Some sanity has come to Edmonton Oilers land, with The Hockey News, the game’s most venerable publication, setting out the makings of a reasonable goal for the team in 2015-16.
In its preseason predictions, The Hockey News sees the Oilers finishing fifth overall in the Pacific Division, behind Anaheim, Los Angeles, Calgary and San Jose, but ahead of Vancouver and Arizona.
Make sense to you? Sounds reasonable to me. And it’s a welcome change from the more outlandish expectations we’ve seen for the Edmonton franchise. In recent years, even without Connor McDavid on board, much has been expected of the Oilers, even as the team has delivered so little each year.
For example, in January 2013, before the start of the 2012-13 lock-out shortened season, hockey writer Adrian Dater, then of Sports Illustrated, said the Oilers were the third best team in the NHL. “Check with me in a month or two, but it says here that they will get off to a great start — which really ups the odds of getting into the playoffs. Why the reason for Oil optimism? Because Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and newcomer D-man Justin Schultz all played regularly during the lockout in the AHL and will be that much further along than the players who were limited to informal skates or shinny matches for charity.”
Dater was correct that Hall, RNH, Eberle and Schultz had a massive edge and the foursome did come out flying that season, but they also had some mediocre puck luck. While the team had a good run under Ralph Krueger, the Oilers ultimately fell apart in crunch time. The failure led to the quick firing of Krueger and his boss, Steve Tambellini.
Then there was the September 2013 prediction by USA Today that the Oilers under new coach Dallas Eakins and new GM Craig MacTavish were going to be a powerhouse. After taking a poll of NHL players, writer Kevin Allen reported: “USA TODAY Sports surveyed 29 top NHL players and asked them to choose one team that will rise up to be a powerhouse in three seasons. The Oilers received 16 votes. No other team picked up more than five votes.”
In that article, Allen pointed out that comparisons between these Oilers and the recent rebuild success stories in Chicago and Pittsburgh make some sense. “The comparisons to the Penguins and Blackhawks are appropriate because the foundation blocks of their success were high-profile draft picks.”
Of course, the Eakins/MacTavish Oilers fell apart both in 2013-14 and 2014-15. It was the lowest time in franchise history, save for the Gretzky sale, mainly because the team was loaded with high draft picks and the failure didn’t seem to compute, nor did things appear to be getting any better.
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If it seems like I’m picking on Dater and Allen here, well, it would be difficult to find an Oilers fan or blogger out there who hasn’t been guilty of at least one or two spasms wild-eyed optimism since the day Taylor Hall was drafted in June 2010.
Without the luck of the McDavid lottery, I doubt anyone would be saying this team has powerhouse written all over it this year. Even with McDavid, the Oilers will be hard-pressed to challenge for the playoffs, at least if we go by the history of awful teams that pick up generational talents. Those teams tend to improve a bit in the star’s rookie season, but only truly take off in the second season, which would be 2016-17 for the Oilers.
Last season, Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary were all playoff teams, with 101, 99 and 97 points respectively. Edmonton had just 62 points. The gap is large, very large.
Can the Oilers overtake any of these squads? Because that’s part of what success would look like this year. I’m not suggesting here the Oilers will make the playoffs or even challenge for the playoffs, just that they would edge ahead one of their Western Canadian rivals. That would be most excellent, no?
I agree with The Hockey News that the Canucks are the best bet for such a collapse. After Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the pickings are somewhat thin at forward, with Radim Vrbata, Brandon Sutter, Alexandre Burrows, Jannik Hansen, Bo Horvat, Sven Baertschi and Chris Higgins rounding out the top nine forwards. The Sedins, Vrbata and Burrows are all 34, when the wheels can easily fall off a hockey player due to age and injury. Maybe a younger forward or two will make the team and help bolster its fortunes. That kind of jolt is desperately needed.
The Top 4 d-men are Alexander Edler, Chris Tanev, Dan Hamhuis and Yannick Weber, not exactly the 1976 Montreal Canadiens, or even the 2011 Canucks. This is a team that looks to be in trouble.
Calgary? Who knows?
The Flames shot up last year, so perhaps they’re due to crash back down to earth. Their roster looks solid, though, especially if Dougie Hamilton lives up to his billing and young Sam Bennett comes on as strong as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.
Winnipeg? That team appears to be heading into its peak period, not out of it. It’s got some good young forwards and some strong veteran d-men.
So Vancouver is the right target in 2015-16.
Of course, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan will be focused on the process, on day-by-day improvement, on skill and tactical development, on improving the culture, on all those good things we’ve heard endlessly about, for years, even as the results never changed.
As a fan, I’d like to see a result. So beat Vancouver — that would be the ticket.