The worst team in hockey wins yet again

Colby Cosh on why the Oilers’ off-ice luck hasn’t brought much on-ice success
LONDON, ON - JANUARY 9: Connor McDavid #97 of the Erie Otters skates up ice against the London Knights in an OHL game at Budweiser Gardens on January 9, 2015 in London, Ontario, Canada. The Otters defeated the Knights 6-2. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Maybe the most natural metaphor for the Edmonton Oilers’ victory in the 2015 NHL draft lottery is a life preserver. Specifically, a life preserver thrown into the water a fourth time by extremely angry rescuers. The Oilers won the draft lottery in 2010, having finished in last place the previous year. In 2011, the Devils won (even Oilers fans forget this trivia nugget), moving up the then-maximum four slots from eighth place and leaving the last-place Oilers with the top pick. Edmonton started with the second pick in 2012, since Columbus had finally done them the favour of finishing behind them in the standings, but the Oilers won the lottery and leapt past the Blue Jackets.

By this time, fans in 29 cities were already screaming, “Oh, come on!” Only one franchise, the 1989-91 Quebec Nordiques, had ever picked first in three consecutive NHL entry drafts. That led to a Stanley Cup triumph five years after the last of the picks, after the Nords had absconded to Colorado. Quite a few Oilers fans started a sort of mental stopwatch after the team drafted Nail Yakupov in 2012.

The Oilers have never even briefly looked like a team that was on course to win the Stanley Cup in 2017. They finished 24th overall in the league table in 2012-13 and 28th in 2013-14. A mid-season coaching change this season saw them rocket into . . . er, 28th place again. No team has ever been this bad for quite this long in the modern NHL.

I think I have probably written this exact thing before in some “Why do the Oilers stink?” article or other, but this performance is emphatically not the fault of the Oilers’ existing trio of first-overall picks. Even Yakupov, who has been challenging league records for bad plus-minus stats, is the second-highest scorer in his draft cohort. Edmonton has not particularly felt the need for a do-over on any of the picks, and it is too early to declare any of them busts. The problem has been literally everything else: the picks beyond Round 1, the beer-league fourth-line forwards, the pathological ineptitude in evaluating defencemen, bad luck with goaltending.

Now the Oilers, outraging justice and defying probability, have won the right to draft Erie Otters centre Connor McDavid. McDavid has a much higher ceiling than any of the past Oiler number ones. He is what the draftniks always call a “generational” talent, close to the level of a Sidney Crosby; he probably rates even higher than no-doubters such as Steven Stamkos and John Tavares. His gaudy 143 points in 56 regular-season and OHL playoff games this season is not quite a Gretzky-like figure, but wouldn’t have embarrassed 99. Crosby scored 199 in 75 games in his last year of junior—a slightly higher rate, earned in the scoring-friendly Quebec circuit.

The rage of hockey fans at the Oilers winning the lottery again is compounded by the knowledge that the NHL is not the NBA or the NFL. Forwards taken first overall can be pretty confidently expected to succeed, which is one reason forwards almost always go off the board first. McDavid is as near-certain a Hall of Famer as one can be, assuming one is 18 and doesn’t ride motorbikes or fight in bars.

So the fear that the Oilers might “ruin” McDavid is not very realistic. Nor will he balk at playing in Edmonton, although his face revealed disappointment when the Oilers’ envelope was opened. The lottery was opened to all non-playoff teams this time around, so McDavid had a chance of going to a half-decent team, or a warm climate, or a low-tax state. If it had been a bidding war instead of a lotto, the Oilers would have had little to offer aside from a new arena, some young linemates with elite talent, and not being Winnipeg.

The fear in Edmonton is that McDavid will start putting up 130-point seasons right away and the Oilers still won’t be able to tell a defenceman from an ornamental gourd. To contend in the NHL, you have to get decisions right beyond first overall. In Edmonton, we had Wayne Gretzky, and we learned how arduous the path to championships still was. Then we parted with Gretzky, and the team assembled around him won without him.

He never won it all without them. Connor McDavid is very, very welcome to Edmonton; I hope he will learn to love it, and I will do him the favour of not calling him a “saviour,” for, in hockey, there is no such thing.