If there had been a true top-pairing Defenseman available to Craig MacTavish this summer, at a half-reasonable price, he would have gone out and gotten him. Yes, I would have preferred a true “big hitter” in that 1D slot, too. Even Whitey Herzog would have. Wait. Who?
In 1982, as the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Whitey Herzog won a World Series, despite his team hitting a league-low 67 home runs. He did it (with all-due respect to George Hendrick, who hit 19 of those) with Offence-By-Committee: It was called “Whitey-Ball”.
The parallels aren’t precise, of course, but this in essence IS Craig MacTavish’s plan: Defence-By-Committee, or “Mac-D”, if you will.
Some in Edmonton expected the second coming of Chris Pronger, but that was never going to happen. The players fitting that elite mold (with TOI):
That leaves 23 NHL teams without “that player”. With the exception of Weber, none of these teams challenge for a playoff spot because of the presence of these men: They challenge for the Cup, because of them. Let’s keep some perspective here: The Oilers are focused on the former, not the latter.
I submit that the two biggest problems with the Oilers Defence last year were the relative lack of “real” NHL players, and over-deployment in tough situations of those that were. Both issues have been largely corrected. My forecasted D-pairings for the Oilers this season, in no real order, as I don’t believe Eakins has to deploy them in any particular order:
Ference will still play about 18-19 minutes per night, but not quite as much against tough competition, and with fewer hard zone starts, more like he did in Boston. Ference wasn’t over-matched last season so much as he was over-deployed in tough situations. This will be right-sided. Ference is still a good player, who I respect a bunch.
This was Jeff Petry’s story, too. The Vollman Sledgehammer chart shows him as the team’s de-facto top-pairing guy. That’s why he went from a +1 to a -22 in one season, folks. At 236 career GP, this player is almost fully developed. But if the atmosphere inside which he’s playing improves, so too will Petry’s results.
Justin Schultz was last year’s team TOI leader (23:21, 35th). I truly believe this will be his bust-out year. If healthy, Schultz will pass 200 career GP. I saw a lot of the same refinements in the last half of last season that the Oilers saw, especially when appropriately deployed. Spot a trend developing?
See, all of the above happens primarily because of the arrival of Mark Fayne. Not one of the afore-mentioned Elite 7, he did very successfully play 18-19 crushing minutes per night for the Devils last season. Distribute those hard minutes evenly across the Oilers D-core, and you begin to see the possibilities.
Nikita Nikitin is also capable of heavy minutes: Prior to last year, between 21-23 minutes per game. He’s just 28. Was his fall-off last season primarily due to playing on a truly un-creative Columbus team? It’s MacT’s biggest gamble. But Nikitin has shown in the past the he can deliver
Only two roster spots remain undecided, a 13th Forward (my previous column), and at Defence. Martin Marincin (the most mature), Darnell Nurse (the most talented), and Oscar Klefbom (the “middle child” of this prospect trifecta) will wage war for this 6D spot, and there’s just too much talent here for all 3 to fail.
Keith Aulie is well-suited to the 7D role, playing 40-ish games, depending on injuries. The other 5 are something the Oilers have not been able to boast in a very, very long time: A team filled with “real” NHL defencemen. True, none are a Top-Pairing guy, at least not yet…
But the drop-off in this group doesn’t happen until D7. Opposing teams will have a hard time matching up against these three pairings. One of the advantages to “Defence-by-Committee” is consistency, shift-after-shift. Plus, there’s a (potentially) dangerous puck-mover on each pairing.
Yes, Craig MacTavish has looked at his surroundings, assessed what it will take to best convert his D-core into a winning one, and has decided that his approach will Defence-By-Committee.
Hey, if Whitey Herzog could win with Darrell Porter as his #5 hitter, who’s to say Mac-D can’t work for MacT?