With the Edmonton Oilers poised to miss the Stanley Cup playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, team owner Daryl Katz recently published an open letter to Oilers’ fans pleading for them to stand by the team through their painful rebuilding process.
As you’ll see in my recent Hockey Blog Beat, the reaction from several notable Oilers bloggers was decidedly negative, from outright mockery of Katz’ letter to serious examination over the reasons behind the club’s continued floundering since its unexpected march to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
Even the sole bright side of finishing poorly so regularly in the standings – high draft picks – is losing its lustre among the Oilers’ faithful.
What good is having young core talent like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov if the Oilers fail to build around them?
How good will promising blueline prospects Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom be when they finally join the club and there’s no experienced top-four defensemen to teach them the ropes?
For that matter, how can this club hope to improve without a true starting goaltender, a top-two defenseman and skilled checking line depth?
It was easy, for a while, to believe in the siren song of rebuilding with youth. Hell, even I fell for it during last season, when the lockout allowed the Oilers to keep most of their young core together through their AHL affiliate. I honestly believed that could give the Oilers a leg-up on other clubs whose talent was scattered to the four winds during the lockout. Silly me. I overlooked the obvious roster weaknesses which not even their young stars could overcome.
For many years I’ve respected the Oilers. From ther heady 1980s heyday, through their decline in the mid-90s, their efforts to remain competitive through the years when the Canadian dollar was in the toilet, to their amazing run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.
During lean financial years the Oilers still managed to ice likable, competitive rosters which, while lacking the depth of its Stanley Cup glory years, were still worth cheering for.
I recently wrote about how Canadian teams are in most cases worse off now under a stronger Canadian dollar than when the “loonie” was weaker. The Oilers are a prime example. They’ve enjoyed full houses since the season-killing lockout of 2004-05 and reaped the financial benefits of a strong Canuck buck. Since 2005-06, however, the Oilers have been worse than any edition which hit the ice during the financially uncertain pre-salary cap years.
The Oilers were better managed back then, first under Glen Sather, then Kevin Lowe. Uncertain ownership and a weak Canadian dollar forced them to build smarter. They couldn’t be faulted when their financial woes prevented them from re-signing their best free agents or bidding competitively in the free agent market. Sather and Lowe did the best they could with the assets available, and as a result their teams made the playoffs six seasons out of ten from 1994-95 to 2003-04.
Following the implementation of a low $39.5 million salary cap in 2005 the Oilers could finally afford to acquire skilled talent. They acquired Chris Pronger, Michael Peca, Dwayne Roloson, Sergei Samsonov, Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom, who were key factors in the Oilers run to the Cup Final in 2006.
Bolstered by the improving Canadian dollar, Lowe and his eventual successor Steve Tambellini kept pace with the rising cap. Unfortunately, their investments failed to improve the Oilers. The club steadily worsened, finally bottoming out in 2010, commencing their string of high first round draft picks, including three straight years – 2010 to 2012 – with the first overall pick.
Tambellini was fired last year, replaced by former Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, who also hired Dallas Eakins as head coach. Entering this season they vowed the Oilers rebuilding years were over. It became painfully obvious, however, that wasn’t the case.
Mismanagement is the prime reason cited by Oilers followers for the club’s ongoing mediocrity. Looking at the results of the past eight years, they make a good case. From Lowe (who was much savvier when the Oilers were hampered by a weak “loonie”) to Tambellini (who many Oilers followers believe was controlled by Lowe, the team president) to MacTavish, there’s a feeling the club is run by an “old boys network” of former Oilers players lacking the necessary management savvy to build and maintain a competitive team in today’s salary cap era.
Whatever the reason, something stinks in Edmonton, and it’s their NHL hockey team.
Oilers fans have been very patient with this franchise. They come by it honestly, have nearly lost their team to Houston via a relocation bid in 1998 before a group of local businessmen banded together to keep the club in Edmonton. Oilers fans have stuck by this team through those uncertain seasons, through their miracle run to the ’06 Final, through the ongoing streak of mediocrity. They bought into the rebuilding plans, hyped their young players, seized positives wherever they could and looked toward a promising future.
Their patience, however, may be reaching the breaking point. After being promised the Oilers would be competitive this season, the fans hopes were cruelly dashed. They’re losing faith in the front office, and it could start costing the Oilers at the gate.
“Wait ’til next year” is a fine rallying call if the fans believe there’s something worth waiting for. After eight fruitless season, that rallying cry is falling on deaf ears among Oilers followers. They’ve watched their franchise sink to the depths of laughingstock, which never happened during those financially lean, uncertain years before the salary cap.
At some point, something’s got to give. Management decisions this summer will be crucial in determining if the Oilers can avoid missing the playoffs for a ninth straight season, or at least take the long-awaited steps toward significant improvement. The jobs of those currently running this team could depend upon it.