The streets were flooding thursday night with the tears of Oilers fans as the old perennial losers pass the torch onto the new ones. The New York Islanders made the playoffs last season for the first time since their 2007 run when they traded the Oilers a bag of trash for then important player Ryan Smyth, ending their era of bottom feeding and beginning their journey as a bubble team on their way to contention. That trade was one of many disasters for our Oilers. No one remembers Robert Nilsson’s one time production that led us to leave Curtis Glencross unsigned, no one remembers the poor fourth line effort that Ryan O’marra provided, no one remembers that the draft pick collected from the Islanders that year led to Alex Plante, who was never close to being an NHL player, but every Oilers fan remembers the day they traded Ryan Smyth.
Now the Oilers are the scum of the NHL. With an astounding 8 years of playoff-free hockey, a rotating door has been installed in the Head Coaches office. With a long history of wasted draft picks sitting on the shelf, a growing number of embarrassing trades and a troubling shadow of doubt growing around this young core of impressive players, the Oilers are the team no one wants to play for.
It’s not new that the Oilers are an undesirable destination for hockey players, it’s simply new that Edmonton is a worse destination than Long Island. We all thought we’d turned that corner.
Now, the Oilers are an infuriating team to follow for a completely different reason. The team has developed a game of roulette for the beginning of every season to decide which portion of the team will fail the most. If I had to describe the situation, I’d say that management has committed itself to a style of hockey that is so completely outdated that it plays into the hands of any modern NHL defensive system and they have done so in a hockey market full of blue collar, hard-working fans, all of whom have developed a bone in their body to fuel their hatred of laziness and procrastination. I believe the biggest issue in this equation is not that any party is not doing their jobs, but that the style of play the management has put in place is creating discontent between the players and the fans. The fans watch the turnovers that accompany high-octane skill play, they watch the effort to force the puck into the zone using the high-risk, low-reward plays that skilled players are used to making at other levels of their hockey careers and the fans turn on the players. The fans begin talking about trading their players away for better talent and the players sit in their stalls and listen to the unending negativity created in this situation.
The fact is that all the fans want is a winning team. No one cares if it’s done with skill. No one cares if the players have great pedigree, or what they’re getting paid, or what corner of the globe they come from, as long as the team wins. That’s all that matters. Winning. It’s the end game. It’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The Edmonton Oilers are a team that is in a tunnel. They aren’t doing anything similar to anything that anyone else is doing. No one knows where this path will truly lead. It began with the direction of creating a second Detroit Red Wings. Skill, puck possession hockey, consistent winning through prospect management. That went out the window when the Oilers fired Steve Tambellini. The fans boo’d the team off the ice one too many times and the brain-trust decided it was time to pull the trigger on the rebuild and take what they had and try to win now. We pulled the baby off life support and threw it on the treadmill.
Whether the failures of this club are a surprise to you or not, this is what we dedicated ourselves to. This is what we suffered for. The Oilers put a work-in-progress offensive core in front of a work-in-progress d-core in front of a work-in-progress netminder. Surprise, surprise, they are bleeding losses.
What they should do is find some consistency. When high end free agents reject you, it is noble to take a stand and insist that we win or lose with a goalie we drafted, a d-core we developed and a group of forwards that we built slowly and carefully. Unfortunately, no one cares about nobility. Nobility doesn’t translate into points for the standings. Winning does. And creating a position of strength that you can work from day in and day out is a huge advantage that this team has been deprived of for many years now.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, we’re stuck with this group. There are no free agents coming to the rescue, any trades we make now will be made from a position of obvious weakness and this team isn’t going to suddenly turn it around and win six in a row to draw back into contention for a playoff spot. It’s october 17th and the Oilers are already behind the 8-ball as a team that isn’t built for a comeback. This team rode headfirst into the storm and the goaltending just proved to be the first brick to break.
That said, it’s 8 games in. This is a team that needs to grow up. We have a coach that can flip that switch, but the team itself needs to improve. It needs Sam Gagner back, it needs to conjure a stud defenceman from somewhere(*cough*klefbom*cough*), it needs the team to look at Taylor Hall for it’s strength instead of Devan Dubnyk and it needs this to happen in a hurry. The team is in a long, dark tunnel, but you never know when it will emerge the way the Islanders have. Today, the Oilers face off against the Ottawa Senators, a team that despite all of it’s shortcomings, can’t seem to find a way to lose. If this team wants to make the playoffs, every game just became a must win.
It starts again, today.