Ryan Whitney was limited to only 35 games last season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Edmonton Oilers went 5-3 during the pre-season and pulled a season-opening upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins. But reports out of Edmonton throughout September and into early October have expressed concern over the lack of experienced, puck-moving defensemen on the Oilers blueline.
The concern originated from the absence of Ryan Whitney, who was sidelined throughout the pre-season and continues to be in the regular season with a nagging right ankle injury.
Whitney was a vital part of the Oilers offensive attack through their first 35 games last season when he notched 27 points to lead all Oilers blueliners and recorded a team-best plus-13. He was well on his way to a 50-plus point year prior to his season-ending injury.
The Oilers weren't able to replace his presence and faced the same problem heading into this season. He may be ready to return later this month, but while Whitney said he's making improvement, there's no clear timetable for his return.
For now, the Oilers need Tom Gilbert to step into Whitney's role. Gilbert was second to Whitney in average minutes per game last season (24:30), but his point totals have dropped each season since he posted a career-best 45 in 2008-09. In the Oilers’ victory over the Penguins, Gilbert played 26:33 and will continue to log big minutes in the coming weeks.
The Oilers will also look at Cam Barker, who they acquired as a free agent in the summer with the hopes he’ll regain the 40-point form he displayed with Chicago in 2008-09. However, like Gilbert, his points have declined since then and he has bounced from Chicago to Minnesota and now finds himself in Edmonton.
Barker, the third overall pick in 2004 behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, averaged more than 16 minutes per game last season with the Wild and logged 21:16 of ice time in the Oilers’ season opener.
For the time being, expectations are Oilers management will be patient and see how the season unfolds until Whitney is able to return.
But that hasn't prevented speculation that suggests the Oilers are in the market for another puck-moving defenseman.
The most recent rumor being discussed has the Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs talking trade, with Leafs blueliner Carl Gunnarsson being shipped to Edmonton for center Sam Gagner.
Leafs GM Brian Burke has since shot down that rumor, though. Oilers GM Steve Tambellini has admitted to speaking with other clubs, but hasn’t found anything that suits his needs.
Derek Zona of the Oilers blog The Copper and Blue suggested the Oilers should sign Anton Stralman, who was at New Jersey’s training camp on a tryout and was even skating with the team Thursday, but has not yet signed a contract.
Zona pointed out Stralman would fill the void in the Oilers blueline depth chart and improve their transition game.
Stralman had good power play numbers two seasons ago with Columbus when 22 of his 34 points came on the man advantage.
To date there's no hard evidence Tambellini has interest in Stralman.
There's also been some suggestion of the Oilers having interest in free agent Bryan McCabe, but it's believed it would take a substantial offer to convince him to move from the sunny climate of Florida, where his family lives, to spend the winter in Edmonton.
At this time of the season there generally isn’t much quality talent available from the free agent pool or on the trade market and that’s the reality of the situation for Edmonton. GMs tend to use the opening weeks of the season to evaluate their lineup and determine their strengths and weaknesses before making any significant moves.
For now, the best option for the Oilers is to stand pat with their current setup and hope for Whitney to get back into game shape soon.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.