- The calendar might say June but it's always hockey season in Oil Country.
Monday at the Chateau Louis Convention Center, General Manager Craig MacTavish unearthed that passion once more, speaking to hundreds of Season Seat Holders and providing them with a candid ‘State of the Oilers' address.
As part of the event, MacTavish gave a 20-minute presentation on the team's player recruitment strategy. Season Seat Holders were privy to parts of the Oilers' approach in luring free agents, which includes an Aquila-produced video that hits on all Oil Country has to offer.
"The most important I do as the general manager of this team is to bring good players through the dressing room doors," MacTavish said. "It's not about how good you think a player is if you can't get him to come play here. It's about getting that player to commit and come through the door."
"The most important thing we sell is the passion of you fans in the stands."
Led by MacTavish and President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe last season, the Oilers landed one of the summer's hottest and most highly sought-after free agents. Despite connections to the Vancouver Canucks and Toronto Maple Leafs organizations, Justin Schultz was intent on becoming an Oiler.
On location in Kalamazoo, Michigan earlier this season, MacTavish and Lowe hoped for the same with Danny DeKeyser. As it was with Schultz, the pitch centered on life in Oil Country, the ‘Alberta Advantage,' the new downtown arena and, of course, becoming vital cog in the club's quest for glory.
"Everything went phenomenally well when Kevin and I had dinner with him," he said. "As we were leaving to drive back to Chicago, we were going to follow Danny's car back to the highway so he could point us in the right direction. When we were behind him, I looked up and noticed that he had a Detroit Red Wings vanity plate!"
That's when it became obvious there was little chance any team outside of the Wings would meet with success.
As for what other players may be in the Oilers future, several Season Seat Holders then asked MacTavish what his plans were for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.
With an extensive selection of players in all positions, the Oilers have options with the seventh overall pick -- should they choose to keep it. In particular, Soo Greyhounds defenceman Darnell Nurse has recently drawn the attention of MacTavish.
At six-foot-four and a buck ninety, he's one of the most responsible, physical and fearless defencemen in his draft class. Perhaps most importantly, Nurse has sporting excellence in his blood. His father, Richard, was once a wide receiver with the CFL's Hamilton Tigercats. His uncle (by marriage) is former NFL great Donovan McNabb, who spent 13 seasons quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings.
Citing the need for some help on defence moving forward, the GM is impressed with what he's seen.
"I love that guy," he said. "When you talk about building a culture in your organization, he's the type of guy that you look to. He's a very impressive kid on all levels. He's got great toughness and there are a lot of other qualities to get excited about.
"I asked him if he thought his physicality could translate to the pro level. He stared right at me and said, '100 percent.'"
While Nurse is most certainly an intriguing prospect, MacTavish made it clear that there's been no decision at this point. He agreed that the Oilers need to bulk up on the back end, but there are other positions of equal importance that need attention as well.
"There will be a real good player for us at No. 7," MacTavish said. "There are a lot of good centremen available and we could use that. They're tough players to acquire down the road. There's still a lot of discussion left with our amateur scouts."
With the Oilers missing out on the post-season for a seventh consecutive year, MacTavish has been a busy man since taking over as GM April 15.
Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz and others provided plenty in the way of electricity and optimism last season, but the new GM has acknowledged the need to get more out of the bottom 6 to compete with the NHL's elite.
"There weren't a lot of nights that we got offence out of our third and fourth lines," MacTavish said. "Just look at the teams that are in the playoffs right now. They're getting contributions from all four lines. I liked parts of our team this year, but it was quite evident to me that we really weren't deep enough or strong enough to compete at the level that we need to next year."
Job 1, MacTavish says, is to address the team's lack of depth through acquisitions and free agent signings.
That will be critical more than ever with realignment set for next season. The Oilers were in a playoff spot after defeating the Calgary Flames 8-2 April 3, but the excitement didn't last. Future division foes such as Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix effectively ruined their season in less than a month.
"I was never more optimistic about our season than I was at that point," MacTavish said. "Quickly after that game it became evident that we needed more competitive and more physical players to play in our division next year. We're going to be competing largely against those teams next year, so we're going to need some size and some meat on our team to have success."
The Oilers need to address their depth in goal, too. As it stands, MacTavish is pleased with the development of Devan Dubnyk: "From a statistical comparison, he measures well against the other goalies in the League." The pursuit for goaltending depth will no doubt take the Oilers down all roads, including those on the other side of the pond.
There's work to be done in all areas but MacTavish has a plan and the vision to bring it all together. With the support of the game's greatest fans behind their team so loyally, he wants nothing more than to provide Oil Country with a perennial champion once more.
"The support we have here is amazing and unparalleled," MacTavish said. "How do we repay that support? We do it by doing everything we can to start winning some hockey games and provide the world-class entertainment that you're used to."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick