There was a time during the offseason when I thought that the Oilers might be pencilling in Oscar Klefbom for a spot on the team's bottom pairing this season. More than a few of the in the know MSM members were hinting that Klefbom had a legitimate shot at making the club out of training camp this season. My personal opinion is that this course of action would be completely nuts, and with a lot of teams I wouldn't put much stock in a story like this written during the summer when column inches are hard to fill, but the Oilers are a franchise that just loves to drop rookies into the lineup and see how things go. It seemed like a legitimate possibility.
That was before Craig MacTavish got busy adding defenceman to this team though. MacT had a busy summer and added so many that he has all but made it impossible for Klefbom to make the Oilers out of training camp. Where Klefbom once might have had a decent shot of grabing the number six, or seven spot on the Oilers' blue line, he's likely now slotted behind new comers Anton Belov, Philip Larsen, Andrew Ference, and Denis Grebeshkov who join a group that already included Jeff Petry, Ladislav Smid, Justin Schultz, Nick Schultz, and Corey Potter.
Holy mackerel that's a lot of defencemen. I won't be shocked if we see Klefbom in Edmonton at some point this season, but with nine players in front of him I highly doubt it'll be in early October. And if it's not Klefbom then who will it be?
The best way to answer a question like that is to start with what you do know. The first thing that I'd say we know for sure is that of the five defencemen that played here last season four are absolutely going to make this team: Petry, the Schutlzs, and Smid. That leaves Potter on the outside looking in, and potentially playing for his job. On the going to make the team list you can also add Ference who was signed to a four-year deal in July.
We also know, or at least strongly suspect, that the Oilers will be starting the season with eight defencemen instead of the usual seven. The Oilers could throw a wrench into things here but with so many new faces and a new coach I really think they'll keep an extra body around for a month or so to see how things go. That means Potter, Belov, Larsen, and Grebeshkov are playing for three spots.
Contracts are another factor that we know a little something about. As I said on Sunday when looking at the Oilers fourth line centre options, training camp is not, contrary to what some think, about finding the most deserving 23 players. I'm not saying that performance during training camp doesn't matter, I'm sure it does, but so do things like whether or not a player is on a two-way deal of if he has to clear waivers to go to the minors. Those are things we know right now, and using capgeek.com (if it's good enough for the Oilers, it's good enough for me) I've come up with the following chart:
|PLAYER||CONTRACT TYPE||CAP HIT||WAIVER STATUS||CAP SPACE GAINED|
Belov kind of jumps off the page when you look at that chart. He's the only one on a two-way deal, he's waiver exempt, and his demotion to Oklahoma City would gain the Oilers the most cap space. That's the roster decision trifecta right there. But even with all those things working against him - not to mention the now cleared up issue with his visa - I don't think he'll be the odd man out. Belov had an excellent 2012/13 season in the KHL and was courted by a number of NHL teams, as many as seven according to his agent, this summer. His decision to sign with Edmonton almost certainly came with some sort guarantee that he'd get a chance to prove himself in games that matter and not just pre-season action.
The same can probably said about Grebeshkov who was also signed out of the KHL this offseason. Also working in Grebeshkov's favour is the fact that he played here when MacTavish was the coach. There is a level of familiarity there that likely was a factor in his decision to return to Edmonton and the reverse will likely be a factor when Dallas Eakins, MacTavish, and the rest of the staff decide on the final roster.
That leaves Potter or Larsen as the odd man out. And between these two I think it'll be Larsen that comes out on top and sticks with the Oilers out of camp. In his first season with the team, Potter led all Oilers defencemen with an average of 2:28 minutes of ice time on the power play. The arrival of Justin Schultz cut into that role and his ice time significantly last season, knocking him down to just 1:06 a night. With Grebeshkov and Belov both bringing a little offence to the bottom blue line pair, it's tough to see where exactly Potter would fit, or what upside of keeping him around would be.
But as I said before, the Oilers could throw a wrench into things by deciding to keep seven defencemen and not eight. I don't think it's likely, but it's possible. If that happens both Potter and Larsen will be on a plane to Oklahoma City. Bad news for Larsen. Same story for Potter. No matter how you slice it, he's my pick to be the player on the bubble this season.