Tag Archives: Kevin Lowe

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.

Where now, Edmonton Oilers?

It’s obvious not many people (including fans) will be fooled enough by the latest changes made by the Edmonton Oilers to start plotting a Stanley Cup parade route.

And if anyone thinks the latest series of disasters has been ex-coach Dallas Eakins’s fault, think again. How about the people above him on the totem pole, that is, the people who hired him in the first place?

As the good old saying has it, fish smell funny (read: stink) from the head down.

The club’s owner represents the head here.

Many a commentator would point to the sad fact that the Oilers are doomed because their organization, once the envy of the league, has become a dysfunctional mess.

They can hardly be more right.

The issue of misplaced loyalties has raised its ugly head again. And it will continue doing so until the fans force Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz to walk away, ride into the sunset, perform a disappearing act, simply vanish from the scene.

How can the fans achieve that? But it’s simple and straightforward: by stopping sending their money Katz’s way.

The Oilers can still claim sell-outs, but regular watchers will confirm that the number of empty seats has been growing exponentially in recent weeks. These are (mostly) season ticket seats that have been sold before the season began. Anyone who thinks they’ll be sold again once the next season rolls around is dreaming in Technicolor.

Empty seats lead directly to sponsors’ reluctance to support a losing proposition much longer. Meaning, Daryl Katz would be facing a double-whammy. He may start whining. He may start talking about Edmontonians’ civic duty, as if supporting a professional sports team was local citizenry’s solemn obligation bestowed upon birth. He may even demand that city government help him through these difficult times because his club’s presence helps increase Edmonton’s quality of life. Given his record, this is not out of the question at all: just recall how he got city council forfeit its duties to its employers (citizens of Edmonton, that is) and shell out a huge chunk of the cost of a new arena.

Just for the record: a professional sports club’s presence does nothing to enhance quality of life for the community where it happens to be sitting. In pure economic terms, it’s just another employer. Except, unlike most of the other employers, professional sports clubs use (abuse is a better word) their customers’ frightfully shortsighted (stupid is a word that describes the situation better) loyalty to the product. For whatever reason, it takes supporters of professional sports clubs much longer than an average citizen to realize they’re buying damaged goods and that they believe that snake-oil sales pitches have any merit whatsoever.

In any case, to get local supporters to the stage where they begin abandoning the brand, especially in a hockey-crazed community such as Edmonton, now, that takes sheer genius. Yet, that’s precisely what’s happening. It’s gone so far that scalpers have been trying to sell tickets to what used to be attractive games offering them at deep discounts, much less than the price they had paid to obtain them in the first place. Not only that: they’re finding no takers.

By the way, Edmonton fans are used to looking down on their Vancouver colleagues. Guess what: their Vancouver colleagues showed their displeasure with the Vancouver Canucks brand in no uncertain means. Within a few months, the entire managment crew of the Canucks was gone. Fans are coming back.

Reasons, anybody?

To be fair, general manager Craig MacTavish did his best to sound professionally and show a dose of honesty. Announcing Dallas Eakins’s departure, MacTavish would admit that he’s to blame for the mess to a degree. What a turn of events from just less than two weeks ago when he blamed everybody but himself, telling all and sundry he hasn’t been in office long enough to clean up the mess.

Of course, MacTavish’s use William Shakespeare’s kind of imagery has turned what was supposed to be a wake of almost tragic proportions into a farce.

Well, at least he was honest, as he was announcing that Dallas Eakins would no longer coach the team. This is a positive character quality, and it’s not new. After all, it was MacTavish himself who resigned as coach in 2009. He wasn’t fired. It showed honesty and loyalty to the club, despite the fact that it must have hurt him beyond belief.

But that was then, this is now.

The Oilers have started going down after two events: first, after the departure of Peter Pocklington, and, secondly, after the departure of Glen Sather.

No, not after the Wayne Gretzky trade. They did manage to win another Stanley Cup without him, too.

Granted, Pocklington’s personality didn’t attract everybody, and it couldn’t, either. His faults were many. Not as many as some of his critics would say, and not as few as some of his supporters would claim. And the fact the Oilers won five (count them: five) Stanley Cups while Pocklington was their owner, does not necessarily reflect his ownership genius. Yet, it does remain an undisputed (and undisputable) fact.

Granted, Sather’s departure was engineered to bring in some fresh air and cut the club’s ties to the past. That’s what the gang of 21, a.k.a. Oilers’ new ownership group would claim. Yet, in the interest of continuity, they would replace Sather with Kevin Lowe.

Here’s the issue: Kevin Lowe is a highly intelligent, professional, honest and loyal human being. He knows more about hockey (both as the game and as the business) than all of the members of the ownership group combined. He faced a barrage of suggestions and proposals from these people and, for whatever reasons, he didn’t tell them to go where he should have told them to go.

The ownership group, a gathering of hockey ignoramuses if there ever was one, would eventually give up and sell the club to a pharmacy chain owner.

Why? Because it hated losing money, that’s why.

What’s so new about the so-called new era?

Daryl Katz claims he’s been the club’s fan since time immemorial. As a little kid who’s never managed to grow up, he’s still incredibly proud that he can count these great stars of the past amongst his personal friends. Why, he’s even got their home phone numbers, and he can call them by their first names, too, and how many of you can do that?

Therein lies the first mistake: a professional sports club is a business like any other. While it can’t hurt if its owner likes what his or her company produces, whatever it may be, an owner’s first and foremost approach must be professional. Businesslike, that is. In the Edmonton Oilers’ media book, Daryl Katz reveals he’s not aware of anything of the kind. He waxes poetic about how much he’s a fan throughout his biographical entry. Good for him, probably, but awful for the business, for sure.

Because of this approach, he views his vice-president (Lowe) and general manager (MacTavish) as his personal buddies, and he wouldn’t do anything to cause them pain.

That it may hurt the guys in the future, nobody seems to have told him: if they continue working for Daryl Katz, their reputations around the league will be going down, if they hadn’t yet.

Frankly, Kevin Lowe’s “best before” label has expired. At least in this market. He would absolutely be a perfect leader in 29 other NHL locations. Not in Edmonton, any longer.

In MacTavish’s case, the scenario is more difficult.

After his resignation as a head coach, in addition to coaching in minor leagues and commenting on television, MacTavish went and earned himself an MBA degree. Commendable. Remarkable, even. But: business administration touches upon economics, the science that is behind it, only rarely and very briefly. Too rarely and too briefly, in fact. Which means that, it seems, nobody mentioned an advanced economics theory known as the Peter Principle to him.

Named after Laurence Johnston Peter, a Canadian economist, educator and “hierarchiologist,” the theory deals with the sadly undisputable fact that we all have our ceilings so far as our abilities are concerned.

Here’s an example: a car mechanic is able to hear right away everything that’s going on inside the vehicle’s engine as the customer is driving his car in. The guy is a genius. Cars that he fixes would fetch more on second-hand markets than what the original owner had paid for them to begin with.

The mechanic gets promoted. He becomes a foreman. This is still relatively OK. He still has to (and gets to) work on the shop floor. His reputation as a genius keeps bringing new customers to the shop.

Everybody’s happy. Well, not everybody, actually. The paperwork is more often than not late. The guy’s main interest is still in the engines, not behind a desk. But so famous is he that the dealer promotes him to the position of service department manager. Which is precisely where it all comes crashing down. The guy interferes with the mechanics, he’s getting in their way, and the paperwork keeps getting more and more unfinished.

What happened? The unfortunate guy is a step or two above his ceiling. It can’t work, and it doesn’t.

And that’s precisely where Craig MacTavish is right now. An honest, hardworking guy who forgot more about hockey than the rest of us will ever know, he has stumbled (or was pushed – that doesn’t matter) into an untenable position.

Proof?

How about MacTavish’s inauguration speech? Remember? He’s going to make bold moves, and he’s impatient.

That one singular turn of phrase gave 29 of his opposing numbers reliable weapons. The one about lack of patience in particular: oh, we’ll just outwait him.

Oh, he wants this or that player? We’ll demand this or that player in return. Mostly players who were on MacTavish’s “untouchable” list.

His dismissal of previous coach, Ralph Krueger, during a Skype conversation about hiring an associate coach (in Dallas Eakins) did nothing to make Edmonton more attractive to potential new talent behind the bench. Whether MacTavish intended it to look and sound like this is absolutely irrelevant. It looked and sounded incredibly disrespectful. Everybody around the league is aware of this.

After this fiasco, how many will even begin to consider Edmonton an ideal spot to work as a coach? A rhetorical question, this.

True, MacTavish has had a hand in replacing about a half of the team. How many of the newcomers have been a success outright, how many have meant no change, and how many have been an unmitigated disaster?

Change for the sake of change may make you look like the busiest of beavers in the world. It doesn’t get you anywhere.

Attacking the club’s scouting staff doesn’t go over exceptionally well, either. The scouts are told, instructed, even, what kind of players their club is after. So, they go and concentrate on looking for that kind of players. Is it their fault? Is it somebody else’s fault? How about the general manager’s?

Here’s a sad picture: Pat Quinn comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Tom Renney comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Ralph Krueger comes in as a coach, and finds that the club can’t think of number one draft choices as automatic saviours within the first years of their careers. Result? Dismissed.

Steve Tambellini figures the same thing out, too. Result? Dismissed.

Whose hand do you detect here? Kevin Lowe’s? Absolutely not. He’s a hockey guy, and hockey guys’ views are much more realistic. He knows the NHL is not what junior players have got used to. He knows the NHL is superior to the AHL, too.

Lest anybody dreams that Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, both described by hockey experts as generational players (whatever THAT is supposed to mean) will turn the Oilers’ fortunes within the first few shifts of their arrival, think again.

Not even Wayne Gretzky managed to turn the Los Angeles Kings’ fortunes around and help them win the Stanley Cup. Yes, they got into game seven in the cup finals, but it took a much better-rounded club for the Kings to win it all years later. And nobody will dispute that if there ever was a generational player, it was Gretzky.

Is there a way out?

No, there isn’t, as it is. Definitely not as long fans are going to support their team in good times and bad, accepting that they’re being sold a bill of goods year after year after year.

Can there be a way out? Yes, under new ownership, there can be. Can that happen? Certainly. The owner will have to feel his club’s fans’ discontent where it hurts the most. In Daryl Katz’s case, in his wallet. Then, and only then, will there be hope that the Edmonton Oilers can begin aspiring to greatness again.

Will it ever happen? Why not? Then again: why yes?

Craig MacTavish claims he’s got an alibi … but what about his club?

This is called alibism at its best: surrounded by media hawks, most of them out for blood like a bunch of sharks, Edmonton Oilers’ general manager Craig MacTavish told them his club plans to stay the course because what he’s doing makes sense. If there were anybody to blame, it would be his predecessors in office. Craig MacTavish’s got an alibi: he’s been in office – your choice: 18 months? 20 months? – to sum up, not long enough to be blamed for the state his club is in.

Who’s to blame? Of course, Craig MacTavish’s immediate predecessor, Steve Tambellini, comes to mind first. Next in line: the guy who hired Craig MacTavish in the first place, one Kevin Lowe. If we were to read anything of importance into MacTavish’s “media availability” Friday (what’s wrong with “news conference,” anyway?), the other person to blame would be the Oilers’ owner, Daryl Katz.

From what is known, owner Katz’s new right-hand man, former Hockey Canada poohbah Bob Nicholson, has been closeted with Lowe and MacTavish the last few days, trying to figure out how to right the ship.

Like: what else is new?

If what MacTavish told the media gathering was all the Oilers’ top honchos had come up with, it was much ado about nothing. The club is starring in a frightful comedy of errors (to stay with William Shakespeare’s plays a bit longer), and all its general manager has got to say he’s got an alibi, and besides, it takes more time. In all fairness: case studies show that, indeed, to completely rebuild a professional sports club (or any corporation that size, for that matter) takes not only a dollop of patience, but also a bit of time. Say, anywhere between five and six years. Not much longer, not much less, either. These case studies, of course, deal with rebuilding operations that go from top to bottom.

Did you notice the qualification: from top to bottom?

And that’s what the Edmonton Oilers have been trying to avoid all along.

Bob Nicholson’s eyes are the only set that has come from the outside, and even that begs a question or two: Kevin Lowe has worked with him, on and off, on Hockey Canada’s projects for years. Meanwhile, another boy from the bus, one Mark Messier, has been involved in what ought to be a rescue operation (and isn’t), too.

Nothing against the boys from the bus in the past. They have achieved what they have achieved, and they deserve to bask in all kinds of glory for their past victories.

Except: all of these victories have happened in the past. Not only that: in distant past.

Where to start?

There are several issues at play here.

Number one: there is no quick fix in sight whatsoever.

Number two: with the owner they have, Oilers are content they are making money hand over fist, some of it from masochistic fans who continue to support the team despite hearing from the club (in not so many words) that the Oilers aren’t worth a cent of their hard-earned bucks. Some of the money comes from city government that, for reasons of its own, is robbing its employers (read: the taxpayers) so the Oilers get a new arena. Both sources are welcome, so far as Daryl Katz is concerned.

Coming up with a better product? You’re kidding, right? RIGHT?

Number three: the Edmonton Oilers lack what in the lingo of professional sports has been known as either a franchise player (John Tavares, anyone?), or a generational player (Sidney Crosby, anyone?) In fact, we can safely say they lack both. To their defence, let it be noted there were no such players available in the last several drafts. Still, with many other teams picking gems in later stages of the draft, the question remains: have the Oilers scouts not learnt how to do their homework?

Now, of course, selecting young players is a gamble comparable to deciding the sex of one-day-old chicks. But: picking Steve Kelly, for example, rather than Shane Doan? Please … This goes to show that even the Winnipeg Jets knew better than the Edmonton Oilers in 1995. Kelly went to the Oilers as Nr, 6 overall, Doan to Winnipeg as Nr. 7. Where’s Kelly now? Retired, just like another Oilers’ draft flop, Jason Bonsignore (1994). We all know that Doan captains the Arizona Coyotes now and is doing quite well, thank you very much.

So, the spotty draft record the Oilers own is really nothing new.

What is new is that not many have noticed the Edmonton Oilers haven’t got one single leader on their team. Sure, they have a captain in Andrew Ference, a guy who can be vocal when it comes to that, but also a guy who wasn’t better than Nr. 5 or 6 defenceman in his earlier incarnation with the Boston Bruins. While it’s a given that a captain does not have to be the best player on a team, still, his word should carry the weight of on-ice example.

It is also somewhat surprising that the Oilers haven’t got a bona fide Nr. 1 centre. Yes, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been trying his darndest, and he’s quite good – at being a Nr. 2 centre, not Nr. 1. Similarly, Leon Draisaitl, the Czech-turned-German centre who has been working on the second line with mixed success, would have been much better off back in the WHL. And so would have been the Oilers, if only they could afford it.

Oilers in real danger

For whatever reason, Craig MacTavish didn’t mention the unmentionable, but it exists, and it’s beginning to spread. It’s the fact that more and more fans have been turning their backs on the Edmonton Oilers, choosing to spend their entertainment money elsewhere. It’s called dropping or abandoning the brand, and it’s the worst thing that can happen to a business.

And, remember, professional sports, NHL hockey included, is a business.

Fans (read: customers) abandoning the brand was what cost his job Mike Gillis last summer in Vancouver. It took only a botched goalie trade and whatever followed.

Vancouver fans were more nit-picky (read: more intelligent) than their Edmonton counterparts.

The Edmonton Oilers, once a proud NHL franchise, have become the league’s laughingstock. Their general manager, trying to push the recipe of more of the same down his club’s customers’ throats, saying he was innocent of the bedlam, didn’t help matters one bit.

His club’s only hope: Edmonton Oilers’ fans would be stupid enough to continue buying what this group is selling.

Edmonton Oilers should NOT feel sorry for themselves: it’s their fans who suffer

Some Edmonton Oilers’ players are happy they’ve made the NHL, and that, it seems, is enough. At least, so far as they are concerned.

And when their team is sliding like a pedestrian on an ice patch, way too many of them mope instead of doing something positive.

That would be team captain Andrew Ference’s view. Ference didn’t name names. But he did try to point out what ails his team.

Upon hearing this, it looked for a split of a second as if head coach Dallas Eakins was surprised.

Well, come to think of it, he could have been surprised to hear his captain was making such incendiary statements to reporters. That would be the better scenario.

Eakins’ reaction to the revelation seemed to indicate he might be sharing similar feelings with his captain. Still, he didn’t say that. Good for him. If he did, it would fall into the “washing dirty laundry in public” category, a no-no in the world of professional sports.

In fact, washing one’s dirty laundry in public is anathema to any professional, even to those whose job it is to keep a community’s sewage systems in working order.

Of course, Ference’s statement contrasts wildly with what Eakins had to say at his post-mortem. In the head coach’s view, there weren’t any (or was it many?) issues with the players trying their darndest. It was the execution that did them in.

Yes. And the earth is round. (If you they taught you at school it was, just look out of your window. Believe more what you see than what they tell you at school. Wink-wink.)

This trying-versus-execution thing is a two-way street. There are days when you’re trying like there’s no tomorrow, and the result is a pitiful nothing. And then, there are days when whatever you touch works, and it’s almost like a fairy bestowed a lucky charm upon you.

A personal memory here: a guy who used to play for the Oilers and, at that time, was playing for the Philadelphia Flyers, had an incredible scoring streak. Asked to what would he attribute the string of consecutive 28 or 29 goals, he said he wouldn’t dare even think about it. It’s Lady Luck, he said. Yes, but you’ve got to be good to be lucky, no? Don’t even ask, he answered, don’t jinx it. Better tell me what’s new in Edmonton. And no coaxing would get him back to talk about his scoring streak.

So yes, luck does seem to have something to do with it. And with luck comes confidence.

Another personal memory comes to mind: decades ago, the late Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov couldn’t score a goal even if he tried to shoot the puck into an empty net. Asked about it, his head coach, the late Anatoli Tarasov, shrugged. So what? Does Kharlamov create scoring chances? He does. Is the goalie paid to stop him? He is. Don’t you worry about Kharlamov, Tarasov said. One of these days he’s bound to get a greasy goal, and then wait what’s going to happen.

Sure enough. Just one game later, Kharlamov scored a greasy goal, with the puck barely crossing the goal line. That was by the end of the first period. Midway through the second period he had a hat-trick.

Can this happen with the Oilers?

Remember, the accepted wisdom has it that teams that aren’t in the playoffs by the time American Thanksgiving comes and goes can start waiting for the next season. They are toast so far as this season is concerned.

The American Thanksgiving has come and gone. The Oilers are (yet again) the NHL’s bottom-feeders.

One expects the management is beginning to work on speeches that promise bright future next season. If they believe their fans would accept that, they must also believe in tooth fairies. Or they must think their club’s fans believe in tooth fairies. Or any combination thereof.

One third of the seats in the Arizona game was empty. They might have been sold. But they were empty. Only a wild dreamer will believe these seats will be sold come next season. They will remain empty, all right, but they will also remain unsold. Will that be the long-awaited wake-up call?

Andrew Ference may have spoken out of turn, calling out his teammates for publication, but he had the right to do it: in 20-plus minutes on ice, that translated into 25 shifts, Ference had one shot on goal, one attempt blocked by the opposition, two hits, one giveaway and one blocked shot. Not bad for a grey beard, not bad at all.

Will Ference’s call take the Oilers all the way to the promised land? No. They would have to win most (if not all) of their remaining 57 regular-season games to have a chance of making the playoffs. Can anyone in their right mind see them doing it?

Suppose they win the draft lottery. Whom will they pick? The future legend in Connor McDavid, or Jack Eichel (both centres), or will they at long last do the logical thing and grab a defenceman instead? There is at least one whom experts describe as NHL-ready: Brandon Wheat Kings’ Ryan Pilon. Will the Oilers follow the flash-and-dash, or will they (at long last) try to fill their team’s need?

Before anything of the kind happens, there should be an earthquake of major proportions. Gone should be the owner. With him staying at the helm, there’s but scant hope anything will change. An owner who has his biography in the Oilers’ book filled with statements about what kind of a great fan of his team he is has no business being in this business. Remember: professional sports is a business proposition. It’s as far removed from the idea of sports as it can get. Its owner has to run it as a business, not as an old boys’ club.

To be blunt: while Kevin Lowe deserves all the respect he can get, he should be earning it elsewhere by now. While Craig MacTavish deserves the nickname Silver Fox, in his today’s role he’s above his ceiling. And so on, so far as the management group is concerned.

This is not a re-discovery of America. Everybody who knows a thing or two about the economics of professional sports must be aware of this sad state of affairs by now. Everyone, that is, except the Oilers’ owner.

When a hockey team registers 14 giveaways to the opposition’s five, guess whose hopes of winning are more realistic?

But this is just a minor detail in the larger scheme of things.

No amount of moping by the players and/or players feeling entitled is going to change this picture.

The fans staying away and not buying the unacceptably expensive tickets might.

Edmonton Oilers chasing their own tail in a vicious circle

Is loyalty a good thing?

Yes, absolutely, most would say.

Here’s a cynic’s answer: not really. Or, to make it sound at least a tad more acceptable: not always.

And that is Craig MacTavish’s dilemma. He hired Dallas Eakins to be his team’s head coach. The team is not performing. Time for the head coach to go, right? Wrong, says Craig MacTavish.

Well, he’s got it right to the degree that a head coach can only use players his general manager has given him. So: how much blame should the coach take?

The Edmonton Oilers have been in full face-saving mode in recent days. An extended series of losses would do that to a sports team.

One of the club’s stars, Taylor Hall, went public as saying that the players are all behind their coach, and it’s their fault the team finds itself where it does. He’s got it almost perfectly right: it’s the players who are supposed to perform, not the coach. Of course, this approach has got a hitch: if the players don’t play what their coach tells them to play, they are risking benching, scratching and other such measures, anathema to professional athletes each and all of them. And if they do play what the coach tells them to play, and it’s not working, whose fault is it?

The GM goes public blaming himself for his club’s woes.

Of course, that would be that same Craig MacTavish who opened his general managerial era by telling all and sundry he was after bold moves and, since he was impatient, these moves would have to come sooner rather than later.

In all fairness, Craig MacTavish has made quite a few moves. It’s the boldness of these moves that is going to have to remain in the eyes of the beholder. Besides, and this is much more important, when you are changing an entity, and it does not matter what kind of entity, it usually does not begin with any bold moves whatsoever. Here’s the rule: there has to be a sufficient number (or weight) of so-called quantitative changes before their sheer number (or weight) develops into changes known as qualitative.

Have the Oilers reached that stage where one change, no matter how minor, does change the entire picture all of a sudden? Are we getting close to the situation where the Oilers are again a major threat to all and sundry, and it’s no longer a question of whether they win but by how many goals they win?

It doesn’t look like it from the outside looking in, and it does not look thus from the inside, either.

Craig MacTavish is blaming himself. It is one of the honest answers. Except, of course, he must be aware that his owner has expressed his willingness to support him come what may. If that is the case, Craig MacTavish’s honesty is no longer as pure as it seemed to be.

Here’s a cynical recipe for improvement: get rid of the owner, first and foremost. Then, forget about loyalties and clean house.

In the Oilers’ media book, Daryl Katz waxes lyrical about what a perfect fan of the club he’s been throughout his life. True as this statement may be, it’s a perfectly wrong kind of statement. A professional sports club’s owner may be a fan in the pensive silence of his den, but in public, he (or she) must be a businessman (or woman) in the first place. All of such an owner’s decisions must be based on business and nothing else. Loyalty must never enter the picture.

The logic is simple.

Kevin Lowe, a great guy, a smart man with a lot of hockey sense and business savvy, ought to realize that his “best before” label in (and for) this particular market has run out. Lowe would be a great leader in any of the 29 remaining NHL markets, but in Edmonton, he’s got nowhere to go.

Craig MacTavish seems to fit the so-called Peter Principle to a T. Named after Vancouver native, Professor Laurence J. Peter, its basic rule stipulates: “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.”

Besides, as Professor Peter put it, “noblest of all dogs is the hot-dog; it feeds the hand that bites it.”

A very good head coach who managed to lead his team within a couple of goals (empty-netters do not count) of the Stanley Cup, Craig MacTavish didn’t go soft in his head overnight, to end up facing so much fan wrath that he himself decided to resign. That was honesty and, come to think of it, loyalty at its best. He wouldn’t bite the hand that fed him by staying on.

One of the substantial definitions coming out of Professor Peter’s book is the definition of ceilings. According to Professor Peter, candidates are being way too often selected based on the performance in their current roles. They should be judged based on abilities that are relevant to their intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

Has Craig MacTavish reached this level yet, a new MBA or not?

Tough to judge: most of what he does happens behind closed doors, and the information goes only to those who need to know – and it’s “a need-to-know” as defined by none other than Craig MacTavish himself.

Some of the challenges are obvious: Craig MacTavish works in a most competitive environment. No other general manager is going to help him if he can help it. Getting players off the free-agent markets isn’t too easy, either. Why? Simply because it takes two to tango. Even if Craig MacTavish targets precisely the players his club needs, it still doesn’t mean those players would be eager to come to Edmonton. Any number of reasons, just listing them would take a volume thicker than the Bible, but the fact remains: getting the right free agents to sign on the dotted line is no slam dunk.

Is this Craig MacTavish’s fault? Well, not really. Do we know whether a different general manager would get different reactions from free agents? Well, not really.

So what do we know? We know but one thing: the way things are supposed to work just now, they are NOT working.

So, barring the cynical way mentioned above, is there a solution to Edmonton Oilers’ woes?

The answer: yes.

Does anybody at least seem to know the solution and how to implement it?

The answer: no.

Katz offers disgruntled Oilers’ fans a pacifier

We can view Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s letter to the fans as a public relations move worthy of a genius. Or not.

But no matter how the long-suffering Oilers fans view the apologetic denial of everything that’s gone wrong with the club, it’s still nothing more (or else, for that matter) than public relations, pure and simple. It is, also, a sign of the times that the letter keeps sliding on the surface of the matter, rather than at least trying to get at the substance.

To concede for all reasons and purposes that this season has been a washout when the club still has 30 games to go may sound outrageous, if it wasn’t realistic. Of course, what this does to the athletes is another matter altogether. Yes, they are professionals, and they should play to professional standards game in and game out, no issue here.

But they are also human.

When Ryan Smyth forced Kevin Lowe’s hand with a few minutes to spare before the trading deadline a few years ago, many a player said he felt the team has written that particular season off. That the season had been long lost by that deadline, they could care less. It was the symbolism that stunned them.

And the team that had been stumbling before, just continued on its uncontrolled slide.

And now, the owner himself throws in the towel while there still can be a mathematical chance that things might change. Not a realistic chance, mind you, but still, a chance.

The fans’ wrath has been directed at former defenceman, later assistant coach, then head coach, general manager afterwards, and now, president of hockey operations, Kevin Lowe.

That the wrath hasn’t been justified is one thing. That Daryl Katz is somewhat ingenious (and this is putting it mildly) in his defence of his employee is – again – another matter.

Hockey people from all over the league would tell you that Daryl Katz is getting too involved with stuff he has no business getting involved with. There have been stories galore, told by reliable hockey people independently of one another, that where the Oilers’ hockey staff were angling for budding defencemen in recent drafts, they were overruled. Guess three times who could it have been to have sufficient power to do that.

If that is Kevin Lowe’s fault, then he’s also guilty of the volcano eruptions in Iceland several years ago.

And it doesn’t seem Daryl Katz plans to change his ways any time soon.

While boasting the club’s recent acquisitions (Andrew Ference, David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Anton Belov, Justin Schultz, Ben Scrivens, Matt Hendricks and, yes Ilya Bryzgalov), as if he deserved the credit for finding them and signing them up to join the Oilers, Katz goes on to say he doesn’t anticipate any quick-fix trades. Considering this statement is just a few lines removed from his assurance that the roster and its changes are GM Craig MacTavish’s call, and nobody else’s, this is a salto mortale (full somersault, a.k.a. deadly jump) that ought to have readers scratching their heads in shock and disbelief.

So, who’s running what?

The logic is perfectly simple: Daryl Katz has hired Kevin Lowe, a capable hockey guy. Lowe, in turn, hired Craig MacTavish, another capable hockey guy, whereupon MacTavish, in yet another turn, hired Dallas Eakins. Lowe knows better than to stick his nose into MacTavish’s business, and MacTavish knows better than to stick his nose into Eakins’ business.

What if their employer took a correspondence course from them?

You are either satisfied with your employees, or not. If you are satisfied, you leave them alone. If you are not, well, there might be others available to fill these jobs.

Whether Katz’s message to Oilers’ fans will end up having the soothing effect to help heal Oilers fans’ long-hurting pride remains to be seen.

While it’s the fans who, all things considered, pay the piper, it doesn’t mean they are always right. Except, any business owner worth her or his salt knows they better handle their customers as their bosses. Simply because they are paying for the fun.

It’s most unfortunate: the word fans comes (basically) from a version of the word fanatics. If they were to entertain sober second thoughts, they would have long ago come to the conclusion that watching adult people perform in children’s sports, earning shamelessly adult money is an insult to their own intelligence.

Of course, it doesn’t sound too cynical to suggest that Daryl Katz’s love letter to his paying customers was supposed to meet one more objective. It seems citizen support for city council spending taxpayer dollars on a new arena has been decreasing relatively significantly during the last few weeks. The gradual decrease turned into a freefall after the recent demand that city employees leave their current offices and move into a new downtown office tower, one proposed and owned by (who else?) Daryl Katz.

Yes, it does sound cynical, does it not?

But so does Daryl Katz’s recent attempt at pacifying his customers.

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.

Kevin Lowe preaches calm: easy for him to say

There’s no need to be ashamed, depressed, even, when your coach calls you into his office and gently informs you that you will be joining the NHL club’s minor league affiliate or, Heavens forbid, return to your junior club.

Thus said Kevin Lowe, Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations, in the most recent installment of TV documentary Oil Change, a.k.a. Overdrive.

This segment, by the way, airs Sunday, at 11 p.m. on Sportsnet West.

A player who is told to go to the farm team (or return to his junior club) should accept this as a challenge. Basically, the NHL team tells him, we like you, love you, even, otherwise, we wouldn’t have kept you. But we think you need to learn this and master that, to make yourself really indispensible for the top club.

That’s the gist of the train of thought behind Lowe’s statement.

Of course, this is playing with words.

Imagine you’re at school. Your teacher tells you you’ve had unsatisfactory marks in, say, math and you will have to repeat the year. What the teacher is telling you is simple: you’ve failed in math. If you have any ambition left in your mind and/or body, you will be livid. The teacher will be the first culprit. She or he doesn’t know how to teach math in the first place, how was I supposed to understand? The fact that the rest of the class understood with admirable ease doesn’t become part of the equation. Not yet.

Your next step would be that the teacher doesn’t like you. Never liked you, anyway. Why? Because of your strong personality? Whatever, your failure is a sign of the teacher’s personal animosity towards your wonderfully bright and talented persona. And, besides, Albert Einstein failed his high school math, too. So there.

If you’re lucky, but only if you’re lucky, you’ll figure out you’ve failed because you didn’t work hard enough, or you were not talented enough, or both. Now, you’ll have two options: sulk or start working. Hard work, by the way, is more often than you imagine more important than talent. In any case, if you do apply yourself, and if you do succeed eventually, you’ll be looking at that year of repetition as the best thing that could have happened to you: you’ve learned how to work. That should count for something special.

This is exactly what Kevin Lowe would like his players to understand.

Of course, it’s easy for him to say. One of the original NHL Oilers, the guy who scored their first NHL goal (shocking indeed: no, it wasn’t Wayne Gretzky, it had to be Kevin Lowe, of all people, to perform the feat for the new NHL franchise!), former player, captain, coach and general manager, he’s got it made. Never ever sent to the minors, now he can dispense advice as an elder … ooops, more mature statesman, right?

The question is not whether Kevin Lowe is right. The question is whether Oilers’ players think he’s right.

Based on conversations with many who had the misfortune befell them throughout the years, the consensus opinion would be: Oh, yeah?

Here’s the issue: hockey players (just as players in all team sports) have been trained to know that there’s no I in team. Except, to be able to make the team, especially in the rarefied top-notch leagues’ air, athletes have to concentrate on themselves. Without individual skills, nobody will bother to give them a look, or a second look, even. What does it mean? It means there is a certain level of egocentrism and egotism involved. You’ve got to push yourself. No need to push the others.

After all, there is a certain level of egocentrism and egoism in all of us. We all think of ourselves as the standard by which we measure the rest of the world. It has nothing to do with whether we’re right or not. It’s just the way it is, that’s all, and nobody can blame you (or me, or her, or him, or anybody else).

A hockey player who’s trying to become an NHL club’s member knows perfectly well that there are four vacancies on right wing, four at centre, four at left wing, there are so many spots on the blue line, and there can be only one goalie in the net at a time, with another to back him up, and having three goalies on an active rosters more often than not spells trouble.

Will a particular, say, centre, sigh and say, aaaaaaah, this is perfectly rotten, there are four better centres than I am on the team already, and now what’s a guy to do? I can either ask for a trade to a team that is short on good centres, and God knows I am one, or I can accept a demotion and work hard to become better than those four centres ahead of me. I’ll compete with them, and I’ll win.

You see, it’s not always about money. Much more often, it’s about pride. And you cannot become the top dog in anything without at least a certain amount of pride.

After all, it’s even the dictionary that defines it. You’re cut. You’re demoted. You’re sent down. You’re returned. Does any of these words have any positive connotations?

Kevin Lowe meant well, obviously. What Kevin Lowe meant was there’s no need to succumb to negative thinking because THAT gets you nowhere. Positive thinking has become a cliché, but it still exists. It may help get you closer to your goal. Then again, it mightn’t.

But even if you lose at the proverbial numbers game and it’s Oklahoma City or bust for you, at least, you’ll fly there with a smile on your face.

Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.