Wednesday, 14 March 2012
03/15/12 Turning it Around: Scoring Defensemen
You can barely recognize Senators superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson in this picture from his draft day. A lot has changed since then, but most notable is that Karlsson has changed the fortunes of Ottawa's NHL team. As it turns out, defenders who can put up points are kind of important.
The Oilers, who are currently wedged in 29th place, don't get much scoring from the back end. Their highest scoring defenseman is Corey Potter, who has put up 4-16-20 in 53 games. Over an 82 game stretch that's around a 31-point pace, which isn't nearly good enough for the Oilers to compete. It doesn't help that Potter is leading the D in scoring as a rookie. Even Tom Gilbert, who was perhaps the Oilers' best offensive option on the defense, has just 18 points in time split between Edmonton and Minnesota.
Of the eight teams currently holding down playoff position in the Eastern Conference, all but one has at least one defenseman who is in the top 30 in defense scoring in the NHL. The same goes for all but two teams in the West. It makes sense that teams with good players would be in the playoffs, but this goes beyond that. Scoring from the blue line gives a team a multi-dimensional attack, and tips the scale of scoring manpower against teams that don't have point-producers on defense.
Sixteen of the top 30 defenders in scoring are playing on the top ten teams in the NHL's league standings. Eleven of them are on the NHL's six best teams. That's no coincidence. Hockey is about scoring goals, and any way that offensive pressure can be added is a good thing; especially when it's coming from an area other teams can't match. It doesn't hurt that these defensemen can also move the puck effectively up to their forwards.
The Oilers have the kind of forwards that should one day be able to keep pace with just about anyone in the league, but until they get some help from their blue line it's going to be a struggle. The Ottawa Senators still had some good pieces, but Karlsson has probably been the single biggest reason that their rebuild has been able to turn around so quickly. Edmonton's system is brimming with defense prospects, but none that are close enough to the NHL to make an impact in a timely fashion, and no offensive defenders with the pedigree of Erik Karlsson.
Adding a player like this, therefore, will be tricky. This type doesn't get moved every day. The Oilers were lucky to snag one in Lubomir Visnovsky in exchange for Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene, but finding another such deal could be tough. We know now that Visnovsky is too long in the tooth to fit the Oilers' long term plans, but a guy like 28 year old Dennis Wideman could be a fit. Wideman is an Unrestricted Free Agent on July 1st, and he's tied for second in NHL scoring by defensemen with 44 points. He's also a right handed shot, which is an asset that the Oilers are now short on after the Gilbert trade. Wideman will command a high price as a free agent, but would be worth a look if Edmonton isn't a suitable suitor for Suter.
Of course we won't know who the Oilers will decide to pursue until the time comes, and after the Entry Draft is said and done, but an offensive defenseman should be #1 on Oilers management's list of priorities heading into the off season. If they go into next season depending on Ryan Whitney (injury concern) and Jeff Petry (less than 100 NHL games played), the Oilers could once again be in trouble.