The Edmonton Oilers hit rock bottom yesterday, which is something they do in the same way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock: sleepily, out of force of habit, and at least once every day.
The latest chapter came yesterday, when the team fired coach Dallas Eakins. The move comes just days after general manager Craig MacTavish gave Eakins a public vote of confidence, and with the team in the midst of a miserable stretch of 15 losses in 16 games. MacTavish himself will take over behind the bench for now, with the plan calling for AHL coach Todd Nelson to join the team before eventually sliding into the job for the rest of the season.
That’s the plan, so this being Edmonton, we should probably expect it to derail somewhere along the way. No franchise has had less success in recent years than the Oilers, who currently sit in a tie for last overall and are headed for their ninth straight year without a playoff berth.
But if the Oilers can’t be a contender, they can at least serve as a cautionary example. Here are 10 lessons the rest of the league can take from this latest chapter in the Oilers’ never-ending misery.
1. Don’t fall in love with the past
There aren’t many teams in my lifetime that can boast as many Stanley Cups as the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Those were some the best teams to ever take the ice, and it’s understandable that fans look back on them fondly.
Fans have that luxury. A franchise’s ownership and front office should not. And yet the Oilers have built their power structure around popular members of those teams, with team president Kevin Lowe and MacTavish the most prominent among them.1 During a combative press conference last year, Lowe famously invoked the memory of those Stanley Cup rings in an attempt to deflect criticism.
Other former Oilers players employed by the organization include assistant coach Keith Acton and player personnel manager Kelly Buchberger.
That sound bite didn’t play well with the fans, and rightly so. It’s one thing to be a great player, or at least a useful player on a great team. It’s another entirely to transition into a career in coaching, scouting, or management. Many players have done it, and there’s something to be said for bringing in guys who are familiar with a market. But at some point, if the very best candidate for the job always just happens to be a former player, there may be something wrong with your hiring process.
The Oilers certainly aren’t alone in this. If anything, handing key front-office jobs to stars from the past has become a trend around the league. Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Colorado, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo were all recently given key jobs by the teams they once starred for. Sometimes it works: Roy was named coach of the year last season. Sometimes it doesn’t: LaFontaine lasted just a few weeks before heading for the exit.
Some would argue that a little bit of nostalgia has a place in the sports world. A cynic might wonder if these guys are being hired at least partly to provide PR cover while teams rebuild. But when a team has been as bad for as long as the Oilers have, you have to look hard at every candidate, not just the alumni section of the team yearbook.
Will they? We’ll find out. The club recently brought Mark Messier back in a temporary consulting role, and there are constant rumors that he could be in the mix for a bigger role.
2. You can’t just flip the switch on a losing culture
It’s a common refrain from NHL fans when their favorite team goes bad: Blow it up. Start over. Flush out all the veteran talent, spend the next few years finishing last, and rack up some high draft picks. Then, once you’ve got a core of young studs in place, flip the switch and start winning again.
These days, the polite term for that sort of plan is “rebuilding,” although “tanking” also fits if we’re being honest. And the plan can work, as teams like the Blackhawks and Penguins can attest. But as Oilers fans have learned, long stretches of losing seasons and high draft picks don’t guarantee a winner. And a big part of the reason is that, in a league where everyone constantly drones on and on about culture, it’s possible to install a losing one.
That certainly seems to have happened in Edmonton, where everyone always seems happy to settle for “good enough.” Losing sucks. And there has to come a point when an organization has lost so much for so long that it starts to have an effect on everyone who works there, from the players to the coaches and front office to the guy who sweeps up after the game.
Think of it this way: At the end of this year, the Oilers’ best player, Taylor Hall, will have played five NHL seasons. He’ll have played zero postseason games. He’ll never even have finished within single digits of a playoff spot. Without putting too fine a point on it, you could argue that Hall will have been in Edmonton for half a decade without ever playing a meaningful NHL game.
What does that do to a player? It’s hard to say. And yet any reasonable plan for an Oilers’ renaissance would feature Hall in a leading role,2 both one the ice and in the dressing room. When the losing finally stops, maybe Hall will be ready. Then again, maybe he’ll be a shell. It’s no sure thing, and the Oilers should stand as a warning to teams like the Sabres and Hurricanes who seem intent on following that rebuild blueprint, wherever it might lead them.
So needless to say he’s now rumored to be on the trade block.
3. You need the right coach
In his brief tenure in Edmonton, Eakins often looked overwhelmed. His “swarm” defensive system didn’t work, the special teams were a mess, and even executing a simple breakout often seemed beyond anyone’s abilities. Clearly, he wasn’t the right guy for the job.
But here’s the thing: He should have been. Eakins was one of the most sought-after young coaches in the league when the Oilers brought him aboard. He’d done well in the AHL for Toronto and had developed a reputation for working well with developing players. It seemed like a good fit, so much so that few even blinked when the Oilers fired Ralph Krueger after just one year on the job to make room for Eakins.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say that a young coach was the wrong choice for a young roster — you can’t have everyone learning on the job at the same time. But that’s hindsight. Eighteen months ago, Eakins seemed like a great choice. He probably will be again, somewhere else.
Meanwhile, the Oilers will transition from Eakins to MacTavish and then eventually on to yet another AHL graduate in Nelson.3 That will make it seven coaches since the 2008-09 season, if you count MacTavish’s two stints separately. At some point, you have to wonder if maybe it’s them. Most Oilers fans I know got to that point a while ago.
On that point, I suspect this Twitter parody account is probably hitting a little too close to home.
4. Be honest about your timelines
How long would you say the Oilers have been in rebuild mode?
My guess is that most fans would probably start the clock right around the end of the 2006 season, when Chris Pronger forced a trade and the team went from Stanley Cup finalist to last in its division. The team hasn’t played a playoff game or even cracked the 90-point mark since.
But according to the Oilers, those first few years don’t count. At that 2013 press conference linked above, Lowe claimed the rebuild was only three years old. More recently, MacTavish seemed to suggest the slate was wiped clean when he arrived on the job 18 months earlier.
So when does a rebuild become a rebuild? This isn’t just semantics. You need to have a plan, and you need to know whether you’re making the progress you need to make. You can’t do that if you’re constantly hitting the reset button on your timer.
5. Bad goaltending kills
Build from the net out. Everyone knows that already. It’s one of the oldest clichés in the game. It really doesn’t matter what else you’ve done with the roster; bad goaltending ends seasons.
The Oilers learned that the hard way last year, when Devan Dubnyk’s early struggles torpedoed their chances. They thought they’d addressed the issue since then, bringing in Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth late in the season to form what should have been, at the very least, an average duo.
It hasn’t worked out. Scrivens has struggled badly, to the point where his play alone has basically wiped out all the Oilers’ defensive improvements. That sounds harsh, but it’s been the reality, and Fasth hasn’t been any better.
Goaltenders are tricky beasts. Their true talent is hard to evaluate without a massive sample size, and they’re prone to significant hot and cold streaks that can have a massive impact on their team’s fortunes, even when they’re based on nothing more than random chance. Maybe that’s what’s happening in Edmonton. But if so, that’s not much comfort to Oilers fans.4
And seeing Dubnyk play well in Arizona can’t help either.
At some point, you wonder if the Oilers will eventually go out and overpay for a sure thing in net, or at least as close as they can come. Other than Dwayne Roloson’s 2006 playoff run, they haven’t had a legitimate star in the crease since Curtis Joseph almost two decades ago. Those guys are rarely available via trade or free agency, but you have to think the Oilers would want to be first in line if the opportunity ever arose.
You don’t need great goaltending to win. But bad goaltending is almost always a fatal flaw, as recent Oilers history demonstrates.
6. Drafting isn’t just about hitting on the high picks
From 2010 to 2012, the Oilers became only the second team in NHL history to hold the first overall pick in the entry draft for three straight years.5 They also had the seventh overall pick in 2013, and the third pick this summer.
The other was the 1989-1991 Nordiques.
As you’d expect, all five of those players have seen action in the NHL, with four of them on the roster right now. That’s nice, but it’s not all that impressive — high picks almost always make the big leagues, and first overall picks are expected to develop into very good players, if not superstars. When you hear teams talk about building through the draft, they don’t just mean top picks. To really build a winner, you need to hit on a few picks outside the first round, and that’s where the Oilers have failed miserably.
A look back at the Oilers’ recent draft history is downright depressing. Since 2011, they’ve only drafted one player outside the first round who’s gone on to play so much as 20 NHL games, and that guy is on the Coyotes now. You have to go back to Theo Peckham in 2006 to find a non-first-rounder with 100 games played. If you’re looking for an actual impact player, you probably have to go all the way back to Jarret Stoll a dozen years ago.
Compare that to teams that win, that manage to hit the occasional home run in later rounds. Good teams find guys like Duncan Keith, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, or Joe Pavelski (to name just a few) in the second round or later. That’s how winners get built.
Some of that is luck, of course. But when a team’s scouts keep striking out year after year, it makes you wonder why changes aren’t made.
7. Depth matters
This point is obviously tied to the last one, since continually missing on draft picks will deplete your depth in a real hurry. But it’s worth mentioning separately, because it’s been a major issue for the Oilers for years.
I suspect that most fans actually overrate depth. They fall in love with the bangers and crashers on the fourth line, or the grizzled veteran holding down the sixth defenseman spot. They assign all sorts of mystical attributes to those guys — character! Leadership! Compete level! — and cheer on every check and blocked shot, all while ignoring the fact that most of these guys, while useful, are essentially interchangeable. Depth is nice, but a talented core is what wins.
On paper, the Oilers have a talented core, or at least the young pieces that should be developing into one. If that development isn’t happening, that’s a bigger issue than anything that’s going on with the bottom half of the roster. But somebody still needs to play those other minutes, and play them well enough to at least keep things afloat.
To their credit, the Oilers finally tried to address the issue this offseason, adding guys like Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne via free agency. But they left a gaping and obvious hole down the middle, relying on Boyd Gordon to take second-line minutes and then hoping rookie Leon Draisaitl could learn on the job on the third line. That was a shaky enough plan as it was. Once Gordon got hurt, things fell apart.
That’s a hard problem to fix during the season; it should have been addressed over the summer. Those are the kind of moves that don’t generate a lot of buzz, but they matter.
8. Think carefully about rushing your kids
Of those five recent high draft picks, four — Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, and Draisaitl — made the jump directly to the NHL.6
2013 pick Darnell Nurse, the only defenseman of the group, is still in junior.
Taken individually, each of those decisions may have been the right call. But it’s created a situation where almost the entire Oilers core has had to learn how to be an NHL pro as a teenager. That’s risky, and if you’re going to do it — let alone do it over and over again — you’d better be confident in your staff’s ability to develop players. So far, the Oilers’ results have been mixed. Hall has emerged as a legitimate star, and Nugent-Hopkins is on the way. But Yakupov has struggled, and Draisaitl has looked lost at times this year.
It can be understandably tempting to rush a high pick into the lineup. Those picks inevitably come as the result of a last-place finish, and the shiny new prospect often stands as the only tangible reward for a painful season. The pressure to get him on the ice and show him off can be overwhelming. And sometimes it’s the right call — nobody’s arguing that Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby needed to ride buses in the AHL for a few years.
But some guys do. It’s in a team’s best interests to always make the decision with the long term in mind.
9. When all else fails, be lucky
A little luck can mask a lot of flaws, and the Oilers haven’t had much. They’ve got the worst PDO in the league this year, indicating that they deserve at least a little better than their record. Couple that with some rough luck in the injury department and those brutal off years from Fasth and Scrivens, and it’s hard not to feel at least a little sympathy for the organization.7
And remember, this is the team that was one injured goalie away from winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. How different does all of this look through the lens of a recent title?
Someday, this team will have a bounce or two go its way somewhere other than in the draft lottery. Maybe it doesn’t happen this year, and it’s probably too late if it does. But someday.
10. The buck stops with ownership
Let’s save the big one for last.
You can win without a star goalie, and you can win without an elite first-line center. You can win without a workhorse on the blue line, and without a Jack Adams candidate behind the bench. It’s nice to have all of those things, and the good teams often do, but you can survive without at least a few of them.
But you can’t win in this league with lousy ownership. That was true in the days of Harold Ballard and it was true in the days of Bill Wirtz, and it’s true now. And as we’ve seen in other sports, bad ownership is just about the worst possible problem a team can have, because it tends to be long term.
Is Oilers boss Daryl Katz a bad owner? That’s hard to say; we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, and we don’t see the balance sheet the team is working with. Katz tends to stay away from the cameras during these low points, although he did pen a nice letter to fans last year. I’m sure that helped.
But it’s fair to say there’s a growing impatience in Edmonton. Katz is seen as being too loyal to Lowe & Co., and too hesitant to make the sort of sweeping changes the organization may need. The local media is starting to take aim, and if you drop in on any Oilers fan forum or message board, it won’t take long to find someone pointing the finger to the very top of the org chart.
Katz has been largely silent during this year’s mess, which is probably for the best. He has his hands full with a sweet new arena deal, and midseason meddling from ownership rarely works out well.
But at some point, Katz will need to answer to yet another lost season. And this time, another open letter to fans isn’t going to cut it.