While the loss of Nikolai Khabibulin to injury may have added an exclamation point to the Oilers’ early season struggles, none of the troubles so far are especially surprising.
Certainly the loss of Khabibulin isn’t a surprise. He has a lengthy track record of injuries, his play of late has been poor (one commenter suggested he’s been hurt for a while) and he has been playing a lot. The lousy penalty kill and power play are not surprises; they’ve been lousy since before Steve Tambellini took over as general manager. Given the lack of two-way forwards and the obvious problems on the blue line, the goals against aren’t a surprise, and given the lack of established NHL scorers the Oilers vanishing offence shouldn’t surprise us either.
When Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, violating Roman law, he reportedly said that “the die is cast,” meaning that he had passed the point of no return. There was no definitive Rubicon for the Oilers this summer, but as the summer wore on it became apparent that Steve Tambellini intended to leave obvious holes unfilled, obvious problems unsolved. For all but a few, rebuilding and the associated on-ice suffering were a natural, and inevitable consequence of the strategic course steered for the team by its managers.
I imagine it’s been frustrating for everyone involved, and that frustration has been evident among fans. Players – specifically ones with a high degree of unpopularity – have already been singled out as scapegoats, as key problems that must be excised.
The reality is this: this is not a team with a few problems. This is a team with real, systemic issues – things that go beyond a “culture change” or adding a third line centre. So we can point to individual players, ride our particular goats, or boo the current whipping boy out of town, but no matter how much merit there is in any one argument it will not fix this team. It is important to remember that, and it is equally important that before we hang any of the individual players we recognize they’re playing in a system where failure is the most probable outcome.
I’m not arguing the merits of a rebuilding program here, and I’m not arguing whether the current problems reflect incompetence or design at the hands of the men who put this team together.
All I’m saying is that this is a team that has been pointing due failure since well before training camp, and it is the managers, not the players, who set that course.