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Photo Credit: Axe Cop: From Malachai Nicolle and Ethan Nicolle

Random Thoughts: It’s going to get weird around here again, isn’t it?

With the Oilers bowing out of the COVID Cup playoffs as early as they did, it’s not hard to imagine why many fans and pundits are wondering who’s to blame and what kind of changes we’ll see before the start of next season. Does it all make sense? No. Will we explore the situation anyway? Absolutely. That’s offseason life in Oil Country, I guess.

Blaming McDavid and Draisaitl

Over at Sportsnet, Mark Spector wrote an item that questions McDavid and Draisaitl’s defensive leadership, citing their need to improve their two-way play as a major factor in the loss against Chicago. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Oilers fans were upset with the take since there were far too many passengers on the team and singling out the two best seems like a reach given how the series played out and the reasons they lost.

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We are, however, saying that an Oilers team culture is set by a pair of leaders who had 207 regular-season points between them and were a combined minus-13. A pair that combined for 15 playoff points and a plus-2, while Patrick Kane had four points and was also plus-2.

I mean, personally, I might be tempted to ignore +/- and look at the goaltenders that didn’t produce a +.900 save% even once during the series or the lack of discipline that basically killed game three before it got started, but sure, let’s point at the two best players on the roster… again. No, friends, it’s not the roster strength as a whole, one that is still ripe with holes and areas to upgrade, and it’s not the suspect goaltending, but rather the guys that have consistently carried this team forward more often than not, even when it didn’t deserve to be. Sure, you may have liked an extra save or two to go along with a few more well-timed depth goals, but you’d be wrong and I’m sorry.

Here is how a hockey team works:

A depth player does not look at McDavid breaking wide on a defenceman and say, “Man, I have to do that too.” Because he can’t.

But when he sees McDavid employ that speed in his own zone, or going south to break up a play the way Draisaitl did that day in Raleigh, then the depth player says, “That IS something I can emulate.”

When he sees Draisaitl using his ample size to muscle an opponent off a puck — retrieving that puck for himself, rather than waiting for someone to do that dirty work on his behalf — he sees a template of how Oilers players are expected to play.

When he sees the best player on the team become furious that he has been scored on, then everyone knows that the leadership group is all-in on winning team trophies, not individual ones.

And when the goalies let in a handful of softies that would have probably been stopped by most goalies in any other series? The guys look down the bench at McDavid and Draisaitl and wonder where the hell they were to come up with a big glove save? And when the team needed a clutch goal and McDavid and Draisaitl were gassed on the bench? Well, get back out there in those corners, boys, no one likes a softie in the trenches. Alright, so I added these last two in but you get my point.

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What is it about this city and taking shots at the best players while willingly ignoring that many others just weren’t good enough? Then again, we all know that hockey is a solo sport much like golf so it makes sense to point fingers at the two individuals on a 23-man roster while allowing the others to disappear like ninjas into the night without also being accountable. Can McDavid and Draisaitl be better on both sides of the puck? Absolutely they can and I believe that they will be, but I also think it’s hard to build a house when all you’ve got are three nails and a handful of jelly beans, you know?

The Yzerman Argument

Another thing that’s been making the rounds on Twitter lately is the idea that Connor McDavid needs to focus more on defence if he wants to win, just like Steve Yzerman did when he won Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, and 2002. Well, I’m not going to sit here and say that Connor McDavid couldn’t improve his defensive game — he seems like the type of guy that seeks perfection in all aspects of his play — but I would be wary of comparing the two situations before also considering the quality of the overall rosters they had around them.

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Seeing as Detroit’s 2002 Cup win was the most recent, let’s dive into the roster to see how our beloved Oilers compare, shall we? Surely, that Red Wings squad was filled with guys fighting above their weight class and the only reason they won the league’s ultimate prize was the result of pure grit, determination, and a passion for blocking shots with their faces. Well, as it turns out, the 2001-02 Red Wings went 51-17-10 on their way to the Stanley Cup and boasted arguably one of the best rosters we’ve ever seen outside of a Canadian Olympic team. Don’t remember who was on that squad? You’re in luck — I’m here to help.

The 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings featured: Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan, Pavel Datsyuk, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, and Steve Yzerman

This team had nine Hall of Famers on it. Nine. No offence to Zack Kassian, Gaetan Haas, or Riley Sheahan but we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples here, are we? So while it is true that Steve Yzerman finished sixth in team scoring that year — a noble offensive sacrifice to be sure* — he also had more than enough run support around him on all four lines to keep the charge moving forward if he couldn’t produce, and I really don’t think it’s fair to suggest that McDavid changing his entire philosophy would propel the Edmonton Oilers forward. I mean, unless we can surround McDavid and Draisaitl with seven more future Hall of Famers, of course. Dare to dream?

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Put another way, could you imagine what would happen if Connor McDavid’s point totals dropped from +100 down to 48 with the way this roster is put together? Ugly.

*to be fair Yzerman only played in 52 regular season games in 2001-02

McDavid Trade Talk

Speaking of Connor McDavid, we’ve, once again, reached the familiar point in the offseason where some folks are wondering if the captain will want out after yet another year of failing to make a deep playoff run. As much as this is a concern I think a lot of us have had over the years, I’m having a really hard time watching this movie all over again given the fact that this team wasn’t nearly as bad as some of its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think that Ken Holland needs to find some upgrades to sprinkle throughout the roster, there are plenty of holes in the dam that need fingers, but let’s not pretend that this was the same club that Peter Chiarelli was dragging with him to the bottom of the ocean either. Let’s also remember that this was Holland’s first year on the job and, like a Walmart janitor being summoned to the toy aisle with a bucket full of sawdust, he had a vomitous mess to clean up.

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Do I think that the Oilers need to respect McDavid’s career and make real progress towards turning into the contender he deserves to play on? Yes, yes I do. Do I also think that they made some of those steps this past season? Also yes. Do I think that Connor McDavid, the captain of a team that was sitting near the top of the Pacific Division before a global pandemic took an unprecedented swipe at the league, will want out? No. I do not. That said, I’m also on Connor McDavid’s side here and my plea to the Oilers management group would be to stop running with ideas that have left this franchise spinning in place for the past 15 years and start looking at things with a fresh approach. I know that concept may upset the 200 hockey men, but at this point, I think we could use a fresh look at life.