If there is an NHL city that least deserves the title “City of Champions” – it is Edmonton. The once-renowned Oilers are staring into the abyss of a ninth consecutive year without a post-season appearance. The Oilers are a mere 27 games into the 2014 season and are already out of playoff contention. Vegas odds have them at a 0.1% probability of winning a ticket to the dance, but forget about the playoffs. How about stringing together a couple of wins? The Oilers just ended an embarrassing 11-game losing streak. They have the worst record in the NHL (7-15-5), including the least amount of wins and points. To make matters worse, they have won only one game against a Western Conference team all season and did not record a win at Rexall Place in November.
Despite fielding an impressive core of first-round draft picks, including Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Jordan Eberle, Oscar Klefbom and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers do not appear to be getting better. Arguably the greatest fear in Edmonton is the team is developing a culture of losing. Young players are impressionable and absorbing loss after loss cannot be healthy.
Oiler Nation is livid. It is only the beginning of December and the winter of discontent is in full swing. Edmonton fans have lost all patience and are calling for the heads of management, coaches, scouts, players – basically anybody with a pulse and an Oilers logo on their business card. Despite the onslaught of public criticism, the Oilers seem to be sticking together, publicly showing a brave face, but game after game – as the on-ice mistakes keep piling up, and as the loss column ticks higher – Oilers management is continually attacked by the fan and media blitzkrieg. The strain of battle is growing in Edmonton. General manager Craig MacTavish is furiously trying to lob back unpinned grenades from his foxhole. Despite the team’s best efforts, casualties are imminent. It is already a bloodbath on the ice. Will it be a bloodbath off of it? Who should be the first casualty of this strategic failure? For the Oilers to turn things around, they need:
10. Veteran Leadership
Some armchair analysts compare the Oilers situation to the old Pittsburgh Penguins and the Chicago Blackhawks. The argument goes like this: Pittsburgh was in shambles before drafting Malkin and Crosby, while Chicago was a mess before acquiring Toews and Kane. Both clubs then went on to win Stanley Cups. Why are the Oilers still struggling with three first-overall picks in their line-up?
One of the major differences is that Crosby and Malkin joined a Pittsburgh line-up that had a nice blend of youth and experience. Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz all played significant leadership roles with the Penguins in their 2009 Stanley Cup run. Likewise in Chicago, Toews and Kane won their first Stanley Cup with veterans Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Brent Sopel.
Who do the Oilers have with that kind of requisite experience? The answer is nobody. The kids are home alone and finger-painting the walls. The Oilers need a veteran presence and will not be able to move forward without some on-ice leadership.
9. Fire Coach Dallas Eakins
When Dallas Eakins took over as the Oilers head coach during the summer of 2013, his NHL coaching background amounted to two seasons as an assistant for the Toronto Maple Leafs (2006-2008). Eakins is a young, smart and talented coach with a lot of potential, however he has been thrust into a situation that is beyond his capabilities. The Oilers are a young team in need of guidance. What they don’t need is an inexperienced head coach that is learning on the job. For all intents and purposes, Eakins is as new to the NHL as are Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.
There are several coaches available that have the pedigree necessary to control the young Oilers squad. One needs to look no further than Switzerland, where Marc Crawford is coaching the Zurich Lions and Guy Boucher is coaching SC Bern. Heck maybe Dan Bylsma would be worth a shot. Each would bring an element of experience to the position that Dallas Eakins is missing.
8. A no.1 Defenceman
The closest thing that the Oilers have to a number one defenceman is Andrew Ference. Last year his plus-minus was a whopping -18. Justin Schultz was touted by GM Craig MacTavish as having Norris Trophy potential, but his defensive play is highly suspect. Nikita Nikitin was signed as a free agent in the off-season and, although he logs a lot of minutes, his $4.5 million salary is absurd. Mark Fayne is playing relatively well, but he is not a top pairing defenceman. With young prospects like Darnel Nurse and Martin Marincin the Oilers should be in good shape moving forward. However, it takes time for defencemen to develop and the Oilers are in immediate need of a steady presence on the blue line. Otherwise the losing will certainly continue.
7. New Scouting Director
In 2007, Stu MacGregor was promoted as the Oilers Director of Amateur scouting. Since then, he has drafted a number of high-caliber players such as Hall, RNH and Yakupov. But here is the truth: Martha Stewart could have drafted those players while baking a cake. Simply taking the NHL central scouting recipe and cherry-picking ingredients from the top of the list does not take professional brilliance.
Scouts should be assessed by the body of their work with an emphasis on their ability to find diamonds in the rough, especially in later rounds. Since MacGregor took over the Oilers draft in 2008, the Oilers’ current roster has one player – Tyler Pitlick – that was drafted in the second round or later.
6. A no.2 Centre
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the Edmonton Oilers number one centre. The former first-overall draft pick is in his fourth NHL campaign and keeps getting better and better. After RNH, the quality of the Oilers middlemen significantly drops off. Leon Draisaitl, the big 6-foot-1, 210 pound German, centers the second line. The problem is that the 19-year-old is simply too raw. Due to the lack of organizational depth at center, the Oilers have rushed him along. Night in and night out he is roasting like a pig on a spit. In a perfect world, he would be released to the World Juniors Championship at Christmas and then sent back down to the CHL to develop for the rest of the year.
Draisaitl’s potential replacement is not far away. Stanley Cup winning forward Jason Williams is playing lights-out with the Oilers AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons. He has 25 points in 20 games as a centre. He is currently on an AHL-only contract, but could easily be signed to a NHL contract and called up. This is potentially a low-cost solution to two problems. One, Williams brings much needed veteran presence to a young Oilers squad, and two, Williams could fill a short-term gap at centre until Draisaitl is ready to return. In any case, if the Oilers are to improve MacTavish needs to acquire another centreman – and soon.
5. A Goaltending Upgrade
Last year the Oilers started six different goalies over the course of the season. This season the list has been whittled down to two lucky winners – Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. Their reward? Like at a Special Forces firing range – a punishing volley of shots.
The Edmonton Oilers are far from being a defensive powerhouse. On the contrary, they rank last or near-last in nearly every league defensive category.
Although it is tough to blame goaltending when a team is so clearly deficient, it does not help when the team cannot field a top netminder. Fasth and Scrivens have posted a dreadful combined .890 sv% and a 3.31 GAA. Scrivens and Fasth are career backups and neither of them belong on the firing range – especially with such a pitiful defence in front of them.
4. Owner Daryl Katz must stop writing letters
Forbes estimated Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s net worth at $3.7 billion. As the owner of an impressive chain of drug stores, he is ranked the 11th richest man in Canada. Despite all that wealth, he relentlessly sought public money for a new arena to replace the antiquated Rexall Place, the NHL’s third oldest arena. After three-plus years of negotiation, he finally leveraged Edmonton’s fear of losing its NHL franchise.
The city agreed to contribute $279 million to a $604.5 million revitalization project, including the new 480-million dollar Rogers Place arena. Construction started in March and the Oilers should move in starting the 2016-17 season. A price of $279 million is a lot of public money, but all would be forgiven if the Oilers could actually win. Last year, Katz wrote a letter of apology to the fans and asked them for more patience during the rebuilding process. Since he bought the Oilers in 2008 they have staggered around like a sick team in need of prescription drugs. And Katz, with all his resources, is not giving them any. Leadership starts at the top, and Katz has to place the right people in the right positions to lead the Oilers franchise.
3. Craig MacTavish must be fired
As General Manager Craig MacTavish reiterated time and time again in his recent press conference, he has only been on the job 17 months (or was it 20? 18? MacT was not sure). Admittedly, MacTavish inherited an Oilers team from Steve Tambillini that was deathly ill.
Nonetheless, MacTavish made ill-advised decisions from the get go. In 2013, his first move was to hire a rookie NHL head coach. He then signed UFA Andrew Ference and promptly slapped the Captaincy on him – despite the fact that Ference flipped the bird to Montreal fans two years prior. Not exactly the poster boy for guy who is supposed to lead a young team by example.
MacTavish has brought in a total of 14 new players, including one of the most embarrassing free agent signings of the 2014 off-season – Benoit Pouliot (5 years-$20 million). In the meantime, he has failed to address the problems at center ice and between the pipes. A 14-player turnover should provide a face-lift for any team, but the Oilers are on an eerily similar pace to last year.
MacTavish’s imprint is now firmly on this team and he needs to be accountable. The Oilers management philosophy is broken. MacTavish insists on sticking to the youth movement when better balance is required. MacT has to go if the Oilers want to turn things around.
2. Lowe must go
President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe rightfully takes the top spot in the blame game. More responsibility falls on Lowe because he is supposed to provide the strategic vision that will usher the Oilers into a new era. With six cup rings as a player and eight years of General Manager experience, Lowe should be the backbone of the Oilers brain trust. Instead he has been the weird pimple on the back of their neck that won’t go away.
Over the past six years, Lowe has been at the helm of two general manager changes and five coaching changes. Throughout, he has trusted a head scouting director that is deficient. Last year, reports surfaced that he offered to step down. Katz said no. Lowe is lucky that Katz believed in him, because nobody else in Edmonton does. In fact, there is a Facebook page called “Kevin Lowe has to go” and it has over 16,000 likes.
Lowe is infamous for making the following statement: “There’s one other guy, I believe, in hockey today that’s still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me. So I think I know a little about winning.” If you replace “won more Stanley Cups” with “missed more post-seasons”, and “winning” with “losing”, that statement could also be true. The only balance Lowe has found recently is evening out his career win-loss record.
1. An Oil Change
The Oilers documentary TV show “Oil Change” lasted four seasons. Despite four-plus years in the garage, the engine is still seized. The only good news is that the Oilers are rock bottom and there is no direction but up. At some point, probability dictates that something – anything – will improve their current situation.
During the 2011-12 season, there was an unofficial off-ice “Fail for Nail” campaign. They promptly tanked the season and then drafted Nail Yakupov first overall. Now that the Oilers have Yakupov, there is a on-ice “Fail with Nail” campaign. Yakupov represents everything wrong with the Oilers organization. He was touted as the next Pavel Bure and was hyped to be the best player of the 2012 draft. The Oilers stuck to their errant philosophy of drafting the best player, as opposed to drafting the player they need. In hindsight, they could have traded the 1st overall pick for an NHL-ready player and still could have drafted a defencemen like Griffin Reinhart, Jacob Trouba, Olli Maata or Ryan Murray. But they chose not to, and all for Yakupov – a scorer they did not (and still do not) need.
So trade Yakupov for Artem Anisimov. Or better yet, deport Yakupov to the KHL. Trade Jordan Eberle for Milan Lucic. Hire Mark Messier. Fire Scott Howson. Coax Wayne Gretzky out of retirement. Replace Rick Carriere, the Senior Director of Player Development. There is no development. Scalp Mark Hunter from the Leafs. Blame Ricky Olczyk. Host an exorcism at Rexall Place. Re-sign Curtis Joseph. Do nothing and embrace the Conor McDavid sweepstakes. Wait until the team wins a few games, then trade high! The Oilers need any anything and everything, especially the long-awaited Oil Change. The organization needs a brand new philosophy for everything they do.
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