Will the Edmonton Oilers Ever Figure It Out?

This is such an Edmonton thing.

That flaccid franchise stranded in the middle of Alberta – stranded both physically and in the context of the league it pretends to compete in – has a history of destroying its own products through its own doing, and then blaming it on the folks it boots from the room.

Last summer, when perpetually embattled (and for good reason) president Kevin Lowe announced the switch from general manager Steve Tambellini to Craig MacTavish (honestly, he’s still answering their calls?) you would have thought the Oilers had blown up the barn and reincarnated Wayne Gretzky. Lowe claimed to be a champion still because he was a champion once, apparently believing that a fluke run as an eighth seed in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs should override back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back playoff-less campaigns, even though we’ve all been told – and we’re all waiting – this team is on the rise. Even as we watch the Oilers corral number one picks year-after-year, blowing them through poor development and prematurely handed out long-term contracts.

We’re seeing it right now with Nail Yakupov, who was the best prospect in the world no less than 18 months ago.

In his few months as an Oiler – remember, his first year included 17 goals and 31 points in a shortened and largely disrupted 48-game season – Yakupov has not looked like the dominant player that terrorized goaltenders with the Sarnia Sting and broke Canadian hearts as a Russian all-junior.

All of a sudden, when the faint rumour that Yakupov might either want to be traded or should be traded comes along – a rumour that has been discussed in too many basements and newsrooms already, whether it’s by the water cooler or on the record – the knee-jerk reaction from the Oilers’ brass follows.

They apply as much preparation and care to assembling their excuses and public statements as they’ve applied to assembling their team.

MacTavish called the rumours a “distraction” (which they certainly are) and the situation has been described as“drama”. MacTavish stuck up for his sophomore product, which he should have, but the scoffing and the bitterness that seeps from every sentence spoken in central Alberta has never failed to be laughable.

from Yahoo! Sports and reporter Nick Cotsonika:

“I think Yak’s been treated very fairly since he’s been in our organization,” MacTavish told a large group of reporters, obviously annoyed. “We like Yak. I’ve said that many times. It’s a much bigger story for you people, and it’s becoming a bit of a distraction for us right now because we’re having to answer these questions.”

Mac T then launched into a step-by-step analysis in case the dumb-dumbs in the crowd have never watched a game. He sounded like an airline attendant explaining to you the important of a seat belt.

“… He’s a dynamic player that’s going to need time to develop and get to the level that we all expect him to get to. Is it a smooth line from where he is now to what he’s going to become as a player? No. There’s going to be ups and downs along the way, and anybody who’s been in the game for any length of time will tell you that is the case.

“There are very few players that are going to be like Sidney Crosby and get to the (NHL) and be a star immediately when they get to the (league), and this is just part of that development. Anybody with any common sense would tell you the same thing, so let’s all relax.”

To be fair to the Oil, a lot of this is the media’s fault, although they were simply reporting comments aired by Yakupov’s agent and Hockey Hall of Fame member Igor Larionov, who told reporters, “We’re willing to make a move. Any team. That happens and that’s part of life.” Larionov may be stroking Shakespeare’s fires, but he’s an agent.

The media is certainly jumping on this situation, and Yakupov’s camp is definitely making their own bed, but the Oilers need to ask themselves, “Why is it always us? Why is it so easy to beat us up? How come the media keeps coming back to us?!”

It’s not focused bias. It’s simple memory.

This is a team that had drafted three straight No. 1 overall picks – Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall – and combined them with Justin Schultz, Sam Gagner, and Jordan Eberle, and still can’t muster even the slightest bit of excitement from anyone watching their broadcasts.

The Oilers flirted with relevancy in the opening frame of the 2012 season, but that all ended promptly and predictably.

We watched Tambellini tossed under the bus last summer, and we saw Kevin Lowe defend himself – as he always does – with the composure and dignity of Eric when he explained ‘Business Ethics’ at the end of Billy Madison.

The Oilers blew that No. 1 pick on Nail Yakupov when they could have instead taken behemoth defender Ryan Murray. That’s no slight to Yakupov. It’s just filling holes, and Murray can do more than just Whack-a-Mole. Edmonton’s blueline has been decimated practically since Kevin Lowe himself roamed the backend with the help of Paul Coffey et al, and they had a chance to suture that with Murray.

No team gets three straight first overall picks. The Oilers did.

They decided to roll the dice on the same three guys each time, and they’re still waiting to see which two are worth it.

(And, by the way… if the Oilers one day do actually do something with all this talent, am I supposed to congratulate them? Am I supposed to give them credit for turning a million bucks into $500,000? If you have three straight No. 1 overall picks and countless Top 10 picks, you better have some success eventually. You’re not a genius for predicting that. You’re just buying low.)

In the case of Yakupov and the “drama” right now surrounding him, Edmonton is so used to frothing at the mouth with the media that they’ve completely backed away from the truth of it all, which is that they should trade Yakupov. They don’t need to completely defend him just to address a rumour. (Seriously, that was the biggest head-scratching section of MacTavish’s response to me. Why are you even telling us you believe in this guy? Why are you comparing him to Sidney Crosby? Why are you laying out his career in front of all of us? Just say, “There’s no truth to this and it’s crazy,” and move on. Take a lesson from Jay Feaster in Calgary and just blame it on bloggers. All MacTavish has done now is show that he’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s trying to convince us.)

Yakupov is a great player. He’s a hard worker. He loves to score, he loves to win, and he loves to play hockey. I know – as Canadians – that we’re supposed to slander all Russians just because they are Russian, but Yakupov’s one helluva prospect and he’s only 20. There’s value with him, and he’ll barely be able to channel it if he’s buried in Alberta’s depth chart.

This is also a guy who left Russia at an early age to play junior in Canada, and in small town Ontario. He’s fully committed to the North American game, almost as committed as he once was to beating the pulp out of Canada.

If you don’t want him, he’d do plenty well in Vancouver.

Now, Edmonton does deserve some sympathy for its perennial shortcomings, because the injuries they’ve sustained are a slate of poor luck if there ever was one. (Of course, it should be said, the only guy who doesn’t put himself on a stretcher is Yakupov, the guy who may just want out because he knows he’s just wasted his first 18 months in the ‘Chel.)

Fewer injuries would have probably saved Tambellini’s job. But let’s not think Lowe can play that card as a proper excuse.

The president of hockey operations doesn’t just oversee the players on the payroll. He looks over the whole ship. He’s responsible for the franchise. The value of the brand.

Right now, that value has never been lower, but you know what quote machine Harvey Dent says… it’s always darkest before the dawn.