To say that the Oilers season up until this point has been an emotional rollercoaster, would be both an understatement and a cliche; to say that so far this Oilers’ season has been akin to riding the most terrifying, rickety, ready-to-crumble-at-any-given-moment rollercoaster in the world might be more accurate—but still kind of cliche. It’s been an absolute coin toss as to which team will hit the ice. There’s the team that hits everything that moves, and actually looks pretty damn good despite Peter Chiarelli’s best attempts at sabotaging all the draft picks and prospects we stockpiled during the decade of darkness. There’s also the team that looks like, with the exception of a handful of players, it could do battle with any of those former Oilers teams and still end up losing (in fact, the five home games in a row lost this December was a club record). Some nights they’re the Harlem Globetrotters, some nights they’re the Washington Generals—and at 21-20-3, they’re a slightly above .500 team (.511 to be exact) thanks to Gary Bettman’s loser point. As we write this, they’re 2 points out of a wildcard spot, with a string of 6 games against 5 teams who aren’t in playoff position—and it’s not a stretch to say that the Oilers’ playoff hopes hang in the balance.
How did we get here?
If there’s been a streakier team in NHL history, my stats guy hasn’t found them. A huge string of wins early in the season against Cup winners, Cup contenders, and general playoff mainstays gave way to a swing in the opposite direction with losses to division opponents (remember when we were “built for the Pacific division”?) and all it cost us was Todd McLellan’s job. Hall of Fame shoe-in Ken Hitchcock appeared to right the sinking ship, until we lost two of our top four defenders in Klefbom and Russell (and if you’re one of those people who’ve been vocal about how Kris Russell doesn’t help the team, we’ll give you a moment to apologize). Losses piled up, including that record-setting skid we mentioned above that included the Sharks twice putting up 7 against our battered defence. When Hitchcock brutalized the team in a post-game conference after a loss to LA, it must’ve stung the players’ pride. But if that’s what he shared with the media, one can only imagine what he said in the dressing room.
Speaking of media…
The Oilers organization as a whole was in the media for all the wrong reasons, after former captain Andrew Ference absolutely hammered the team he was a part of for, well, getting hammered. He shone a light on the internal culture issues that have been rumored for years, but never confirmed until now. And while he never named names, it seemed like he was directing a lot of the criticism toward a few skilled players, one of which has a name that rhymes with Sailor Ball. Makes that trade (you know, the trade that was one-for-one) seem a bit better, but doesn’t absolve Peter Chiarelli of the rest of his bumbling.
There’s a problem with our Peter…
The writing should’ve been on the wall when he signed an aging Milan Lucic —who we’re now paying 3 million dollars per goal to— to a long, expensive, and no-move laden contract. Since then he’s traded Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome, who he flipped for Ryan Spooner, who’s averaging well under 10 minutes a night. After Klefbom and Russell went down, he overpaid (via a third round draft pick) for Edmonton-native Alex Petrovic, and then traded away one of the few goal scorers on the team (his lack of defensive-prowess notwithstanding), Drake Caggiula, for Brandon Manning. The Brandon Manning that broke Connor McDavid’s collarbone, robbing him of the Calder in his rookie season. If that wasn’t enough, Chicago retained zero salary, adding another million to our already pressed salary cap. Don’t worry though folks, he’s spent over half of his games in the Oilers organization in the pressbox. Bob Nicholson said that the only way Chiarelli keeps his job is if the team makes the playoffs—but even then I figure he’ll still be updating his resume (or redacting things from it) come the off season.
Fun Fact: Peter Chiarelli might be the only GM in NHL history to trade away the first and second overall pick in the same draft year.
The bright spots have been few and far between, but they’ve been there. Connor McDavid was obviously picked as the captain for the Pacific division in the All Star game, and Leon Draisaitl —currently tied for 10th in league scoring— was voted in by the fans as the extra addition to the Pacific roster. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is on pace for a career year and is really maturing (despite the fact that he still looks about 12 years old), and Alex Chiasson’s ridiculous shooting percentage is still, well, ridiculous. Perhaps the best thing to happen this season is the emergence of one Caleb Jones, who hasn’t looked like a rookie at all despite the loads of ice time he’s playing on the first pairing. The future is bright, as long as Chiarelli doesn’t trade it all away.
There’s still a lot of hockey to be played—almost half a season. But the team is going to have to find some consistency to have any chance of making the playoffs, especially since all those no-move clauses Chiarelli handed out sort of handcuff us from being sellers at the deadline. The crew here at Team Ford is still cheering for the Oilers, we’re just a little more nervous than usual.