It's pretty clear that the biggest weakness with the Oilers is the defense, and the prevailing belief is that their prospects are too far away to impact the rebuild in the near future. But that stance could be overlooking some obvious home-grown talents on the back end.
Most good teams have defenders that have been drafted and/or developed by the team. While the Oilers still lack a player of elite status, there are some guys coming and some that are already here.
Ladislav Smid: When it comes to players that have come along slowly but will be part of the long term future, Smid is the poster boy. A 2004 draftee, it has taken Smid eight years to round into the player that he is today. He faced the toughest competition of any Oilers defenseman, started his shifts in the offensive zone 49.3% of the time, and yet he handled himself very well and finished as a plus-4 on a terrible team. It's very fortunate that the Oilers didn't trade him at the 2011 trade deadline, only to have to restart the long defensive development curve. Facing some of the toughest competition of all regular NHL defensemen, Smid spent the season as one of the top shutdown players in the league. If he can keep it up he'll be key to the future.
Jeff Petry: Petry is further away from Smid in terms of experience, but he's not exactly green either. It's been six years since Petry was taken 45th overall by the Oilers and he has played 331 games at various levels since then. Aside from Tom Gilbert, Petry's top-end potential is the highest of any Oilers defensive prospect in a long time, and we saw the first tangible glimpses of it this past season. If the plan is for the Oilers to be able to do some damage in the 2014 playoffs, Petry could be as many as 272 games into his NHL career before that post season begins.
Going forward these two players make up half of the Oilers' top four defensemen, and are potentially a future top pair even on a good team. There's still plenty of work to do, but there's a steady stream of other prospects who are close to the NHL.
Colten Teubert: When the Oilers acquired Teubert from Los Angeles, the feeling was that the best he could do at the NHL level is to be a solid 4th, 5th or 6th defenseman. If that happens the Oilers should be pleased. Despite some injuries he has collected valuable playing experience since being drafted 13th overall in 2008. Tuebert has appeared in 267 games spread over the WHL, ECHL, AHL and NHL. There's work to be done with him, but he's reasonably close to full time NHL duty. Again, the Oilers will need him most in 2014 or so, and by that time he'll be pretty far into his professional career.
Alex Plante: Are you ever going to make it, Alex Plante? There are questions about him being a career AHLer, as the former 15th overall pick in 2007 is in his third professional season. Since being drafted he has played 277 games at various levels, and he's coming to a crossroads in his career. It's hard to believe that he is just three months older than Sam Gagner and yet he has played 356 fewer NHL games. Plante was an AHL all star this season, so there are some signs that his development is moving in the right direction. Supposing that he carries on with the Oilers organization, Plante will be in his fifth professional season in 2013-14. If he's going to make an impact at the NHL level, he'll be ready for it by then.
Theo Peckham: Also assuming that Peckham remains an Oiler, he could be part of the future because he has already played 299 professional games since being drafted in 2006. 156 of those games have been in the NHL and although he trended downward in 2011-12, that sometimes happens with defensemen who turn out. Peckham is no sure thing, but by the spring of 2014 he will be a veteran of as many as 340 NHL games.
Martin Marincin: Marincin will be old enough for the AHL next season, and should find himself as a callup option in the next two seasons.
Oscar Klefbom: Should be in North America after next season, and will more than likely spend a development year in the AHL. That's about the time the Oilers will need him.
The thing to remember about the Oilers is that the timeline for seriously contending is still 164 games away at a minimum. The Oilers may make a push for the playoffs next season, but the 2014 playoffs will be the real goal. Between now and then, these players and many others I didn't list will spend time developing. Some of them will turn into NHL defensemen and some won't, and some are already there. The Oilers still need a true number one defenseman, but the ones that are already in the system can fit into the timeline.