Who wins or loses on the ice? What came first: chicken or egg?

It’s bad form. Improper. Not done. All nibs are agreed on it. Do NOT do it, for heaven’s sake!

Right?

So, here it comes: a disclaimer.

I have never received a cent, I am not receiving a cent, and I do not anticipate or expect receiving a cent from the Edmonton Oilers.

Why should I be doing what all nibs agree on that I shouldn’t be doing? Well, and why should I not call myself a nib, too?

Anyhow, here’s the reason for the disclaimer: contrary to popular opinion, I insist that Kevin Lowe and/or Craig MacTavish are NOT the main culprits behind the Oilers’ freefall of the last several seasons.

Yes, fish start stinking from their heads down, but this is not the case with the Edmonton Oilers. Not altogether, that is.

Ladislav Smid had it right when he said a few days before being traded to Calgary (he said it publicly, too) that it’s not the management, and it’s not the coaching, either. The issues the Oilers have, he said, are in the room.

Most interestingly, head coach Dallas Eakins, speaking dejectedly and somewhat angrily after the home-ice 6-0 debacle the Oilers suffered in the hands of the St. Louis Blues, said the same thing. He would elaborate, but the gist was exactly the same. It’s in the room.

Here are some facts

As of this writing, the Oilers have played 38 regular season games. In an informal survey among players from 21 of the about 30 teams the Oilers had skated against, one common denominator emerged. When promised complete anonymity, opposing players revealed what their coaches tell them during pre-game video sessions. The Oilers are perfectly vulnerable because of their erratic forecheck.

“They have one guy forechecking, and then three, and then two, and all that on the same shift, and the way they do it shows no rhyme or reason for how they forecheck,” said one.

“It seems the Oilers have no system, or if they have one, they don’t play within it,” said another.

Oilers’ forward David Perron bristled when he heard about the talk that the Oilers have no system. They do, he told Dan O’Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But, he would concede, they do not play within it often enough.

What could be the reason for that?

“Some of them seem to think they are smarter than their coach,” suggested yet another opposing player.

Are they?

“No,” replied that player, “and their results prove it.”

And yet another opposing player chimed in: “Look, what Lars Eller (of the Montreal Canadiens) said about the Oilers playing like a bunch of juniors, well, he shouldn’t have said that.”

Why not?

“It shows a bit of disrespect. Lack of respect for your opposition not only can come back to bite you, but it’s also unsportsmanlike. Except,” he added, “Eller definitely isn’t the only player who thinks that.”

And, they all said independently of one another (but if they were in one room, it would have sounded as if they were speaking in unison), it’s the Oilers’ first and second line players who are the most guilty part.

“These guys are talented and skilled, no doubt about that,” an opposing defenceman said, “and you have to be on your toes whenever they are on the ice, but despite all that ability and skill and creativity, they have become quite predictable.”

Ouch!

“It’s more players than just the first line,” another opposing player, also a defenceman, suggested. “The Oilers seem to be building around a potential core, but on occasion, that core seems to be rotten.”

HUH?

“You know how it is. You bite into an apple that looks shiny and colourful on the surface, but inside, it isn’t,” he explained.

There were other observations, too. Some of them damning. Such as that the so-called core (or future core, if you wish) hasn’t really embraced the existence of Nail Yakupov.

Having watched a few games after hearing this statement, one begins to wonder. It’s called body language, and – how to put it politely – well, it seems that the player who made this observation wasn’t wrong. Whether it’s subconscious or knowing on the “core” players’ part is irrelevant.

Who is the guilty party then?

Can you blame Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish for these woes?

Here’s your simple answer: no.

And here’s your more involved answer: no.

Let’s try to take a more detached look.

First, there’s this thing known as context of history.

Most Oilers’ fans feel betrayed that their beloved club has been doing so poorly. They seem to forget that all hasn’t been sunshine and glory for (at least) two decades. Remember, before the salary cap, the Oilers served almost as a farm team to their richer NHL counterparts. They would develop a young, up-and-coming player to the level bordering on stardom. That’s when that player would feel free to begin demanding more money in his new contract. The Oilers wouldn’t have it. What would they do? They would trade away the budding star, and get in exchange someone whose salary they might be able to afford. The newcomer would be either worse than the dearly departed budding star, or it would be a youngster whom the Oilers would develop – and lose again within a few seasons.

Talk about re-building!

The early Oilers lucked out. They would get Wayne Gretzky because his previous owner, Nelson Skalbania, needed ready cash, and he needed it now. The Oilers’ then-owner, Peter Pocklington, was ready to oblige, but he didn’t have sufficient funds to pay in cash the full amount Skalbania asked for. So, he threw a few paintings in. Art Skalbania would be able to sell and thus get the missing dough.

Their first few years at the draft, they would hit several homeruns by getting, in no particular order, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri.

Compared to today’s standards, Barry Fraser’s ways of picking players to be drafted were highly unscientific, and Glen Sather would go with them because they had been successful.

Successful? Yes, to a degree. There were some unforgettable flops, too. Jason Bonsignore, anyone? Or how about picking Steve Kelly instead of Shane Doan?

Between them, Sather and Lowe can’t say their drafting record has had no blemishes. Steve Tambellini had an easier time of it, selecting first three consecutive seasons, even though some question why the Oilers would go after forwards who might have been talented and skilled and whatnot, when there were NHL-ready defencemen of relatively high calibre available, too. Seth Jones, anybody?

So, granted, all regimes made their share of mistakes. But here’s an interesting point: you only make no mistakes if you don’t do anything.

Basic economics

One of Edmonton’s basic limitations is the size of its market potential. A successful professional sports team is, first and foremost, a success when it breaks even, at least. Very rarely would you find a professional sports team in such a limited market recording too much surplus. Yes, the Oilers haven’t lost money as of late. They even made some. But not enough to trade for a bona fide star and pay him accordingly.

Edmonton is a proud home to two former professional sports champions (remember the Eskimos?). Edmonton’s fans can fill both teams’ stadia game in and out, no problem. Except, this no longer suffices. Neither in the CFL nor (and even more so) in the NHL.

Some of it is geography, some of it is the tradition of electing asinine city councils.

Asinine? You bet. You can’t call decisions that endanger a city’s economy anything but that.

An example?

How about that ruling decades ago that whichever flight is headed to the then-newly-built Edmonton International from any place north of Edmonton, including northwest or northeast, it has to land at city airport first, then take off, fly another few minutes, and land in Leduc?

It would be convenient for those who want to conduct their business downtown was the official explanation.

Utter nonsense, of course. City airport had been here long before the international airport was even conceived, and a number of businesses moved to the city airport area expecting brisk action. Owners of those businesses were not only voters, but some of them might have even contributed to individual candidates’ campaigns.

Tradition? History? Who speaks of tradition and history when dollars are at stake?

Except, many of those flights that only intended to have an intermediate landing in Edmonton, on their way to Calgary or elsewhere, changed their routings. (Notice: they would be fine with one landing. Not two. One.) When they found successive city councils could not be swayed, those flights would simply go directly to Calgary or elsewhere, without any landings in Edmonton.

And there went the idea of Edmonton as the north’s airline hub and gateway to Canada’s north, and whatever else you wish to call it.

Anyone who thinks this kind of decisions helped grow Edmonton’s economy (as well as the economies of the capital region) is dreaming in Technicolor.

But professional sports clubs need more than income from seat sales. They need to sell sponsorships and advertising. Such deals must be available for use both in-house and for their broadcast rights holders. With a limited market, what chances are there that the clubs would generate enough advertising and sponsorship income to be able to pay for their high-priced stars?

Yes, stars attract fans like bees to honey, but, not only is there a limit on the number of fannies clubs can accommodate in their facilities, there is also a limit on how much they can charge their fans for the pleasure.

Is that something Kevin Lowe and/or Craig MacTavish generated?

Again, the answer is simple: no.

Management record

Many fans contend Oilers’ management could have and should have brought in more real players (preferably stars, one assumes) through trades and/or free agent signings.

Could they have? And should they have?

We will not know the answer to the former question. Trade negotiations are conducted in full secrecy worthy of nuclear war planning sessions. Many reasons, most of them perfectly valid.

We do know the answer to the latter question. It’s yes. Absolutely, Definitely. And add your own list of players whom you’d like to see wearing Oilers’ colours and turning the club’s fortunes around.

Except, this is where the answer to the former question enters the picture. Could they have? Were players they thought might be of major help available? Were they willing to waive their no trade/no movement clauses to go to Edmonton? Did their current clubs ask for players in return that the Oilers wouldn’t part with, at least, not yet, or not now?

What this is to say is that it’s rather impossible to judge a professional sports club’s record on what kind of players management managed to acquire. Even in drafts. When you’re picking among 18-year-olds, it’s as unreliable as defining the sex of freshly hatched chickens.

And so far as free agent signings are concerned, they have got some lately, and they haven’t panned out that bad. Andrew Ference comes to mind, and so does Boyd Gordon.

So, you may ask, why have other teams been more successful than the Oilers? What gives THEIR management that invisible something that the Oilers’ management seems to lack?

Back to square one

Judging by the remarks made by those opposing teams’ players, it seems that the Oilers’ top players have been reading too much into their press clippings. Yes, these clippings tell all and sundry that they are talented and skilled and whatnot. What they do NOT say is that these guys are the second coming, that they are right up there, with sliced bread and the original Swiss-made Nestle chocolate.

They should come back to earth, and pronto.

As it is, they are endangering the business model a.k.a. the Edmonton Oilers. How much longer will Oiler fans endure such blatant lack of success? How optimistic can these fans be? Meaning: how stupid are they expected to be, selling the Oilers’ arena out every night?

Any solutions?

Not really. But one school of thought is interesting. Here’s the outline.

Rid the Oilers of their owner, first of all. Why? Because he’s too closely connected with his management team as friends and would hesitate to clean house.

A new owner, unconnected to the club thus far, would have no such hesitations.

Would it be fair?

Absolutely not.

Would it help?

Who knows.

Yes, the school of thought continues, the current Oilers’ top poohbahs know a lot about winning. They have won it all. Indeed they have. As players. And it’s a different matter to win as a manager.

Of course, as an aside, Craig MacTavish coached the Oilers to within one game seven goal of the Stanley Cup (empty netters don’t count), and it’s difficult to believe that he’s become a moron between then and now.

And, also of course, fans assign responsibility based on their years of suffering, not on the time in responsible office guys they criticize have spent.

The school of hard knocks is also of the view that amateur scouts should be fired every five years. We’re talking about the people who are supposed to find new talent for a club to pick up on draft day or get some other way. It’s a tough life, schlepping all season long from one junior barn to another, trying to find a gem nobody else notices, getting as much relevant information on players who you think might help your club without giving your interest away to competition. They must be burnt out after all these years, thus this school of thought.

Is there any truth in it? Who knows? Nobody’s asked the amateur scouts, and even if one were to ask them, they would deny being tired in the slightest, lest they lose their jobs.

In any case, would such (admittedly cruel) kind of rotation work? Nobody’s tried, and experience shows that, for example, the Detroit Red Wings’ amateur scouting has been tops for a convincing period of time, and yet, you wouldn’t see too many changes through the years.

Again, this is a result-based and result-oriented business. So, the answer to this question must differ from club to club.

The single question remains: who wins the games? And who loses them?

If you’ve figured the answers to this question, you know who is responsible for the Edmonton Oilers’ woes and who can fix them.

Is it easy to do?

No.

Is it doable?

Yes.

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