The Trouble With Defense

Photo courtesy of Rob Ferguson. All rights reserved.

After a ghastly defensive game on Saturday evening we  started to see a developing trend with our Oklahoma City Barons. Colten Teubert and Taylor Chorney, the two most recent call-ups to the fill the injured defensive gaps in Edmonton, aren’t the greatest blue line prospects, but they did provide some rock solid work in the minors. Like Petry before them, we never realized what we had until it was gone. More precisely, our young Barons defenders are nearing a struggle. A struggle involving consistency on a blue line that needs to be good in the post-November/December second half of the season. The trouble with the defense is knowing when to adjust.

Below are the remaining Barons defensemen as of of Thanksgiving week (listed in what I call “proper depth” order)

Alex Plante
AHL GP: 17 G: 0 A: 5 PIM: 48 +/-: 9

Plante’s the only “NHL-ready” defensemen left on the Barons, and that’s not saying much. Teubert and Chorney being called up prior to Plante this time around, proves what the Oilers are needing. Not just brawn, but smarts with the puck. Plante’s penalty-prone ways have hurt him at the minor league and major league levels. However, he’s going to have to be a solid and careful puck player if he’s going to lead the Barons blue line to greatness.

What he needs to do:
It’s do or die time for Alex. He’s the most potent strong man on the squad, but he absolutely has to squash that propensity for bad penalties at really bad times.

Kevin Montgomery
AHL GP: 15 G: 1 A: 4 PIM: 10 +/-: 7

Seemingly forgotten by the Barons, Montgomery was brought in late to camp. However, he didn’t miss a beat from where he left off last season. And no one benefited more from Montgomery’s signing than Colten Teubert, whose game virtually got better as soon as they were paired together. Kevin is a careful player, and is thin, fast, and smart. He has promise, and just might pan out as the Barons top defender by the first day of 2012.

What he needs to do:
He needs to play consistent minutes and really work in tandem with Plante or even Tulupov. Going forward, he also needs to shoot the puck more. The addition of extra power play time will mean he’ll need to protect the puck very well. He’s got the wheels to overcome mistakes, but he’ll need to become the chess-master when quarterbacking the diagrammed plays. He also need a big boy contract because that PTO won’t last long.

Ryan Lowery
AHL GP: 16 G: 1 A: 5 PIM: 14 +/-: 3

The rookie has been very solid after playing four years of collegiate hockey. He gets the “Helmer treatment” as the young/old pairing attempts to overcome their slight builds and truly pass the puck well. Lowery is a very quick-handed defenseman, and thus he’ll pinch quickly to create scoring chances for his forwards. He does seem to be lost at times which is completely expected from a rookie. Yet his sold +/- and 6 points in 16 games are good signs of progress. Not the best player on the squad, but certainly the most promising for his age.

What he needs to do:
I’ll get to Helmer’s inabilities in a bit, but Lowery will really need to be sharp in the passing lanes or he’ll get abused. As the season soldiers on he’s the one guy that has me the most concerned. He’ll learn well under the tutelage of Bryan Helmer, but he really needs to close the gap and make big waves in the areas of play around the boards, in front of the net, and passing accuracy for the sake of his teammates.

Kirill Tulupov
AHL GP: 10 G: 0 A: 4 PIM: 20 +/-: 4

Tulupov virtually youtubed his way into the hearts of the Oilers GM’s as he gained a spot in the organization this season. He’s only played ten games, but he’ll get even more as the need for healthy defensemen is now. Despite being drafted by the defense-first Devils organization, Kirill gets little credit from the coaching staff, at least not yet. He finishes checks, clears space very well, and will always have a really solid size advantage. I’d like to see him on the PK more often because of those qualities listed above, but Coach Nelson wants speed on his PK unit, and Tulupov isn’t a Taylor Chorney or Jeff Petry.

What he needs to do:
He needs to make up for the lack of Johan Motin hutzpah in the lineup. Hit hard, pump those legs, and be willing to flex the Tulupov muscle. He’ll get the time and hopefully some type of contract beyond the PTO. He’ll be as important as the next guy in this lineup as the road trips commence through December & January.

Bryan Helmer
AHL GP: 17 G: 0 A: 7 PIM: 7 +/-: 0

Helmer is the old timer of the club, but his role is very important. Off the ice he’s Mr. OKC, the family man, and the fan favorite. On the ice, he’s more times than not the lone defenseman on a potent PP unit of OKC. I say potent, because it hasn’t been great. The team is mid-pack in the league on the PP, and is looking to get better with Helmer’s help. Helmer’s disadvantages are aplenty. He’s never been a quick player, but the years have decreased his wheels. He’s also not as durable as evidenced by his own decision to be scratched on the road recently. Nonetheless, Helmer will be key to the Barons success moreso for his attitude in the locker room. This is a highly motivated bunch, but Helmer’s wisdom carries a lot of weight.

What he needs to do:
Helmer needs to make as few mistakes as he can; namely with his careful puck play. If the puck sneaks around him, the opposing forwards are just too quick for him to catch up. He’ll need to continue to help the team stick to their game plan, and instill a little road warrior mentality in a group of spirited Barons. He’ll do it as long as he stays healthy.

Dan Ringwald
AHL GP: 4 G: 0 A: 0 PIM: 0 +/-: -2

The only Barons defender with a negative plus/minus, Dan Ringwald epitomizes where the Barons find themselves. A call-up from Stockton, Ringwald is the filler. He’s not been dreadful, but he’s not been great. Even his Stockton numbers aren’t great. Cameron Abney, also on the Stockton team, was passed over for the slightly more mature Ringwald this go-round, but don’t count the Cameronator out. He’s big and brawny, but lacks the wheels and experience to end up permanently on the squad. In the meantime, Ringwald will get limited minutes (but got pictured above). His pairings with Helmer, even on the slight PK, have been dreadful most of the time.

What he needs to do:
He needs to get real good real fast or he’ll be the odd man out. There are others on the market, including the AHL market, that might have better influence and be better money spent. Nonetheless, the former Connecticut Whale needs to step up or be stepped on.

On The Whole
The Barons will need to do a couple of things before Christmas rolls around. First, they’ll need to find one more healthy defender to bring the total to seven. Running six defensemen without a backup is scary. They could pull from Stockton or potentially tap into the open market. Either way, they need one more body. Second, both Tulupov and Montgomery needs contracts. Montgomery will seemingly be content with an AHL-only contract, but Tulupov is the type that needs more. As their PTO’s run out (in quite some time), these two need guarantees that they are here to stay. Third, the team really needs to work on staying out of the box. The Barons have suffered more penalties (305) than their opponents (272), but the nearly 17 PIM per game average needs to shrink a penalty or two.

In all, nothing to fuss about early except that a lot of change is on the horizon. Coach Nelson likes to mix things up, except when it comes to his defenders. Here’s how I’d see the above six being placed.

Tulupov – Plante
Lowery-Montgomery
Helmer-Ringwald 

The first pair gives a twin towers of strength, the second gives you some headsy play, and the third gives you discipline. This is how I’d play the group, but Nelson has a propensity for strong/weak pairings that give and take when necessary. Glad I’m not the coach, nor the GM of this organization because adjustments will need to be made and made often. Here’s hoping the trouble with defense is that there is no trouble at all.