No shortcuts from pretender to contender
Coming out of the weekend, the Edmonton Oilers let their fans down big time. Big changes were expected, Craig MacTavish talked a big game since the day he was hired and Oilers fans were of the opinion that the Oilers were going to be transformed into a playoff team by Canada day. That didn’t happen and Craig MacTavish came right out and took the blame for talking a bigger game than he delivered. But he also had a great line when he said “you generally default to no deal, rather than a bad deal.” Bingo.
Oiler fans are sick of being told to be patient. The national media got the fans hopes sky high heading into the shortened season this past year, and the team failed miserably. It has now been 7 years of no playoffs, and they’ve been in rebuild mode since the 2010 trade deadline. So naturally fans don’t want to hear that this team is progressing, they want results already. But this whole time the Oilers organization, as screwed up and dysfunctional and as much of an old boys club as it is….they’ve preached that this isn’t about being a playoff team. Its about winning CUPS, plural.
So how do you win Cups? Do you trade 2 or 3 valuable pieces for Braydon Coburn? I like Coburn a lot and is a very solid top 4 d-man in this leauge…but he’s not going to make a HUGE difference. Some fans short term thinking is that yes in fact you make that move because it could mean that this team is closer to the playoffs next season. We don’t know what was discussed over and over and over and over again between Mac T and Paul Holmgren. But Mac made it very clear he was going to be aggressive and was willing to overpay, yet he still felt Holmgren was asking for too much. Don’t you THINK that just maybe the asking price was ridiculous? I would think so.
Another decision that had some fans down, was selecting Darnell Nurse over Valeri Nichushkin. Nichushkin would step in next season, Nurse needs at least a year to develop. Nichushkin is a 6’4, 205 pound power forward who has blazing speed and will take the puck to the net. But he comes with a ridiculous amount of red flags. His performance at the NHL draft combine was apparently horrible. He quit during a few of the tests, he didn’t interview well, this is the kid you’re going to win Cups with??
Nichushkin made it clear that unless he was on an NHL roster next season, he was going back to the KHL. Nice, sounds like a kid who is all about the team, not in anyway selfish….Meanwhile in the Oilers snagged Russian Bogdan Yakimov in the 3rd round. Yakimov has pretty good potential himself, some compare him to Martin Hanzel, and Yakimov is staying in the KHL next season. But his contract is done after next season and his agent Mark Gandler says that he is coming over to North America, and he’s coming to stay. “He’ll play one more year (in the KHL), and then he’ll come to the NHL,” Gandler said. “If he’s ready, great, and if not, he’ll play in the American Hockey League for as long as it takes to be in the NHL.” I want THAT kid on my team, not the kid who is essentially saying put me on the team…or else….
Meanwhile Nurse is 6’4, 190 pounds, is a gym rat, was the OHL scholastic player of the year, tough, physical, great skater, and is known for being a very high character kid. In fact he already was wearing a letter this season in Sault Ste. Marie. This kid is literally everything you look for in a d-man. Some scouts are worried that his offensive game isn’t where it should be. Well what characteristic doesn’t he posses that suggests that he won’t figure out the offensive end of the game? Not to mention, he didn’t get much PP time this season because the Greyhounds had guys like Ryan Sproul and Colin Miller ahead of him on their top unit. And he STILL put up 41 points in 68 games. He will get that PP time next season.
I don’t know too many teams that win in this league by taking low character/high talent wingers. Alex Semin doesn’t win, Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t win, Alex Ovchkin doesn’t win, want me to get away from Russians? Fine, Rick Nash doesn’t win. And this isn’t to say all of those guys don’t have high character, but the big power forward who can skate and is a sniper doesn’t have anywhere near the impact on teams that people think they do. In theory they should, but they don’t.
Sure Kovalchuk was a top player on a team that went to the final just last season, but that was the exception to the rule. Jersey could barely get past Florida, then caught Philly emotionally drained after beating Pittsburgh, then got the Rangers coming off of two 7 game wars, and if there was ever such thing as a 6 game sweep it was the Devils vs Kings. The scores and 4-2 series were pretty flattering, the Kings were far and away the better team. And the cherry on all of this was that Zach Parise was the guy who carried that Devils team, not Kovalchuk.
What does win in this league though is being great on the blueline. I don’t think it is the first thing needed to win in this league, but you need great d-men. The Oilers are now loaded on defense with Justin Schultz, Oscar Klefbom, Nurse, Jeff Petry all 25 and under. Then they have wild cards in the system led by Martin Marcin, David Musil, Colten Teubert, Martin Gernat, Brandon Davidson, Taylor Fedun and Dillon Simpson. This team is now LOADED on defense moving forward which is never bad. Teams never stop looking for d-men so if you have a few you can deal you will have a much easier time trading then if you’re loaded with wingers.
Wingers are like WR’s in the NFL. Fans love WR’s who put up big numbers and are atheltic. But you simply don’t win with them unless you have things like a great offensive line or a great defense or most importantly a good-great QB. Thinking you can win being built with high end WR’s and wingers is like thinking you can marry the stripper. You have a “fun” night with a stripper, you maybe date a stripper for a bit, but you don’t marry the stripper! You want to marry the girl who has a career and is cute and fun to go out with. The equiviliant to that girl in the NFL are QB’s first and foremost, then defense and the offensive line.
The equivilant in the NHL to the girl you marry are 2 way center’s, top 4 d-men and of course great goaltenders all with high character. This is why I can at least understand Oiler fans that want to keep Sam Gagner around, because while he isn’t a good fit with the Oilers top 6 forwards, he is a center that has all the character in the world. Sam Gagner will be a clutch performer once he starts seeing the playoffs, much the same way Danny Briere is.
And this isn’t to say you can’t have wingers like Nichushkin on your team, but you need to be in the right spot to do it. Teams who are still trying to build a contender shouldn’t be taking a guy like that. And they especially shouldn’t be taking a guy like that in draft loaded with high end center’s and high end d-men. Had the Oilers taken Nichushkin, it would have been the 5th time in 6 years that they would have taken a winger with their top pick. You don’t win drafting like that.
The Oilers faced this issue at the 2012 draft with the top pick. I’m not saying they made the wrong pick by any means, but I can see why it was so close. Ryan Murray is simply one of those kids you win with and while we all love the enthusiasm and excitement that Yakupov plays with they were already loaded on the wings, had a big need (at the time) on the blueline and there isn’t a history in this league of winning hockey games with kids like Yakupov. Now again, this isn’t trashing Yakupov in anyway at all. He does seem to have a lot of the intangibles and high character that teams should desire, I’m just saying that Murray was the bigger need at had boat loads of character and leadership. And remember at the time the Oilers didn’t have Justin Schultz.
Its flash vs substance. Most fans love flash and have trouble admitting that rarely does it ever win out over substance. Flash might get you in the playoffs, but it won’t win once there (see Washington). And it isn’t limited to the NHL, look at the NFL, the NBA and MLB. The teams who are all about flash are the Cowboys, the Jets, the Redskins and Bengals used to be like that, it simply doesn’t win. Meanwhile the Pats see a kid like Aaron Hernandez being taken to jail and they cut him immediately. They don’t need to sit there and see what will happen. He became a problem and in the words of Brett Myers “boom, outta here”.
Look at the NBA. Say what you want about Lebron, those who know him don’t have a bad word to say about him. He dishes, he’s tremendous defensively, he does it all and now the Heat have back to back titles. Carmelo Anthony has huge talent too, yet all he does is score…he doesn’t win. Look at the Spurs. That entire organization just keeps their collective heads down, not a lot of flash and just win year in and year out.
In baseball, the Yankees have spent BILLIONS in the last decade on flashy players, not to say they don’t get some guys with a high amount of character (they do have Jeter), but for the most part they’ve brought in a lot of “me” guys. They have 1 title in that time. When they had guys like Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Bernie Williams, they won 4 titles in 5 years. The Cardinals are now what the Yanks were. The Cards have 2 titles in the last 10 years, the Yanks have 1 and have probably spent 1 billion more on players in that time.
You don’t overpay in trades, you don’t chase big name UFA’s every year. You draft high character kids at the important positions of need, and THEN when your team is established you can take the home run swings like that. The Blackhawks are built that way, and they never made that stupid move of dealing 4 pieces for 1 that would have made them a playoff team. It was a VERY rocky road, but once it popped, it did in a BIG way and now they’re the model franchise in this league.
Same for the Kings. There road was almost identical to the Oilers to this point. In 2009 (the 3rd year of their rebuild) they crumbled down the stretch and failed to get in the playoffs. That offseason they didn’t make any drastic/stupid moves. They added a few UFA’s, and took on Ryan Smyth in what was a salary dump for the Avalanche. In 2010 they finished 6th in the West, 2 years later they won the Cup and are now right there with Chicago.
When you start looking for shortcuts in pro sports, that is when things go bad. It REALLY sucks to have to wait for the Oilers to get their sh*t together and get back in the playoffs. But straying from the plan now would waste all the misery the Oilers and their fans have suffered through. They were essentially an expansion team when they decided to rebuild. There were maybe 2 pieces in the entire organization to build around. They didn’t have any money sunk into player development either. This was a MASSIVE rebuild that was needed. Things today are drastically improved since 2010, they’re on the right track. Do fans really want things to go back to the early 2000’s where they were bounced in the 1st round every year by Dallas? No, you want to be a serious contender year in and year out. You want to be Chicago and Boston and LA and Pittsburgh. You want to win Cups. Don’t take shortcuts and you’ll get there, do take them and you’ll have gone through all this BS to get right back to where you were.
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