Oilers camp opens with excess defensemen

by Derek Van Diest / NHL.com

EDMONTON -- The Edmonton Oilers have too many defensemen for too few roster spots.

Heading into training camp, the Oilers are counting on competition enhancing performance with nine defensemen under NHL contract.

That doesn’t include Oscar Klefbom, the highly touted Swede the club took in the first round (No. 19) of the 2011 NHL Draft.

"There's only 23 roster spots, and after you get to the 13 forwards that you're going to carry for sure, the numbers start going the other way for the defensemen," Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said. "There is going to be a very, real battle there, I suspect between four or five of them.

"These exhibition games, staying healthy and every second of practice are going to be important times for those men."

Andrew Ference, the Oilers' biggest free agent pickup, Justin Schultz, Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid are locks to make the team. Barring injury, the four will be in the starting lineup when the puck drops Oct. 1.

The next three roster spots will be fought over by Nick Schultz, Anton Belov, Denis Grebeshkov, Philip Larsen and Corey Potter.

Darnell Nurse, the No. 7 pick in the 2013 draft, is in the mix, but he's likely to be sent back to his junior team in Sault Ste. Marie at the conclusion of camp.

"Nurse will be playing one of the [split-squad] games (Saturday against Calgary)," Eakins said. "It'll be like the rest of the young players where they're just trying to live another day. They don't want to go back to their junior teams, they want to stay in camp as long as they can. So his performance will deem how long he stays."

For the rest of the blue line, heir performance in the preseason will determine whether they start the season in Edmonton or Oklahoma City. Klefbom, who did not practice Thursday after taking an elbow in the head Wednesday in a prospects game against the University of Alberta Golden Bears, likely will start the year in the American Hockey League. He missed most of last season with a shoulder injury.

"I think it's great, everyone is competing for a job here," Justin Schultz said. "It creates a good environment where everyone is working hard and everybody is competing for ice time.

"I think it's good for our team and we'll see how it goes."

Craig MacTavish, who took over as general manager toward the end of last season, wanted to add depth to a blue line, which at times, struggled last season.

Along with landing Ference, MacTavish signed Belov, 27, a Kontinental Hockey League veteran who spent the past five seasons with Avangard Omsk. Belov has yet to arrive in camp due to immigration issues but is expected to join the club soon.

MacTavish traded captain Shawn Horcoff to the Dallas Stars for Philip Larsen, 23, and brought back former Oilers defenseman Denis Grebeshkov.

"You have to look at it as there's a new coach and new expectations and you have to compete for your job like you could be sent home," Petry said. "No one is really safe, you have to show up and compete. That's one thing that [Eakins] has really engraved into us.

"He wants players that are going to compete, shift in and shift out, and in every game."