It feels like we ask this question every summer, but still I
wonder who the next captain of the Edmonton Oilers is going to be. It’s
exceedingly unfair to ask that question when the current captain still has two
years left on his deal, is extremely devoted to the community, and doesn’t look
like he’s going anywhere. Still, we feel compelled to ask.
The problem isn’t Andrew Ference’s commitment to Edmonton.
Far from it. He’s done a lot for this city, ranging from the individual
interactions he’s had with sick or underprivileged kids to bigger initiatives that get people back to living more healthy lifestyles without forking over hundreds of
dollars on gym memberships or diet fads. Don’t mistake me questioning the
captaincy for me questioning Ference’s character. His character as a person isn’t on trial
and if it were then it would say a lot more about me than it would about him.
The reality is that the problem with our captain stems from the fact that
Ference isn’t a difference maker on this team. Even worse, his age all but
precludes him from being a part of even the medium-term future. The problem is
that the Oilers are a team trying to take the next step and that will surely
include finding a leader from the core.
Edmonton is ready to start worrying less about tomorrow and more
about today. The rebuild was about gathering young talent. During this period from
2009-2015 the Oilers had three captains: Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff, and Andrew
Ference (plus one magical night from Smytty).
It’s hard not to look at the Moreau years as an attempt to
continue the tradition of leadership that grew out of the Jason Smith years.
Smith was a hard nosed defender who wasn’t an offensive player but played his heart out. Moreau was a
hard-nosed forward who wasn’t an offensive player. He was a veteran, and he was a
longtime Oiler. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a difference maker either. He was a 15 minute per night third liner with a penchant for bad penalties.
The Horcoff years followed Moreau and while Hocorff’s
contract rankled the feathers of most people, he was at the very least a first
line player. For many years, no forward averaged more ice-time than Shawn
Horcoff. Like Moreau before him, he had ties to that ’06 team, was a veteran, and
was a longtime Oiler. It always seemed like Horc was doing his best to show the
ever growing stable of young players what it meant to be a professional.
When Horcoff left the Oilers it looked as if the young
stable of talent was ready to step forward and produce their own captain.
New coach Dallas Eakins saw things a differently. He ultimately chose
Andrew Ference to be the captain of the team before the newly signed UFA had
ever played one minute for the club. Ference stepped in and I can’t fault a
single thing he’s done as a leader off the ice. I’m not
privy to know what he’s done behind closed doors, but I can’t shake the feeling
that he’s wearing the C as a placeholder.
READY TO TAKE OVER
The plan was always to find elite talent, groom them, and turn
the club over to the kids. In some respects the Oilers have been extremely
cautious handing over leadership of the club to players like Eberle and Hall. Gabriel
Landeskog was named the captain of the Avalanche while he was still a teenager. The
Penguins named Crosby their captain while he was a teenager. Despite the former there are still people who still argue that some of the Oilers are still too young to be captain.
The fact is that the only Oiler in 2015-2016 who is probably
too young to be the captain will be Connor McDavid. By NHL standards, Jordan
Eberle, Taylor Hall, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are all more than qualified to be captains
on NHL teams. They are old enough, have the experience, and are difference
makers on the team. Additionally, they all factor to be longtime Oilers and are all early
into the primes of their careers.
For me, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall are the most likely
candidates. Hall is a force of nature when healthy. He’s the first ever first
overall pick and at this moment one of the longest serving Oilers on the team.
He’s signed long term and is one of the best left wings on the planet. Ryan
Nugent-Hopkins was the second most played forward in the NHL last year,
is the team’s first line centre (they will have two of them moving
forward though) and he is likely the team’s most complete player.
The Oilers gave stewardship of the team to several different
men while the franchise went about collecting this group. Now it’s time to
think about handing it over to the kids.
WHY TAKE IT AWAY FROM FERENCE?
There’s no way to have this conversation at all if we aren’t
going to acknowledge that Andrew Ference is aging, becoming less effective, and
unlikely to be an Oiler beyond this contract. As I mentioned at the top of this piece,
Ference’s character is not in doubt. That’s never been part of the cloud hanging
over his tenure as captain.
Andrew Ference is 36 years old. He is already two years older than
Jason Smith was during his final year as the Oilers captain and he’s playing
fewer and fewer minutes. Last season he was already less than 19 minutes a
night and with the changes that Chiarelli has made he will soon find it
difficult to get into games altogether.
The new general manager has not made life easy for his
captain. The left side of the depth chart is filling up with younger, more
effective players like Sekera and Klefbom. The right side has Schultz, Fayne,
and Gryba. The youth is surging by way of Reinhart and Nurse. The only other
defender with big minuses is Nikita Nikitin who still averaged more time than Ference
The remaining time Ference has with the Oilers is going to
be a struggle for ice.
There’s a new coaching staff coming in and they have no
allegiance to anyone on this roster. The new GM already let Ference walk away
from his club once before. Now is the time to start thinking about who is going
to be the next captain of the Edmonton Oilers.
The Edmonton Oilers have to stop being the team of tomorrow
and start being the team of today. Part of that means it’s time to turn the keys
fully over to the core. It’s their team and it has been for a couple of seasons
already. Just make it official.