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Oilers Watch: Defensive transitioning a big problem

If anything can be gleaned from Edmonton’s recent losses to fellow bottom-dwellers Toronto and Columbus, it’s that defensive team speed in Oil Country is sadly lacking.

Perhaps it’s because the Oilers are giving a lot of prospects a shot at the big club right now, perhaps it’s because the games literally don’t mean much anymore, but Edmonton is getting beaten down the ice in regular fashion.

This is not to say the Oilers are a slow team; on the contrary, Andrew Cogliano is one of the fastest players in the NHL, for example. What I mean is that the team’s conversion from attackers to defenders is woefully inadequate and putting an undue burden on goalies Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk.

Against Columbus, several Blue Jackets goals – including a mild slap shot from Kristian Huselius mishandled by Dubnyk – came as the result of rushes where the Oilers were a step behind. On top of that, Antoine Vermette’s empty-netter came off a horrible Edmonton sojourn into the Columbus zone, one quickly repelled and turned the other way.

In the loss to Toronto, Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel was given far too much breadth on his rushes and as the possessor of one of the NHL’s most lethal wrist shots, Kessel made the Oilers pay for their transgressions.

Given the injuries to blueliners Sheldon Souray and Ladislav Smid, the Oilers are already down a couple of key cogs on the back end. But it’s not like Souray has the skating prowess of Bobby Orr; the Oilers rearguard is more of a bomb-from-the-point asset.

Overall defense will need to be improved next season and one player who has a chance to make waves in the final section of games now is new defenseman Aaron Johnson.

A physical D-man acquired from Calgary in the Steve Staios deal, Johnson also has some offensive upside, which is always nice to have in your arsenal. He’s laid some big licks on opponents in his short tryout, including a huge rub-out of Toronto enforcer Colton Orr, so it’s good to know Johnson doesn’t shirk away from the big boys.

It’s hard to find anyone defensively sound on the Oilers lately, but if Johnson makes enough of an impression on the Edmonton braintrust, he’ll be a nice component of the squad as next year unfolds.

This article also appeared in the Edmonton Metro newspaper.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.


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