On January 27th, 2009 the Oilers got crushed at home 10-2 by Buffalo. It was considered the lowest of low points for the Oilers. But then the 2010 season happened, followed by the 2011 campaign, the 2012 season and then this past Saturday the 29th place Oilers got humiliated 8-1 by the 26th place Calgary Flames. Many said it was the low point for a once proud and successful franchise.
We’ve learned that things can get better, however, they can also get worse.
The Oilers organization is broken, on and off the ice, and it needs fixing.
For the past eight seasons, specifically the past five, we’ve discussed the woes of the Oilers. It is my job to analyze and discuss the pros and cons of the Oilers. I, and all of the Nation, have offered up various different scenarios over the years, but most of the glaring weaknesses seemed obvious.
The team is too small, not gritty enough, not skilled enough on the backend and not experienced enough throughout the lineup. Steve Tambellini didn’t solve any of those issues and was fired last April. He was the only GM who didn’t feel the need to stabilize his blueline. Since taking over Craig MacTavish has done a better job of recognizing the weaknesses and trying to improve them, but he too has made some mistakes.
Signing Sam Gagner to a three-year extension at almost $5 million, based mainly on a lockout-shortened season was ill-advised, especially when it meant the Oilers would use two small, skilled centres moving forward.
The best teams have strength down the middle, on the blueline and in goal. Of course having an elite winger like Taylor Hall helps, but an elite centre and defenceman are a necessity for championship teams. The Oilers drafted a winger with their first pick in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. Jordan Eberle and Hall were great picks, but drafting Nail Yakupov gave them more of the same.
However, I can’t blame one or two picks for the downfall of the organization. There are much larger issues within the organization, and while some might suggest some of these have nothing to do with winning, I’d argue that leadership comes in many forms, and without strong, secure leadership an organization will struggle to succeed.
WORK IN THE NOW…
- The Oilers are either focused on the past or the future, but they don’t spend enough time in the now. I understand having some connection to the past successes. Most organizations do, but winning organizations also bring in people in key positions who have no connection to past glories. You need a mix, and the Oilers have struggled with that. If something goes wrong it is the new “outside” guy who takes the fall. Pat Quinn, Tom Renney and Ralph Krueger, yet the assistant coaches who are former Oilers, Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith always escape the ax. It is great to have loyalty within an organization, but it can’t be blind. You can’t continually handcuff a head coach and not allow him to pick his assistants. It doesn’t work.
- For the past four seasons the Oilers have marketed and pushed “the future.” They will be great in the future. The kids will be the core moving forward, but you need to concentrate on the entire process not just the end goal. The team gave the young players every opportunity to succeed, and felt they’d lead the team to the playoffs, but they handed them icetime, often when they weren’t ready to handle it, and they didn’t insulate them with enough quality players to support them when their inevitable inexperience would surface. You can’t win in the future, if you aren’t taught or shown what it takes to win today.
When the Oilers were winning 30 years ago with a young group of players, they had veterans like Lee Fogolin who kept them in line. Glen Sather also didn’t coddle them. He banished Mark Messier to the minors when he showed up late, and he didn’t give them massive contract extensions after only two seasons.
The Oilers have been in a constant struggle of how to handle their young stars. Just because Taylor Hall was ready to dominate at 20 doesn’t mean Nugent-Hopkins or Yakupov were. And that is okay, because like children in your home, they all mature at different rates and you can’t raise them in the exact same fashion. But the Oilers seemingly wanted them all happy, so they gave them icetime and opportunity regardless of how they played.
- In 2009/2010 they had Sheldon Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tom Gilbert, Denis Grebeshkov and Ladislav Smid on their blueline. It wasn’t an elite D corps, but it had a solid combination of size, experience, skill, puck moving abilities and nastiness. But before Hall played one NHL game that group was dismantled. How do you expect your skilled forwards to produce if they don’t have experience and skill on the blueline? Instead of insulating their skilled forwards with a veteran, skilled blueline they downgraded the most important position on a young team. That decision has hampered this organization for the past five seasons.
MADE IT PERSONAL…
- At times the Oilers don’t seem to take criticism very well, even when it comes from within. Most of us hate hearing criticism, but if you ignore, try to control it or banish those who speak out then you won’t learn from it. When Sheldon Souray questioned the organization’s leadership, communication skills and medical standards he was banished to the minors. Tambellini and the Oilers choose to make an example of him, bury a good asset in the minors and ice an inferior lineup, just because he spoke publicly about issues he saw within the organization. To make matters worse, most of the things he said seemed accurate. The Oilers changed their training and medical staff later that off-season, and two years later they realized Tambellini was not a good communicator. Souray might not have gone about it the best way, but his words were true. Clearly, Tambellini didn’t like what Souray said, but he let it get personal and cloud his judgement. What was worse is that the organization allowed it to happen. Someone needed to make the tough decision and tell Tambellini to get over it. You can’t be thin-skinned in professional sports.
- Even today amid all of the losing, if someone questions the Oilers on how they do things on or off the ice they are instantly defensive. Kevin Lowe got fired up when John MacKinnon asked him at Craig MacTavish’s press conference why this hire would be any different. Tell them their music playlist on game days is the worst in the league — even visiting writers point out how awful it is — and the Oilers will tell you it is fine. Music won’t make players bigger, stronger, faster or more mature, but anyone who thinks Adele is going to pump up your players or fans on opening night is living in a fantasy world. They should be striving to improve every aspect of their game day experience, regardless of how big or small of a factor it has on the game.
- One loss or one victory in an 82-game season won’t make or break the year, however, when you lose as bad as the Oilers did on Saturday you can understand why many aspects of the Oilers are being questioned. This is bigger than one or two people. MacTavish is in charge of fixing it, but he can’t do it alone. The coaches need to be better, and more composed. The players have to be better. The scouts, pro and amateur, need to be better. The owner needs to be better. Everyone in the organization needs to be better, but the main decision makers need to have thick skin and expect some vitriol from the fans. You can’t expect your fans to pay huge dollars to watch the team lose year after year and just accept it with a smile on their face.
- I don’t agree with fans throwing jerseys on the ice. I understand being sick and tired of losing, but the jersey toss isn’t the way to go. However, I received an email from a fan who said he turned his jersey inside out during Saturday’s game as a protest to how they are playing. Later in the game he was asked to leave and was told that his “jersey turn” was embarrassing. I tried to get confirmation if that was indeed true, and I couldn’t, although I have no reason to believe the fan fabricated the story. I can understand not allowing jerseys to be tossed, but if the organization can’t handle fans showing their disgust by turning a jersey inside out, then they are the ones who should be embarrassed. I believe that is the best type of protest. It shows the Oilers you respect the jersey/logo, but that you aren’t proud to wear it right now. Do that, but stop throwing jerseys on the ice.
- I don’t think “water-bottle-gate” was a big deal. Coaches and players disagreeing with each other is not new. It has happened for years, but when your team is in 29th and you are getting destroyed on home ice it becomes a bigger deal than it really is. Whether the Oilers like it or not the optics of Dallas Eakins blasting Hall for tossing his water bottle and soaking the coach will add fuel to an already out-of-control fire.
Had Eakins showed as much disgust or anger to his players for constantly tossing pizzas up the middle of ice ice, turning the puck over at the offensive blueline, or not battling hard enough in the D-zone then I doubt anyone cares about the water bottle incident. But in a losing season, when a tossed water bottle garners that much ire from a coach, it gives people a negative perception of the organization.
A tossed water bottle and subsequent spraying of the coach has zero impact on the standings, but it gives people reason to question how the organization will react when something significant goes awry. When you are constantly losing every action will be scrutinized. It doesn’t mean it is right, but it will happen. I don’t think it was a big deal. Hall is emotional and he admitted he lets his emotions get the better of him at times, but Eakins has no issues with Hall and Hall has no issues with Eakins. Like two brothers squabbling they said their piece and moved on. Eakins wouldn’t say it during his press conference today, but you know he would love more guys who play with the same passion as Hall, and would rather have to calm guys down than try to fire them up.
On Friday I pondered why Jimmy Quinlan’s retired Edmonton Rush banner can only hang from Rexall Place’s rafters on game
nights, and why the Oil Kings’ eastern championship and regular
season banners as well as the Rush’s 2010 western conference banner are never visible. I went looking for an answer.
I asked Stew Macdonald, chief revenue officer of the Oilers, what was the reasoning behind these decisions.
“Outside of the Oilers retired players banners, we communicated this to the Rush and Oil Kings in their infancy, that the only other pieces that would hang full time in the building were championship banners and that is why the Oil Kings just have league championships and Memorial Cup banners,” explained MacDonald.
Jason Strudwick and I discussed this on my radio show on Friday, and he said he loved going to rinks and seeing the banners hanging, regardless of if it was hockey, basketball, lacrosse or any other sports. It allowed you to know the history of the BUILDING, not just the main tenant. I completely agree, and I think it is very unfortunate that Quinlan’s retired jersey isn’t hanging from the rafters every day.
I asked MacDonald if they have looked at re-adjusting this decision now the Oil Kings have won three consecutive eastern conference titles and Quinlan has his number retired. “The decision at the time was based on the volume of banners that could go in the building. The Oil Kings had many banners from previous years in Edmonton, and so we addressed that policy at the time and what is fair for the Oil King is fair for others,” MacDonald explained.
I don’t understand how buildings in Boston, Philadelphia and other places can hang so many banners, but in Edmonton having too many is a concern. It does not look good on the Oilers and Northlands in my opinion.
So what will happen in the new rink? “We haven’t discussed that yet, we are focusing on the design first,” said MacDonald.
Will the Oilers decide not to hang the Smythe division and regular season championship banners in the new rink? Will they only have retired jerseys and championship banners? It might happen.
I’d be just as disappointed if they went that route as I am with the decision to currently not showcase the Oil Kings successes and Quinlan’s jerseys. Winning is hard. Who knows when the next Oilers banner or jersey will be raised to the rafters? The Oil Kings won’t always be a dominant team, and the Rush might not have another retired jersey for two decades. You should honour those teams and individuals and remind fans, players and new comers to the city about some of the great teams that played in the building.
I think our city should celebrate winning, not just championships, because those are extremely rare. If the Oilers, Oil Kings and Rush start winning so much that there is no space for all the division, conference and championship banners, then we’d could look at taking some down, but for now I’d much rather see all the accomplishments of those teams hanging proudly from the rafters.
What do you think?
RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR:
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- GDB 70.0: THE HOME STRETCH
- PLAYERS NEED TO TAKE CHARGE
- GDB 68.0: A DATE IN DETROIT
- RANDOM THOUGHTS