When it comes to defenseman, there are many different tandems to choose from and different methodologies in determining which players would be a good fit together. Mike Babcock, who is widely considered the best coach in the NHL, believes strongly that the best option is for a defenseman to play on their strong side (left shot on LD, right shot on RD). While that option is not always available for coaches, due to the fact there are more left handed shots in the NHL than right handed, it is generally considered a good idea to play a lefty with a righty if that option exists. Anybody that has played a game at defense on the weak side knows the horror of struggling to keep the puck in with their backhand at the offensive blue line. While there are exceptions to the rule (Mark Streit), most players are poorer on their weak side and it is best to put players in a position to succeed which means left handed shots on the left side and right handed shots on the right side.
For the first pairing of the Oilers, let us start by putting our newly acquired top defenseman, Andrej Sekara, in his natural spot on the left side. Sekara has demonstrated in the past that he is a very good defenseman with the ability to play top pairing, as he did in Carolina. While Sekara would be better suited as a #2 d-man, the Oilers lack of a top end defenseman pushes him into the top role. Fans expecting a true #1 defenseman will be disappointed but those who were fans of what Jeff Petry brought to this team will enjoy Sekara. As for whom to pair with Sekara, the Oilers have two options on the right hand side. There first option is to place veteran defenseman Mark Fayne in the role. It is a role that he has taken on before, being the running mate of Andy Greene in New Jersey and has had success in the role. However, last season did expose that Fayne is a complementary defensive player that needs a partner who is efficient at advancing the puck. Sekara fits the mold as he would play the role of puckmover for the tandem. Meanwhile, Fayne’s smart, efficient defensive game would allow Sekara to better adjust to his new team as he would not have to worry about covering up for an inexperienced player’s mistakes and be allowed to play his own style of game.
The other option is to play Justin Schultz with Sekera. The main argument behind this would be that Justin Schultz has shown he plays best with mobile puckmoving defenseman and there is no better one on the Oilers than Sekara. Any Oilers fan knows that Justin Schultz is an adventure on the ice and that he needs a partner who is reliable, smart and mobile. Sekara fits all these boxes and is the best player to elevate the game of Justin Schultz. However, this would mean playing Schultz against the other team’s best players when it is ideal to shelter him from the Getzlaf’s and Kopitar’s of the Western Conference. In addition, with Sekara learning and adapting to a new city, new team and new coaches it is best not to overwhelm him with the role of babysitter and instead allow him to develop confidence in his new surroundings. Worrying about Jultzing or playing on his weak side should not be put on his plate to start the season.
For the 2nd pairing, the four players with the skill level to play on the top 4 are Klefbom, Schultz, Nikitin and Nurse. However, if we are to maintain the lefty-righty makeup of this defense that means that Justin Schultz slides into the 2nd pairing. While many Oilers fans will not be happy with him playing above the third pairing, the Oilers are weak on the right hand side and Schultz is the best offensive weapon at their disposal. As for the partner for Justin Schultz, we have mentioned that it is best to play him with a mobile defenseman that can move the puck. Two out of Klefbom, Nikitin and Nurse fit this description with Nikitin being the player that does not have the mobility to cover for Schultz’s defensive mistakes. Therefore, it leaves us with 2nd year pro Oscar Klefbom or top rookie prospect Darnell Nurse as the best options. While a tandem of Nurse and Schultz is a possibility in the future, breaking in our best defensive prospect in over a decade with our weakest defensive player is not the best recipe for success. In addition, Klefbom’s experience at the pro level and success playing with Schultz gives him a big advantage over Nurse for the 2nd pairing LHD position.
For the third pairing, the Oilers have multiple options that include Ference, Gryba, Nikitin, Nurse and Reinhart. Brandon Davidson is another name that is mentioned in the mix but I am struggling to see where he would fit on the Oilers roster barring trades or injuries. The most likely destination for Brandon Davidson is likely a trip on the waiver wire to Bakersfield. While there is a slight chance he gets grabbed off waivers it is not a tool used very often during training camp. Many times good players like Anton Lander make it safely through waivers and Brandon Davidson is likely to follow suit.
The first player to talk about is Nurse as he is the biggest wildcard in the mix. When it comes to player development it is not as simple as prospect X is good enough to play in the NHL on the third pairing so we should. Instead the question becomes, is it better for the development of prospect X to play them in limited minutes in the NHL as a 3rd pairing defenseman or to play them in a top pairing all situations role in the AHL? Another way to look at is what is my end goal for prospect X. If the end goal is to develop a well-rounded top pairing defenseman, than playing that player on the third pairing in limited minutes does little to benefit their game. What we tend to see in this situation is that a young prospect will lack the confidence to play their style of game when thrown into the NHL and rather player a less aggressive, defense first style of hockey game. Over time players can rebuild this confidence and regain their form but there is also a chance of neutering a player’s upside by rushing them into situations where they do not succeed. One only needs to look at the Detroit model to see that waiting for players to be overripe is a strong method to follow. Therefore, Nurse should be sent to the AHL to continue to build his confidence as an all-around top pairing d-man. However, I do not see Nurse playing the entire season in the minors and should be the first call-up for any injuries to any of the top 4 d-men, as he is the best player on the team to cover this role.
As for the current team captain, it is hard to see where he fits on this team, as he is in a battle with Nikitin and Reinhart for that final LHD position. While he is a warrior and a classy player at 35 years of age, Andrew Ference is at the point in his career where the cliff falls off and the talent begins to erode. As much as he wants to turn back the clock this is likely the end of the line for the Oilers captain as a regular on the roster. However with his NMC that means the Oilers have either to keep Ference as the #7 or #8 d-man or trade him for another teams bad contract (assuming Ference will waive his NMC).
This leaves 3 defenseman (Gryba, Nikitin, Reinhart) battling it out for the final pairing. For newly acquired Eric Gryba, being a right-handed shot gives him the edge on being the regular RHD for the third pairing. In Ottawa he played a similar role as a third pairing defensive defenseman and there is no reason to believe that he cannot continue that role with the Oilers. In addition, he would replace the grit that was provided by Ference while being a bigger and younger option.
That leaves the biggest battle at training camp to be the 3rd pairing LHD spot between Nikita Nikitin (who is coming off a very disappointing season) and recently acquired Griffin Reinhart. While Nikitin is not suited to be a top 4 defenseman and his mobility leaves a lot to desire, he is one of the better puck movers on the team, has a cannon of a shot and is a useful player on special teams. However, injuries and defensive brain cramps plagued Nikitin through the 2014-15 season, so he needs a bounce back year if he wants to maintain a regular spot with the Oilers. As for pairing with Gryba, I believe Nikitin has the inside edge over Reinhart due to being a better puck mover than Reinhart. If we played Reinhart with Gryba, the concern would be who would take the role of puckmover for the pairing. Reinhart being a rookie needs to be put in the best situation to succeed so forcing him out of his comfort zone from being a defensive d-man is not the right call. Therefore, if Gryba is the regular 3 RHD than Nikita Nikitin should be his partner over Griffin Reinhart. The big concern I have with this pairing is the mobility but for the development of our young defensive prospects, this tandem is our best option. Therefore, if the tandem of Nikitin-Gryba is the regular pairing, it would make no sense to keep Reinhart with the team to start the season. If there are no injuries or trades, the only way I see Reinhart making the starting roster is if he clearly outplays Gryba for the 3rd pairing defensive d-man position. While Reinhart shoots left and Gryba right, if Reinhart is clearly the superior defenseman to Gryba, the Oilers may decide it is better to play Reinhart with Niktin. If this situation occurred, I believe the Oilers would retain 8 defensemen to start the season, with Gryba and Ference sitting in the press box. While I mentioned earlier that I would not play Nurse in the 3rd pairing role, Reinhart is a defensive d-man whose upside is more likely to be a 2nd pairing shutdown defenseman. Playing him as a defensive d-man that kills penalties is the role the Oilers would want him playing in his prime as well. The big development to occur in Reinhart’s game will be getting more and more comfortable playing against increasingly tougher competition so in that regards when he does become a regular for the Oilers it is best to start him in the 3rd pairing and work his way up from there.