The Edmonton Oilers 2013 season did not fall apart during a nine-game road trip. The nine-game road trip was simply the point in the season when a summer of inept management finally caught up to the team.
Some of the pain here was an unavoidable part of rebuilding through the draft. Decisions to employ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the team’s top-line forward (an often overlooked weakness entering the season) and to try Nail Yakupov as the second line’s left wing were understandable, perhaps even unavoidable. Nugent-Hopkins’ inexperience means that he would be better suited to a lesser role on a contending team, but he is the best option at the Oilers’ disposal for a top-line job. Yakupov’s left-handed shot, a desire to get him on to a skill line, and the team’s weakness at left wing after Taylor Hall also made a cameo in that position an understandable gamble (particularly given Yakupov’s success in the role in Russia). It is a gamble that has not worked out so far, as the positional change may well have increased the difficulty of Yakupov’s transition to NHL play.
Other errors were unforced. The decisions to re-sign Lennart Petrell and Darcy Hordichuk added a pair of 5-on-5 liabilities to a bottom-six group that didn’t need more players incapable of moving the puck in the right direction. The decision not to bring in a second-line left wing to add a capable veteran and force a guy like Ryan Smyth, Magnus Paajarvi or Teemu Hartikainen into a third line role opposite Yakupov on the other wing was another error.
While the root of these problems goes back to the summer, it seems likely the Oilers aren’t even aware of some of them. The decision to spend a fourth-round pick on Mike Brown – fine in his role, but terrible at adding 5-on-5 offence (the Oilers biggest weakness) when plausible options like Simon Gagne (dealt to Philadelphia for a fourth-round pick) or Dustin Penner (in the doghouse and rumoured to be cheap) was understandable but wrong-headed. Brown scores high in areas where Penner has been long-criticized, but in just 15 games in a bad season Penner is within a point of matching Brown’s career-best offensive production. Intangibles do matter – but tangibles matter too, and the fact is that the Oilers went shopping for a fourth-line guy who could punch people even as their team struggled to generate any kind of offence. That is not a criticism of Brown, who I actually like; it is a criticism of a management team that was picking out drapes while the house burned down.
Justin Schultz personifies both the best and worst of the Oilers’ blue line. On the positive side, he’s a sublimely skilled offensive defenceman, a great fit for the team long-term and was a massive windfall for the Oilers when he chose Edmonton in the summer. On the negative side, the fact that Justin Schultz, rookie pro, is the Oilers’ number one defenceman says everything about the state of the blue line.
It was obvious in the summer that the only prudent course of action was to add another defender – and despite the fact that the best options were signed early, players like Michal Rozsival stayed unsigned until September while Chris Campoli eventually had to relocate to Europe. Ideally, the Oilers would have competed for one of the better options out there; instead they failed even to make a basic insurance signing.
They’re paying for it now. Ryan Whitney’s unsurprising struggles, the inability of Justin Schultz and veteran second-pairing guy Nick Schultz to handle the opposition’s best, along with the ups and downs of a still-young Petry/Smid tandem have been the deserved result of an unwillingness to address a problem visible in the summer months.
The Oilers made it clear as early as April that they were comfortable with a Devan Dubnyk/Nikolai Khabibulin duo, despite the fact that buying out Khabibulin and bringing in a reliable backup was a viable option. Dubnyk – despite some rough individual outings – has performed well, but Khabibulin unsurprisingly has spent most of the season on injured reserve, which in turn has forced Ralph Krueger to lean heavily on Dubnyk, who has started six games in nine days. The Oilers are already within a point of last place, and are one Dubnyk injury away from being comically overmatched by the NHL as a whole.
The jury is still out on Ralph Krueger, the fourth coach of Steve Tambellini’s run as general manager. I like some of the things he’s done, but at times he’s seemed overmatched and despite his eloquence and the clear loyalty of his players his reluctance to play a line-matching game may be costing the Oilers. Jon Cooper, meanwhile, continues to run the most successful team in the AHL.
The reader may notice an abundance of links in the piece above; the reason for that is to establish that this isn’t simply looking in hindsight and spotting things that seem obvious now. Many of the mistakes made by the Oilers management group are mistakes that should have been evident long before now, mistakes that could have been avoided with a little foresight and a little action back in June, July and August. The Oilers management group deserves a team with the record this one has.
They also deserve to pay the price of failure, a price they haven’t hesitated to visit upon players, coaches, and lower levels of management within the organization: dismissal.
Update: To be clear, not all of the Oilers’ problems were forseeable. For example, the run of injuries at centre, and the shooting percentage struggles of the top line have hurt the team badly, and neither was a predictable problem. With teams as close as they are, my personal belief is that it takes some things going wrong to end up at the bottom of the pile, and that’s happened in Edmonton. But those unforseen problems would have had less impact if visible problems had been addressed earlier. JW.