Player X doesn’t like Edmonton. So what?

It’s no secret that Edmonton has had its challenges attracting free agents and retaining top talent, and it’s also no secret that fans have at time struggled to cope with the results of those challenges.

A Long, Sad, Story

The last quarter century has taught Oilers fans not to expect good things to last. The Wayne Gretzky trade is the primary example, but the list of stars that have left town over money is long and varied. It starts with the guys that helped the Oilers to five Stanley Cups, includes the brightest stars on the plucky teams in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and last demonstrated itself with the tearful departure of Ryan Smyth in 2007. At the same time as Flyers fans were learning that no goaltender would ever excel in Philadelphia, Oilers fans learned that good players left town once they got near the ends of their contracts.

Those departures are one part of the story. Another part is the decisions of individual players. In some cases, those decisions involved departure for reasons other than money – such as in the case of Mike Comrie and Chris Pronger and Petr Nedved and others. In other cases, players simply gave Edmonton a pass to play elsewhere, often in a way that embarrassed the Oilers’ organization and its fans – this is the group that players like Michael Nylander and Dany Heatley belong in.

There’s a long history that I’m summarizing in two paragraphs but it boils down to this: there is a perception that Edmonton is a second-rate destination for hockey players, and that impacts their ability to both acquire and retain talent.

The Good and the Bad

It’s true that Edmonton is far from a perfect destination for unrestricted free agents, and it’s also true that some of the factors in that won’t ever change. However, a) there are things to like about the city and the team and b) most of the suggested ways of dealing with the unchangeable problems are stupid.

Edmonton cannot help being cold in the winter. The Oilers cannot help having a tougher travel routine than an Eastern-based team. A five second glance at a map indicates why: the Oilers are the NHL’s northernmost team and aren’t sitting next door to 17 other teams the way they would be if they played in the northeast. Another absolute: as a world-class city, Edmonton can’t compete with New York. Those things will scare free agents away, and there is nothing to do but accept them and move on.

Acceptance of reality doesn’t mean that the Oilers need to accept an inability to compete for free agents, though. Weather and travel aren’t the only reasons NHL players pick teams. Above all, NHL players as a group seem to like winning hockey games; if the Oilers can find a way to transform their group of young draft picks into the core of a contender they’ll cover a lot of other sins. That’s how the Red Wings continue to land high-end talent, even as Detroit turns into one of the most dangerous cities in America.

The Oilers also have some natural advantages. The fans are as rabid and single-mindedly devoted to hockey as any in the league; a hockey player in Edmonton is a celebrity to a degree he isn’t in the majority of NHL cities. That’s both good and bad as a selling point, but doubtless appeals to some players. Edmonton also lies at the heart of an incredibly fertile hockey player-producing region; some players don’t like playing in the fishbowl but doubtless there are others happy to be playing close to where they grew up (It’s funny; there are lots of ‘X doesn’t want the pressure of playing at home’ stories in Edmonton and few of the ‘I want to play for the team I grew up cheering for’ variety so prevalent in Toronto). Edmonton is also has one of the NHL’s most favourable tax situations, for players that like squeezing every cent out of their contracts. With a wealthy owner and healthy revenues, the Oilers also have significant financial resources.

The Oilers as a destination have good points and bad points. The bad points mean some players will never see Edmonton as an attractive destination, and that’s just the way it is. The good points would be considerably enhanced if the team starts winning games.

Then And Now

The 2013 Edmonton Oilers are a different breed from their predecessors. They don’t face the same financial hardships as previous Oilers teams – the need to ship away players because they cost too much doesn’t impact them more than it does other NHL clubs (because of the salary cap). That section of franchise history is of no relevance when considering the team today.

The Oilers’ struggles to land free agents also need to be seen in context. There are 30 NHL teams; on every free agent signing 29 teams are going to miss out. The difference is that it seems like such a big deal when it happens in Edmonton, and maybe in part that’s because with all the losing so many fans placed big hopes on those free agent signings. When Detroit misses out on Ryan Suter or Pittsburgh fails to land Zach Parise or Boston loses Nathan Horton, it doesn’t prompt the kind of anguish in those cities that it does when a player makes a deliberate choice to leave/not go to Edmonton.

It shouldn’t be that way. Edmonton is a tremendous hockey market, and the Oilers have a rich history. If there’s a cause for an inferiority complex among fans, it should be the team’s record over the last few seasons, not the decision-making of Player X. Player X – whether it’s Justin Schultz signing in Edmonton instead of Anaheim or Chris Pronger going to Anaheim instead of Edmonton – will always make a choice based on criteria unique to him. There’s no sense worrying about him.

Certainly the decision making of a hockey player shouldn’t be seen as a black mark on either the team or the city.

Recently around the Nation Network

At Canucks Army, Dimitri Filipovic constructs a hypothetical "All-Undrafted" team. Here’s the process:

I scoured the list of all of the players to ever compete in the NHL after passing through the entry draft without being selected. Then, I narrowed it down to all of the players that are currently active in the NHL, and chose the best ones out of the bunch. I created 2 different teams composed of said players. I have to give some credit to Kent Wilson, whose idea of building an "All-UFA Team" a few weeks ago inspired me.

Click the link above to read more or check out some of my recent work:

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Playing in most B NHL markets usually consists of..

    130-140 days spent in your home market.

    70-80 days spent on the road. Plus playoffs on rare occasions.

    Playing in most A NHL market would consist of….

    165-175 days spent in your own market.

    40-50 days spent on the road. Plus playoffs.

    That’s a significant advantage for anyone outside of RFA yrs.

  • Spydyr

    I think that players not wanting to come to Edmonton has more to do with the senior management of the team than the weather and travel schedule.

    Detroit is a dump……..but they never seem to have any problems attracting talent! It’s due to their management and how they treat their players. Until people ( including professional writers) start calling out the main culprits and the way they operate into question, I doubt little will change.

    Having a lot of youthful talent helps……..but it’s not enough.

    • Gerald R. Ford

      I think it’s more than just the organizational approach to treating players. Although, I agree, that helps a lot. What most people don’t seem to understand is, Detroit being a “dump” isn’t all that relevant. The players don’t LIVE in Detroit. They work there for a few hours a week. They live in places like Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills, which are totally insulated from the Robocop landscape of Metro Detroit. Their families never have to see “Detroit” if they don’t want to. The better travel, geographic centrality, milder winters, and numerous other fringe benefits available in an original six big market (even Detroit) will always be things Edmonton can’t match. We have a lot going for us, and things are going to get better, but I can’t ever see us being on an even playing field with the Red Wings in terms of natural advantages. It just means the Oilers have to be really, really good at pushing the other unique benefits of playing here. And, yeah, win.

  • Leef O'Golin

    Don’t forget that, with global-warming on the rise, Edmonton will only get more hospitable during the winter months. And once the Big One hits we’ll be that much closer to the ocean!

    Seriously, as Ogie mentions, continuity and stability have to be big factors as well. Granted; winning plays a part, but all the coachingGM changes provide an image of a club that’s indecisive and panicky.

    I’m not sure how we compare to other teams, but we fans can be pretty harsh on some former players. That kinda word gets around and poisons the water I would suspect.

    • oilerjed

      As someone who lives on the island that lies between you and your beachfront condo living, out of a form of self preservation I had to trash this comment. Because of course that will put a stop to the big one. *fingers crossed*

  • John Chambers

    This is another major factor why I was on board with Tambellini’s scorched-earth, build it from the ground up strategy.

    Ultimately Edmonton is a secondary destination for players unless they have a unique asset -that being the potential to seriously compete – which they couldn’t boast in the era shortly after the last cup run.

    High-quality NHL players will want to play with Hall, Hopkins, Yak, etc once they start dominating, slitting throats, and spilling the other team’s blood.

  • T__Bone88

    For me it’s not so much free agents not going there, it’s the overpay on the ones that do go, upsetting the pay structure but having to abide by the same cap as all other teams. Granted all teams are dealing with this to some degree. And I don’t believe Souray left money on the table to sign with Edmonton, who knows really.

  • Do what Weight did?

    Good article, but I’m not sure this is still the problem it was 5 years ago. We’ve signed Ferrence and Schultz recently. Even Souray was a sign that there were good players who wanted to play here.

    If I was a big-name free agent (I have to laugh just typing that), what would bother me is the mishandling of Souray, the ever-temporary name plate on the coach’s office door, and the persistent lack of toughness/protection for skilled players.

    I’m also quite curious about Lowe’s reputation among players. RFA offer sheets haven’t endeared him to managers like Burke (ex-managers?) and his 6-rings, 2 tier fans rant has not helped with fans, but how is he perceived by players around the league? What about those who work with Lowe through the National team program? Is the sense throughout the league that The Edmonton Oilers Hockey Team is a smooth, well-run organization, or is the team seen as the same stubborn, unprofessional old boys club that has many (non Kool-aid) local fans frustrated?

    • OilClog

      The handling of Souray.. He openly embarrassed the team, management and everything to do with the Oilers. We needed him to play to win games, he cried about it. It wasn’t beautiful on Edmonton’s part, but Sheldon can only blame himself for his actions.

      The Tambi reign of terror was scary for coaches, but before we say the revolving coach issue scares players away.. Lets look at it for a moment.. MacT was coach for what 10yrs? Then once he left, there was a state of confusion.. Players and fans ran coaches out of town. MacT is back now with a young coach that unless he completely fails.. Will be the coach for years to come.. I don’t believe this is a issue that is scaring players away now.

      • Do what Weight did?

        I hope you’re right about the ‘stability issues’ being solved. I would be very pleased if Eakins is our coach for the next 5+ years, including long long playoff runs, and hopefully even a cup or two. I would honestly be happy if we play any playoff hockey, and would consider 8 or more playoff games in the next 2 years a success, and a resolution of those issues.

        My primary concern is that right now, I have the same number on NHL wins as our ‘solution’. Is it just one more year where we ‘now have the coach who is just the right fit for our team? I hope he’s as good as they say, and exactly what we need.

        Sadly, what we need isn’t what I thought it was a year ago (a true motivator and communicator, poised to help our young stars tap into their potential and maximize their development). It’s not what I thought we needed 3 years ago – a veteran head coach an PP specialist, used to an intense market, fast-pace and big stars. It’s not what I was told we needed 4 years ago – an old school father-figure with Team Canada experience and ties to #14. Nope, we didn’t need any of those things, what we need is a fitness freak (meant in a positive way) who is a teacher and an advocate of multiple systems and in-tune with young players. I actually do believe he’ll be a very good coach, but it’s too early to know.

        Regarding your point about Souray though, I guess everybody is nettled to their opinions, and mine is very different from yours. I’ve (we’ve?) watched a heartbreaking exodus of talents (as JW partially listed). I’ve seen the departures of Doug Weight, Cujo, and even The Great One as consequences of economic circumstances beyond the team’s control. I’ve watched players like Comrie and Pronger leave because there was a big problem with their Edmonton experience. I’ve heard all the rumors the rest of you have heard, but the fact is I don’t know the truth. In Souray’s cas, that’s different.

        I believe Comries departure/Failire to have been preventable. I know that Souray’s was preventable. I read comments about him not even receiving a visit or even a phone call while in the hospital. Was he a crybaby? I guess you could make a case. When a great manager invests millions in an asset, he should probably know what he’s getting, and what needs to be done to keep said asset happy. If that means a hospital visit, make time – he’s your franchise defenseman. If he needs some coddling, then coddle. If you aren’t willing to do that, don’t offer the big bucks

      • DSF

        Of course, you are conveniently omitting that Lowe pressured Souray to play before he was completely recovered from injury.

        And that Souray had quietly requested a trade TWO YEARS before going public.

        And that Lowe vindictively sent him to the AHL although Souray was willing to report to camp and had the support of many of his team mates.

        That Souray was able to immediately recapture his career once his Oilers contract expired tells you pretty much everything you need to know about how Lowe squandered a valuable asset out of spite.

        Players and fans ran coaches out of town?

        Good grief.

        If the Oilers are making GM and coaching decisions based on what players and fans want, then the team is more of a mess than I thought.

        Since being kicked upstairs, Lowe has now employed 2 GM’s and 4 head coaches.

        That is chaos.

        • oilerjed

          So what you are basically saying is that after two weeks in town Souray asks for a trade and that is ok with you. He signed a contract and he should have lived with it. Try and fix a team or quietly cope. Who cares if he was ready to report to camp, what else is he supposed to say.
          21 Pts recapturing a career? Good riddance

          • Quicksilver ballet

            DSF has a point …..The way Lowe handled the Comrie and Souray situations have set this team back. His 6 ring ego got in the way of what was best for this hockey club.

            The Oilers would’ve been a better hockey club had that Comrie/Anaheim deal went through. The way Lowe chose to handle Souray was just an embarrassment for all involved. The debacle of these last 5 yrs were for the most part, self inflicted. The dung smeared across Lowes face, is well deserved from where I sit.

          • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

            This. Lowe’s ego has done a lot of damage to this organization. He was a good GM until his ego took over. The Souray situation is a good example of Lowe putting his ego in front of what’s good for the team. The Comrie and Smyth trades are also good examples. And he certainly cemented that reputation with the “two types of fans” comment

          • oilerjed

            Ill agree that Lowe could have made more out of his lemons but the reality is when Souray and Comrie were trying to be dealt, both put the oil in terrible positions. (yeah kind of similar to MacT this year with his shock and awe campaign). Could he have gotten a draft pick, probably but how high and what would you have said then. Who knows what was being offered for him, chances are if it was of any value KLOWE would have sucked it up and shipped his PR nightmare to the curb real quick. Dont fool yourself. He isnt real smart but he is not stupid.
            And if Souray was trying to get traded out the first year he was here I can only imagine how he would come off to coaches and teammates. And when we say his teammates had his back let’s try and remember what was going on in the dressing room then. It was one of the worst in the league according to those who got out. Souray was brought in to be a powerhouse veteran to settle down a team in desperate need of help, he was the exact opposite.

            And as for his incredible season last year looking at him compared to the rest of the NHL he is middle of the pack or worst in almost every category

      • Spydyr

        “Unless he completely fails.. Will be the coach for years to come”

        Right, just like the past six.

        Don’t worry it will be better THIS year.
        Another fan of kool aid.

  • T__Bone88

    JW, what led you to believe there’s an inferiority complex in the fanbase? There may be from a vocal minority but from my experience most of the oiler fans I talk to are level-headed and bring up the same points you have in this article — there are some things you can’t change because of where Edmonton is but there’s also a lot to like about the city and the team.

  • The Heist

    Intersting article, well said.

    Another reason why getting this new arena will be a fantastic decision for Edmonton. It will put us on the map, both in the hockey world and non-hockey/other entertainment world. True, we will never compete with new York, but the arena is certainly a large step in the right direction. At least it will give a greater perception of world class.

    And maybe the seats will be more comfy.

    • Reg Dunlop

      I think 5 Stanley cups had us on the map already.

      The issue of Edmonton not being a destination of choice came about with the exponential rise in player salaries so it is less about hockey players not wanting to come here and more about wealthy, young men choosing to live it up in warmer, more vibrant urban areas.

  • T__Bone88

    Other than with the northern Atlantic coast teams I have trouble with the travel argument.
    When you travel by air most of the time is spent in traveling to the airport loading and unloading the plane and flight clearances.
    What would be the difference between flight times between Toronto to Boston and Edmonton to LA .I would guess less than an hour.
    I think the biggest factor is were the players wife is from.Most women control were they want their family to be raised

  • T__Bone88

    I think the problem that the Oilers have in landing those higher end free agents has more to do with the team performance more than anything. Prior to the ’04 lockout it was a financial situation that made the Oilers a non-desirable place and now it has more to do with the performance. Oilers was a runner up with Hossa but he signed with Detroit for cup reasons and was runner up with Clarkson but signed with Toronto because of being from there. I believe once the team starts becoming a better team then you start seeing free agents come here. Its a nice start that both Hall and Eberle believe in the team and city to sign long term here. Not all players like the NY and LA scenes and plus your away so much that it doesn’t matter where you live as long as the team plays well.

  • T__Bone88

    With success that will change. Do you think once Detroit starts their rebuild, that anyone is going to want to play in Detroit.

    Build it they will come.

    • T__Bone88

      Detroit won’t start a rebuild, because they already have started. They are always rebuilding within, just look at their calder cup winning AHL team, loaded with prospects.

      Barons didn’t make it far in the playoffs because of all the top end prospects they have..they made it that far because Tambellini loaded the farm with AHL vets.

      Once the Oilers can sustain a good record year to yearlike Detroit free agents will want to come here more often.

      • oilerjed

        Their best young talents are Nyquist, Tatar, Frk…Their prospects are not much better then anyone else’s. They’ll be crappy once Datsyk and Zetterberg move on. Datsyk has 2-3 years and will got to Russia for big dough. Their not pulling high end talent outta the 4th round these days.

      • Once the long term contracts handed out to Zetterberg, Datsyuk, and the Mule head into the “bad” years there will need to be a rebuild of sorts. Even if they have prospects out the wazoo, cap space being eaten up by players no longer worth what they are being paid will impact the squad.