The terrific thing about being an NHL player in Edmonton is the passionate fan base. That’s also what sucks most about being a player in Oilers’ silks in this city. For better and for worse, fans here have a habit of getting carried away when it comes to the five-time Stanley Cup champions. It’s a case of love ‘em or hate ‘em, with not a lot of middle ground in between.
At long last, we saw the pent-up upside of that last season when the Oilers made it into the playoffs after a decade on the outside looking in and Connor McDavid was on his way to becoming the NHL’s scoring champ and MVP. McDavid could’ve run for mayor and won. Happy days were here again, or at least it seemed they were well on the way. What a place to be a player.
This season, we’re seeing the downside (again), when the Oilers aren’t within a $5 cab ride of making the post-season. Fans are sour, and rightfully so, given the raised expectations of that march into the second round a year ago. Everything and everyone stinks. Outside of GM Peter Chiarelli, who put this team together, I can’t think of anybody who has been more of a target for frustrated fans than Milan Lucic. He’s a bum. He can’t play. Get him outta here.
Two years into a seven-year contract worth $42 million, Lucic is struggling mightily. With 10-22-32 through 70 games, Lucic isn’t producing nearly enough – at even strength or on the power play. At times, he struggles just to make or take a pass. When it comes to toughness, a dimension Chiarelli paid a premium for, Lucic is crashing around, but he’s not taking care of business often enough with the gloves off, in the opinion of many. Why didn’t the big lug punch Matt Stajan’s teeth down his throat in Calgary?
WHAT THEY SAY
I understand the frustration by fans, which was at its high pitch before Lucic broke a 29-game goal-scoring drought against the Arizona Coyotes. One needed only listen to the post-game radio call-in shows or read websites like this one to get the hang of that. That’s the downside of playing in a town like this. Like it or not, it’s part of the deal – especially when the deal is as rich as the one Lucic signed and has another five seasons remaining.
That said, I’m glad the people bitching the loudest, the minority who think Lucic is surely finished and should be on a rail out of town sooner than later, aren’t calling the shots here. That’s not to suggest I’m particularly confident in Chiarelli’s ability to do so when you consider the moves he’s made, but I’ll take a detached approach to making things right over much of what I’m hearing from the fringes of a flustered fan base.
When things go bad here, they can go really bad, and in a hurry. I’ve seen it before – Jason Arnott comes to mind — and I’m seeing it now with Lucic. When that happens, some fans tend to fixate on the player they’re pissed at. The focus turns to the negative. If you’re looking for mistakes, you’ll damn sure find them. They get magnified. The player can do no right, even if he does.
The game in Calgary tells me Lucic is in that place right now. If you were screaming about Lucic not kicking some ass and leaving Stajan blowing snot bubbles because McDavid took a bump, you might be there, too. That’s not right or wrong. It’s just how it goes here. That’s not a place, however, Chiarelli, coach Todd McLellan and anybody else in hockey ops can afford to be.
DOWN THE ROAD
If you’re of the mind Lucic hasn’t been nearly good enough in just about every way you’d care to measure things by this season, you won’t get any argument from me or anybody who has been paying attention. If you believe Lucic has to take this off-season to ensure he comes back next season leaner, lighter and quicker to adapt to the speed-game we’re seeing, I’m with you. If you’re of the mind Lucic has hit the wall and is now headed down the wrong side of the hill at full-speed, you might be right, although I don’t agree.
Like it or not, the reality is Lucic isn’t going anywhere. He has a NMC clause and the term and amount left on his contract makes him almost untradeable. It’s in the best interests of the Oilers to do everything they can to give Lucic a chance to bounce back, to be the tough, physical winger capable of producing 50-60 points that he’s been until this season. The player they paid for.
Like it or not, that means playing Lucic, not benching him or burying him in the press box. That means giving Lucic ice time and opportunities to turn things around at the tail-end of a season that’s already lost. Give him the chance to go into the off-season on a positive note. That’s the smart play because the Oilers have already made a huge investment in him. You can write Lucic off if you want, but that’s not something Chiarelli has the luxury of.