When Sports Illustrated columnist Adrian Dater pegged the Edmonton Oilers as the third-best team in the National Hockey League prior to the 2013 season, Jim Mora’s famous quote “Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I’m just hoping (we) they can win a game,” popped into my head. I just couldn’t picture the Oilers going from second last in their conference to the top eight, let alone third overall in the league.
I wasn’t the only person that thought it’s Ludacris to put the Oilers on that big of a pedestal. In fact, Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney felt it was a crazy prediction, saying “Third? Not third in the West, either? Overall? I think that... well. marijuana’s legal in some areas,” noting that Dater is from Denver where they recently legalized marijuana.
Dater’s reasoning at the time: “Check with me in a month or two, but it says here that they will get off to a great start — which really ups the odds of getting into the playoffs. Why the reason for Oil optimism? Because Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and newcomer D-man Justin Schultz all played regularly during the lockout in the AHL and will be that much further along than the players who were limited to informal skates or shinny matches for charity. Eberle had 51 points in 34 games for Oklahoma City, while Schultz had 48 in 34. Granted, big questions remain in goal and defense, but what an offense this should be.”
It is not that off base to think the Oilers could have gotten off to hot start because some of their top young guns were tearing it up and generating chemistry in the American Hockey League. Frankly, it is downright logical.
But here are the Oilers, sitting in 13th place in the Western Conference just over the season’s mid-way point with their playoff hopes slowly fading away. It seems they have better odds of drafting first overall again this year rather than planning a parade down Whyte Avenue.
The Oilers’ poor start to the season begs the question – when will their potential start to turn into results?
At this rate, you have to wonder whether the Oilers are following the footsteps of the Ray Shero’s Pittsburgh Penguins or Doug MacLean’s Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Penguins started to fall into the NHL’s gutter in 2002. That year they drafted Ryan Whitney fifth overall, followed by Marc Andre-Fleury first overall in 2003, Evegeni Malkin second overall in 2004, Sidney Crosby first overall in 2005, and Jordan Staal second overall in 2006.
Pittsburgh started to make strides in 2007 when they finished fifth overall in the Eastern Conference, despite falling to the Ottawa Senators in five games in the opening playoff round. After losing to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup final the following season, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Pittsburgh’s high-end draft picks such as Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury were the biggest reasons for their Stanley Cup victory. But you also have to give credit to Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero for making some key trades. He brought in the likes of Bill Guerin, who was a strong mentor and winger, Chris Kunitz, who added grit and scoring depth, and Hal Gill, who was a shot-blocking machine. He also brought in Dan Bylsma behind the bench, who has proven to be a great coach.
In MacLean’s era, Columbus drafted Rotislav Klesla fourth overall in 2000, Pascal Leclaire eighth overall in 2001, Rick Nash first overall in 2002, Nikolia Zherdev fourth overall in 2003, Alexandre Picard eighth overall in 2004, Gilbert Brule sixth overall in 2005, and Derrick Brassard sixth overall in 2006.
Columbus never made the playoffs during MacLean’s tenure. Sure, you can blame his scouts for drafting some busts. But when you’re drafting that high, it’s the general manager’s responsibility to make sure he’s investing his draft pick on a future star. MacLean also never pulled the trigger on trades to transform his team into a winner. His arguably biggest deal was trading Francois Beauchemin and Tyler Wright to the Anaheim Ducks for Sergie Federov, who didn’t exactly pan out in Ohio.
All that being said, I don’t think the Oilers will go down the path of MacLean’s Blue Jackets; however, I also think it’s ridiculous to assume they will follow the footsteps of Shero’s Penguins.
Edmonton has some of the right pieces to build a winner. Down the middle, they have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Although he is no Wayne Gretzky, it seems he has the potential to blossom into a play-making centre similar to Marc Savard or even better. Along the wall, they have Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Nail Yakupov. All three young guns have proven the writing is on the wall for them to blossom into all-stars. On the back end, Justin Shultz has proven to be a superstar in the making and 2011 first-rounder Oscar Klefbom has boatloads of potential. In between the pipes, it is still somewhat of question mark with Devan Dubnyk. He has proven to be better than average, but it is highly debatable whether he could carry a team in the playoffs.
It does, however, seem they don’t have a “Sidney Crosby” to put this team on his back. Therefore, you can’t really compare them to the Penguins. It seems the Chicago Blackhawks would be a more comparable team. Although there are some obvious differences in the players, you could compare Hall to Patrick Kane, Eberle to Patrick Sharp, Nugent-Hopkins to Jonathon Toews, Nail Yakupov to Marian Hossa, Shultz to Duncan Keith, and Dubnyk to Corey Crawford.
But those comparisons are still a bit of a stretch considering those Blackhawks have Stanley Cup rings around their fingers and those Oilers have yet to suit up in the second season.
Oilers general manager Steve Tambelleni has done his best to put the blame on the coaches. He fired Craig McTavish in 2009, Pat Quinn after his lone season behind the bench in 2009-10, and recently let go Tom Renny after two seasons. Tambelleni is running out of coaches as mulligans with Ralph Krueger as his fourth bench boss.
Besides firing coaches, Tambelleni hasn’t done much. He has coasted on the shoulders of head scout Stu MacGregor and the rest of his scouting staff. On the trade front, his biggest deal is sending Tom Gilbert to the Minnesota Wild for Nick Shultz, which seems to be a wash up until this point. Sure, he signed highly regarded blueliner Justin Shultz, but it appears their location and phenomenal potential signed Shultz on its own.
One of the reasons the Oilers aren’t in the win column that often is they’re soft and are easy to push around. This need to bulk up has been obvious, but Tambelleni hasn’t pulled the trigger on a deal or signed free agents to fix that issue.
If the Oilers management were to ask Tambelleni why should they keep him as their architect, what would his argument be? What could he say is his stamp on the team?
The writing is on the wall for the Oilers to look for a new general manager to put the finishing touches on this team. After that step, it seems the Oilers will start to turn their potentials into results.