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Off the Top of My Head: Cup or Bust, the Heritage Classic, and turning the Oilers’ ship around

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Robin Brownlee
6 months ago
“It’s Cup or bust, right, for this group? Just where everyone is at in their career. That’s the expectation.”
It was Edmonton Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid who talked that talk after the Oilers were beaten in six games in the second round of playoffs last May by the Vegas Golden Knights. As is often the case, walking the walk has been a whole other story for the Oilers seven games into this NHL season.
At 1-5-1 and losers of four straight after a 3-0 collar by the New York Rangers Thursday, the Oilers face the Calgary Flames in the 2023 edition of the Heritage Classic at Commonwealth Stadium this afternoon a world away from the expectations McDavid laid out in May. The reality is the version of the Oilers we’re watching right now isn’t even close. Bust it is.
On a night the Oilers added former captain Doug Weight and five-time Cup champ Charlie Huddy to their Ring of Honour, the feel-good mood changed pronto against the Rangers. Booed off the ice after 40 minutes, the Oilers will need more than the return of McDavid from injury today to turn things around.

WHAT THEY SAY

Apr 21, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) warms up prior to game three of the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
With the set-up to this season – the stated expectations, the team arriving in town early for the captain’s skate — the frustration is thick enough to cut with a knife. Coach Jay Woodcroft dropped an F-bomb after a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia a week ago. Thursday, it was Darnell Nurse’s turn. It’s no great surprise to me that same angst extends to the fan base. This was going to be the year, right?
“I think first and foremost, we’ve got to hold ourselves individually accountable,” Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who spent some lean seasons here before McDavid arrived. “Everybody needs to step up. We all know there can’t be any finger-pointing. We just talked about it.
“I mean, everybody needs to step up and I don’t think anybody should be happy with the way it’s gone for obviously the team, but individually either. There’s not much else to say. You’ve got to look forward to Sunday here and we need to put our best foot forward.”
The team Nugent-Hopkins joined for the 2011-12 season in the heart of the Decade of Darkness after being taken first overall in the 2011 Entry Draft fell right in between lousy and mediocre with a 32-40-10 record for 74 points under Tom Renney. There’s been way too much of the same thing here since.
This year, after back-to-back seasons of 104 and 109 points, fans, many who’ve been around here far longer than RNH, got the Cup or bust proclamation from McDavid. It was easy to see which way the faithful were leaning in that regard after 40 minutes Thursday. Rightly so.

TAKE IT OUTSIDE

If nothing else, the spectacle and novelty of today’s outdoor game might at least provide fans of the Oilers and Flames a respite from an unquestionably poor start to the season. In 15 combined games, the 1-5-1 Oilers and 2-15-1 Flames have three wins between them. No matter what happens today, there’s plenty of work to do.
At best, maybe thrashing the Flames in front of a big BOA crowd in a stadium where the home team hasn’t won much lately can be a swing game that helps the Oilers chip away at a turnaround. While the Oilers might not be as good as many of us thought coming into this season, they aren’t as bad as they’ve looked.
That’s not meant as a free pass, but I can’t see this team fumbling and stumbling along as it has much longer. Hockey history in this town tells us that when the Oilers give the local faithful something to cheer about, they’re all-in. When they stink as they have so far, you get what we have here. That’s how it works.
As an aside, Flames stopper Jacob Markstrom has the coolest mask paint job I’ve seen for an outdoor game hands down.

BY THE NUMBERS

The Oilers talked plenty about the need to improve their defensive game coming into this season. True enough, but for a team that’s had no trouble scoring in recent years in large part because of a lethal power play, part of the problem now is they have too many forwards with no sniff. They face Calgary with just 17 goals.
In 40 man-games to this point, Connor Brown, Ryan McLeod, Dylan Holloway, Adam Erne, Mattias Janmark and Derek Ryan have zero combined points. None. Bupkis. Seeing Brown, making a comeback bid, and Holloway in this group surprises me.
Without power-play time, I don’t expect a lot of production from this bunch, but it’s obvious the Oilers need a little bump from zip-all on the bottom end. They’re not getting it now.

NEXT TO THE HALL?

The selection committee for the Oilers ROH has been on the money with Ryan Smyth, Lee Fogolin, Weight and Huddy as its first four selections. Truth is, there are no contentious picks with so many legit players to pick from at this point. Who goes up next?

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