I’ve seen some tough times as a sports fan. Anyone who followed the Montreal Expos can quote chapter and verse about Rick Monday, Charlie Lea’s injuries, Andre Dawson’s knees and the tragedy that was Ellis Valentine.
Despite winning 5 Stanleys, the Edmonton Oilers offer their own unique headaches, and this season may be the topper. I think we’ve reached a point now where most fans would like to see the coach fired and much of the roster forced to spend the summer waterboarding.
As much as it is frustrating, there are some things we need to factor in. I write this with the complete understanding that it’ll sound apologist and like excuse-making. But if someone thought it was a good idea to make Jacqueline Bissett carry that luggage then it’s fine for me to throw in a defense of Craig MacTavish during the flood that will probably carry him to another NHL team (I’d suggest Ottawa).
- Competitive Balance: Some of us remember when making the playoffs (16/21 used to get in) was a certainty from the opening faceoff on opening night. I think that is still our filter, and when teams don’t make the playoffs it is viewed as a huge failure. Fact is that since the NHL went to 30 teams and the last expansionists gathered enough talent there are no easy playoff spots. Can you imagine an 8 seed in the west 25 years ago as strong as Edmonton was in 2006? Not a chance. Missing the playoffs in the NHL is now similar to missing it in the NFL: good teams do it every year.
- Learning is Painful: Good lord this team has given icetime to the kids. It’s not just a case of mentoring the Gagner’s and the Cogliano’s, it’s also sussing out who can play and who cannot play. Since the lockout MacTavish has given 2 rookie defensemen (Smid 1,481 and Tom Gilbert 1,820) full time jobs; he’s also given extended auditions to Danny Syvret, Mathieu Roy, Bryan Young and is doing so now for Theo Peckham (who has already played 120 minutes in the show). Up front we’ve seen Patrick Thoresen, Brad Winchester, Marc Pouliot, JF Jacques, Zack Stortini and Liam Reddox gain traction as well as seeing Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Kyle Brodziak become NHL regulars. That’s aside from the half hour or so devoted to Rob Schremp and 14 minutes given to Alexei Mikhnov. So it’s not just overcoming Sam Gagner’s back passes or Andrew Cogliano’s lost-in-the-headlights play in his own end, it’s suffering through nights when Brad Winchester was lost or JF Jacques was never where he was supposed to be.
- Balance: I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this, but in my lifetime I can’t recall a team that leaves the tarmac less balanced. I remember some of Whitey Herzog’s teams had three lefties in the bullpen and Buck Rodgers sometimes carried 7 in the bullpen, but starting a season with that fall 2006 defense or beginning the year with the crazy depth chart at center this season is enough to cause many a man to go postal. Certainly fans, maybe coaches too.
- Traction: Part of the joy in watching a cluster develop is to see how they perform under pressure. That’s why I think these playoffs are so important. They might be similar to the Boys on the Bus early on, when they snuck into the playoffs and had some success and some failure. You need to experience it so that next season the goal will be getting deeper into spring. MacT has them farther along this season than last, does that not count for something?
- Veteran Failure: It’s all over the roster, from Ethan’s foibles to Fernando’s injuries to Jason Strudwick’s extreme ineffectiveness. I’ve been thinking about this, and a lot of what is wrong on the blue is that the Oilers chose wrong with their end-of-the-roster veteran for D. I’m not going to be overly critical, because the Oilers under the Lowe/MacT admin have been top dead center very often in this regard, but it’s a factor.
- Emerging Towns: Chicago, Columbus and Vancouver have jumped ahead of the Oilers and not enough Colorado’s are going the other way.
- Kids In the Hall: It’s not going to get any easier, but at least the Oilers young cluster (I count Hemsky, Gilbert, Grebeshkov, Smid, Peckham, Gagner, Cogliano, O’Sullivan, Pouliot, Brodziak, Nilsson, Stortini, Reddox, Deslauriers as being a cluster–remember, Hemsky is only 10 months older than Brodziak) will be better as a group next season. Are you sure this management group will choose well when selecting the next coach?
The rumor that MacT will resign if the Oilers miss the second season is strong in our town, and if true it would fit with his personality and the friendships he has in the organization. If it rolls out in that way, allow me to reserve the right to say “told you so” if the coach moves to another town and has more success than the Oilers.
He may have overstayed his welcome, but he did a lot of good in the development seasons and he had a deep run the one time they gave him the horses. I find no joy in this ending.