| |Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been one of many bright spots for the Oilers during this challenging season (Photo by Andy Devlin /EOHC).
Before I get into my thoughts on this, allow me a moment to defend my integrity. I'll go ahead and grant you, right off the bat, that the Edmonton Oilers official web site would absolutely not run a piece entitled "FIRE EVERYONE, IT ISN'T WORKING!!!!". They will run this piece because it is primarily positive, something I presume you'd anticipate finding on the official team web site. But, and this is a big but, I'm not writing this because they told me to. If I didn't absolutely believe everything I'm about to put down on paper for you, if I actually believed that the team needed to start mass firings, I'd use this space today to tell you how good Oscar Klefbom
was at the World Juniors. So, to those that question my integrity, I invite you to call me stupid and wrong for believing what I'm about to write, but I ask you not to insult me by claiming that I'm just filling in the blanks around a point-form outline from Steve Tambellini.
Now, on to the topic. I'll start by telling you that I've received thousands of tweets, e-mails and phone calls in the last couple of weeks relating to the progress, or lack thereof, of this rebuild by the Oilers. My honest gauge on it is that about 70% of those are completely fed up, without further patience, and demanding immediate and drastic action. The rest are generally supportive of the direction. I'd wager that this isn't a true indication of the entire fan base, because I think most people that are patient and understanding and supportive probably don't feel as great a need to write me, so I'm not really sure what the actual split would be. Whatever it is, I'll concede that those demanding action are not insignificant by any stretch.
The frustration amongst most of the fans, I think, is very much tied to the lack of success of previous regimes. I hear often that this has "been a rebuild since '92" or "this is going to be 6 years without a playoff spot". With no disrespect to those emotions, it's just simply not fair to evaluate the current program based on such criteria. If you want to say that mistakes were made in the past, many of which currently still affect the organization, that's fair. If you want to say that past regimes, and maybe even this one to an extent, took too long to identify the proper way to build, that's probably also fair. But, the fact is, the ownership, management and coaching staff of this organization all changed dramatically heading into the 2008-09 season. To me, that's the fair place to start.
Did mistakes get made by the new regime? Of course. A head coach was hired that only lasted one season and a number of players, initially deemed to be fits here, obviously weren't and ended up having to be moved out in a variety of ways. This is not a defence of the sparklingly clean track record of the Tambellini Era. I do believe, however, that Tambellini and crew have done a fine job correcting their mistakes quickly. Pat Quinn didn't work, and he didn't last. Kurtis Foster, Colin Fraser, Patrick O'Sullivan and the like didn't work, and they didn't last. The team needed to get handed over to the youth and have a culture change, so out went veterans like Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios and Sheldon Souray. The team last year lacked the toughness and veteran depth to properly compete deep into an NHL season, and a variety of moves got made this past summer to address that. The point is, I think Steve Tambellini has been more proactive than people give him credit for, I think he has the team in fine salary cap shape and he's made room for the young players on the team to take prime roles.
And, let's not forget to take into consideration here that the rebuild wasn't declared until Daryl Katz first spoke about it with Bob Stauffer in a radio interview in February of 2010. Again, if you'd like to point out that the team signed Nikolai Khabibulin
and chased Dany Heatley in the months prior, that's fair. Perhaps the importance of building hadn't been identified quick enough, and perhaps it was ultimately forced rather than decided. Either way, as we stand here today, we're less than 2 years since the process began. And, whether it's looking at the shift in makeup of the coaching staff or the player roster, it's tough to argue that they haven't embraced the rebuild fully. I believe they have, and I believe it's going according to plan.
How does a team that figures out midway through the 2009-10 season that they've gone about things completely the wrong way and need to start over end up in a playoff spot less than 2 years later? They don't. Nobody was wrong to hope, but the realism of the situation needs to be accounted for here. The team got pretty much nuked, as it needed to. An enormous roster turnover took place and when the dust settled we find that the premium players on the team are, primarily, 21 and under. Over the past 122 games, we've seen the unquestionable emergence of Taylor Hall
, Jordan Eberle
and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
. We've witnessed the growth of Ladislav Smid
and Tom Gilbert. The return of Ryan Smyth
, the continued production of Ryan Jones
, and onward. The goal differential of the team is dramatically improved and they're playing in more close games, if not winning enough of them yet. The powerplay has gone from totally absent to one of the best in the league and the penalty kill transformed from anemic to efficient.
The Edmonton Oilers have never had a player win the Calder Trophy. Last year, I believe Taylor Hall
would have been nominated if he didn't get hurt. This year, I think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
has an excellent chance to win. Jordan Eberle
, an NHL sophomore, could easily finish in the Top 10 in NHL scoring.
The signs of progress, the signs of the future, to me are obvious. But, it's clearly the win/loss record that is the bone of contention here. Last season, the Oilers had 25 wins and 62 points and I said at the start of the year that something like 37-39-6 would have been an excellent indication of progress if they could achieve it this season. As they reach the midway point of their schedule tomorrow, the team has 16 wins and 35 points, putting them within absolute striking distance of the goal that I had set out for them. Maybe you don't agree with that goal, but an improvement of 50% more wins and 33% more points would strike me as a pretty good jump. The expectation would then be that in the 2012-2013 season the team would be able to improve again by 12 or so wins and be in a playoff position.
Will they reach my goal? Will they fall short? We don't know yet for sure, but I think they're absolutely capable of it. Key injuries have started to strike again, but this team has the veteran depth to handle much of it if they perform as they should be expected to. If, at the end of the year, we're talking about a team that once again finishes in the lottery and has roughly the same record as last year, this discussion is worth revisiting.
For now, a dramatic change in regime doesn't seem necessary to me. Asking for a mass of firings or something of the sort feels to me like trying to punish those in question for not having performed a miracle here. Is this team walking on water, executing a complete rebuild at a record pace? No, they aren't. Are they on track for being 23 months into it? I think they are.You can listen to Dan on Inside Sports weeknights from 6 to 9 on 630 CHED.