Copper & Blue's Resident Iffy Defenseman Correspondent is back in the saddle! And this time, he's feeling usually hopeful.
Martin Gernat has size, wingspan, loft, all the synonyms for "he's a big boy" you like. He also has a CANNONADING DRIVE, as Rod Philips might have put it, which got results in the Dub and doesn't seem to be letting him down against men in the AHL and (very briefly) the ECHL. As I write this he is the third-leading scorer among Oklahoma City defensemen; modest enough, but he comes in behind two older players in Brad Hunt and Taylor Fedun, and Gernat's three even-strength goals leads the blueline.
Throughout his North American career Gernat's results have seldom been amazing but they've trended the right way, particularly for the second-youngest defenseman on a middling team. And big guys who can shoot will often make a career somewhere; just ask Kurtis Foster.
So why has Gernat dropped two spots in this winter's Top 25 Under 25? I'm not sure. He isn't shooting the lights out but who is?
Last time around Scott said that Gernat was "Always movin' up. Can't bring him down." This was an unfortunate turn of phrase. Gernat dropped a couple spots since the summer despite the obviation of Teemu Hartikainen in exchange for a styrofoam cup of dead sperm or whatever we got. Gernat today finds himself behind Anton Lander and Bogdan "the Buggerer" Yakimov, both of whom he was well clear of last time around.
It feels strange being the optimist on Gernat, not just because it feels strange for me being the optimist on anything but because, in a season of general Oiler prospect regression, Gernat hasn't done badly.
It's weird. Last time around I was modestly positive on Gernat, as were my fellows, despite his missing half the WHL regular season with the traditional Oilers shoulder injury; he had a good playoff run and displayed some of the tools of a future NHL player. The question was, how would he adjust playing against men? And I really don't think he's done badly. Certainly well enough to be not far behind Martin Marincin as the most interesting Oilers defensive prospect in his age group.
Now by Copper & Blue standards I'm no shakes as a numbers guy. I leave the minor-league quality of competition stuff to those handier with spreadsheets. But I do see one worrying figure and that's Gernat's -12, worst on the Barons blueline and second worst on the team behind whoever C.J. Stretch is. Flawed though plus/minus is I don't like that number and it jives with ancient scouting reports on Gernat as not much of a defender, particularly given his modest ice time early in the season. That sucks.
But the Barons have a few other awkward plus/minus numbers. Denis Grebeshkov, a former NHLer, a veteran, a clearly established professional, is not far ahead. Oscar Klefbom, allegedly a defensive defenseman, has been dueling Gernat for the plus/minus non-lead all season, and Klefbom is (spoiler alert) ranked ahead of Gernat by every voter except me.
The press hasn't been wholly positive either. Barons head coach Todd Nelson told OilersNation's Jason Gregor earlier this month that:
If he’s not intense he gets exposed and that’s a trait that Marty Gernat has, that sometimes he’s a bit lackadaisical out there and he’s understanding quickly that in the pro game you can’t take any shifts off.
Which isn't fun to read. But intensity can be learned. Foot speed, to pick a trait sometimes-defensive-partner David Musil lacks, can't. Gernat's been bigger and stronger than most of his foes all his life, starting with owning schmucks in the Slovakian junior divisions; it's the rare second-tier prospect who doesn't need to emotionally adjust. If Gernat is dogging shifts into his second or third professional seasons I'll worry. In his first, as long as he is trying to sort it out, I can live with it. The book on Janne Niinimaa's effort, and his defensive play, wasn't always great but look what he turned into.
And Gernat's showing much else of interest in his first professional season. Not just the points, but Gernat's 55 shots on goal is none-too-shabby for his ice time and again ranks behind only workhorses Fedun and Hunt on the OKC blue. His offense has come without a meaningful bump from the powerplay, noteworthy as, if Gernat becomes the player he ought to, his handsy skill and shot make him an obvious PP option in his prime. 20 penalty minutes is best among any Barons defenseman with an equivalent number of games save Hunt and Grebeshkov; good by any standard, very good for a 6'5" rookie, so often prone to ticky-tack obstruction fouls or using muscle to make up for a lack of skill.
Back in January Oilogosphere legend Lowetide was pretty optimistic while C&B's Al Hamilton, Jonathan Willis, said nice things, and I'm inclined to agree with them. He's doing all right, and though by all accounts his February has been tough he's generally trending upwards.
Would I trade Gernat for, say, Anton Lander, who at 22 is having his first at-all-good North American season and whose NHL career is a lot more Jean-Francois Jacques than Todd Marchant? Would I trade him for Dillon Simpson, who a few of my compadres ranked ahead of Gernat on the grounds that he's a smaller, older player doing decently against sociology majors? Would I even trade him for Klefbom? I don't know that I would, and I don't think I'm crazy.
On the downside, he doesn't seem to know "Jingle Bells."
But that, like intensity, can be taught to the right sort of player. By no means is Gernat a sure thing or devoid of warts, but even with all the high draft picks the Oilers have enjoyed we haven't got any perfect minor-league prospects (Darnell Nurse is up there but he's one guy). Gernat's problems are soluble and he's got the skills to get to the show if he solves them: that's what counts.
In conclusion, Martin Gernat is from the same town as Martin Marincin, because mentioning that is required by law. They are also both decent defensive prospects, and sure Gernat is a step behind the NHL but some of my co-authors are going crazy.