I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the last year considering why the Oilers team that is now, with players like Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse turned out better than the team featuring Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
The benefit of being terrible from 2007 to 2016 was plenty of top shelf draft picks; four of them being first overalls. You’d think with Oilers management having the best of the best to choose from a successful rebuild wouldn’t have taken 10 seasons to occur in Edmonton. Hall, Eberle, Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins and others are all stand-out people. Good people. Sam Gagner, for example, great guy taken by the Oilers in 2007, never quite turned into a complete player until after he left Edmonton. Why was that?
There has been plenty of talk through the years that something was foul with the team. But when you really think about it, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish were both solid people in the NHL-sense. It didn’t make much sense to believe the Oilers were a team with a leadership problem, even though that’s the way it looked on the outside. There were rumblings and rumors of the vets not getting on with the kids. At one point, for example, it was suggested to me that Ryan Smyth, whose return was celebrated by fans of the team, didn’t go over nearly as well in the dressing room. As the story goes, Smyth came back assuming he was there to be the emotional leader of the team, and the young stars resisted. There are also stories of a fragment in the room that existed with players like Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Jason Smith and Ethan Moreau not liking other players who were being brought in by management. That story suggests the rift in the room is why players like Horcoff, Smith and Hemsky were moved on. Management sided with the kids because they were drafted higher and not because they were better players or had better attitudes.
I’m not sure how much I buy all of this. Everyone has a job in life, right? I mean, I have a job. And in my job there are co-workers I like better than others. People I am more productive with and get along better with. The quality of the team relationship doesn’t always equal success or failure in the work place. Do you know who was really popular in the Oilers room? Dustin Penner. And look how that turned out.
Compare and contrast Oilers teams from five or so years ago to what we have now. There’s no way to explain or express what a difference-maker Connor McDavid is on and off the ice.
Remember the NHL Draft Lottery and the look on McDavid’s face when he found out the Oilers won? He didn’t want them to. He was horrified. He’s not so horrified now. The concern on his face at the moment of that draft lottery was the knowledge that the Oilers were a career-killer for many a high-end young player. It seemed like a city where star kids underachieved and free agents went to die. That draft lottery meant at least eight years for him there. I wouldn’t have wanted it, either.
But McDavid is a room-changer as much as he is a game-changer. He’s focused and intense. Winning matters to him. Winning well and with dignity matters to him. He’s not some clown diving all over the ice trying to get calls. When someone pushes McDavid, he pushes back. Draisaitl has a similar outlook, as does Nurse, and as do many players on this roster. Their approach to the game rubs off and makes a real difference to the culture of the organization.
The current Oilers roster has a few players who were known as being problems elsewhere. Guys like Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian. Kassian was a big part of the Oilers playoff success this past spring. In Edmonton, he’s found himself as a person. Gone is the idiot who was in trouble constantly on and off the ice. Replace that Kassian with one who is a focused and ready warrior. Kassian was extended by the Oilers this summer, and don’t be surprised if Maroon is also extended should the Oilers find a workable price-point with him. This Oilers team brought out the best in Maroon last season, and that tells me the Oilers have changed and grown up.
Most of us go through phase in life. Some of us are lucky and we know how to act at all times. Some people avoid controversy and they seem to walk through life flawlessly. For most of us though, it takes time, success, failure, tests, and a little torture before we find our way. The Oilers as an organization got lost in the wilderness a year or two after the 1990 Stanley Cup victory. A few players along the way, like Doug Weight and Ryan Smyth, were too good not to be noticed. Management almost fluked out a Stanley Cup in 2006 after a 2005/2006 season where the Oilers barely made the playoffs. For Oilers fan, the pain has been real sticking by this team through all the dark years.
Us fans found ourselves questioning why we bought tickets and continued cheering. Was being an Oilers fan an act of masochism? We didn’t stick by the team because the hockey was good. How much money did we spend on a team that offered so many promises and showed so few results?
I feel like this team is okay again. It’s back to being the Oilers team I knew when I was 13 and I was on the frozen lake near my house, pretending to be Grant Fuhr. We don’t need to talk about the character of the players or the mindset of the team because the players have grown past it. And we fans who stuck with the Oilers through all the bad years are finally being rewarded for our loyalty. It is fun to see the Oilers play now. There’s more than just draft picks and prospects to talk about. Cup dreams live. Hockey makes us happy again.