Rebuilding in the National Hockey League is a long, daunting task. In the salary cap era, gone are the days of utilizing a mix of strong draft classes and high-profile free agents. This is amplified in smaller markets, although I hesitate to call any Canadian market a “small market” team, a phrase that is often used as justification by ownership to not spend as much money as they should on roster players. Some rebuilds seem to be endless, and some, such as the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins seemingly happen overnight. The Edmonton Oilers are viewed as one of the most exciting up and coming teams the league has seen in years. Before we go so far as to crown the Oilers as a team of the future, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences that they’ve shown compared to the aforementioned success stories.
The story of the Edmonton Oilers’ current situation begins with the draft. As the only team in NHL history to have three consecutive #1 overall picks in the draft, one has to like the chances of one, or at the very least two of those picks to be immediate impact players. Below are the Oilers first two draft picks going back to 2007, with round/overall in parenthesis.
2007 – Sam Gagner (1/6), Alex Plante (1/15)
2008 – Jordan Eberle (1/22), Johan Motin (4/103)
2009 – Magnus Paajarvi (1/10), Anton Lander (2/40)
2010 – Taylor Hall (1/1), Tyler Pitlick (2/31)
2011 – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1/1), Oscar Klefbom (1/19)
2012 – Nail Yakupov (1/1), Mitch Moroz (2/32)
(Starting goalie Devan Dubnyk was selected 1/14 in the 2004 entry draft).
As you can see, the Oilers have a pretty good recent history of selecting players at the top of the draft who are currently making an impact on the roster. Gagner, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, and to a lesser extent Paajarvi and Yakupov are game changing players. Paajarvi and Yakupov are showing intense promise, and should be viewed in the same light as the others in the near future.
That’s a pretty impressive start. So what makes the Oilers different from the Chicago’s and the Pittsburgh’s? In my opinion it’s all about supporting cast. The Blackhawks have Kane, Toews, Sharp, Hossa, and Keith. They also have Bolland, Hjalmarsson, Carcillo, Frolik, and Stalberg. The top tier guys are obvious talents who can score at any moment, but there really are no weaknesses. The young guys have support from veterans who can play the game and get their hands dirty. You can build a lineup with two lines of great talent and have some success, but it’s impossible to win consistently without those gritty bottom-6 players. You have to have a little bit of nasty to go with your flash and dash. You need the Brent Sopel out there blocking shots. You need the John Madden doing whatever it takes to win that key face-off. Talent isn’t always directly reflected on the score-sheet.
The problem that the Oilers face going forward is that they’re building a culture of losing. With so many young star players, it’s a recipe for disaster. When you’re taken in the top 5 of the NHL draft, chances are that you’re not accustomed to losing games at any point of your career. This idea of losing and waiting for the future is foreign to many on the Oilers’ roster. We can all say that the Oilers are on their way, but once losing becomes accepted as a means to the “big picture”, the picture fades rather quickly. With the core of the team at around the same age, the current course is a recipe for disaster.
I am, however, optimistic that the Oilers will be a good team because of their high-end talent. With that said, their high-end talent is exactly why their window is smaller than most think. A culture of winning needs to be instilled in young players’ minds as soon as possible.