As much as the injury to Connor McDavid hurt the Oilers, it was the injury to Oscar Klefbom that did the real damage and derailed the team's season. Taking McDavid out of the Oilers lineup created a hole, but with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the emergence of Leon Draisaitl it was a hole that could be filled reasonably well on most nights. But when you take Klefbom out of the lineup, you take an already thin defence and make it see through, leaving Andrej Sekera as the team's only top four defender. And it's that defence, or lack of defence, that's the biggest reason why the Oilers are again in the NHL's cellar, it's a group that's simply not good enough.
Between now and the beginning of next season it's expected that Peter Chiarelli, having had a season to evaluate the team he inherited from Craig MacTavish, will start to reshape the Oilers defence. This will start with clearing space via trade between now and the trade deadline. This is likely how Justin Schultz and the Oilers will part ways; if not traded he certainly will not be qualified this summer and will leave as a free agent. Other options to be dealt at the deadline include Mark Fayne, who doesn't seem to fit into Todd McLellan's plans for whatever reason, and Eric Gryba, who will be an unresticter free agent at the end of the season.
With two years and an annual cap hit of $3.625M ($3.500M salary) left on his contract, I doubt Fayne moves at the deadline though, that's a summer kind of deal. Gryba on the other hand is a free agent this summer, having wrapped up the second year of a two-year, $2.5M deal. Free agents are obvious trade deadline targets. Could Gryba, like Schultz be on his way out of town, or might the Oilers choose to re-sign him? Gryba has been a very pleasant surprise this season and in theory I'd have no problem bringing him back, but first lets look at what that would mean to the bigger picture if the Oilers were to go that route.
The rest of the defence
Starting at the top, the two easiest names to add to the list of Oilers defenders next season are Sekera and Klefbom. Darnell Nurse will obviously be back, as will Brandon Davidson, a restricted free agent at the end of the season. Griffin Reinhart will also remain as part of the equation on the blue line. Joining Fayne and Schultz on a plane headed elsewhere will be Nikita Nikitin, an unrestricted free agent, and Andrew Ference, who will almost certainly be either bought out of or will remain on long-term injury reserve as he recovers from hip surgery; either way, he's played his last game in an Oilers uniform.
If you put Gryba's name in the "keep" column that gives you six names. Add in a new player via trade or free agency and you've got a complete defence. Wipe your hands and head for the door, we're done. Is it really that easy? No, of course it's not that easy. The Oilers defence isn't close to good enough today and running with a roster next season that is 85% the same as this season is going to give you 100% of the same result. So something else has to give if Gryba is going to stay. Let's start by putting the puzzle pieces together to see what that thing might be.
Where the pieces fit
Again, starting at the top are Sekera and Klefbom, they will make up half of the Oilers top four. For argument's sake, let's add in a player to be named later because if that player isn't acquired we're all going to lose our minds. That leaves one spot in the top four left to be filled and four players available to fill it - Davidson, Gryba, Nurse, and Reinhart - who don't belong in the top four of a competitive team. And herein lies the problem with re-signing Gryba, the Oilers already have too many bottom pairing defencemen.
Gryba and Reinhart are the obvious pieces that can't move up. Can Nurse or Davidson be expected to play second pairing minutes every night next season? And in the event of an injury can both do it? The answer to both questions should be no.
I think that Nurse is a solid prospect and I hope that he will be a hell of a player one day but he's been thrown into the deep end this season and he's drowning right now. His CF% (45.3) and CF% RelTM (-5.1) are the worst among the team's regular defenders; his CA/60 RelTM (5.70) ranks him in the bottom eighth of regular NHL defencemen. It's debatable whether or not being in the NHL is in his best interest right now, depending on him to play in the top four next season would be nuts.
By those same measures Davidson looks amazing. Where Nurse is dead last in CF% and CF% RelTM, Davidson leads the team. Nurse is in the league's bottom tier in terms of CA/60 RelTM, Davidson is in the top five percent. The numbers love Davidson. But he's also playing a much more sheltered role, having spent half almost half his season playing alongside Gryba at the bottom of the Oilers lineup. In Davidson the Oilers might have found an absolute gem, but by season's end he will have still played fewer than 90 games in the league, assuming that he's ready to make the jump to the top four full time, and in games that matter, would leave the Oilers working without a net.
There is a way
If Peter Chiarelli wants to keep Gryba around for another couple of seasons there is a way to do it though: bring in two top four defenders this summer, rotate Davidson, Gryba, and Nurse through the bottom pair, and leave Reinhart in the minors for another season. Another development year in the minors for Reinhart wouldn't jive at all with the players that the team described when they traded for him at the draft, but it would better reflect the player that we've seen this season and almost certainly would make the team better on opening night next season and in the event of an injury.
I wasn't a fan of the draft day trades that brought Gryba and Reinhart to Edmonton. I've been surprised by Gryba's play, so much so that I'd be fine with the team giving him a new deal. But if that happens I'll be keeping my fingers crossed that another surprise is around the corner, and that Chiarelli will recognize his mistake in acquiring Reinhart and won't throw good money after bad, forcing other players to play above their heads next season. We've all seen that before and we all know how that ends.