Since the forgettable era that was the mid-1990’s, the Edmonton Oilers have been blessed with fans who have filled their buildings, bought their merchandise and supported the team win or lose – mostly lose these last 13 years – through some dark days. People in this town know the game and they are passionate about it.
The flipside of the fire-in-the-belly support is that when things go badly, as they have in all but one season since the Oilers made it to the 2006 Stanley Cup final, the level of angst and anger in the fan base is there for all to see. These days, right away on social media. I’m not talking about the small percentage of online losers who get off by watching the team fail, who find a way to open a bowel win or lose, because they don’t matter even a little bit.
I’m talking about fans who’ve backed this team for years during the post-Stanley Cup era just waiting for any reason to cheer and to celebrate with almost no return for their financial and emotional investment. They’re pissed, and they should be after watching the Oilers pull an el-foldo of epic proportions on the way to a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Rogers Place Tuesday.
Needing every point they can get to make a push for the playoffs, the Oilers blew a third-period lead for the third straight game on the way to losing their sixth game in a row, this time by giving up five goals in the third period, including a team record four goals in 2:48. The anger is palpable – the jersey toss is back – and while the silver lining is the Oilers somehow remain just three points out of a playoff spot, there are a lot more questions than answers. We have seen this movie a time or two. Here we are.
As somebody who has been around awhile, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest what we’re witnessing now is as bad as it’s been since the awful, overmatched budget teams of the mid-1990’s played in a half-empty rink as owner Peter Pocklington’s financial house of cards collapsed around him. Having been front row for that debacle, I’d say it’s worse now, actually.
This edition of the Oilers has the best player on the planet in Connor McDavid and boasts a magnificent second banana in Leon Draisaitl. Coaches like Teddy Green and Ron Low didn’t have a player that good to throw over the boards.
This team has spent to the salary cap, and above, thanks to fired GM Peter Chiarelli, who wasted money and bungled the job so badly it might take years to make right what is wrong with the roster that he’s put together. In the mid-1990’s Glen Sather had to assemble his rosters with bargain guys who’d play for a ham sandwich.
The Oilers fired Chiarelli. They sacked coach Todd McLellan, just as they showed Pat Quinn and Tom Renney and Ralph Krueger and Dallas Eakins the door, bringing in Ken Hitchcock, who is the third-winningest coach in NHL history. Is Hitch the problem now, or is it that the team doesn’t have anything resembling enough scoring up front, enough depth on defence or a goaltender that can be counted on to make a save when it matters? All the above?
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you’re spending above the cap and you can’t build a team around McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom that is capable of not only making the playoffs but being a legit Stanley Cup contender, you’re doing it wrong. That much we know. Oilers fans have not seen their team make the playoffs in consecutive years since 1999-2000 and 2000-01 after Cal Nichols and the EIG rode to the rescue and accomplished more with far less money and talent than there is here now.
I wonder, what does owner Daryl Katz think about all of this, given the history of failure during his tenure here? We don’t know because he hasn’t told us. What’s the plan? Is there one? With the Oilers still mathematically in a playoff race and the tickets sold, is Katz even contemplating the need for sweeping changes in hockey ops or is status quo good enough, even if a jersey or two hits the ice along the way?
I’d like to know, and I bet you would too.