Something's Gotta Give
In the spring of 2015, three great hockey things happened:
The Washington Capitals did not get eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2nd round (though they did get booted by the Rangers)
Team Canada, led by Sidney Crosby, won the gold medal at the World Championship
The Edmonton Oilers won the NHL draft lottery (and with it the opportunity to select Connor McDavid – a generational player and prodigious talent.)
It’s that third thing which brought light back into the eyes of Oiler fans, and hope back to an organization that had been wandering in the desert for years. With the dismissal of Craig MacTavish as GM and the hiring of both Peter Chiarelli (GM) and Todd McLellan (head coach), it finally felt like the Oilers had maybe bumbled their way out of the darkness and into something not seen since the Penguins won the Crosby lottery in 2005.
There was more hope than when the team had H.O.P.E., more optimism than a casual fan could bear, and there was talk of a Stanley Cup in the not-so-distant future. The Oilers would make the playoffs and McDavid’s career would mirror Crosby’s – Stanley Cup finalist in year 3 and champ in year 4. The dynasty years would be relegated to the dustbin of history because McJesus had arrived and was going to save us all. Even writers on this very website got caught up in the McDavid hoopla and boldly declared that the Oilers would win the Stanley Cup in 2020, under the leadership of Taylor Hall. (ed: Hooboy.)
The reality, as fans are aware, is much different.
Instead of being near the top of the Pacific Division (a division for which this team was purportedly built), the Edmonton Oilers are going to limp into 2019 with (at best) a 19-18-3 record. If they manage to beat the Jets on New Years Eve, they’ll have 41 points in 40 games. Last season, after a 5-0 NYE shellacking by the Winnipeg Jets, they had 39 points in 39 games.
If you don’t believe that, here’s some proof (from last year’s NYE pregame):
See, the Oilers have dug themselves a bit of a hole this season, and they might not be able to dig out. Based on their current pace, the Oilers are on track to hit 80 points this season, far off the mark for a playoff spot.
Assuming the cutoff for the playoffs is about 95 points, the Oilers have to earn 58 points in their remaining 44 games in order to have sniff. That means they have to play at a 108 point pace (without giving up Bettman points to conference rivals) to get there.
It’s a tall order and I’m not sure it can be filled.
In the immediate short-term, the Oilers lost an absolute stinker to the Sharks yesterday (the final score says 7-4 but the Sharks stopped trying after it was 7-2 and even that’s being generous to the Oilers), in an effort that can only be described as abysmal. It’s the Christmas holidays, it was an afternoon game, there were a bunch of kids at the game and the Oilers did everything imaginable to suck the life out of the building, including let the Sharks score while the goal announcement for the Oilers first was still on.
Without going into too much detail, the game was bad and the Oilers should probably be a little embarrassed by what happened. They were outmatched in every way by the Sharks, a team so deep that Joe Pavelski was held to just one assist on 7 goals. Erik Karlsson, fresh off a suspension, had 4 points and played an absolutely beautiful game (though Joe Thornton didn’t score any goals, never mind the 4 needed for a rooster trick). Without making light of what happened, it was absolutely like watching boys against men, or as another fan put it “this is like watching the Canadian women’s soccer team play the men’s national team. And the Oilers are the men.”
This wasn’t the worst game the Oilers played this season, but it was emblematic of all that is wrong with the team. Outside of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, there is no scoring depth. Alex Chiasson (who was cut from the Washington Capitals and signed by the Oilers to a PTO in September) is their 3rd leading goal scorer, which is really all that needs to be said. Instead of following a Pittsburgh model, which is to surround good players with other good players and have more than one scoring line, the Oilers seem unable to keep more than two top-tier players at a time (though the verdict on Draisaitl’s ceiling is still out and what he’s shown since this season started hasn’t exactly been earth-shattering, mostly because he’s not been driving his own line but is instead riding shotgun on McDavid’s wing where it would be impossible not to score).
If this game against the Sharks taught fans anything, it’s that the Oilers are not even close to being ready for any kind of postseason success. The problem, of course, is that this is the same story from last year, and the year before, and the year before, and pretty much every year since 2007.
This season is a wash, and it’s finally starting to wear on local media. At some point, someone has to ask some hard questions about the plan going forward. I’m not sure who that will be, but someone has to ask those questions and fans deserve some answers. […] There are too many games left in this season for fans to get restless. Here’s hoping the team can figure it out before someone burns Rogers Place to the ground.
There’s been a lot of talk among Edmonton MSM about young players like Jesse Puljujarvi underperforming. It’s understandable that there is a close watch on him, given the relative lack of success from other young players in recent years. The problem with this team has nothing to do with Jesse Puljujarvi, or Leon Draisaitl or even Connor McDavid (though some fans will try to convince people otherwise). Puljujarvi, for example, is having a better season for a lot less money than some other players, including one whose name starts with Milan and ends with Lucic.
No, Really. What Happened?
Since hindsight is 20/20, it’s easy to look back at some of the decisions that Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the management team made and try to pick the one that caused the trouble. It wasn’t enough, apparently, that the Oilers lucked into Connor McDavid and were able to add him to a roster that included future Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall.
Much has been made about whether or not a do-nothing GM like Steve Tambellini would have been able to build a better team by, well, doing nothing, and based on what has been done since Chiarelli took over, the answer is yes. Without knowing for sure, it’s fair to surmise that the team would probably be better without any panic trades.
There have been thousands of words written about the moves that Peter Chiarelli has made, good and bad, and instead of dedicating another thousand or so to those transactions, here’s a refresher from the day of the now-infamous “General Disappointment” press conference at the GM meetings in 2017.
Starting with the trade of 2015 picks 16 & 33 for Griffin Reinhart, Chiarelli’s big decisions have been hit and miss. (Reinhart was left exposed in the expansion draft, picked up by Vegas and placed on waivers. Matthew Barzal, the player the Islanders took with that 16th pick, has 17 points in 18 games and is part of an actual second scoring line in Brooklyn. In case you were wondering how that went.) While trading Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson addressed a need on defence, it didn’t really do much for offensive production. Last season that wasn’t as important, as Leon Draisaitl really stepped up and played at almost a point-per-game pace. Bringing in Milan Lucic wasn’t the answer on offence either, but the promised grit and swagger seemed to outweigh the lack of offensive talent from the outset. Moreso than the Hall trade (because Larsson does contribute defensively and can get the puck up to a winger so that the winger doesn’t have to carry the puck out of the defensive zone AND into the offensive zone), dumping Eberle’s salary in favour of Ryan Strome (who can play but is nowhere near as good as Ebs) is the decision that will come back to haunt Chiarelli and his management team.
To hear the Oiler GM say that he’s disappointed is almost laughable. From the day of the Eberle trade to about 3 minutes before that quote came to light, there’s been discussion about whether or not this team is good enough as constructed (spoiler: it’s not). Some fans and bloggers knew right away that Sekera’s injury was going to cause some trouble and the GM did nothing to address that gap on defence, choosing instead to force Todd McLellan to deploy a subpar roster, one that includes Kris Russell’s $4m on the 3rd pair. This roster also has a dearth of secondary scoring, which is problematic because the primary scoring isn’t really happening at any great clip.
Peter Chiarelli made some bad moves, and hasn’t been able to recover from them. What’s happened since he took over is nothing short of a travesty, especially considering that he is the general manager of a team with Connor McDavid on the roster. Since McDavid’s rookie season the Oilers roster has changed more than a college football team, except that there hasn’t been any real success at bringing in new players. There’s still the issue of Edmonton not being a desirable free agent or trade destination, which speaks more about the organization than people are willing to acknowledge. Chiarelli’s no Nick Saban, that’s for sure.
What Can Be Done?
Before exploring any solutions, a story.
Last season, at a game in Las Vegas, the Oilers laid a giant egg. In that particular game in Vegas, Kris Russell scored an own goal to put the Golden Knights up 5-2. Russell, the much-maligned shot-blocking defenceman has been pilloried, and often rightly so, for his role in the Oilers misfortunes. He’s a favourite whipping boy of those who do not support the decisions that Chiarelli makes, and has become something of a symbol for the lack of on-ice success.
Instead of being excited about how the season is progressing, fans have found themselves looking into top draft prospects (again), and looking at the successes of former Oilers on new teams. Management as found a way to pass the buck for any kind of accountability with respect to the team. The coach is bound by the roster he’s been given, and can’t put talent he doesn’t have available on the ice. There’s discussion of trades as sellers, not as buyers.
Nothing is going right.
The thing that stings the most is that all of these problems could have been prevented with some better decision making. Thursday’s own goal, while scored by Kris Russell, should be awarded to Peter Chiarelli.
While Russell wasn’t to blame for that own goal, he should never have been put in the position where he scored one. The blame for that also lies with the Oilers general manager.
So what can be done?
In the short-term, absolutely nothing. Chiarelli already fired Todd McLellan and hired Ken Hitchcock, who led the team to an impressive 9-2-2 record before their current 5-game slide.
There were very obviously some issues with roster deployment, some of which have been corrected, but the biggest issue was in roster construction. This team started the season with two players on PTOs (Chiasson and Jason Garrison), and both made the team. Without looking, it’s pretty likely that the Oilers are one of very few teams to have more than one PTO signing on the permanent roster (even if Garrison is a healthy scratch most of the time).
Beyond having two PTO contracts, the thing that is the most frustrating about the Oilers is that after Chiarelli traded away two of their top scoring wingers in consecutive offseasons, the Oilers are still somehow on the hunt for scoring depth on the wing. They’re also on the hunt for a solid puck-moving defenceman, which is also incredibly infuriating.
Not having any depth on the wings, and having almost all defencemen playing up a pairing, plus having some sizable question marks in net have led to a team barely hanging on rather than looking like a contender. A team with Connor McDavid should always be in contention for a playoff appearance, and probably a deep run, rather than hoping it lucks its way into a solid draft pick again.
At the end of the 2017-18 season, Oilers CEO and chief evaluator Bob Nicholson spoke to the media about the grand design for whatever was next. He did a lot of equivocating, something with which Oilers brass has become very adept, and basically said nothing except to reassure fans that there is a plan going forward. What that plan is, one can only imagine.
Nicholson says there’s a plan to get into the playoffs, but his assertion came in the same style as a kid who’s telling a lie but can’t remember what lie he told before so he keeps backtracking and saying more untrue things. To say that the goal of the organization is to get the team into the playoffs is missing a serious mark. With Connor McDavid on the roster, the Oilers should be contending for a Cup on a regular basis (a la Chicago, LA and Pittsburgh) instead of being on the outside looking in. Brian Hall pointed out that the massive turnover in playoff teams from year to year means that even if a team plans to make the show, there’s no guarantee.
In any case, the Oilers need to make some changes, and the organizational rot is a lot deeper than people first thought. The owner can’t fire himself, but he could fire everyone below him, and he should. If he doesn’t, that playoff plan won’t come to fruition, for the 12th time in 13 years.
This team needs to get itself back into playoff shape. It cannot do that with the current roster. There simply isn’t enough talent on the ice on any given night for the team to win day in and day out.
There is no easy solution to the Oilers’ problems. There’s no time machine that will take us back to April 2015 and not hire Chiarelli as GM, so instead the only way out is to keep going forward.
The fanbase is, of course, getting a little restless. For a couple seasons, at least, it was nice not to think about who the Oilers would take with their first round pick, and good to know that there was some hope out there in Oilerland.
Having Connor McDavid was supposed to make this team into something but instead fans are left with a team that couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag if you cut the bottom off.
A team with 4 players who have scored more than 20 points cannot be competitive. A team with one real scoring line and very little secondary offence will not win more games than it loses. A team with five defencemen playing above their skill levels on a nightly basis cannot regularly beat teams with legitimate top pairs.
A team whose owner hires and promotes his friends and seems unconcerned with the way in which the team performs will never be competitive. A team that lives in the past the way that the Oilers do will not break free from the ‘glory days’ as long as it keeps bringing back old players to fill management roles.
It is time for this team to put its money where its mouth is, and show fans that when the players and coaches and management say “this year will be different” they actually mean it.
It is time for this team to reward the hope and optimism with which they are greeted at the beginning of a season, and break free from the shackles of the 1980s and the collective memory that paralyzes us all.
Since 2007, it has been very hard to be a fan of the Oilers. It is mostly an exercise in futility, knowing that the emotion fans put into the team is rarely matched by the product they see on the ice. Hearing coaching staff and management say the same things over and over without anything being appreciably different gets old real fast.
From top to bottom, the Edmonton Oilers organization is a mess.
Going to games at Rogers Place feels like a chore – the lineups are long, the beer and food are expensive, the sightlines aren’t great and it’s definitely quieter than a library at almost any time during a game.
There is very little fan engagement, especially on social media, and it is patently obvious that the organization is only concerned with the experience of the highest-paying customers.
There is an apparent lack of concern for the product that goes out on the ice every night, because Connor McDavid will still fill seats. There is a faction of fans who don’t see an issue with the team losing more than it wins, and they see no problem with uncritically supporting the Oilers.
It’s hard to say how long that will last when Connor McDavid asks for a trade.