Nostradamus would run away rather than predict Edmonton Oilers’ future

So, now that the original Edmonton Oilers-linked hoopla has died down for a moment, let’s try to have a detached look at what has just happened.

To sum up: until proven otherwise, Oilers’ fans have just been taken down to the river where they were sold a bill of goods. Again.

The Edmonton Oilers will be picking first in this year’s draft, and they are going after Connor McDavid. That’s what all and sundry say. The only thing we know for sure is that they are picking first. The newly installed poohbah Peter Chiarelli is on record as saying he’s not trading the pick no matter what. He is not on record as saying young McDavid it is and will be. Considering the Oilers’ needs can be found elsewhere (blueline, net), what if there’s a blue-chip, NHL-ready defenceman available?

Yes, most commentators would insist, but Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are generational players, and McDavid even more so than Eichel.

Mumbo-jumbo

Care to explain the word: generational?

Care to elaborate in what sense: generational?

It just so happens that there are several definitions of generations, all of them valid. Some use demographics, others sociology, some others use the economy. All of these definitions have some features in common: a generation defines approach, use of whatever tools, vision, among many other characteristics. The span of a generation is based on the specifics of its definition: an economic generation covers a different number of years than, say, a generation that shares similar tastes in what kind of jeans to wear.

How did the word “generational” make its way into professional hockey? In a debate over one beer too many, that’s how.

A reminder: hockey is a team game. Wayne Gretzky didn’t produce the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles no matter how hard he tried. Mark Messier, despite the frequently-repeated legend, didn’t win the Stanley Cup in New York: he would have been nowhere without, say, Mike Richter in goal.

And if there was a player who re-defined his position, it would have been Wayne Gretzky. And, behind the blueline, Bobby Orr.

Did you notice? These guys re-defined their positions. Not the game. As Wayne Gretzky himself liked to say, nobody’s bigger than the game.

Yes, Connor McDavid keeps turning heads by his play. In junior. Here’s hoping that he’s going to keep turning heads once (and if) he makes the big show. Still, bluntly, he hasn’t re-defined anything. Not yet, in any case. Oh, definitely, he’s playing with flair rarely seen in professional hockey these days, and he doesn’t make too many mistakes, either.

How will all of this junior stuff translate into the NHL?

Nobody knows. Connor McDavid least of all.

In any case, there are at least as many questions linked to Connor McDavid and his future with (let’s assume) the Oilers as there are answers.

How did we get here?

Let’s try some chronology.

Until the lockout of 2004-2005, the Oilers served as a useful farm team to the richer clubs in the NHL. They would develop young talent and, once those players’ contracts have expired, it’s goodbye, it’s been nice knowing you, Edmonton will for ever remain etched in my heart, but, for the moment, my cheque book is more important.

No need to blame the players: their careers are limited and what they don’t make now, they won’t make in the future. Most of them, at least.

Whether this kind of approach is fair to the rest of the masses of the unwashed is irrelevant here. This kind of approach is what we have. Let’s live with it. There’s not much else we can do about it.

The NHL reigned the players’ salaries in by introducing a salary cap. It would be an extravagant exaggeration to say this solved everything: the ratio between the salary cap and the league’s hockey-related revenues deserved better, and it would take another lockout for the league and its players to at least attempt a new, more flexible, tack.

In any case, next thing you know, the Oilers were in the Stanley Cup finals, extending the eventual winner (Carolina Hurricanes) to seven games, losing by a lousy single goal (empty-net goals, as it happened to end then, do not count).

In the process, the then-coach, Craig MacTavish, managed to outsmart his Detroit Red Wings counterpart, Mike Babcock, and the Oilers went on to eliminate the mighty Wings in the first round.

Less than three weeks after the final game in the Stanley Cup finals, star defenceman Chris Pronger officially asked to be traded. According to insiders, this wasn’t the first time; those same insiders claim Pronger managed to change the Oilers’ dressing room into a poisonous snake pit by the previous Christmas. Stories about reasons for Pronger’s request differ: his wife Lauren didn’t like Edmonton as such, also, she didn’t like it that her husband was recognized by all and sundry whenever the couple decided to go out for a quiet dinner in one of the poshier eateries in town, or she didn’t like alleged extramarital activities some claimed her husband was guilty of.

All of this is irrelevant now.

What is relevant are two things: Pronger went to Anaheim, and the Oilers ended up landing Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and, eventually Jordan Eberle. Not bad for a general manager (Kevin Lowe) who had to deal from a position of weakness as Pronger had let the entire world know in advance that Edmonton wasn’t his cup of tea.

The roof fell in next season: the Oilers didn’t make the playoffs. That the eventual Cup winner, the Hurricanes, didn’t make it, either, was of little or no consolation. How can one even dare considering comparisons between the fanaticism of Carolina’s supporters with the flames that burn in the hearts of Oilers’ fans?

One issue remained: thanks (or due) to Chris Pronger’s shenanigans, the Oilers’ reputation among potential free agents hit the freezing point. In attempts to lure help, the Oilers simply had to be satisfied with second- or even third-ranked free agents, and they still had to overpay them to attract them.

No, neither Kevin Lowe nor Craig MacTavish turned stupid overnight. The issue was (and remains to this day) they had to play the cards they’d been dealt.

They had to deal with inept ownership, too.

First, the so-called Edmonton Investors Group bought the club from its original owner, Peter Pocklington, in 1998. That would have been nice and dandy, on one condition: if most of the more than 30 participants didn’t think they knew hockey better than people who had been in it professionally, and with considerable success, for decades.

Gone was Glen Sather who had been grooming Kevin Lowe for his position for quite some time. Instead, Lowe was moved into Sather’s office. Prematurely, it seems in hindsight. Why prematurely? Simple because if he had some general-management experience to fall back on, he would have told the meddling Investors Group crowd to stop giving him advice on hockey-related matters, no matter how well-meant.

Enter Daryl Katz, he of the Rexall pharmacy chain fame, and a self-proclaimed Edmonton Oilers’ fan. He made an offer to buy the club that amounted to hostile takeover, as one of the chiefs of the Investors Group said at the time.

Another Katz’s claim to fame: he’s a bosom friend with some of the boys on the bus, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, in particular.

Both Lowe and MacTavish are very capable hockey people, and honest, too.

After all, it wasn’t that then-general manager Steve Tambellini fired MacTavish after the dreadful 2008-2009 season. MacTavish stepped down himself because he felt he didn’t have much more to give. That must have taken a lot of courage.

While away from Edmonton,. MacTavish worked on his vocabulary as a TSN commentator, kept up with coaching as the bench boss for Vancouver Canucks’ then-farm in Chicago and, most importantly, earned his Master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

Perfectly impressive.

But in the cold-blooded world of professional sports, with the cutthroat competitiveness that rules ruthlessly all over that kind of universe, two questions emerge:

Should it have been thus?

Was Kevin Lowe’s “best-before” date in Edmonton Oilers’ hockey operations past? While his knowledge, experience, talent and hard work are unquestionable, would it not have been for the better for everybody concerned if he either moved himself to another side of the operation or (even) offered his services to another organization? Kevin Lowe chose the former for the time being. Let’s see where it leads him (and the Oilers).

The question in Craig MacTavish’s case differs. It is based on a theory developed by Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian who rose to fame in the Excited States. As author of the wildly popular book on hierachiology, Peter Principle, he said: “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Mind, incompetence in this context does not mean stupidity in any shape or form. It only means that the waters around you are too deep for comfort.

So, what was the case with Craig MacTavish?

As anybody who has ever touched any basic study on the theory of negotiations would quickly attest, it is wrong to even mention publicly your shortcomings, in addition to making your time limitations known. That, alas, is precisely what Craig MacTavish did when he was introduced as the Oilers’ new general manager. He would be making bold steps, and he was impatient. Bold steps mean: I haven’t got much time. I’m impatient means: I can hardly wait because I have no time at all.

Both statements must have made 29 other general managers giddy. Craig MacTavish just gave them weapons to help them defeat him.

Being a general manager of a professional sports team doesn’t give one too much time to learn on the job. Craig MacTavish only got two years.

Except: in strolls a guy who just lost his job because his club didn’t make the playoffs. On one hand, it seems to indicate different culture: one misstep, and you’re gone.

Alas, a look that goes deeper reveals a few more missteps. Another proof that the economic theory that holds that quantitative changes accumulate until they reach a tipping point after which they become qualitative changes. Meaning, in Peter Chiarelli’s case, such steps as trading Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. He got, in exchange, players who aren’t bad but who won’t reach Tyler Seguin’s potential if their lives depended on it. All that because of some off-ice misbehaviour and indiscretions attributed to young Mr. Seguin. How come the Dallas Stars managed to put young Mr. Seguin on the straight and narrow before even the next season started?

How will Peter Chiarelli fare in his new job? Fine, he didn’t open his statement by saying he was going to be bold and impatient. He put the young (and most talented) core on notice, instead: you may be out of town before you know what hit you, if we get someone of equal or better value to the club in return.

As a philosophy, this is as it should be. Even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t untouchable, after all.

But as part of your opening statement, before you even shook hands with the guys?

Looking ahead

Will the Oilers be chasing the cup this coming season?

The answer is simple and straightforward: no.

Oh, yes, miracles do happen, but it seems the club has collected on its share of miracles by yet another improbably lucky draft lottery win.

Once we get closer to the free-agent deadline, we’ll know whether those who are now saying that picking Connor McDavid were correct in suggesting that this would help the club immensely. Top players will be lining up to offer the Oilers their services, and at a discount, too.

Besides, considering the Oilers are not trading away their first pick, it remains to be seen whether anything has changed. There have been reported cases of Oilers’ hockey people being overruled (and guess three times who is in a position to do that). The scouts were drooling about NHL-ready defencemen, and the club would end up picking yet another forward.

If this doesn’t change, then the bloodletting made no sense. Except that it made overwhelming headlines about issues that are frightfully overrated, bordering on the irrelevant, at a time when we’re supposed to be deep in thought about whom we’re going to elect to run Alberta for the next few years.

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