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Oilers set sights on improving defence

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

Defence, defence, defence.

A good way to build a winner in the National Hockey League is from the back end forward. The Edmonton Oilers have their goaltender in Cam Talbot, who finished 2015-16 strong and is locked down with a three-year extension. Now the Oilers are targeting their blueline this off-season.

“I’d like to upgrade our defence,” Peter Chiarelli clearly stated at his end-of-season press conference.

The Oilers general manager is tasked with improving the team across the board, but it’s no secret defence is an area of emphasis. His analysis of the defenders currently on the roster was stymied by injuries. Oscar Klefbom, arguably the team’s best defenceman at the start of the year, missed 52 games. Brandon Davidson, who surprised and showed much ability and promise, lost 14 games at the end of the year with a lower-body injury, and missed additional time due to various ailments before that.

Photo by Ryan Hrycun

Eric Gryba and Adam Pardy also dealt with injuries costing them playing time and costing Chiarelli and his coaching staff more of a sample size for evaluation. That being said, improvements have to be made regardless of the events of 2015-16 and the GM believes he can get it done.

“I’m reasonably confident that I’ll be able to address it in a meaningful way,” Chiarelli said.

How will Chiarelli get it done? He has a lottery pick at his disposal and — in his own words — a “surplus” of forwards he can utilize if it comes down to it.

“If you’re asking if it’s in a trade or not, based on the free market, that’s probably the most effective way,” Chiarelli said.

Inevitably, as he already has, Chiarelli will field questions about the Oilers core group of talented forwards, and whether or not he’d be willing to move one or more to upgrade the back end.

“We have a surplus of forwards and we’ve got a lack of defencemen, so that’s probably the easiest formula. But I could do it without trading those guys,” he said.

Chiarelli is keeping all his options open heading into his second off-season with the club, which hired him to run their hockey operations just over a year ago.

“As a manager, you look at every option,” said Chiarelli. “I’ve been hearing from the national media about our core all year. When you look to make changes, you look at significant players, core players, you look at minor players, you look at staff, you look at internal, philosophical changes. There’s a whole bunch of ways to make changes, and I guess no one is untouchable, except maybe a couple guys.

“I’ve got to look at everything. As a manger, you have to look at everything and it’s unacceptable to be where we’re at. Part of the process, when you look back at the season as a manager, is you look back at all the metrics, all the analytics, all the stats and we did have improvement in areas but the bar was pretty low and I want to be better than that. What we have now isn’t good enough.”

One thing the Oilers were able to do this past season was give some of their young defenders a taste of life in the NHL. 21-year-old Darnell Nurse, taken seventh overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, played 69 NHL games this season. Griffin Reinhart, 22, was awarded 30 games with the big club this season. Those were two of a group of young prospects who earned time with the Oilers during their most recent campaign.

Now, an ideal development model for those players would likely be more time in the American Hockey League. If you look at Davidson’s development path, it is a blueprint for success with young defencemen. However, the Oilers depth on the blueline and injury-riddled season paved the way for an accelerated promotion and curve.

Glen Sather and Peter Chiarelli talk over the Cam Talbot trade at the 2015 NHL Draft. Photo by Getty Images.

“I don’t think ideally to have them play the whole year this year at the start would have been my plan. It wasn’t my plan,” said Chiarelli. “I do think their development curve this year was good. I think, specifically on Darnell, I think he went down and played and earned a promotion in the circumstances. I thought his game, him managing the game, got better. I think he still has to improve on some certain areas, some stick skills and defending skills, some game awareness, but I really like the progress his game made. With Griffin, he was a little bit flip-flop of that but the way he finished, he finished strong. He manages the game very well. He’s got some areas where he has to improve. I think he’s a terrific passer. He sees the game well. They both, in their own way, had improvement.”

In the eyes of the Oilers, improvement in those players is always good. However, if Chiarelli is able to accomplish his goals of bringing in talent on defence then it could push everyone down a slot or two and allow more time for growth.

“If I improved our defence enough where they’d be starting in the minors, I think we’d be doing a good job.”

Defensive gains are clearly on Chiarelli’s to-do list and among his tasks, finding an offensively gifted and NHL-ready defenceman is likely near the top.

“I think it would help. It certainly would help,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “The knowledge base of the fan or the media here in Edmonton is exceptional. They understand hockey, they get it and you guys see it like we do. We could improve in that area, of course we could.”

McLellan also said he doesn’t want to insult the group for defencemen who skated for the team in 2015-16.

“They gave us everything they had,” he said.

For the group of returning blueliners, McLellan hopes they’re ready to accept more coaching, more responsibility and grow as players. 

“Bobby Orr is probably not walking through, and I know Paul Coffey isn’t,” said McLellan. “If we end up with what we have here, how are we making it better? How do they accept more responsibility? What do we do to help them?”

End-of-year press conferences can provide some insight into the state of an organization and their desired path to improvement. For the Oilers, a clear indication of their direction lies in their comments on defence. What we do know is the Oilers are looking to improve on defence, Chiarelli is open to all avenues of doing so, one of the easiest and most likely routes is via trade, and the Oilers GM is confident he can get it done. Finally, it’s important to remember these talks to make improvements have already begun.

“The trade market doesn’t just start in or around the draft,” said Chiarelli. “You can start it earlier. If something comes up earlier then we’ll look at it.”

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