Last night, in the waning minutes of Edmonton’s 5-0 loss at home to the Anaheim Ducks, the few fans who remained at Rexall Place reportedly began a “We want Nail!” chant, serenading a team that had lost their fifth straight and one that has won just four games since the start of December.
As if the prospect of a third-straight season in the draft lottery shouldn’t be enough to excite Oilers fans, the news that Tom Renney couldn’t bag-skate his team this morning because of the Oilers’ team skills competition event is something so resoundingly indicative of the hollow hype surround Northern Alberta’s team.
This is a team built without foundation or direction, drawing inspiration solely from the masturbatory hype surrounding top prospects now that a certain Canadian cable giant has turned the World Junior Hockey Championship and the NHL Draft from fringe to made-for-TV events.
Wherever I go to discuss hockey, the prevailing sentiment about the Edmonton Oilers is “they’ll be good next year” and if not next year, “soon. They’re going to be very fun to watch.” This is all based on the early career successes of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (and hopefully Nail Yakupov, apparently).
But if the team is ever going to improve, shouldn’t the team showcase any actual kind of improvement? The Oilers have 36 points through 43 games this season. Last season after 43 games, they had 35. After 43 games in 2010, they had 37.
This rebuild is moving at a glacial pace, but the jubilation over three good young forwards (and possibly a fourth this spring) has turned the mainstream sentiment in Edmonton about the Oilers from an objective “let’s stop picking first overall” to a fawning over young prospects.
The blame this year can fall on Ales Hemsky for playing uninspired hockey, or it can fall on injuries, but when the team is backed up by a management team that is about to hit its sixth straight season without playoff hockey, the coach shouldn’t even worry about the bag-skates anymore.
Last night’s game recap at Oilers blog Copper & Blue placed the blame on the shoulders of one General Manager Steve Tambellini:
This man insisted on a culture change and since doing so has fired a coach, a trainer, an assistant trainer, an equipment manager, a fitness trainer, a minor league coach, and a scout. And the team keeps losing.
Friend of the Shelf Jonathan Willis, an Oilers blogger with the Edmonton Journal’s Cult of Hockey, wrote something in a similar vein this morning:
After all, it was Tambellini who replaced head coach Craig MacTavish with Pat Quinn in a win now move that turned out disastrously. It was also Steve Tambellini who signed the aging and injury-prone Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year contract. The summer of 2009 was spent trying to shore up holes on a team that finished six points out of the playoffs. The result was the worst season in Oilers history to that point, as all those efforts to climb into the playoffs instead left the team dead last in the NHL.
It turns out, starting a season with two NHL-calibre defensemen and an old, replacement-level starting goalie isn’t a path to success, no matter how many young and exciting forwards are in the team’s employ. This is a team that has made bad decision after bad decision. Right now, fans around the league are excited to see Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tear up the NHL just as they were Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner years ago. And those players are now traded and eviscerated as blame falls in Edmonton among the fans and media everywhere it ought to be placed.
Another Oilers blogger Benjamin Massey had a terrific takedown of the team after Game 82 last season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche that solidified the team’s second consecutive last-place finish:
How do we expect this team to improve? We just gassed the first year of Jordan Eberle’s entry-level contract. The first year of Magnus Paajarvi’s contract. The first year of Taylor Hall’s contract. In exchange, we’re going to get another young player who we can sign too early and gas the first year of their contract too. Then BAM! Stanley Cup.
“and then BAM! Stanley Cup” became a popular refrain for Oilers fans as they head into the draft. It’s analogous to the underpants gnomes from the TV show South Park, and shows the Oilers management’s clear lack of focus or direction as the team skates closer to lottery contention, propped up by only the fact that there are a lot of bad teams is the NHL. The Oilers may be the only team in the league whose blogosphere is more fun to read than the team is to watch.
For an organization that has seemingly showed a willingness to collect resources that may someday lead to winning rather than actually win. Unlike Pittsburgh, who ended years of misery thanks to the selection of the greatest talent of the generation, or Chicago, who were shuttling young defensive prospects through the system, Edmonton shifts the focus on getting younger rather than better.
And if the season will be determined a success if the team earns Nail Yakupov, I have to wonder how long until I can go to a bar in Canada and, when the discussion inevitably turns to the Oilers, people stop talking about the team’s rosy future and instead draw up comparisons to the eternally hopeless New York Islanders, or the Atlanta Thrashers, wherever they went.