fighting for a chance at the NHL in behind.
On the left side, things are much less sure. Ladislav Smid established himself as a solid top four option a year ago, and is likely in the plans going forward, but will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. I assume that the club would like to keep him around, but we'll know for certain soon enough. The other spot is wide open. All of Ryan Whitney, Andy Sutton, and Theo Peckham are suitable to be counted on for third pairing minutes, but none should be trusted as a top four defender. Behind them, the Oilers don't have a single player over 20. In the long term, I imagine the Oilers see one of their many prospects panning out, but it's likely to take several years of development before that player is ready for top four minutes in the NHL. Because of the risk of Smid leaving and the youth of the prospects, a medium to long term solution on the left side should be contemplated, and at the very least, a short term solution is necessary.
This player is likely to play with Nick Schultz against reasonably difficult competition. As such, it would be nice to find a player with a good first pass and some recent history of playing against good players with success. The nice thing about Nick Schultz is that he can play both sides of the defense, so we don't need to limit our search to either lefties or righties.
With that established, let's take a look at what's available. I decided to start by looking for UFA defensemen who played at least 20:00 per game in at least 40 games last season. This was a fairly discouraging criterion, as there was just one player, Scott Hannan, who played 20:21 per game with Calgary last season. If we broaden it a bit to 18:00 per game, I get a bit queasy already, but at least it gives us a few more players:
There's not much to get excited about here. The two most interesting guys to me are probably Brett Clark and Carlo Colaiacovo. Clark played in a similar role with the Lightning over the last two years. He played mostly with Victor Hedman in 2010-11 and a wider variety of partners in 2011-12, but the team was quite successful with him on the ice in both years. He'll be 36 in December, but if he's amenable to a one-year deal, then he could compete with Ryan Whitney for a job in the top four.
Colaiacovo looks great by the numbers listed above, but it's hard not to think that he was being carried some by partner Alex Pietrangelo. He doesn't exactly have a history of tough minutes or lots of minutes or playing the PK, so he's certainly not the ideal candidate as a long term solution, but again, he might be able to push Ryan Whitney for that job in the top four.
In the end, I'm unconvinced that any of the options available in free agency will provide more than marginal help, and that the Oilers would be better off trying to make a trade to fix their problems on defense. That likely means moving a quality forward out, and leaves me feeling more sure that the Oilers would be wise to bring in a forward via free agency (I had suggested Dominic Moore earlier this month) in order to give them more flexibility to do that without opening up another hole.