Win some games. Just not too many.
Given the ineptitude and futility the Edmonton Oilers have subjected their fans to for years on end, it seems ridiculous to suggest there can be any such thing as too much winning in a hockey mad NHL city that hasn’t seen a playoff game in eight seasons.
That’s the case, though, leading up to an off-season when the NHL Entry Draft will be the showcase for two prospects dubbed as generational in Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. They’re the kind of players most scouts agree a franchise can be built around.
Two weeks ago, the Oilers looked destined to finish 30th overall, making them a lead-pipe cinch to be in line for one of them. Since then, GM Craig MacTavish dealt away utility man Mark Arcobello and David Perron, a bona fide NHL winger. Perfect. Tank mode. A top-two pick seemed assured.
Sunday, the Oilers whipped the New York Islanders 5-2. There was a buzz in the building. It was a fun place to be. The win not only gave fans something to cheer about, it gave the Oilers two wins in their last four games and points in six of their last nine games, leaving them at 9-22-9 for 27 points.
Not exactly a display to put anyone on their heels, but enough of a run that the Oilers sit just one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes and four points back of the fading Buffalo Sabres in the upside-down standings in the race for McDavid or Eichel despite having staggered to losing streaks of 11 and nine games this season. Suddenly, 30th is no certainty.
RETURN OF ELPH?
Fans are somewhat torn, and with good reason. On one hand, fans have had enough of the laughing stock the Oilers have become. If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be an increasing number of empty seats at Rexall Place as the losses have piled up.
You’ve got to admit, spanking a young team on the rise like the Islanders felt good. So did beating the defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings Dec. 30 to snap a 0-7-2 slide. The Oilers have looked rejuvenated under interim coach Todd Nelson since MacTavish stopped baby-sitting him on the bench. They’re more aggressive. They’re playing a more high-tempo, puck-pressure game than they were under Dallas Eakins. They’re more fun to watch.
The flipside is the bigger picture. Nothing the Oilers do in their remaining games will get them a sniff of the playoffs. All the Oilers can do between now and the end of the season if they continue as they have under Nelson is jeopardize one of those first two draft picks by catching Carolina or Buffalo.
While some have embraced full tank mode and those at the other end of the spectrum would like to see the Oilers win every game they can, my guess is the vast majority of fans would like to see the return of Exciting Last Place Hockey – win enough to soothe the pain of the first 30 games but not enough to blow a shot at McDavid or Eichel. I suspect they’ll get their wish.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
Picking first overall guarantees nothing, even with the likes of McDavid and Eichel available. The Oilers are Exhibit A when it comes to that. The Oilers are where they’re at despite drafting Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov first overall in recent seasons.
Even if McDavid and Eichel prove to be a cut above Hall and RNH, and that’s certainly the consensus of most scouting agencies, neither one of them will turn the Oilers around on their own. If the team isn’t built right, isn’t coached right and if young players aren’t developed right, which includes being buffered by proven veterans, no teenager will make a big difference.
That said, I think the Oilers will get a shot at one of them. While the team looks better under Nelson and players always step through the gate trying to win, I expect the line-up he has to work with will be weakened between now and the trade deadline by MacTavish.
I expect Jeff Petry to be traded. Petry would be nuts not to test the UFA market this summer and MacTavish knows it. I don’t see him re-signing here. That’ll punch a big hole in the back end. I see MacTavish jettisoning another veteran or two. Maybe sooner than later.
Recent improvements aside – let’s not discount it might just be dead-cat bounce – it makes sense for MacTavish to continue to offset that with moves made to position the Oilers in the McDavid-Eichel sweepstakes. The Oilers will continue to play a more entertaining brand of hockey and they’ll win some games, just not too many. Happy medium.
- Nail Yakupov has two points, one goal and one assist, in his last 24 games and just 4-5-9 in 40 games this season. He looks absolutely lost on the ice and is clearly frustrated, as evidenced by his bonehead penalty late in Sunday’s game. If I’m Nelson and MacTavish, I make every effort to salvage what’s left of the kid in the remaining 42 games before writing him off as a bust. More ice time, not less, and play him higher in the line-up. Leave it up to the player with no stone unturned and no room for excuses.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.