Long since removed from their dynastic domination of the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers are a shell of their former greatness. While other teams in the Western Conference scratch and claw for playoff positioning, the Oilers are 30 wins behind division leaders. They are remarkably bad, having lost an astounding 43 times this season, and registering a positively putrid -80 goal differential. They will miss the postseason for the 9th consecutive year, in spite of nearly a decade of high draft picks. They are awful, and they’re not getting any better. Here’s how the Oilers could return to respectability:
STOP DRAFTING FORWARDS
Dallas recently gave up 7 goals to a St.Louis Blues team stacked with defensive talent, and the Stars are configured in a very similar way to the Oilers — deep on talented forwards, and painfully short on the blueline. This is a recipe for disaster in the NHL, and it’s a recipe that Edmonton has never strayed from. Draisaitl, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov, Eberle, Paavarvi, and Gagner represent 8 first round picks — all spent on talented forwards. Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Alex Plante, and Devin Dubnyk are the only four non-forwards drafted by the Oilers in the last fifteen years. The organization is held completely captive to the “Always take the best player available narrative” instead of drafting to fill the very obvious deficiencies in the organization. This team is bad because of this massive blindspot. While the Oilers fantasized about filling their top six with the strongest offensive names available, other teams were busy compiling defensive depth, and it shows.
CLEAN OUT THE FRONT OFFICE
The Oilers continue to lose because of poor management. Craig McTavish has eight years of NHL coaching experience — all with Edmonton — and his teams qualified for the playoffs three times under his tenure. It’s not often that this type of performance would warrant a promotion to general manager, but that’s how Edmonton rolls. Did they fire McTavish for poor performance in 2009? Of course! Did that stop the Oilers from re-hiring him in 2012? No way! Their weird obsession with forwards (not just drafting them, but trading for them) has undercut any chance this group has had at success, and they have never been held accountable for their staggering ineptitude.
Management is often blamed for the terrible performance of players, often unfairly so, and some managers and coaches inherit bigger messes than they can be reasonably expected to clean. The truth with Edmonton is as painful as it is simple — a decade of high draft picks and generational talents weren’t able to make this franchise even mediocre. Whatever odd cronyism or deep connections that keep Tambellini and McTavish employed are precisely what’s keeping the club in the basement. Rip up the roots and the tree will start to bear fruit.
It goes without saying that Edmonton is knee-deep in stunning talent at forward, and come draft day, their phones will be ringing with plenty of sexy offers for the likes of Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov. They should do more than just listen — they need to turn the club around, and seven great centers and wingers are not going to accomplish that task. It has objectively not accomplished that task in the last decade. Why try it for another decade? Taylor Hall could fetch a sizable treasure trove of NHL-ready talent, and even offloading two of their prized offensive stars might just return the club to mediocrity. Look at how the press box bubble players of other contending teams have gone on to contribute in huge ways on other teams — Kris Russell was nabbed from the Blues for next to nothing, and now he wears the “A” in Calgary, and just broke an NHL record for shots blocked in a season. Imagine how much better Edmonton would be with someone like Oliver Ekman-Larsson or P.K Subban, instead of the stream of ineffective and forgettable defenseman they keep on their roster.
SERIOUSLY INVEST IN GOALTENDING
The impact of strong goaltending cannot be understated. Talented goaltenders have driven Ottawa back into playoff contention. Dubnyk powered Minnesota to a 19-4-2 record since the Wild acquired him — and a dominant Carey Price continues to be at the center of MVP chatter, despite Alex Ovechkin netting his 52nd goal a few nights ago. The tired cliche still rings true — great teams are built from the goal out, and the Oilers have done little to draft, develop, or acquire world-class goaltending. Great netminding isn’t sexy. It lacks the charisma and appeal of a great goalscorer, or the thundering bodychecks of a strong power forward. It is the most fundamental building block of all good hockey clubs, and the Oilers have largely ignored the position. Even worse, their neglected blueline has brought this defect more sharply into focus, and their recent California road trip saw them surrender 5 goals to Anaheim, and 7 goals to Los Angeles. The organization needs to do the boring stuff — and drafting droves of defensemen and goaltenders are an absolute necessity.
There are some silver linings in this massive storm cloud. There’s some promising evidence that the Oilers are beginning to take advanced statistics seriously, and McDavid or Eichel certainly won’t make them worse, but if you’re an Oilers fan, I encourage you to stop spending money on this club. Stop buying season tickets, stop going to games, stop supporting the management. Sean Mcindoe said it best — out of all the problems a team can face, bad ownership is the worst out of all of them, and I can assure you, this team won’t get better until McTavish and Tambellini lose their jobs. The problems the Oilers face could be easily fixed — trade two or three star forwards for strong defenseman, shift scouting priorities off goalscorers and focus on goaltending, and exploit the only marketable aspect of your team (ice time) to players stuck in the press box (like Kris Russell) who are desperate for NHL roles. Ian Cole was acquired for peanuts, tired of languishing on the bubble in St.Louis, and he’s not the only one in the league. Edmonton can find these pieces for the right price, and until this organization returns to pragmatism, Oiler fans, you shouldn’t return to Rexall Place.