Humiliating. Disgraceful. Disaster. I am running out of creative titles to describe how bad it has become for the Edmonton Oilers. I used “Deep Ice Horizon” last year which was probably my best one (although you have to keep up on the news and recall the BP oil spill to get that one). You know you are writing too much about a team and it’s faliures when you have run out of titles for pieces on how bad things have become for a team. But here is another one, and it is over 2000 words so you may as well settle in, good thing most of you aren’t working today and you have an extra hour to work with this weekend.
The easiest way to put it is that things have just snowballed. Out of the gate they looked like a different team. Tougher, hard nosed, much improved in the dot, and determined. But they didn’t get the goaltending. That last up until the game on Long Island. In that game Dubnyk was strong, but they didn’t have any finish and fell 3-2. That was right around the time their PP started falling apart. So they have the goaltending, but the bread and butter for a highly skilled team like this went to shhhhhhh….you know. Now their confidence was still there despite the PP being so bad for the next few games. They won 2 in a row, but even in winning it came off poorly as Dallas Eakins went a little overboard in crushing Lars Eller after the game. The reason he was so ticked in my mind, was because Lars was SPOT ON about how the Oilers play. Then they came home to face Washington, that’s when things REALLY started to fall apart on them.
They outplayed the Caps that night, and every bounce possible went against them. A 4-1 loss. The next game was in Phoenix and again they outplay the opponent. But again they had a lot of bounces go against them, and didn’t get good goaltending this time out of Jason LaBarbera. In LA the next night they really got pushed around, yet again they still had fight and lost in a shootout 2-1 after getting an incredible goaltending performance out of Richard Bachman.
They hit a new low in the last 2 games however against the Leafs and Red Wings and I believe the breaking point for this team came early in the 2nd period against the Leafs. Trailing 1-0 early in the 2nd, Justin Schultz had a great scoring chance jumping up in the play and hit the post. The Leafs took it up ice and scored. They haven’t been the same since. And I can understand it, as much as the fan in me wants to knock the teeth out of all their heads. They finally said “we literally can’t get one bounce”. And it’s true. As much as all Oiler fans are fed up with all of this, so far this season this team hasn’t got ANY bounces to go their way! I’ve never seen anything like this in hockey, at least not for this long of a stretch.
But while its all going horrific, and perhaps I just have homer goggles on, but I really believe everything has conspired against them during this time too. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying no wrong’s have been made here. But at least trying to look at it without bias they really haven’t had things break their way. First off, everyone in the league has heard the last 2 or 3 seasons how the Oilers are the next great club in the NHL. They have been crowned by the Canadian media in particular as the league’s future champion. While that’s flattering, it also puts a target on your back and something that I have really noticed the last 2 seasons is that the Oilers have been getting everyone’s best. Don’t believe me? Logan Couture went out of his way last season during a game against the Oilers on TSN to point out how sick he is of hearing about them during the summer. So most nights they are getting everyone’s best. Makes it pretty difficult to gain momentum, build confidence, etc, etc. You watch some of Calgary’s games this season….not that they aren’t playing their balls off this season, but a lot of teams have clearly been taking them lightly.
Then there are the holes on the team. Size, goaltending, good veteran’s to lean on, etc. Nothing has broke their way on that front either in terms of being able to acquire those pieces. It is real easy for the media to sit their and be critical of management for not addressing those needs, but when have they had the chance to? For starters, it is pretty difficult to get UFA’s to come to Edmonton, which was one of the biggest reasons they needed to start “building it the right way” (remember when that term was constantly brought up Oiler fans?) You also need the right UFA’s to become available. They haven’t. They chased David Clarkson hard this past summer who fit the bill for what they needed, and offered him more money and term than anyone else. So what else were they supposed to do on that front?
Every good goaltender available this offseason was in their division. So the Kings didn’t want any part of dealing Bernier to them because they had just become division rivals. Talk about brutal luck there. Word is the Oilers still tried hard to get him too. And we know they were hard after Cory Schneider at the draft, but the Canucks were going to make sure if they were dealing him to Edmonton that the price was ridiculous. How many goaltenders would you move Darnell Nurse, Martin Marincin AND a roster player for in this league? Basically Mike Gillis was saying “you can have Schneider as long as you make your organization worse elsewhere”. This isn’t a team that can afford to ruin their blueline to land a goaltender. So the media can harp on management all they want for it, but while doing so perhaps provide an example of where they missed the boat last offseason, or in the last 3 offseasons.
Something else that isn’t helping is that in 2011 the Boston Bruins won the Cup. In 2012, the Kings won the Cup. Both won with size, goaltending, and strong defensive play. The league started moving back towards the dead puck era of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Not good for young teams in the league, nor is it good for small skilled teams in the league. The large majority of this style of hockey is played in the West. Veteran teams and defensive teams are going to get the benefit of the doubt with officials in any league, not just the NHL. The Oilers of course are neither, so it makes for a TON of garbage that they’re left to battle through. That isn’t to make an excuse for them at all, but it is the reality of the situation.
Is the rebuild failing? No it isn’t, at least not yet and we are actually still a long ways away from declaring it a failure. The Hawks essentially were rebuilding from 2003-2009. It’s paying off huge now. The Kings rebuild took about 4 years before they were back to playoff regulars, but they had 3 seasons prior to officially rebuilding that were very disappointing so a total of 7 seasons getting things fixed. The Avs actually are only a year ahead of the Oilers rebuild, but have had a few seasons where they were better than expected that might make it seem like they haven’t been going through the same thing, now sitting 12-1 after finishing 29th last season (although let’s be honest, that bubble is going to burst and burst pretty harshly for the Avs).
But the best example for the Oilers might be the St.Louis Blues. Outside of an amazing (and may I add pretty flukey) run in 2009 that got them the 6th seed and swept by the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round of the playoffs, the Blues took 6 seasons to rebuild it. Just rebuilding. Started after the 2005 lockout and things were pretty rocky for a lot of seasons. Ken Hitchock finally went into St.Louis and completely changed the culture. Nobody seen that coming with that club, in fact I had a piece ready to go right around the time Hitch got hired about how the Blues rebuild had indeed failed.
When the Kings rose up in 2010, how many people had them doing so? Not many. The Hawks in 2009, was anyone saying they were the next Pittsburgh prior to that season? Nope. In 2006, the Pens were the Oilers. They got Sid in the draft, added a whole wack of seasoned vets like Ziggy Palffy, Mark Recchi, Jon LeClair, and Sergei Gonchar, and they were going to be the hot young team. 06 for the Pens was much like this season has been for the Oilers.
The Oilers rebuild though is taking longer than we have all expected, but we should have known. They had literally nothing to build around. There have been expansion teams in better shape than the Oilers were at the end of the 2010 season. No good vets to help the kids out (Horcoff was never the same after his shoulder surgery, Hemsky never was either, and Khabibulin was over the hill), for years they never even had their own farm team and put no money at all into player development. You look at a team like Ottawa who essentially rebuilt in 1 season. They had a 1st line center in his prime in Spezza, an established leader still playing good hockey when healthy in Alfredsson, got a gift from the Colorado Avalanche when they essentially gave the Sens Craig Anderson. amd they had a great farm system in place who had been doing a great job of developing their kids for years.
For the Oilers though, a lot of stench still remains from awful men in charge from past seasons, not this one. Kevin Pendergast, Kevin Lowe, and Ralph Krueger all are in my mind the biggest reasons this team is where it currently is. Pendergast screwed up just about every 1st round pick he ever had (of course the worst was 2003), Kevin Lowe is not only a joke today but completely lost his mind once Chris Pronger asked to be dealt. And Ralph Krueger of course is the most recent one who I will touch on more in a minute.
I believe and will not be a long time backing off my belief that they actually have the right men in the right places now, despite Kevin Lowe being the joke that oversees it all. Craig MacTavish is an incredibly smart man, anyone in the game will tell you that. Dallas Eakins was the hottest coaching commodity this summer for a reason. The guy is a leader, is a grinder, is a student of the game, and just will simply need time to fix all the on ice problems that have remained from the Ralph Krueger coached team.
How structurally flawed this hockey team is right now is because of him. I actually didn’t think Steve Tambellini did a bad job while GM of the hockey club. It was annoying how terrified he was to make moves, but for the most part during the rebuild he needed to be as patient as he was. But the move he made that set this team back a year in their rebuild was hiring Krueger. Just look back at how many of these I wrote about him and how the team was eroding structurally under his watch.
Krueger clearly thought he could get this team to play great hockey simply by using motivation techniques than getting his players to buy into a system and play good team hockey 5 on 5. They regressed when it came to things like supporting the puck, defensive zone coverage, and power play entries. In fact, the PP that Krueger was praised for, did nothing but fade as the season went on. These are all big issues which have remained so far this season. If you heard Eakins speak I believe after the Islanders game this season, he made a comment about how he didn’t realize the team was this big of a mess (I’m paraphrasing of course, but it was along those lines).
So what can I say? It is bleek and while fans want blood, right now they’re handcuffed. Things have become so bad that they now simply cannot move their 1st round pick. Fans and media will say “they can’t use another pick, you have to move it for veteran help”. Well the problem is, who gives up veterans who are worth while for teams high end draft picks? The last time a top 5 pick was traded at the draft was 2008 (the 5th pick when the Leafs moved up from 7 to take Luke Schenn), and the last time a top 5 pick was moved for a player was 2002 (4th overall, Tampa got Ruslan Fedotenko and a 2nd from Philadelphia). Again, a trade has to be there to make one and less and less trades are being made in the league these days. I wrote about this after the draft when fans were livid that MacTavish didn’t make his “bold moves”, there are no short cuts to doing this.
Right now this team is in no man’s land. It is completely unfair to the Oiler fans who have stood by this team and supported this and believed by now that this team would be among the top teams in their division if not the league. They have changed GM’s, changed coaches a few times, there is seemingly no move to be made at this time. There are bright spots though. The blueline has a couple of gems on the way in Klefbom and Nurse, not to mention a ton of depth after them. And a lot of key prospects are having great seasons thus far such as Mitch Moroz, Greg Chase, Bogdan Yakimov, Jujhar Khaira, and of course Darnell Nurse. Mark Arcobello and Tyler Pitlick are kids who it looks like they’ve done a nice job of developing, and Ryan Martindale seemed to be figuring things out prior to getting hurt earlier in the season. But that doesn’t fix things now and all fans want things fixed now. I don’t have that answer, and I simply don’t see one coming. Apparently it is always darkest before dawn….well it’s pitch black in Oil Country right now.
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