The Edmonton Oilers, and the art of falling apart

Being an Oiler fan is an exercise in existential ennui. How can one NHL team be this bad for this long?

Jason Franson/CP

Jason Franson/CP

This Oilers season seems likely to be remembered for the Jersey Toss. On Dec. 21, the Edmonton NHL side, floundering holders of an 11-23-3 record and a ?ve-game streak of regulation losses, welcomed the coldly dominant St. Louis Blues into Rexall Place. The morning skate went inauspiciously: Oilers captain Andrew Ference accidentally ran into slumping fan favourite Ryan Jones, who was knocked out and scratched for the game when his head smacked the ice. Coach Dallas Eakins scrambled the lines to meet the emergency, not that there hadn’t already been a good deal of line-scrambling already, and announced an experiment with a new second power-play unit.

It made no difference—not for the better, anyway. New Oiler goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, retrieved from the ranks of bought-out free agents when original starter Devan Dubnyk proved shaky, had his own case of the yips. His opposite number, Brian Elliott, protected a 1-0 Blues lead after a first period that saw the Oilers outshoot St. Louis 14-5. The shots went 28-9 in the other direction the rest of the way. The final score was six-zip, and could have been worse, given how ragged the Oilers looked by the final horn.

As valedictory boos were echoing through an emptying Rexall, one fan pulled off his Oilers jersey (Ales Hemsky’s No. 83) and tossed it onto the ice in a protest witnessed nationwide on Hockey Night In Canada. A couple of days later, Eakins denounced the anonymous fan as a “quitter,” venturing on a sociological excursion. “This city, the people who work in the oil industry, they’re not quitters?… For some fan to show us all that he quit? He’s done, he threw in the towel.

“I’ve only been here a short time,” Eakins added, “but I think I’ve got a feeling for the people in this city.”

That’s just the kind of luck Eakins, who was being heckled at Rexall by ticket-holding children by early November, has enjoyed this year. Tracked down by the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones, the despairing jersey-tosser turned out to be a local construction worker, 29-year-old Curtis Goyetche, who has cheered for the Oilers all his life and who never misses a home opener. He was, in other words, probably the wrong guy for the coach to engage in a contest of workin’-class grit and oil-begrimed authenticity. Eakins was soon forced to retreat somewhat from the presumptuous tirade.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Eakins, the Toronto Marlies wonderboy for whom the Oilers won a bidding war this off-season, was supposed to be at the vanguard of an Oiler resurgence. He undeniably conforms to the classic model of a head coach better than the past few men the Oilers have tried—a worn-out, semi-coherent Pat Quinn; platitudinous, unthreatening Tom Renney; and intelligent, inspiring Ralph Krueger, who came over from Europe and who, at times, seemed more interested in trying out for Most Interesting Man in the World than in the performance of his hockey team. (Krueger has just been hired to the board of Premier League soccer side Southampton F.C. So interesting!)

The dauntingly intense Eakins provided an immediate strong contrast with all these men, and came to the team breathing fire about expectations and tactics and player fitness. His press conferences are, without exception, sensationally reasonable and lucid. But within weeks, he was complaining that his ambitious plans had gone amiss because he had overestimated the defensive training of his players.

It seemed like a revealing hint. The Oilers let Eakins bring protege Keith Acton aboard, but sheltered the rest of the coaching staff—individuals with the dubious honour of having served the NHL’s worst-performing team of the last three seasons (including this one). The Oilers are also the worst overall NHL team over the last four seasons; and the last five; and, if you want to get technical, the last six, seven, eight and nine.

They might just finish last again this year. At the time of writing, the Oilers have 38 points in the standings and are ahead of only Buffalo. The Sabres are three points behind—but have played four fewer games. However it ends, the Oilers’ latest annus horribilis will follow seasons in which they finished, in order, 30th, 30th, 29th and 24th. (The NHL is a 30-team league.) The franchise’s most recent playoff tilt was Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup final—a receding memory that grows more torturous with distance.

They won the draft lottery three times running, beginning in 2009-10, becoming only the second team to pick first overall three consecutive times. The infuriating part, for Oilers fans, is that all three of those player selections are working out acceptably, by established standards. The first of them, Taylor Hall, was denied a post-season All-Star slot last year, only because the self-described Professional Hockey Writers’ Association couldn’t remember which wing Alexander Ovechkin plays on; they voted Ovie in on both sides. Hall would have been the Oilers’ first All-Star, on either the First team or the Second, since Mark Messier in 1990.

Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are all good players. Yakupov detractors might quibble, but there aren’t many of those in Edmonton. The genial Tatar is, at worst, a flawed 20-year-old, practically still a rookie, with terrifying, surreal skills. He might have the highest ceiling of the trio. The Oilers should, soon enough, have three shooting stars in exchange for those three picks.

So why the apparent regression, after a shortened season in which the Oilers actually managed to edge out their Calgarian rivals in the final standings? The team’s problems in net are no secret. They have used five different goalies through 53 games, shipping Dubnyk to Nashville and bringing aboard local lad Ben Scrivens. The blueline has seen a barrage of alarming errors, and lacks even the semblance of a proper No. 1, minute-devouring defenceman.

At forward, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle just aren’t getting much help. It would be hard to argue otherwise, given the team’s 30th-place goal-scoring total. (They are not close to 29th.) David Perron, acquired from St. Louis in a trade for disappointing Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson, played ludicrously far over his head for about 30 games and cooled off. Boyd Gordon is handling his faceoff-specialist job. Aside from them, the supporting cast might as well be guys Edmonton already finished last with, and, in several cases, they are.

It is early to blame new general manager Craig MacTavish, who professes an “impatient” attitude toward re-rebuilding, but is somewhat fettered. The league suffers from its usual dearth of big-boss defencemen; meaningful trading has all but halted as GMs await an anticipated 2014-15 explosion of the salary cap; and no one is eager to sell any of the Oilers’ young crown jewels at a discount.

Eakins, despite heroic dignity and encouragingly progressive ideas, has quickly developed a crowd of haters who suspect he is an AHL coach running an AHL team. But he is expected by insiders to get another season, no matter what, and the coaching carousel in Edmonton may already have been part of the problem.

So … whom does that leave? Oiler legend Kevin Lowe was made general manager of the team in 2000, brought them to the doorstep of a Cup, and saw things crumble in an eyeblink. Lowe was promoted to president of hockey operations to make room for an astonishingly hapless replacement, Steve Tambellini. Lowe is still, somehow, in the organization’s senior job, making annual assurances that, no, he is not secretly running this ghastly show from behind the scenes. Not that he stays very far behind the scenes, mind you.

Lowe skated in all ?ve Oiler Cup wins and is the only player to log 1,000 games in an Oiler uniform. He had built a pretty significant fund of goodwill in Edmonton—the more so for his unstinting involvement in local philanthropy. But the spasmodic “fire Lowe” outcries are perpetual, and he made several ugly missteps in an acrimonious off-season press conference. He made an invidious distinction between ticket-buying fans, who are presumably adoring the perfume of the eight-year Oiler tire fire, and the carping shut-ins at home watching TV. He also invited the press to count his six Stanley Cup rings, the last of which was earned in New York three days before O.J. Simpson’s Bronco ride. Lowe could hardly have done more to create an impression of invincible arrogance in the face of failure.

With the Oilers drowning as the new season unfolded, the team’s reclusive pharma-billionaire owner, Daryl Katz, peeked above the parapet on Jan. 20, writing an open letter to fans that confessed, “I know this will almost certainly be the eighth consecutive year since we made the playoffs.” He went on to particularly defend Lowe, who “is the target of a lot of personal attacks right now.” And he made sure to add that, no, Lowe isn’t secretly running things.

Katz’s formative years coincided with the Oilers’ glory days, and a form of emotional imprisonment seems to have resulted. One of those ’80s players, Steve Smith, has now outlasted three bosses as an Oilers assistant coach; another, Kelly Buchberger, is on his fifth. “We are all accountable,” boasted Katz in his letter: “That includes me, Kevin, Craig, Dallas?.?.?.?and every member of our staff.” Somewhere, a still, small voice whispered, “All animals are accountable?…?but some animals are more accountable than others.”

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