Dead-monton: The Woebegone Oilers

In Hockey on January 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

Generally speaking, Oilers fans are a curious bunch. They aren’t quite as cynical and jaded as Leafs fans (ahem, Ryan Wagman) nor are they as supportive and optimistic as Flames or Senators fans. Indeed, the Oiler faithful seem to vacilate rather regularly between neurosis and fanaticism.

Back when I was a freshman at the University of Calgary I knew four Oilers fans who shared an apartment together. There were very few “rules” of that apartment, as evidenced by the pot of cold soup that remained on their counter for approximately 3 weeks or the fact that no one cleaned a sink, shower or toilet for over a year. However, they did have one house law: whenever the Oilers were on, all four were required to put on their jerseys and watch the game. Two of them went so far as to wear giant foam puckheads adorned with the Oilers logo. It was quite a sight to see all four of them jammed onto a severely overmatched couch, drinking Lucky Lager, looking like matching buffoons. In a related note, none of them got laid very often.

But I digress…

My point is that Oilers fans are unique for their ability to consistently pump themselves up and drink the kool-aid management continues to serve ($5.5 million a year for Shawn Horcoff? Sounds great!), yet can turn cruel and unforgiving at the drop of a hat (like the time Kevin Lowe traded Ryan Smyth and they mercilessly booed him ON MARK MESSIER NIGHT!) Of course, it doesn’t help that the team has been incredibly inept at attracting top talent or even getting their own players to stay happy in E-town (think Chris Pronger, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, etc) nor has it been good for morale that no fewer than three local boys are currently starring for the rival Flames (Jay Bouwmeester, Jarome Iginla, Dion Phaneuf).

With that in mind, I’m surprised there haven’t been mass suicides in Edmonton this winter. Not only is the the hockey team in last place in the Campbell Conference, but they have exactly zero star players, zero quality goaltenders, and one grumpy old coach.

The Mighty Oil is 16-24-5, good for 37 points and a .411 point percentage. They have been outscored by their opponents to the tune of 2.67 goals for per game to 3.29 goals against per game. Their save percentage is .896. Their penalty kill is third-worst in the league. They have but one skater with more than 30 points (Dustin Penner, 41). Their chances of making the playoffs are nil. The Oilers are a mess and they may not be fixable for another year or two.

Edmonton management has committed more than $13 million a year (cap hit) to Shawn Horcoff (19 points, -21), Dustin Penner (finally producing after two abysmal years) and the injury-prone Ales Hemsky (out for the season). Sadly, Horcoff’s deal runs until 2013/2014. Yikes!

They badly overpaid for 37-year-old goalie Nikolai Khabibulin this summer after Dwayne Roloson left for Long Island. GM Steve Tambellini signed the ‘Bulin Wall to a 4-year, $15 million deal on July 1, hoping that the aging backstop would lead them to the playoffs. Much to the contrary, Khabibulin appeared in only 18 games this season before being placed on the injured reserve. News broke earlier today that the ‘tender will undergo surgery to repair a herniated disc and is now out indefinitely. Double Yikes!

Furthermore, the Oil have been absolutely terrible against their provincial rival this season. In 5 games versus the Flames, Edmonton has gone a woeful 0-4-1. To put that in perspective, out of a possible 10 points, the Flames snatched exactly 1 from Calgary while handing the Flames 10. Triple Yikes!

One has to wonder if Pat Quinn will last the season as head coach. I thought that the cotton-topped Irishman would serve as a great motivator for the young club, especially with Tom Renney in charge of x’s and o’s. Boy was I wrong. Quinn’s press conferences have devolved into the gripings of a crotchety senior citizen – he is often openly critical of his players and seems to have lost all patience with his guys. One can only assume that his tone and demeanor in the dressing room has been similar. It’s not exactly a message that this young generation responds to.

So how can Edmonton turn things around?

Step 1: Wait for Jordan Eberle.
The young sniper has become a World Junior legend with his perpetual late game heroics. By all accounts he is the real deal and his skills will translate well to the pro game.

Step 2: Find a goaltender.
One has to think the Oilers would have been far better off investing their money in a young, inexpensive goaltender like Craig Anderson ($1.81 million cap hit) or even Jason Labarbera ($1 million cap hit) this offseason instead of handing the keys over to a chain-smoking 37-year-old. But what’s done is done. What is clear is that the Oilers can’t count on Khabibulin, nor can they cont on Devan Dubnyk or Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers (at least for the near future). So what can be done about it? Well, with Rick DiPietro coming back, perhaps the Islanders would be interested in trading one of their plethora of goaltenders for a young defenseman like Ladislav Smid. Perhaps they could part with Martin Biron. Or….wait for it…Dwayne Roloson.

Step 3: Toughen up the pups.
The Oilers’ young forwards, like Sam Gagner, Patrick O’Sullivan, Gilbert Brule, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano have promise, and by no means should the club give up on them. But they are all small or smallish and all play a little soft (except for Nilsson, who plays physically but is a defensive liability). O’Sullivan and Gagner in particular would benefit greatly from getting stronger and becoming more difficult to knock of the puck. The shine is off this group, but they can still be the core of a successful team. Interestingly enough, Gagner, Brule and Cogliano are all restricted free agents this offseason. If they can be locked up at low cap figures, Tambellini will have plenty of space to go out and beg some free agents to come to Northern Alberta.

Step 4: Think long and hard about giving Renney the head job.
I’m never a big fan of replacing a coach after one season, but by golly, Quinn has been a mega-disappointment. If they don’t finish strong, it will be hard to believe that the rebuilding effort is really in full swing with such an old-school coach at the helm.

So, while things may look grim right now, don’t fret, Oilers fans. With some competent netminding, a little luck and some maturation in your forward ranks, you should be back to finishing 8th in the conference within a couple years.

-Bill Duke


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