Long-suffering fans of the Edmonton Oilers are screaming at the top of their lungs in frustration again after watching the Oilers continue to stagger toward the New Year with a fifth straight loss, this time by a flattering 7-4 score against the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place. I wonder, does owner Daryl Katz hear you?
People in the mainstream media, often depicted as being too soft on the team and its management with all the failure we’ve seen since the 2006 Stanley Cup final, are taking some roundhouse swings too. Likewise, the growing numbers of bloggers, who have never been shy about criticizing team brass, are demanding that something be done as the Oilers slide out of playoff contention. I wonder, does Katz hear them?
More important than that, I wonder if Katz cares about what is being written and said about his team, about all the criticism being directed at GM Peter Chiarelli, who is in his fourth season calling the shots and has built a team results tell us isn’t any better than the one he inherited? Does Katz care enough to do something about it? It seems not.
I found myself wondering yesterday in the wake of the loss to San Jose: might that change if Connor McDavid privately walked into Katz’s office and suggested that either things have to improve, and right now, or he’d prefer to play elsewhere instead of wasting the prime of his career spinning his wheels with an organization that can’t seem to get it right? Would that get Katz’s attention? I bet it would. Will it ever come to that? I hope not.
AT THE TOP
I’m not talking about staging some public firefight between ownership/management and players like we’ve seen in recent days with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in Dallas. That’s business best kept behind closed doors within the organization, in my opinion. That’s not the road any successful team goes down regardless of how valid the sentiment might be. If you use that bullet, you’ve got nothing left to put in the chamber if it misses the mark.
I’m talking about a private and honest meeting of the minds involving McDavid, now toiling in his fourth season with the Oilers, and Katz. Include Bob Nicholson if you’d like, although he’s under fire by virtue of his hiring and public backing, to this point, of Chiarelli, who tweaked the roster today by sending out a draft pick and Chris Wideman for Alex Petrovic.
I don’t know what McDavid thinks about the job Chiarelli has done building the edition of the Oilers he sees around him. I don’t know that McDavid feels like he’s spinning his wheels. I’ve never asked him about it privately or in a scrum situation. I’m not around the team enough anymore to ask that question, not that he’d tell me or anybody else toting a notepad or packing a microphone. I’m no insider. And that’s fine.
Is what seem obvious to you and me – Chiarelli has bled talent in his biggest trades, been hit-and-miss at best in other acquisitions and assembled a team without enough scoring and defensive depth – obvious to McDavid? After all, it’s McDavid, along with Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has to play out of this world to give the Oilers a chance to win. I think Chiarelli has failed miserably. I think his failure cost coach Todd McLellan his job. I like the move to bring Petrovic in, but I have no confidence Chiarelli will make all the changes this roster needs to be good enough under Ken Hitchcock.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If Hitchcock, the third-winningest coach in NHL history behind only Scotty Bowman and Joel Quenneville, can’t get this team into the playoffs, nobody can. If Hitchcock, now 9-7-2 after these five straight losses, fails on the heels of McLellan despite having the best player on the planet in McDavid, I’m not looking at the coaches. I’m looking at the player personnel, the roster Chiarelli has assembled.
Hitchcock has been playing the wheels off McDavid and Draisaitl while trying to get by without Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell, but there isn’t enough secondary scoring or depth on the blueline to make it work. The Oilers have allowed 25 goals during the losing streak. The team looked utterly defeated in every way against San Jose. With the Winnipeg Jets coming in Monday, the Oilers haven’t been close to good enough. Hitchcock doesn’t have the horses, and has said as much, without coming right out and saying it, in every post-game availability during the losing streak.
Chiarelli was gifted the Golden Ticket in the form of getting McDavid in the 2015 draft lottery. His only job was to build a contending team around him. By any measure, he has failed to do it. Four years along, is there any other reasonable conclusion? I think not, but what I think doesn’t matter even a little bit to Katz and the hockey-ops people making decisions about what happens next with the Oilers.
What would matter, what would carry real sway in bringing about the decisions that seem obvious from where I sit, is Katz knowing what McDavid, his most valuable employee, sees and thinks about the team he plays for – even without the “or else” component. It shouldn’t have to come to that, but it might.