The Edmonton Oilers, and the art of falling apart

Being an Oiler fan is an exercise in existential ennui. How can one NHL team be this bad for this long?

Jason Franson/CP

Jason Franson/CP

This Oilers season seems likely to be remembered for the Jersey Toss. On Dec. 21, the Edmonton NHL side, floundering holders of an 11-23-3 record and a ?ve-game streak of regulation losses, welcomed the coldly dominant St. Louis Blues into Rexall Place. The morning skate went inauspiciously: Oilers captain Andrew Ference accidentally ran into slumping fan favourite Ryan Jones, who was knocked out and scratched for the game when his head smacked the ice. Coach Dallas Eakins scrambled the lines to meet the emergency, not that there hadn’t already been a good deal of line-scrambling already, and announced an experiment with a new second power-play unit.

It made no difference—not for the better, anyway. New Oiler goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, retrieved from the ranks of bought-out free agents when original starter Devan Dubnyk proved shaky, had his own case of the yips. His opposite number, Brian Elliott, protected a 1-0 Blues lead after a first period that saw the Oilers outshoot St. Louis 14-5. The shots went 28-9 in the other direction the rest of the way. The final score was six-zip, and could have been worse, given how ragged the Oilers looked by the final horn.

As valedictory boos were echoing through an emptying Rexall, one fan pulled off his Oilers jersey (Ales Hemsky’s No. 83) and tossed it onto the ice in a protest witnessed nationwide on Hockey Night In Canada. A couple of days later, Eakins denounced the anonymous fan as a “quitter,” venturing on a sociological excursion. “This city, the people who work in the oil industry, they’re not quitters?… For some fan to show us all that he quit? He’s done, he threw in the towel.

“I’ve only been here a short time,” Eakins added, “but I think I’ve got a feeling for the people in this city.”

That’s just the kind of luck Eakins, who was being heckled at Rexall by ticket-holding children by early November, has enjoyed this year. Tracked down by the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones, the despairing jersey-tosser turned out to be a local construction worker, 29-year-old Curtis Goyetche, who has cheered for the Oilers all his life and who never misses a home opener. He was, in other words, probably the wrong guy for the coach to engage in a contest of workin’-class grit and oil-begrimed authenticity. Eakins was soon forced to retreat somewhat from the presumptuous tirade.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eakins, the Toronto Marlies wonderboy for whom the Oilers won a bidding war this off-season, was supposed to be at the vanguard of an Oiler resurgence. He undeniably conforms to the classic model of a head coach better than the past few men the Oilers have tried—a worn-out, semi-coherent Pat Quinn; platitudinous, unthreatening Tom Renney; and intelligent, inspiring Ralph Krueger, who came over from Europe and who, at times, seemed more interested in trying out for Most Interesting Man in the World than in the performance of his hockey team. (Krueger has just been hired to the board of Premier League soccer side Southampton F.C. So interesting!)

The dauntingly intense Eakins provided an immediate strong contrast with all these men, and came to the team breathing fire about expectations and tactics and player fitness. His press conferences are, without exception, sensationally reasonable and lucid. But within weeks, he was complaining that his ambitious plans had gone amiss because he had overestimated the defensive training of his players.

It seemed like a revealing hint. The Oilers let Eakins bring protege Keith Acton aboard, but sheltered the rest of the coaching staff—individuals with the dubious honour of having served the NHL’s worst-performing team of the last three seasons (including this one). The Oilers are also the worst overall NHL team over the last four seasons; and the last five; and, if you want to get technical, the last six, seven, eight and nine.

They might just finish last again this year. At the time of writing, the Oilers have 38 points in the standings and are ahead of only Buffalo. The Sabres are three points behind—but have played four fewer games. However it ends, the Oilers’ latest annus horribilis will follow seasons in which they finished, in order, 30th, 30th, 29th and 24th. (The NHL is a 30-team league.) The franchise’s most recent playoff tilt was Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final—a receding memory that grows more torturous with distance.

They won the draft lottery three times running, beginning in 2009-10, becoming only the second team to pick first overall three consecutive times. The infuriating part, for Oilers fans, is that all three of those player selections are working out acceptably, by established standards. The first of them, Taylor Hall, was denied a post-season All-Star slot last year, only because the self-described Professional Hockey Writers’ Association couldn’t remember which wing Alexander Ovechkin plays on; they voted Ovie in on both sides. Hall would have been the Oilers’ first All-Star, on either the First team or the Second, since Mark Messier in 1990.

Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are all good players. Yakupov detractors might quibble, but there aren’t many of those in Edmonton. The genial Tatar is, at worst, a flawed 20-year-old, practically still a rookie, with terrifying, surreal skills. He might have the highest ceiling of the trio. The Oilers should, soon enough, have three shooting stars in exchange for those three picks.

So why the apparent regression, after a shortened season in which the Oilers actually managed to edge out their Calgarian rivals in the final standings? The team’s problems in net are no secret. They have used five different goalies through 53 games, shipping Dubnyk to Nashville and bringing aboard local lad Ben Scrivens. The blueline has seen a barrage of alarming errors, and lacks even the semblance of a proper No. 1, minute-devouring defenceman.

At forward, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle just aren’t getting much help. It would be hard to argue otherwise, given the team’s 30th-place goal-scoring total. (They are not close to 29th.) David Perron, acquired from St. Louis in a trade for disappointing Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, played ludicrously far over his head for about 30 games and cooled off. Boyd Gordon is handling his faceoff-specialist job. Aside from them, the supporting cast might as well be guys Edmonton already finished last with, and, in several cases, they are.

It is early to blame new general manager Craig MacTavish, who professes an “impatient” attitude toward re-rebuilding, but is somewhat fettered. The league suffers from its usual dearth of big-boss defencemen; meaningful trading has all but halted as GMs await an anticipated 2014-15 explosion of the salary cap; and no one is eager to sell any of the Oilers’ young crown jewels at a discount.

Eakins, despite heroic dignity and encouragingly progressive ideas, has quickly developed a crowd of haters who suspect he is an AHL coach running an AHL team. But he is expected by insiders to get another season, no matter what, and the coaching carousel in Edmonton may already have been part of the problem.

So … whom does that leave? Oiler legend Kevin Lowe was made general manager of the team in 2000, brought them to the doorstep of a Cup, and saw things crumble in an eyeblink. Lowe was promoted to president of hockey operations to make room for an astonishingly hapless replacement, Steve Tambellini. Lowe is still, somehow, in the organization’s senior job, making annual assurances that, no, he is not secretly running this ghastly show from behind the scenes. Not that he stays very far behind the scenes, mind you.

Lowe skated in all ?ve Oiler Cup wins and is the only player to log 1,000 games in an Oiler uniform. He had built a pretty significant fund of goodwill in Edmonton—the more so for his unstinting involvement in local philanthropy. But the spasmodic “fire Lowe” outcries are perpetual, and he made several ugly missteps in an acrimonious off-season press conference. He made an invidious distinction between ticket-buying fans, who are presumably adoring the perfume of the eight-year Oiler tire fire, and the carping shut-ins at home watching TV. He also invited the press to count his six Stanley Cup rings, the last of which was earned in New York three days before O.J. Simpson’s Bronco ride. Lowe could hardly have done more to create an impression of invincible arrogance in the face of failure.

With the Oilers drowning as the new season unfolded, the team’s reclusive pharma-billionaire owner, Daryl Katz, peeked above the parapet on Jan. 20, writing an open letter to fans that confessed, “I know this will almost certainly be the eighth consecutive year since we made the playoffs.” He went on to particularly defend Lowe, who “is the target of a lot of personal attacks right now.” And he made sure to add that, no, Lowe isn’t secretly running things.

Katz’s formative years coincided with the Oilers’ glory days, and a form of emotional imprisonment seems to have resulted. One of those ’80s players, Steve Smith, has now outlasted three bosses as an Oilers assistant coach; another, Kelly Buchberger, is on his fifth. “We are all accountable,” boasted Katz in his letter: “That includes me, Kevin, Craig, Dallas?.?.?.?and every member of our staff.” Somewhere, a still, small voice whispered, “All animals are accountable?…?but some animals are more accountable than others.”




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The Edmonton Oilers, and the art of falling apart

  1. Colby–30th place goal-scoring total?

    Check again.

  2. “At forward, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle just aren’t getting much help. It would be hard to argue otherwise, given the team’s 30th-place goal-scoring total.”

    This is incorrect. The Oilers are 18th in goals scored at 147. 30th place Buffalo has scored only 101 goals. The goals against is highest in the league.

  3. The fact that Mac-T was allowed to hire another new coach, but with absolutely 0 NHL experience, was a mistake on Lowe’s part. If there was a time to interject, that would’ve been the time! It’s compounded an already bad situation. Rookie GM makes a rookie mistake and isn’t overruled by Lowe who stated how much he knows about winning at “his” press conference. Apparently, he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does.

    • I don’t know about that, I think there’s a lot of 20/20 hindsight in what you’re saying. Eakins was practically the consensus choice among pundits back when he was hired — true about the no NHL experience, but a lot of people considered him a very hot prospect, given his stellar record in junior. Most pundits considered Eakins a great choice at the time.

      • Having said that, I’m as mystified as anyone about the Oilers’ inability to do better than they are. Eberle and Hall alone, never mind anyone else, are brilliant players, both potential future hall of famers if they continue to progress. The Flames would kill to have just one player with that kind of talent and potential.

      • How could Eakins have “stellar record in junior” when, in fact, he has no record as a coach in junior at all?

        • Sorry, I stand corrected, my bad, memory fail. I meant the minors.

      • Not considering how many coaching changes the Oilers had just gone through. It was a bad decision to hire a new coach, regardless if he had a great interview. Eakins should’ve been hired as the AC, not the head coach. Ralph deserved better.

        • I think you’re right that they didn’t give Kruger much time to really establish himself. Kruger was very highly regarded and had, for example, done great things with the Swiss programs he was involved with. Still, the hockey pundits were all over Eakins at the time — I the feeling was that if Edmonton hadn’t hired him, somebody else would have.

    • Yeah Really ! Chop Wood Carry Water ! Now get out their and play like a man !

  4. This team is being run like an episode of “The Office”. Failing as a coach? We’ll move you up to GM then. Doing even worse as the GM? Time to make you president of hockey operations.
    There’s a huge difference between playing on a winning team and running a winning team. Katz needs to figure that out.

    • No Kidding !

    • So Daryl Katz is the REAL Michael Scott? Haha so true.

  5. I’m not sure I agree with Colby about David Perron “playing ludicrously far over his head”. If you look at Perron’s history and pedigree, he’s actually quite a skilled offensive player. I think he’s one of those underrated offensive talents in the NHL, along with Mike Ribiero, Antione Vermette and Derick Brassard — guys that came out of junior hockey racking up big numbers, who always had the skills but never made it to first-line star status. Still, not to be underestimated. The guy has a very good pair of hands. I think the Oilers did well picking him up.
    One of the many mystifying things about the Oilers these days is that they don’t just have offensive talent, they’re truly DEEP in offensive talent — and yet they lose and lose and lose. It’s not just RNH, Eberle and Hall. It’s also Sam Gagner, David Perron, Ales Hemsky, Yakupov. All of these guys are very talented offensive players. Again, you compare that to the Flames, at least to a casual fan, it makes no sense. Part proof, though, I suppose, of the fact that hockey is a team game, and there’s no doubt that on many nights, the Flames manage to win by playing well as a team despite their current notable dearth of offensive talent.

      • Colby, thanks for the link. I think it partly depends on how you interpret “playing over his head” — one interpretation would be that the guy really isn’t that talented, and is due to fall back to earth. Another interpretation is that he’s simply playing as well as he’s ever played, or better than he’s ever played. And I think it’s definitely the latter, not the former.
        Some points of note:
        1. Perron is only 25 years old. It’s not unusual for talented offensive players to take a while to warm up in the NHL. Even guys like Sittler and Lafleur didn’t instantly light up the lamp in their first couple of years. Chalk this up to late bloomer syndrome, which ain’t unusual. A similar thing is happening with Mikael Backlund in Calgary this year — it’s taken some time, years in fact, but he’s finally looking something like what Calgary was hoping for way back when the expended a first-round pick on him.
        2. Perron was a first-round draft pick, so nobody should be falling off their chair over the fact that he’s finally found a significant scoring touch. It think that’s exactly what’s St. Louis expected to happen, eventually, when they drafted him.
        3. I also note that Perron is no longer on pace to score quite so many points as he was when that article was published. According to TSN, he’s now on pace to score a still-respectable but far from spectacular 59 points.

    • How to expect building a team when you keep on sifting your team?

  6. The old formula that led to 5 Stanley cups was from a different era and can not be duplicated today. The reason is that with salary caps and the huge dollars being thrown around at goal scorers they will never be able to keep their core together assuming they did start winning.
    The new formula for success is that you need to get players who are bargains to go with a few star players to win the cup. It is all about salary management.

    • Actually the reason the 80′s Oilers formula wont work today is because to counteract the Offensive threat of the Oilers, Penguins and Kings of the late 80s early 90s the other NHL teams built defensive teams to defend against. Which is why teams like the Avs, Stars and Wings dominated towards the end of the 90s. The new NHL team is a blend of offensive attack and defensive defending. The Oilers are trying to replicate the formula of the dynasty but forgetting to focus on defense.

  7. Thanks for pointing out the error in the goals total. What’s annoying is that I was surprised by the figure, and actually double-checked it. Plus, it’s just about the only hard statistic in the entire piece. That part’s annoying too.

    • You probably just looked at Goals Against as opposed to Goals For. The Oilers have secured themselves the green jacket in that contest.

    • I’m grateful a high-profile Canadian journalist exists that appears to genuinely appreciate the game, for all its flaws.
      This column reminded me of a Bill Burr (American comedian) podcast wherein he commented on a Bruins-Habs tilt he’d watched the night before…and it was instantly obvious the guy knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t celeb pandering for approval, he was grousing. That gives it away. The true fan spends most of his time bitching about performance lapses (in Burr’s case, Chara running a Canadien enforcer, taking a four minute penalty, Montreal ties it up, blah, blah, blah; we’all been clairvoyants in like fashion).

  8. Defense, defense, defense. It’s the GM’s fault. The defense. Oh, the defense. Every recent first round pick was a forward. They need two good defensemen. Not only will this solve the main problem (defense) but it will provide more support to the offense (good puck moving d-men increase offense as well).

    • No surprise, in their last Cup run they had an outstanding man on defense, and he abruptly left the next year. The Oilers have not recovered from that.

      • Yes, Chris Pronger, who won the Cup the next year with Anaheim and also played in the 2010 finals. They will have another high draft pick this year, and they need to either select a defenseman or use the pick in a trade for another team’s top defenseman.

  9. Lowe and company are accountable for the failure of this team. His history with one of the greatest teams in hockey has not translated to wins. Katz should know better – if his pharmacies performed this way there would be hell to pay. In the end the fans are the biggest losers. If I was in Katz’s shoes, I would fire Lowe and bring in someone who knows how to win as a manager of an NHL team.

  10. Give me a break. It’s not like they’re in Laffs territory. In the quest for the most miserably pathetic franchise of losers in the history of pro sport, there really is no competition.

    • Don’t kid yourself, the Soilers aren’t that far off from the Laffs.

      • When the Oilers have gone 47 years with out a cup or even a Finals appearance. We’ll talk about how close we are. Until then the Laffs are in their own league.

  11. I live too far away from Edmonton to throw my Oilers jersey on the ice, but the temptation is there. It is a long leap to think that being a successful player with many championships equals being a successful GM manager or coach. Of course, such good players need to get a chance too if they want. But if it is proven that they cannot do the job, then they should be replaced like anyone else would….

  12. The last time I paid for a game to see the Edmonton Oilers was when the Hartford Whalers played in Edmonton (not that long later there was a players strike, and I recall Vincent Damphousse and Bernie Nicholls in Oilers colours).

    Since then, I have only been to games as a guest.

    As long as accountability is observed only as a token effort, the status quo will be repeated.

    • Well said. May I add…..”and prices will continue to rise for a terrible product. “

  13. No idea what’s going on in Edmonton but strange to watch the Kings, Black Hawks, Penguins and Bruins all go through similar rebuilding through the draft and win cups while establishing their youthful teams into perennial contenders.

    • I still can’t really figure out how it is that the Blackhawks manage to retain Towes, Sharp, Kane, Keith, Seabrook and Hossa in the salary-cap era, plus some of their 2nd to 4th line forwards are pretty damn good too (e.g., Shaw, Saad). If that really is compliant with the salary cap, I take my hat off to Chicago’s management for being able to pull that off.

      • Exactly. Or how the Kings can keep Quick, Kopitar, Doughty, Carter, Richards, Brown and damn good 2nd to 4th liners and still be shopping for the likes of Vanek, etc.
        Pittsburgh has understandably lost some big names but has still hung on to an impressive roster.
        There is certainly a financial management component of the GM role that a few GMs do exceptionally well and most others less so.

  14. I must say for those of us that had to endure the ‘city of champions’ all those years when the oilers were in a division of ALL the bottom teams and basically getting a by into the stanley cup every year… this almost makes it worth it all.

    • And despite that, they still got knocked off in the preliminary round of the playoffs in 1982, thus allowing the Canucks and Richard Brodeur to get all the way to the finals that year (speaking of playing way over your head . . .).

  15. Destined to race to the bottom with the Leafs.

  16. The problems start at the top, with Lowe and in particular with MacTavish. Rebuilding is a fruitless endeavor when the rotten apples are at the base of the barrel.

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