Scouting the Enemy: Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

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Mar 28, 2014; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Justin Schultz (19) watches the play against the Anaheim Ducks at Rexall Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

1. In an effort to shore up the team defensively, the Oilers acquired Nikita Nikitin in the offseason from the Columbus Blue Jackets, signing him to a two-year, $9 million deal. The team also signed Mark Fayne to a four-year, $14.5 million deal in free agency. With Andrew Ference, Justin Schultz, and Jeff Petry, the Oilers were expected to be a better club defensively. However, the Oilers have allowed the second-most goals in the NHL (96), as only the Dallas Stars have allowed more goals. Is the chief concern with the team’s defense, goaltending, or a significant mixture of both?

Agustin: This is a loaded question. It really depends on who you ask. The easy answer is all of the above. Let’s start with the goaltending. The Oilers made a goalie coach change by firing Frederic Chabot and bringing in WHL Edmonton Oil Kings goalie consultant Dustin Schwartz back in late November. Chabot had been with the team since summer of 2009. Under his tenure, goalies Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera imploded last season, prompting a goalie carousel that included a brief stint by Mr. Universe himself, Ilya Bryzgalov. This move was largely seen as an overdue move. Since the change, Edmonton’s goalies have gone five games (not including Tuesday’s game against the Sharks) with an average SV% of 94.17% at 5-on-5. For comparison, in their first five games of the season (all losses), the SV% was 85.38%. Their goal differential has been even (seven for and seven against). The biggest problem in that stretch has been special teams, where the Oilers have allowed two goals against and scored two on the 12 penalties drawn on even strength play. The PK only allowed two goals on 11 penalties taken at 5-on-5. Eight of the 11 games in the losing streak were losses by one goal, with I believe four OT losses. And that’s just a quick dive into the stats. At the end of the day, both Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth are oldish goalies with little NHL experience that, at this stage of their careers, haven’t been able to establish themselves as starters.

The defense is also a big mess. Since the departure of Chris Pronger back in 2006, the team systematically disassembled their defense corps and never really rebuilt it. The current hope is that guys like Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse and Martin Marincin emerge as solid top four guys. As for the rest, it is an ugly situation. Probably the best decision general manager Craig MacTavish has made so far was giving Schultz just one year on his contract. There were legitimate fears early in the summer that Schultz would get money and term akin to the rest of the Oilers’ “core”. Schultz is still early in his NHL career, but he seems to be overvalued by the organization. MacTavish went so far as to say, the day the one year extension was announced, that he had “Norris trophy potential”. That comment has been a running gag around these lands ever since. Coach Dallas Eakins has played Schultz way too much: we have written extensively about it. Schultz has considerably more ice time than Fayne, who supposedly lacks the offensive talent of Schultz but has been a proven top pairing defenseman in New Jersey.

That last point brings me to the coach. He seems to have little time for players like Marincin and a lot of rope for Schultz. There is a clear double standard in that dressing room, and you have to wonder how much certain players resent it. The argument that the Oilers have been chasing games and therefore need to play their best offensive defenseman is weak because Schultz has been abysmal at both ends. Really, you need to stop pucks from going into your net before you can even start thinking about putting some of your own on the other side on defense.

As for Nikitin, the less is said about that contract, the better for all parties involved. He is here because of Scott Howson, and that is another example why so many in Oil Country are calling for a full house cleanup. Howson was let go from the Oilers before going to Columbus, and then he was recycled along with MacTavish. Petry and Ference are above average bottom three defenders, but they are often asked to punch high above their weight class. I wrote an article showing the difference in NHL games the defense group of Calgary had compared to Edmonton, and it was huge. Edmonton’s defense right now has one veteran on his last legs, one legit No. 2 or No. 3 in Fayne, a capable fourth or fifth defenseman in Petry, rookies Klefbom and Marincin, injury prone and chaos Nikitin, and total wildcard Schultz. The saddest part is that this is the best defense corps the Oilers have been able to muster since the official rebuild began in 2010.

As for the team defense, that is being blamed primarily on the lack of NHL centers on the team. There are really two of them, with Mark Arcobello and Leon Draisaitl doing their best. Arcobello would be a very good fourth center on a good team, but he gets deployed on the second line and gets crushed. There is no one down at the farm ready to step in beyond the fourth center position. This is all on MacTavish, who followed Oilers tradition by throwing rookie Draisaitl to the wolves right away. Then, he decided to stand pat and roll the dice with what he had in the off season.

Another issue is the coaching. As I discussed before, his ice time usage is more often than not head scratching. For about the first 15 games, Fayne was playing the fewest minutes of all defenders, and Schultz was playing the most on the whole team.

His defensive systems seem to leave too many gaps open in the area about four feet in front of the crease. His players are often caught puck watching and don’t know when to cover as the third man. The Oilers lead the league in giveaways. Steve Smith, another ex-Oiler turned coach, was finally let go last season in favor of a career defensive coach in Craig Ramsey. The hope is his work during the season will improve the team’s defensive fundamentals, as well as help with the young defenders’ development.

I guess to summarize, the Oilers’ defensive play is poor because:

  • Their goaltending has failed spectacularly.
  • Their center depth is kiddie pool grade.
  • The sophomore coach seems to have trouble handling his personnel and teaching systems that work for the staff he has.
  • The defensive corps is inexperienced and lacks top end talent.

I would say the biggest hole the team has right now is the center position. Start from there: center is the most important skater position because a good two-way center defends well, generates possession, and dictates offensive pace. If you have possession, your goalie doesn’t need to stand on his head. This is the easiest position to solve as well, because a good goalie would cost too much, and a top pairing defenseman would cost even more. A great goalie will help you a lot short term, but the team will eventually even out, just like Buffalo did with Ryan Miller. Corey Crawford has won the Stanley Cup without being great, but just solid enough with a great possession team in front of him.