Because of a minor injury, Griffin Reinhart was replaced in the A group at training camp this morning by Darnell Nurse. The resulting pairings this morning were:
Personal rule, I try not to worry too much about lineups or combinations during the first couple weeks of training camp. There are too many players and too many possible combinations available to the coaching staff to make heads or tails from what they’re looking at in the first couple of days. Toss a new coach into the mix who isn’t already familiar with the team’s roster and things get even more confused. And so, for my sanity, I don’t think too hard about these things.
What caught my eye when these combinations were announced via Twitter this morning wasn’t the combinations themselves but rather the discussion that followed regarding the merits of these eight players being in Group A. To summarize the conversation for those who might have missed it: Were the training camp groups based on merit and nothing more, then Nurse and Reinhart would find themselves playing in Group A ahead of some combination of Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference, and Eric Gryba.
In a perfect world training camp would be about finding the players most deserving of a roster spot. We don’t live in a perfect world and that isn’t the reality of training camp though. Decisions about who stays and who goes are made based on a variety of factors - Does the player have to clear waivers? What are the cap implications of keeping Player A over B? - that have nothing to do with what happens on the ice. How a player performs is usually a factor but it’s far from being the only factor, and more often than not there isn't much a battle at all once you consider everything else.
The above is a paragraph that I wrote two days ago when looking at the competition between Ben Scrivens and Anders Nilsson for the role of the backup, and I think it’s worth keeping in mind in this situation as well. No matter how much you might wish it to be true, training camp is not about finding the 23 most deserving players. Maybe it was once upon a time, I don’t know, but it’s certainly not that way today.
And on the Oilers this reality is most clear when looking at the defence because merit is almost nowhere to be found on this team’s blue line. Take a look at the line combinations again, how many of those players would make almost every team in the NHL? By my count, four: Mark Fayne, Oscar Klefbom, Justin Schultz, and Andrej Sekera. Ideally the other three spots would then go to the most deserving of Ference, Gryba, Nikitin, Nurse, and Reinhart. Baring an injury or a trade though, do you see a situation where Ference isn’t here to start the season? He’s the team’s captain and he has a no movement clause, he isn’t going anywhere in the next couple of weeks; it's not an option worth discussing.
If you asked most fans who they’d most like to get rid of, without a doubt you’d find Nikitin’s name right at the top of the list, but the odds that he’ll be riding a bus around California with the Condors while the Oilers are in St. Louis for opening night are probably somewhere between slim and none. That’s not to say that he deserves to be here, but if the team wants to trade him, and I suspect that they do, he’s likely an easier commodity to trade if he’s at least perceived to be an NHL calibre defender. Hand him friendly zone starts, easy competition, and eat half his salary, who knows, you might find a taker for him.
So Gryba, Nurse, and Reinhart are competing for the final spot then, right?
If Chiarelli hadn’t traded for Gryba this summer (effectively choosing Gryba over Copper & Blue favourite Martin Marincin) I’d be more likely to answer yes to that question. Gryba has played three seasons in the NHL and brings that "heavy game" that Chiarelli has talked about. He doesn’t bring much in terms of offence but he seems like that meat and potatoes kind of defender that so many teams love to have in the 5/6/7 spot in their lineups. More so than with Ference or Nikitin, Gryba's play in the pre-season matters but right now I'd bet that he's here when the dust settles.
So once again you're saying that there's no competition at all?
No, this time I'm not saying that. I think Nurse and Reinhart are in fact competing for something at training camp, the eighth defenceman spot. Keeping eight defenders might not be ideal but there is little risk of losing a forward on waivers (alternately someone might also come down with a last minute aliment eliminating the need to send anyone down) so going with a roster of 13 forwards and eight defenceman for the first month of the season doesn't have much of a downside and is the easiest way to keep one of Nurse or Reinhart around while the team goes searching for a new home for Nikitin.
Where things get really fun is if the loser of the Nurse/Reinhart battle goes to Bakersfield and shows that they do in fact belong in Edmonton. Then another move will need to be made to make room; what that might look like is anyone's guess. But we're getting ahead of ourselves worrying about that right now. First things first, let's worry about that eighth defenceman spot.