How do you define a number one defenseman? He should be able to play in every situation and probably log 23 minutes or more per night. That's the type of player the Oilers need, but how many of those are there?
In 2011-12 there were 43 defensemen who played a minimum of 23:00 per night. Brian Campbell led the way with 26:53 per game, which was tied with Duncan Keith (who played eight fewer games). Ryan Suter, Dan Girardi and Shea Weber also played 26+ minutes per night, while six more defenders saw a minimum of 25 minutes. Only 22 defensemen in the league played 24 or more minutes per game, and none of them were Oilers.
Actually, that's not exactly true. Amazingly the Oilers already had the player they now need in Tom Gilbert - who was 21st in TOI per game by defensemen at 24:03 - and traded him for a guy who played 19:42 each night in a purely shutdown role. Whatever the organization's reasons for the trade were, they nevertheless moved out a player who saw the minutes of a number one defenseman and didn't receive the kind of return that they'll now have to give up in order to get another one via trade.
And that's a tall order.
Of the top 30 defensemen in total TOI per game from 2011-12, perhaps only two could be considered legitmately available. They are: Jay Bouwmeester and Tobias Enstrom. In both cases their current team does not have to push them out the door and could comfortably start the 2012-13 season with them in the lineup on opening night.
For those wondering, much-talked-about defender Keith Yandle was 57th in total TOI per game by D-men, and he wasn't utilized on the penalty kill at all. What Yandle brings to the table is largely duplicated by Justin Schultz, who is already an Oiler for the low, low price of free - in terms of assets anyway.
Unless a trade materializes out of left field, it appears that the Oilers will have to try to develop a(nother) number one defenseman in house. Jeff Petry was 68th in TOI by defensemen with 21:45 per game, which goes to show how much the Oilers were lacking that legitimate number one guy. It doesn't sound like much, but going from 21:45 to 24 or 25 solid minutes per night is a jump worthy of Evel Knievel. Ryan Whitney was averaging 25:20 per game in 2010-11 before his injury, and if he somehow recovers his former capabilities he could be the Oilers' man.
Beyond those two players there isn't much immediate hope for a number one defender to emerge in Edmonton. Ladislav Smid was great in his role, but he's one-dimensional. So too is Nick Schultz. Justin Schultz may get there one day, but he's at least two or three years away from that level of responsibility; always assuming that he not only pans out but is capable in all three situations.
Things can change quickly in the NHL, and often times there are situations behind the scenes that the casual observer is unaware of. Still, it's looking pretty bleak when it comes to adding a top defenseman for the 2012-13 season. If Shea Weber becomes available the Oilers will likely offer the keys to the Katz mansion and the kitchen sink from Wayne Gretzky's house, but they'll have loads of competition. Fans may have to settle for being patient with the group that's currently in place.