Before this season started, I think we could all agree that there were expectations for this team this year. There was a change of culture for this team, from a developing squad to one that was focused on winning. It still had its rookies and sophomores in Schultz and Yakupov, but the top line of Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle is one that has cemented itself as a dynamic top line in the NHL. There were no question marks when it came to those three players.
The attitude about Dubnyk was clearly one of optimism. He had shown signs of a number one net minder late in the year last season and put together a strong showing in the Spengler Cup last winter, winning a gold medal for Canada.
The defence was a question mark, as it has been for a very long time, but the idea was that if you put enough players together who have shown possible upside as Klefbom, Belov, Potter, Grebeshkov and Larsen did, one might show enough calibre to be a presence on this young defensive core.
In addition to these pillars to the team, the Oilers have been working hard to build depth up and down the lineup. Adding Perron, Ference, Gordon and Labarbera over the summer had seemed like an effective use of the off-season. Roughly thirty games down the road, it’s painfully clear how far this team is from being a champion.
The derailment of Dubnyk early on, the trading of Smid, the injuries to Gagner and Nuge to start the year, Larionov’s public trade statements on behalf of Yakupov, the regression of Justin Schultz, the susceptibility to short-handed goals and the continuing tradition of long losing streaks are all story lines that have dominated the headlines for the Oilers early in the season. There have not been many positive notes to take from the 2013-14 season. I’ll admit that I have been hard-pressed to find a single positive note about this Oilers season so far. When I watch the team I see players that were paraded in front of me as heralded prospects and young pros making fools of themselves with bone-headed giveaways, careless turnovers, poorly timed or aimed passes and misguided attempts at dangles in the offensive and defensive zones. I see players who have difficulty finding motivation to play, I see players who have mentally given up. Taylor Hall, after his 200th career game for the Oilers, told media that he’s seen too many losses like the 3-0 drumming they suffered at the hands of the L.A. Kings that night.
More than that, I see a fan base around them that is as negative as it has ever been. Apart from the tentative cheers and eager boos, Dallas Eakins made a comment during a particular losing stretch earlier in the season that the best place for the team to get started would be on the road.
In seven long years, the management of the Edmonton Oilers have found a way to turn one of the best and most loyal fan bases of the NHL into one of the most jaded, angry and volatile groups in the world. The mentality of the second-rate city that has always had a hold on us up north where we find difficulty drawing free agent talent has only grown stronger here under the watchful eye of Kevin Lowe’s Oilers. This team that has undervalued size and grit is simply not learning how to play the NHL game. They are very simply not growing into the team that this city deserves.
Now, if this is still part of the plan, the management group should say that. The team needs to maintain some shred of integrity if it wants to avoid another inevitable clearing of its front office. If the plan is to continue developing the next wave of picks who will swoop in and provide the combination of size and skill that has become the standard in the NHL, so be it. At least we won’t continue to foster this poisonous situation where the fans show up to the rink expecting the team that management has continually told us would win.
What happens then is that people show up, boo their team off the ice and your teams morale and development suffers. What happens then is the media surrounding the team begins talking of blockbuster trades and starting the rebuild all over again. The sad truth here is that this fan base expects to know what is going on with this team, is being fed a metric ton of media coverage surrounding the team including a documentary following the team around the clock and no one in the crowd can see a direction here. Yes, the direction seemed viable before the start of the season, but after a 4-15-2 start this whole situation has seemingly backfired.
What is going on in Edmonton? No one knows. How did this happen? No one knows. What will happen next?
I don’t know.