Monday, December 15, 2014

A Bigger Oil Slick than BP

I'm not saying anything new here when I say that the Edmonton Oilers are a tire fire. They are, and everyone in hockey knows that. It's actually quite sad at this point that another high draft pick might be laid to waste in the wasteland of hockey that is Edmonton at the moment. It's pretty clear why the Oilers are such a mess at present, but what isn't clear is how they can fix it, or at least, why they're unwilling to fix it. It seems so obvious, and yet their only solution is to fire coaches like a crazy Italian football club chairman... certainly there has to be something better, right?

Bob Nicholson was formerly in charge of Hockey Canada and now he sits atop the perch with the Oilers, and you'd be hard pressed to remember that because so far his influence hasn't been felt. It's still the old boys network at the top with Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and the dream that the glory days of the 1980's will return simply by keeping people around from then. The first and most obvious step to take is to fire Kevin Lowe, which would mean there might be some fresh air pumped into an organization that's smelling a bit stale now, but can the Oilers really do that? Boy Daryl Katz or someone else would have to swallow a ton of pride to do that, and as of now nobody seems willing to take a punch for the team. It also didn't help that the supposed breath of fresh air was Craig MacTavish, who promised sweeping changes when he was hired but has delivered very little. The fresh air always seems to be the coach, who is as interchangeable as an Edmonton winter coat. With MacT now patrolling the bench for an interim period, that means the Oil have had 7 coaches since 2009 with a new one about to come (you're up next Todd Nelson). And yes the numerous coaches and the myriad of systems has probably wrecked one or two of the young stars on that team, but there are further missteps here.

When the Oilers struck gold in getting the #1 pick in 3 straight seasons, they drafted the best player available every time in Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. When you have the #1 overall pick, sometimes your hand is forced because it could be disastrous if you overthink it, and the Oilers never did. They made the correct decision drafting all of them, even if some of the picks behind them have had more recent successes. It's doubtful that any of Tyler Seguin, Gabriel Landeskog, or others would have had the same success in Edmonton as they have where they are now, partly because of the situation they're in now and partly because of the toxic situation in Edmonton. And even if you think they've missed on the top draft picks, which is not entirely wrong, the problems go deeper because the rest of their drafts recently have been absolutely terrible. Scott Howson and Jeff Tambellini are as much to blame here, especially since drafting well in Edmonton is of the utmost importance. Some of those players drafted from 2009 to now are either on other teams (Tobias Rieder having the game of his life for Arizona against Edmonton was particularly hilarious), stuck in OKC, or not in the NHL. The draft gambles have failed, which means the Oilers have no depth to call upon when the first options aren't working.

Drafting is so important to Edmonton not because they can't be a cap team, but because getting free agents to Edmonton is impossible without either overpaying them or doing the best sell-job in the history of hockey. Good trade targets with NTC's or NMC's probably also have Edmonton high on their lists as well, making it nearly impossible to improve without drafting well or taking drastic measures by trading one of the core players away. To date, no GM has been willing to even consider that, and while giving up on young players can make anyone look foolish (see Seguin, Tyler), in this situation it is absolutely called for. There is no other way to shake up that organization since changing coaches every other day hasn't worked and the good old boy network seems firmly entrenched. This isn't to say coaching hasn't been a problem because it has been, since the Oilers do play basically the same way on all 4 lines since the makeup of the team is too samey across the board, but when Dallas Eakins basically threw his hands up earlier this month, it gives you a clue as to how deep the problems run in Alberta's capital.

So what next for the Oilers? Craig MacTavish is coaching the team at least for now, until Todd Nelson takes over at some point soon. Since it's firmly been established that coaching is part of the problem, but not nearly the biggest part of it (Edmonton's advanced metrics are improving this season, so they're not Buffalo or Calgary bad but they're still in the bottom third of the league), and that the core of the team is untouchable, they're stuck. At some point, massive change is going to be made out of necessity because this cannot continue, right? But as has been proven here already, the hole the Oilers are in is so deep that it may take 5 years or more to get back to level ground because of poor drafting, poor coaching, etc. and that is truly sad.

The Oilers, despite what you might think of them now, are still a glory franchise in the NHL. They may be like what the Leafs were for so long, a titanic disaster zone, but the NHL is better when they are good. They're not too much different than the old Atlanta Thrashers or the 2000's Florida Panthers in terms of ruinous dysfunction, except for the microscope that is far larger and more detailed on the dysfunction than in the other 2 situations.

Only when the Oilers look inward will they realize the scope of the situation they're in, and only then will the fix begin. Until then though, this ruinous cycle they've gotten caught up in will continue to subsume them, no amount of nostalgia trips to the 1980's can fix that.

"There's a new bunch on the block" is a phrase that Oilers fans wish they could here when they think of 2015, not 1985.

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