What We Learned: Failure could be Edmonton Oilers' only path to success

Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens (30) sits on the bench after being pulled from the net against the Chicago Blackhawks during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta, on Saturday Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)
Edmonton Oilers goalie Ben Scrivens (30) sits on the bench after being pulled from the net against the Chicago Blackhawks during second period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta, on Saturday Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)

(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)

Gun to your head, what would you say the three biggest problems facing the Edmonton Oilers are these days, in order from most concerning to least?

Naturally and coincidentally, you'd have to start with center depth, move on down to the blue line, then finally settle in the crease. That's in terms of on-ice issues anyway. Maybe you mention the cronyism somewhere, the total lack of accountability the team seems to carry in its organizational bones like ink-black corrosive marrow.

One thing you might not mention is that a cloud seems to hang over this team like a rumbling thunderhead, waiting for the Next Big Screwup so that the finger-pointing can begin anew, as it has at least three or four times a season more or less since the Oilers last made the playoffs.

Saturday night was the latest of these, obviously, with the Blackhawks building a lead so big and so quickly that no one knew quite what to make of it, other than to find it all rather funny. Even Edmonton Oilers fans unfortunate enough to have been in attendance couldn't find it in them to either mock-cheer their team for doing the basic things correctly (putting a shot on net, stopping another easy Chicago zone entry, etc.) or boo them for the things they did wrong. It was the all too familiar silence of a fanbase that had seen this particular episode of the Odd Couple before:

“One is a legitimate NHL team, probably the best in the league on paper, the other is a directionless and shambling disaster that is an NHL team in-name-only and boy it's not even US Thanksgiving and they're already feeling like a team playing out the string. How can they ever get along?”

Turns out they can't.

Yeah, all the on-ice problems filter in some way back to the fact that Darryl Katz is a long-time Oilers fanboy who can't help but giggle with childlike glee every time he writes a check to someone whose name got stamped on the Stanley Cup in the mid-80s, around the same time his haircut was in fashion. And that's an unavoidable and insidious aspect to all this losing, obviously. Were Katz not so enamored of the Kevin Lowes of the hockey world, his childhood team likely wouldn't be in this fix, because someone actually competent at running a team would have long ago been hired to pull it out of the mud, with a winch if necessary.

But here they are, knee-deep in former Cup winners — as though winning as a player has ever really begat winning as a manager in any kind of mathematically reliable way — even now, and the team once again looking like it's on the fast track to a top pick in the draft. Not that this is a bad year in which to be on just such a track, of course, because Jack Eichel is looking every day to be more and more not so much a consolation prize at No. 2 but a split-pot push with ol' No. 1 Connor McDavid. Maybe it seems a little early in the season to say that, but it's: a) Almost December, and b) Not like this team is going to make the playoffs at this point even if they do turn it around in a major way.

If the Oilers could run either prospect down in this season, maybe all the futility will have been worth it.

Because either way you're getting an NHL-ready center who can immediately make an impact on the ice and, one would hope, throughout the rest of the organization. Either prodigy immediately gives the team not only a franchise cornerstone No. 1 pivot of the generational talent variety, but also someone for whom the team is forced to say, “We need to improve so as not to waste his prime years, and the sooner the better.”

This is what led to the rise of the Penguins, after all: They realized that having Sidney Crosby gave them a sort of moral imperative to be good enough to win the Cup. You bring in veterans, you bring in solid bottom-of-the-lineup support. It's not easy, necessarily, but when you've been bad for so long you at least have the benefit of having covetable assets which have become suddenly expendable. This has happened to a lesser extent in Tampa and on Long Island, to choose more recent examples, because these franchises don't want to waste the primes of guys who might already be moving into the Hall of Fame conversation at ludicrously young ages.

Again, we saw the Oilers enter the season bereft of center depth in an almost shocking capacity, and it's no wonder that it's often opponents' second lines which are ripping Edmonton apart at the seams; they just don't have the manpower to match. Likewise, the lack of defensemen worth having has grown worrisome, because you can't keep throwing big heavy weights at a drowning Justin Schultz and hope his theoretically dazzling but practically fizzling offensive upside somehow alleviates all his own-zone woes. And maybe just maybe with a little bit of improvement back toward historical norms, Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth, untested as Nos. 1a and 1b goaltenders though they may be, don't look quite so porous. The last of these concerns is mostly bad luck at this point, but if it goes on much longer the average observer might start to see it as something darker.

Loath though I may be to use the words “culture” and “change” back-to-back in a column about hockey, that's more or less exactly what the Oilers need here. Firing yet another coach effectively resets the same problem of not-good-enough players not-knowing the new systems. Shipping out a promising young forward (of which the Oilers have several) accomplishes little unless the return is a promising slightly older defenseman (of which they have none).

The Oilers have been bad for years, and drafting exceptionally high for nearly as long. People think this ongoing lack of success is somehow a knock on the team itself, rather than the organization, but those people are wrong. “Look where tanking gets you,” they say without much forethought beyond another check of the standings and, yup, there Edmonton sits with the same record as the Buffalo Sabres if you can believe that.

But the Oilers have generally done the smart thing in the draft: When picking first overall you don't draft based on need, you pick the best player available. The best player available in the seasons when they had first crack at things were a potentially league-best left wing, a fragile skilled center, and a toolsy right wing. What they needed at that time and now, though, was either another center or a defenseman. Did they punt things in choosing Nail Yakupov over Ryan Murray? A convincing case could be made. But the difference between the two, apart from team need, was never all that clear back then and remains that way now as well.

Getting into the Xes and Os of the losses this season almost seems beside the point. “Yeah,” you could say, “here's what Edmonton did wrong against Chicago (7-1), or Los Angeles (6-1), or Arizona (7-4),” but it's all symptomatic of bigger problems within the organization. Consequently, firing Dallas Eakins isn't the answer because Scotty Bowman couldn't coach this roster to a winning season. Justin Schultz and Nikita Nikitin are their two most-used defensemen and while they're both pitiable in those roles, the alternatives really aren't much better. Andrew Ference? Jeff Petry? These aren't top-pairing options in the National Hockey League.

It's on Craig MacTavish to go out and get talent and he went 0-fer this summer: No defensive help, and the team's No. 2 center is still, theoretically, Mark Arcobello. Who replaces Eakins and turns that into a winning club?

The problem even goes beyond MacTavish — another multiple-Cup Oiler, not coincidentally, and back for his second voyage in a managerial role with this ship of lost seasons — because you can't sell Edmonton, ever-losing Edmonton, to anyone without also guaranteeing an undeserved bump in tax brackets. He's at least trying, adopting analytics and so on, to do anything he can to deliver unto this horrified, furious fanbase something resembling respectability at the league level. But maybe they're too deep into those near-unsolvable problems for anything but a lucky bounce of the ping pong balls to fix.

You'd have to say that this is an organization that needs to be napalmed, but until you get a real owner who's going to get a real team president, results like Saturday's are going to come more often than anyone in Northern Alberta would like. For too long the team has more or less allowed its former greats to fail up, but by doing it again this year, they might be able to do it — not just individually but collectively — one more time. And maybe this time it will stick.

At this point, more than a quarter of the way through another year at the bottom of the table, they at least have to pursue that end. It's their best shot at redemption. Maybe their only one.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: I still don't even begin to get why anyone on earth trades for Rene Bourque here and now in 2014. He has nothing left to offer at this level.

Arizona Coyotes: One heck of a game from Antoine Vermette against San Jose, and you have to start wondering at this point when the Coyotes start shopping him as a No. 2 option for contenders.

Boston Bruins: Milan Lucic has seemed on the verge of a psychotic break at just about every downward turn taken by himself or the Bruins over the last year or so, and the Dalton Prout KO incident seems to be the thing that might have officially made him snap.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have won three games straight. Which just goes to show that anyone can win three games straight in this league no problem.

Calgary Flames: The Flames currently have 10 standings points taken out of 11 games in which they entered the third period down at least one goal. Yeah, why would anyone say what they're doing is unsustainable?

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes haven't won in Denver since 1997. Know who was born in 1997? Just sayin'.

Chicago Blackhawks: Maybe a guy like Jeff Petry should be doing a little more to cover a guy like Jonathan Toews. Maybe.

Colorado Avalanche: The win on Saturday was the first one ever in Calvin Pickard's NHL career, though to be fair it's just three games long at this point.

Columbus Blue Jackets: At some point you just have to feel like basically all the bad luck in the entire league has descended on Columbus this year. Losing to Philadelphia? Like that? Good lord.

Dallas Stars: The Stars were playing during a 3.3 magnitude earthquake that hit North Texas last night. I've heard of rocky games but this is ridiculous!!!!!!! *audience boos wildly*

Detroit Red Wings: Hahahahahahahahahaha. Hahahaha. Hahahahahaha. Hahaha.

Edmonton Oilers: Yeah, a trade for a new team.

Florida Panthers: The Panthers scored twice in the final minute of the third period (including the first goal of Rocco Grimaldi's career). They still lost, of course. They're the Panthers. But still. Wow.

Los Angeles Kings: So the Kings have one road win so far this year. Gee whiz I wonder if that lasts.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild put 31 shots on net and somehow they still didn't shoot enough? Sure, 40's better. Go for 40 next time. And if that doesn't work try 50.

Montreal Canadiens: At some point they might as well just stop playing Bruins/Habs games and give Montreal two standings points. At least that way everyone gets a day off.

Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: You have to at least say Colin Wilson worked pretty hard to get this “goofy goal from behind the net.”

New Jersey Devils: The Devils lost a shootout, again. They at least won one of their three this season. That's an improvement.

New York Islanders: At some point don't we just have to agree collectively that the Islanders are really good this year?

New York Rangers: Ryan McDonagh will resume skating soon. He might be able to help a team that is otherwise relying pretty heavily on Kevin Klein.

Ottawa Senators: I'm very sad about this for some reason. Alfie forever.

Philadelphia Flyers: On Saturday, Brayden Schenn scored 2:37 into the game, and in doing so gave the Flyers their first lead in any game since Nov. 8. That seems impossible.

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins said they were going to treat this weekend's home-and-home series against the Islanders like it was the playoffs. Which explains why they allowed eight goals in the two games.

San Jose Sharks: The Sharks put Adam Burish on waivers, which is good. They continue to employ John Scott and Mike Brown, which is bad.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues haven't lost to Ottawa in regulation since 2009-10. And when you get torched by Max Lapierre, you probably deserve it.

Tampa Bay Lightning: I love that people in Tampa (and presumably elsewhere) are now basically following The Mumps Teams around with cans of Lysol on a steady blast.

Toronto Maple Leafs: But I heard Dion Phaneuf was a bad leader???

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks love Bo Horvat's game. They seem to go so far as to think he's Ryan Kesler's replacement, which, let's not go crazy.

Washington Capitals: Mike Green? Upper-body injury? Get outta here!

Winnipeg Jets: Winning one-goal games is better than losing them, one supposes, but if that's the only way you're going to win games that's basically a big problem.

Play of the Weekend

What a pass from... Kari Lehtonen???

Gold Star Award

Nov 22, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic (17) screens Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) during the first period at TD Banknorth Garden. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)
Nov 22, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic (17) screens Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) during the first period at TD Banknorth Garden. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

I'm not normally one to condone fighting but can we get Dalton Prout on a stamp or small denomination of money or something? No one in the league deserved to be one-punched more than fake tough guy crybaby Milan Lucic, who will never ever stop whining about this.

Minus of the Weekend

The Toronto Maple Leafs salute the crowd following a win over the Detroit Red Wings in an NHL hockey game in Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)
The Toronto Maple Leafs salute the crowd following a win over the Detroit Red Wings in an NHL hockey game in Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Frank Gunn)

Can we all agree to never do this again?

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User “leafsfan1992” wants to make things complicated.

To: Preds



Jones+2015 1st+2016 2nd.


Bozak+2015 4th


2015 2nd

To: Col

Phaneuf (1 million retained)+2016 3rd (conditional on ROR Resigning)

To: Tor


To: Penguins

JvR+Gardiner+2016 2nd (NSH)

To: Tor

Maatta+Scuderi+2015 2nd


Lupul (50% retained)+Pens 2015 2nd

To: Tor

2015 First

For those keeping score at home, the Leafs would ship out Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, Dion Phaneuf, James van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner, two second-round picks, a conditional third-round pick, and a fourth-round pick, and retain $3.625 million in salary. They would get back Seth Jones, Ryan O'Reilly, Olli Maata, Rob Scuderi, two first-round picks, and three second-round picks.

Well I hope it's not jumbo shrimp, because I'm allergic to oxymorons.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is hereand his Twitter is here