EDMONTON - There was plenty of optimism surrounding the Edmonton Oilers this season, but little of it was because of their blue-line.
If anything, there were concerns about the Oilers limited defensive capabilities this season, leading hockey pundits to believe the club would need to score a lot of goals in order to be successful.
As it turns out, with the exception of one game against the Vancouver Canucks, that hasn’t been the case at all. So far this season the Oilers have given up among the fewest goals in the league.
“I think our goaltending has been excellent, Dubby (Devan Dubnyk) and Khabby (Nikolai Khabibulin) have been playing very well,” said Oilers defenceman Ladislav Smid. “I think as a team, it’s not about defence and forwards. I think we’re playing really well as a five-man unit out there, we’re playing our system and we trust our system and, overall, we’re just better defensively.”
In the six games the Oilers have played this season heading into Saturday’s encounter against the New York Rangers (8 p.m.) at Rexall Place, they have given up just one goal in regulation on four occasions. Earlier this week against the Calgary Flames, they gave up just two.
“It’s the same system we had last year. We are just trying to be more aggressive and guys are really sticking to it,” Smid said. “The forwards are really helping us in the neutral zone and the defensive zone, and you can really see it on the ice.
“Also, we’ve had guys mature over the years and we have a few more veterans in the lineup and it helps big time.”
So far this season, the Oilers are focusing on their own zone before venturing out of their end.
At times, it can be frustrating for fans, who want to see head coach Tom Renney unleash the hounds and play more of a run-and-gun style.
But if the Oilers are going to contend for a playoff spot this season, they’re going to need to be strong in their own zone. Once that foundation is in place, they can venture out from it.
“We certainly placed a premium on defensive hockey, believe it or not, a couple of years ago,” said Renney. “But it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, and as we learned, trying to get that level of commitment is sometimes painful.
“We went through that last year, but there were certainly signs of what we needed in order to be a good defensive team.”
This year, the groundwork for laying that foundation was bolstered with the acquisitions of Cam Barker and Andy Sutton.
While not the most fleet of foot defencemen in the league, the two have demonstrated an exceptional understanding of defensive positioning and possess the ability to move the puck.
Added to a core that includes Smid, Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney, Theo Peckham and upstart Corey Potter, the Oilers boast an NHL-calibre blue-line, which may not have necessarily been the case in the past couple of seasons.
“Our defence group might have a little more size and strength to it this season,” said Renney. “It’s got some hockey experience behind it and our goaltending has been good, which gives a chance for the guys in front of them to play with some confidence, where they are able to make the odd slip up, knowing they’re going to make the big save.”
Having been put in charge of a young team with skilled forwards, who in the past required a road map to navigate their way through their own zone, Renney is willing to sacrifice some offence for the time being in order to instill the necessary foundation for success.
Even during the Oilers heyday, the team had to learn how to play defence before they went on to win Stanley Cups.
“We have placed a heavy premium on defensive hockey and in no way shape or form should that distract from offence,” Renney said. “But until you really get your head around what that really involves defensively, the offence often times does suffer a little bit. I think that’s the case right now.”