Because someone has to figure out what in the name of Bep Guidolin is going on with their hockey team. As we near the all-star break (once called the Olympic break), the hockey heroes from northern Alberta are defying the odds, common sense, gravity and the National Hockey League’s diabolical draft system.
After mounting a two-game win streak, they still only sit at a gaudy 20-23-3 – which in today’s economy buys you a snappy 13th place in the Western Conference. They’ve won just three games in their past 10. Their -21 goal differential is sixth worst in the NHL as of this writing. They’re seven points back of a playoff spot with five teams to leapfrog for even that modest perch.
And they’re doing it all with a player widely regarded as the best on the planet at the moment – Connor McDavid.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. League commissioner Gary Bettman designs his playpen just so this sort of repeat embarrassment is avoided. Coming off a playoff spot last spring – their first since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 – the Oilers routed Calgary on opening night of the 2017-18 season. Actually, they buried them – using speed and creativity and youth. Some critics – okay, it was me – said they were destined to meet Toronto in this season’s finals.
And then … nothing. The Oilers’ exciting 2017 post-season appearance doesn’t look like its going to be replicated in 2018.
Whatever karma was built the previous year has dissipated like Rachel Notley’s popularity numbers. In Major League Baseball, the Houston Astros used a rags-to-riches formula to build a team that won the 2017 World Series. The National Basketball Association’s Philadelphia 76ers did the tanking for dollars routine, too, and are now loaded with young stars making a run at the top of the Eastern Conference. It was supposed to be the same for the Oil.
How could this happen? The NHL draft lottery – hockey’s version of institutionalized socialism – rewarded the once-proud Oilers with enough No. 1 picks overall to stock several successful teams for years. Pittsburgh used their two No. 1 overall picks – Sidney Crosby and Marc André Fleury, plus No. 2 Evgeni Malkin – to dominate the NHL and win two Stanley Cups.
But Edmonton turned No. 1 picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and McDavid into so much white mud. In addition, they had a No. 3, a No. 4, a No. 7 and a No. 10 overall pick in the draft in the span after choosing Hall in 2010. Hell, just for giggles, they had three first rounders in 2007.
Part of the problem seemed to be that the remnant culture from the Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier five-Cups era was overstaying its welcome. There was a smug complacency that said they had nothing to learn from anyone. The nadir of this was president Kevin Lowe’s claim in defence of his team’s awful record that he had six Stanley Cup rings (one in New York) and how many did the media have?
The Oilers finally admitted that rerunning the highlight film of the 1980s was not getting them anywhere. In 2015, they brought in as president the highly respected Bob Nicholson, who’d stewarded Hockey Canada through a period of great success in the Olympics and men’s world juniors. They imported another bonafide figure in coach Todd McLellan, who’d guided the San Jose Sharks to a period of sustained excellence.
The draft brought McDavid. Free agency brought bruising winger Milan Lucic, who’d won a Cup in Boston. A trade produced netminder Cam Talbot, a can’t-miss prospect in goal. Their glossy new arena, Rogers Place, opened to start the 2016-17 season.
Then, in 2017, the playoffs beckoned. The Oil took out McLellan’s old team, the Sharks, in the first round. And while they fell in seven games in the next round to the Anaheim Ducks, any fool could see this was a team on the rise. Maybe even aimed (as this fool suggested) at a sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history.
This year? Bupkes.
Just about everything outside of McDavid has flopped. They can’t keep the puck out of their own net. Their goals-for numbers put them in the bottom half of the loop. They’re a pathetic 9-12-1 in their spanking new arena. It’s the bad old days again.
In a league where every dog has his day during a season, this sustained mediocrity defies reason.
There’s a feeling that it can’t go on like this. Management contends there will be no fire sales. The players will have to pull themselves out together.
Perhaps. The biggest issue is how long McDavid wants to sequester himself in northern Alberta, far from the opportunities of the NHL’s large markets, rarely seeing the post-season. (By contrast, Gretzky never missed the post-season in his 21 NHL seasons.) Yes, he has a whacking great contract for the next seven years. Yes, he’s making all the right noises about loving Edmonton.
But in the age of LeBron James organizing his own NBA teams and MLB powerhouses buying what they want, the notion that McDavid is wedded to a floundering small market in perpetuity is wishful thinking for Edmonton fans. There’s a clock ticking on the Oilers’ monopoly on McDavid’s affections.
If he can’t turn his brilliant skill into team success in Edmonton, it will be somewhere else. And sooner than you might think.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.
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