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Should the Oilers acquire a veteran defenceman for the 2015/16 season?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As it stands today, the Edmonton Oilers will start training camp with a mix of young, developing defenceman along with some established individuals. With Connor McDavid on the way, and an experienced coaching staff, it's become apparent that the club has decided to move away from the re-build phase to one that involves competing for a playoff spot.  The management group will rely less on young prospects to carry the load, and hopefully find the right mix of experienced players and emerging talent to solidify the defensive unit.

First, a quick glance at the defence roster signed for the upcoming season (Source: Hockey Reference).

Defenceman Age Games Played (Regular Season)
A. Ference 36 901
A. Sekera 29 486
M. Fayne 28 316
N. Nikitin 29 248
J. Schultz 25 203
E. Gryba 27 165
O. Klefbom 22 77
B. Davidson 23 12
G. Reinhart 21 8
J. Oesterle 23 6
D. Musil 22 4
D. Nurse 20 2

The most experienced players who have established themselves as legitimate NHL defenceman are Andrew FerenceAndrej Sekera and Mark Fayne, all of whom have over 300 games. Guys like Darnell NurseGriffin Reinhart and David Musil are early in their careers, while others like Justin Schultz and Oscar Klefbom appear to have the tools and are pushing to take that next step.

What appears to be lacking is another veteran defenceman that can still produce at a respectable level. Ference is the senior of the group, and brings a lot of the leadership qualities you want in a captain, but his on-ice production has been in steady decline since his arrival. Depending on how things go at training camp, you could make a case that he should be in the press box on opening night.

Now when the Oilers knew a thing or two about developing young prospects and formulating competitive rosters, they routinely surrounded their young, developing prospects with veterans who were in their primes and had extensive experience. If you recall, a young Eric Brewer was given a heavy amount of minutes in his first few seasons as an Oiler, but had with him players like Jason Smith, Janne Ninimaa and Igor Ulanov. These weren't superstars by any means, but they were all either in their primes (late twenties) or had 300+ games of experience. There's a lot of value in having these types of players who can take on the tough assignments as needed, but also serve as mentors. Should note that Brewer went on to play 1,009 NHL games, thanks in small part to the development he received as an Oiler.

Now that Darnell Nurse and Griffin Reinhart are expected to make some noise at training camp, it'll be imperative that management bring in as much experience as they can to provide guidance but also produce at a respectable level. The two obvious candidates who are still somehow available are Christian Ehrhoff (33 years old, 741 GP) and Cody Franson (28 years old, 400 GP). These two might require not only extensive dollars, but also term, which is fair considering where they are in their careers. But one individual who hasn't received nearly the amount of hype is 38 year old Marek Zidlicky, who has played 783 games.

Here's how he's done over the past five seasons, often playing top minutes at even-strength (Source: War on Ice).

M. Zidlicky (Even-strength, 5v5)
Season Team GP G A P P/60 Cosri For% (Corsi Rel Zone Starts (ZSO Rel) TOI/GM
2010/11 MIN 46 4 9 13 1.10 43.79 (-1.51) 45.53 (+5.45) 15.38
2011/12 MIN/NJ 63 0 12 12 0.70 50.66 (+4.63) 51.48 (+7.43) 16.30
2012/13 NJ 48 3 3 6 0.47 57.62 (+2.69) 59.53 (+10.76) 16.02
2013/14 NJ 81 2 17 19 0.81 53.35 (-1.76) 58.66 (+8.07) 17.42
2014/15 NJ/DET 84 1 12 13 0.54 50.35 (+2.97) 55.59 (+11.33) 17.21

And when the score was close, that is the game was within one in the first two periods or tied in the third, which removes score-effects, Zidlicky posted some respectable numbers, especially this past season.

M. Zidlicky (Even-strength, 5v5)
Season Team GP G A P P/60 Corsi For % (Corsi Rel) Zone Starts (ZSO Rel) TOI/GM
2010/11 MIN 46 3 2 5 0.72 43.25 (-1.89) 44.04 (+3.24) 9.05
2011/12 MIN/NJ 63 0 8 8 0.73 48.37 (+2.66) 48.98 (+5.66) 10.38
2012/13 NJ 48 2 1 3 0.36 58.04 (+3.86) 59.44 (+13.11) 10.41
2013/14 NJ 81 0 13 13 0.83 52.9 (-2.84) 55.93 (+5.28) 11.57
2014/15 NJ/DET 84 0 7 7 0.46 51.86 (+4.5) 52.17 (+4.91) 10.93

And here's a visual of his productivity and possession metrics compared to his peers over the past three seasons, courtesy of Own the Puck. He's doing surprisingly well at his age, maintaining his reputation as an offensive defenceman.

The numbers that surprised me the most are those derived from the passing data collected by Ryan Stimson of In Lou We Trust. Spence was kind enough to create visual diagrams from this data, which can be accessed here along with a useful glossary. Please note, this is only for this past season, and includes most of the even-strength minutes played.

Based on these metrics, Zidlikcy was good at controlling the play, decent at entering the zone, and quite often assisted in generating a scoring chance. The first and third bar tells us that Zidlicky was key in shot attempts and made passes that led to shot attempts. Basically, a lot of his team's offense went through him. The last three bars reflect actual scoring chances that were created from Zidlicky's passes, another indication that he was pretty valuable to the Devils' offence. If you're interested, Ryan Stimson also provided an in-depth analysis of Zidlicky and his passing abilities in October of 2014 that is well worth a read.

Thoughts

Based on what I've read about Zidlicky, and some of his underlying numbers, I'm fairly confident that he can contribute to an NHL team this coming season. The fact that he's 38 may scare off a few teams including the Oilers for good reason: most NHL players see their productivity decline with age. This could turn out to be one of those value signings, but it's hard to gauge how clubs value someone like Zidlicky.

In my opinion, he would definitely be a good fit in Edmonton for a couple of reasons. One, signing an experienced player like Zidlicky can create competition at training camp, possibly forcing Nurse and Reinhart to develop at the minor-league level. Secondly, it can also give offensive players like Justin Schultz and Oscar Klefbom an appropriate mentor as they develop into legitimate NHL players.