On Tanking, Connor McDavid, and the Awful Edmonton Oilers

*This article was also published on Black Press’s network of B.C. websites…

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

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Submitted for your approval: Sunday’s game between Washington and the New York Islanders.

These are two teams that know what they’re doing. These are two teams that are, in that way, the opposite of the Edmonton Oilers.

Both Washington (Ovechkin) and New York (Tavares) are led and captained by No. 1 overall picks (the guys in the brackets). Both are bolstered by highly recruited second-fiddles (Nick Backstrom in Washington, Kyle Okposo in New York) and savvy acquisitions. Take what the Islanders did last summer, trading for Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to push for the playoffs, despite missing the postseason by 14 points the year before. Take what the Capitals have done since they drafted Ovi, quickly drafting Backstrom two years after, then surrounding their superstars with players like Mike Green, John Carlson, Troy Brouwer, even Joel Ward, Matt Niskanen, Marcus Johansson, and goalie Braden Holtby.

Some were high-flying juniors, some they traded for, others they produced on their own. And these teams have made mistakes – remember when Washington traded away Filip Forsberg for the one-and-done Martin Erat, or when the Isles signed Rick Dipietro to a 15-year contract? But neither have thrown in the towel, and neither have relied on the Draft Lottery as Plan A.

The draft’s a silver living, not a golden ticket. Except yesterday, when the Oilers won the rights to a generational talent, despite not knowing what to do with one.

Contrast the Capitals and Isles to the Edmonton Oilers and their Benny Hill management. The team has, year after year, been like a Price is Right winner who chooses the trip over the cash, has a terrible time in Jamaica, and then is inexplicably given a second spin at the wheel. And of course, they win it and make the Showcase Showdown.

For a while, it’s been okay. Because the majority of the league pities the Oilers – they’re in Edmonton, we say. It must be cold. It’s a small Canadian market. It can’t be easy to build a team in Siberia. But the narrative’s getting stale – you can only watch Glee so much before it just tumbles into one giant, never-ending, annoying mess of song and dance that ultimately goes nowhere without a plot.

Eventually, the loveable losers become less loveable. They’re just losers now. And I’m starting to identify more with the bullies.

I actually don’t have anything against ‘tanking’. I think we’ve all accepted it for a long time, anyway – every time we identify teams as buyers and sellers at the Trade Deadline, we’re effectively giving some clubs the license to give up on this year so they can focus on the future. So I’m fine with the worst teams drafting earlier, or even first, as long as there’s a little bit of a lottery involved. (Buffalo shouldn’t be guaranteed Connor McDavid, for example, just because they finished last.)

But where’s the accountability for a team like the Oilers, who repeatedly fail and are rewarded for it? They’ve made an effort to get better, sure, but their awfulness is their own doing.

Kevin Lowe is the most inept executive in the game, his only claim to anything coming nine years ago when the team he accidentally cobbled together finished eighth in the West, then went on a flukey run to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost to a better team (the Carolina Hurricanes) and proceeded to sign all their temporary heroes to crippling deals – Fernando Pisani and Shawn Horcoff, for example, were signed to multi-million dollars contracts and predictably never lived up to the standards they set for themselves. The Oilers swallowed themselves whole in years wasted on disappointing prospects like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano – the former never staying healthy enough, the latter only finding his game when he left Edmonton.

And Edmonton continues to be compensated by the Lottery. They had three No. 1 picks from 2010 to 2012, and they spent them all on offensively inclined teenagers who have cancelled each other out. And now, they’ll draft Connor McDavid. This is obviously the correct pick, but should the Oilers even get the chance?

They don’t deserve it. Would it really be difficult for the NHL to impose a rule that says you can’t get the No. 1 pick three years in a row? What about four times in six seasons?

Look at any of the 16 entrants in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and Pittsburgh Penguins have stayed competitive and often excellent by curating superstars and filling in the base. The Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and New York Rangers have rebuilt on the fly. The Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators, and Winnipeg Jets have the same small Canadian market the Oilers have – but they’re winning, not whining. The St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, and Montreal Canadiens have failed to succeed in the playoffs, but they’ll be knocking on Lord Stanley’s door for a while.

Meanwhile, the Oilers are giving themselves a pat on the back because they’re passing the puck, sometimes even seven times straight.

Never has Craig McTavish made the kind of bold move Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made this summer, moving out a guy like Evander Kane for a haul that included Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford, Brendan Lemieux, Joel Armia, and a 1st-Round pick. Never have the Oilers gone after guys like Boychuk or Leddy, or did what the Senators did when they pried No. 1 centre Kyle Turris free from Phoenix.

Edmonton: They’re always waiting for next year – a tomorrow that’s not paying attention to them.

It’s going to be infuriating when this club eventually puts it all together and wins a Cup, and the rest of us have to watch Kevin Lowe smile like he deserves an ounce of credit.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t get too worked up about it. There’s a reason the Oilers have never been able to build a roster, and there’s a reason they and the Sabres are always picking first, second, or somewhere close to that. They’re awful and their management is delusional, and Connor McDavid alone won’t change that.