Matt O’Connor passed on the Oilers today to sign with the Ottawa
Senators. As Edmonton was one of the finalists it’s obvious that their
situation in net appealed to O’Connor, but ultimately he chose development over
That choice is, from my perspective, entirely misguided even
if it is understandable. The Oilers are going to take a beating if prospective
goaltenders are looking for “development”. The team has gained a reputation
over the last few years for being a goalie graveyard.
Memory is a funny thing because it’s incredibly susceptible
to narrative. If we describe something a particular way over and over again that’s
the way the event will be remembered. Once a team’s reputation goes in the tank
it’s doubly hard to change it because it both reflects what a team has done and
affects what it can do in the future.
Of course we can’t talk about a player choosing another club
for better development opportunities without addressing what we’re really
talking about. Edmonton’s reputation with goaltenders went right in the tank
during the MacTavish administration. This is the result of a series of disasters
that began with the handling of Devan Dubnyk.
Ironically, one thing that Edmonton will get no credit for
is the way they developed Devan Dubnyk. They took a big risk taking a goalie in
the 1st Round. This would be a move most Oiler bloggers would revile
if done today. However, they did indeed spend the 14th Overall pick
in 2004 on Dubnyk and then let him develop 2 more years in the WHL, then 1
season in the ECHL, 2 years in the AHL, and eventually graduated him to the
In terms of development they let him move up incrementally,
gaining confidence at every level before he finally took over as the starter.
If the story ended there it would make the Oilers look like
the Detroit Red Wings. It was a success story. It was a story of patience and
the rewards that can bring.
Then the team hired Craig MacTavish as their GM and he
immediately undermined Dubnyk. Asked about the goalie he inherited, MacT
famously said “If you have to ask the question…” MacTavish would also push hard
to get Schneider from the Canucks but ultimately fail.
If goaltending is 90% mental then screwing around with your
starting goaltender’s head is probably a road you don’t want to go down.
However, MacT did mess with Dubnyk’s head and confidence and the following year
almost completely ruined Devan’s career.
Now that’s not ALL on MacT. Dubnyk has to carry a fair
amount of blame for the way HE played. He failed out of Edmonton. He failed out
of Nashville. He failed out of Montreal. He failed out of 3 organizations in
one season, but that started in Edmonton so the Oilers take the black mark on
their development record.
Making things worse, with regards to Dubnyk, is the fact
that he bounced back so well that he was named a finalist for the Vezina trophy.
Edmonton gets no credit for the base of development that they gave to Dubnyk,
but they do get tagged with “ruining” him. And when he rose from the ashes it
looked like all he needed to do was leave Edmonton to get better. All you need
to do in order to believe that is to conveniently forget about his time in
Nashville and Montreal’s organization.
So Edmonton’s best developmental success story in net over
the last 20 years is also the biggest black mark on their reputation for
Beyond Dubnyk, it’s true that Edmonton’s ability to identify
and develop goaltenders is troublesome. They haven’t drafted any on their own
that look like they have futures and even the professionals they’ve acquired
Khabibulin, Deslauriers, Garon, LaBarbera, Bryzgalov, Fasth,
and Scrivens have all been given shots to establish themselves in Edmonton and
all of them have failed to get the job done. Mix in drafted prospects curiously
hitting the skids like Roy and most notably Bunz and you are quickly on your
way to gaining the reputation of not being able to develop goalies.
Is it fair?
Maybe. Perhaps if Brossoit continues to track into a NHL
player the team will earn back some cred but it’s hard to argue they have been
good at finding, developing, and keeping good goalies.
Should it matter that much?
The reality is that there are just 60 jobs for NHL
goaltenders. Only 30 of those spots belong to starters. Opportunity is rare in
comparison to the other positions and Edmonton has opportunity to spare. They
have a vacancy for a Starter or at least a 1A netminder and a weak prospect
pool that effectively ends after Laurent Brossoit.
Unlike your 6th Defenseman or 12th
forward, you can’t just play a goalie outside of your best 2 just shake things
up a bit and get a different mix onto the ice. NHL teams can’t really afford to
gamble with their most important position that way. For that reason, choosing a
team with a deep pool of talent to compete against for spots is a good way to
find yourself on the outside looking in.
A team like Edmonton that has just 1 goaltender in the system
after next season is basically flush with the one thing any pro athlete could
want: The chance to play and prove themselves.
Matt O’Connor didn’t pick Edmonton, but that just means the
opportunity is available to someone else. That opportunity will belong to
Talbot, Jones, or maybe even one of the Senators goaltenders who Ottawa will
likely part with soon to make room for their newly acquired free agent.
There’s every reason to believe that in a few years someone
will look back on this decision and feel its sting. It just remains to be seen
if that will be the Oilers regretting their unavoidable and mostly deserved
reputation for not developing goalies or O’Connor regretting his decision to
pass on such obvious opportunity.