What We Learned: Reconsidering the Edmonton Oilers’ failures
(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.)
There are a great many things for which the Edmonton Oilers can, are, and should be criticized over the last decade. A great many things.
But when they won the draft lottery on Saturday night, the immediate reaction among many hockey fans and pundits alike was to trash them for picking first overall for the fourth time in six years.
“It's rewarding failure,” and so on, as though this isn't what the draft order being predicated upon reverse order of finish isn't the same exact thing.
“They don't deserve another first pick,” and so on, as though the Penguins getting the Nos. 5, 1, 2, 1, and 2 again in four straight draft years was in some way fine and dandy while this is not.
And the best one: “Look how they screwed up the other first-round picks,” and so on, as though Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov are somehow horrible players contributing to the Oilers' continued failure. People are obviously allowed to think what they want about the system and the way it rewards ineptitude, but to say that any of these players somehow haven't “worked out” for the Oilers is ludicrous.
It's been said before but when you pick first overall, you're kind of a slave to what's available to you. You could, in theory, trade down, but that happens on very, very rare occasions, and indeed doesn't necessarily guarantee any sort of success even if you aren't super-enamored of the consensus No. 1 guy. It's not like the Oilers went off the board to draft Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, or Yakupov. All were the clear No. 1 choices, and all are working out to be at least among the best in their draft classes. The Oilers, if anything, are victims of circumstance in some regards.
Because the first thing to keep in mind here is that if you're trapped by the responsibility of picking first overall, and you have to take what you're dealt in terms of “best player available,” that doesn't mean you're necessarily getting what you need as a franchise (not that “drafting for need” is a necessarily good thing either). Hall is a left wing, Nugent-Hopkins a center, and Yakupov a right wing. Tough bounces to draft an entire line in three straight years and not, say, a franchise-changing defenseman like Aaron Ekblad — a rare blue line talent who at 18 years old looks like he absolutely belonged at the NHL level — which is what they really need. Maybe you criticize the choice of Yakupov over Ryan Murray in that regard, but Murray only has 78 games of NHL experience under his belt and has mostly looked only a little above average when he's been healthy.
It's also not the Oilers' fault that the years in which they picked first overall were not exactly ones in which major difference-makers were available. And that's not to slight Hall or Nugent-Hopkins, both of whom influence the game at high levels, but rather to say that they are not necessarily a Stamkos or Tavares (the two years before the Hall draft) or MacKinnon and Ekblad (the two years after the Yakupov draft).
Looking at it individually, in fact, it becomes clear that the Oilers couldn't really have expected to do a lot better than they have when drafting first overall.
There was Taylor vs. Tyler, of course, but it's not as though either has done much to separate himself as the clear winner here. You can argue that centers are more important than left wings, and you'd be right, but these are extremely comparable players at the very least. (Hall, for instance, has a higher points-per-game over his career than does Seguin, though certainly their circumstances have varied.)
Were it not for myriad injuries slowing Hall — and causing him to play 55 fewer games than Seguin — the issue becomes even muddier. Certainly, Hall has been among the premier left wings in the NHL more or less since his arrival in the league, and if you can get a guy like that first overall, then you cannot have failed in any way.
And if injuries have been a problem for Hall, they're a nightmare for Nugent-Hopkins, who has missed at least a few games in every season but one in his young career. But if you strip away the injury concerns and just look at this year, for instance, you see a picture of an emerging great center in this league. Based on the “similarity scores” calculator on War on Ice, the players to which Nugent-Hopkins' output in 2014-15 — which he started as a 21-year-old — was most comparable were guys like James Neal at age 23 (good player); John Tavares at 19, 20, 21, and 22 (good player); Jordan Eberle at 23 and 24 (good player); Alex Galchenyuk at 20 (good player); Eric Staal at 21 (good player); Nathan Horton at 23 (good player); and Jonathan Toews at 19 (good player). So the idea that Nugent-Hopkins has somehow failed is, clearly, based on his team's lack of success rather than his own.
And then you come to Yakupov, who just wrapped up his age-20 season. His comparables are a little iffier (age-20 Matt Duchene is great as the top one, age-22 Mason Raymond not so much as the second). In fact, examining these two at a similar age goes a long way toward telling you what Yakupov might become.
The only huge differences in that chart are for faceoff percentage (Yakupov is a right wing so it doesn't matter), and takeaways per 60, which is an iffy stat awarded with supreme subjectivity. But other than that, they look pretty good, even with the acknowledgement that this was Duchene's “Uh oh” season. And if Yakupov, who improved immensely under Todd Nelson after maybe not necessarily being well-suited for the roles into which he was thrown earlier in his NHL career, can take even a remotely similar step forward, this is at the very least a good No. 2 right wing. And when Jordan Eberle is also a right wing, that's a good situation for the Oil going forward.
So no, none of these three guys are to blame for the failures in Edmonton. Coaching? Yes. Team-building? Yes. Drafting once you get outside the No. 1 spot? Oh my yes. Since the 2010 draft, the combined number of NHL games played by Oilers draft picks excluding the No. 1 guys is 270; Hall has played 299 by himself, and the oft-injured Nugent-Hopkins is at 258.
Now, with Connor McDavid about to be in the fold, things are very much looking up. Leon Draisaitl as a No. 3 center in a year or two is looking pretty great. Darnell Nurse seems NHL-ready and could actually shore up that defense. Other young players are still developing. They might be able to find a decent goaltender in free agency. And all of a sudden, the Oilers are, at the very least, competitive for a playoff spot. But in a real and tangible way based on talent, not luck.
That might be a year or two out, but you don't get a player like this and do nothing with it. The Penguins, again, were in a similar situation to the Oilers prior to getting their famous No. 87; the hopeless, meandering, poor-drafting dross of the league. Having Evgeni Malkin helps, but things aren't magically cured for a terrible franchise just because they draft a generational talent. This was the Penguins roster in Crosby's rookie year (Crosby had 102 points, the next-closest guy was Sergei Gonchar at 58). This was the roster a year later (Crosby at 120, Malkin at 85, Mark Recchi at 68, and a lot of garbage was starting to get cleared out). It's not impossible that they get another high pick next year and then terrorize the league for a while to come.
The perception that the Oilers are going to screw this up somehow is baffling. You can't screw up Connor McDavid. He'd be a 90-point player playing with an AHL lineup. And that people are now rooting for him to fail — outside of, like, Calgary and Vancouver, where you have to expect that kind of treatment — is pitiful, and reflects poorly on them.
Years of sorrow in Edmonton were washed away, if briefly by this lucky bounce of a ping pong ball. That doesn't make Craig MacTavish a good GM, and it doesn't make the Oilers a good team. But it's a lot easier to build around The Next Sidney Crosby than the next, I dunno, Matt Duchene.
There's some hard work ahead for this franchise, and no doubt purging bad deals and worse players from the lineup won't be easy. But now there's a clearer purpose. The Oilers aren't in win-now mode. But they're about to be in win-for-the-next-decade mode if things go right. And they probably will. But they also might not. Because, y'know, it's the Oilers.
But that won't be on McDavid or Hall or Nugent-Hopkins or even Yakupov. That'll be on the people who pay them. You knew that. You've always known that.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: That was a bit of a dramatic end to Saturday's game, no? The Ducks are the only team in league history to start a series 2-0 after playing with a deficit in the third period.
Arizona Coyotes: Coyotes president, CEO, and co-owner Anthony LeBlanc on the nightmare scenario of losing the draft lottery and ending up third: “The business boost we would have received had we either moved up or stayed where we were at the second spot, I'm not going to lie, we won't see the bump that I had hoped for in the short-term. But I think in the long-term, we definitely will.” Yeah, in Seattle.
Boston Bruins: Elliotte Friedman said on actual TV the other night that when the Bruins fire Claude Julien — that's “when,” not “if” — one of the guys they might look at is Mike Milbury. Oh my god I hope so.
Buffalo Sabres: Did Jack Eichel die or something and I missed the news? You'd think the draft lottery loss also involved running over Tim Murray's dog instead of “falling back on” another franchise-changing center. It would be great if this whining led to Eichel staying another year at BU.
Calgary Flames: Oh yeah, putting Brandon Bollig and Deryk Engelland on the ice at the end of a blowout loss is totally just a normal thing coaches do and not at all part of trying to start fights that could potentially put someone — say, I dunno, on Vancouver — out of the lineup.
Carolina Hurricanes: Should the Hurricanes buy out Alex Semin? That's a $14 million check to write. I dunno if ownership has the stomach for that.
Chicago: Speaking of buyouts, Corey Crawford...
Colorado Avalanche: Like, okay, you're looking for someone to blame for this season in Denver. Makes sense. But are people really acting like Jarome Iginla is a problem? He had 29 goals! At 37! He's literally one of the most amazing players in the modern era.
Columbus Blue Jackets: This is one of those things where you're like, “Wait, there was an AHL team in Cleveland this whole time and it wasn't Columbus's affiliate?” This move makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?
Dallas Stars: See also: “We're not spending a lot of money this summer.”
Detroit Red Wings: In what universe is optimism a reasonable reaction to getting shelled like Detroit did in Games 1 and 2?
Edmonton Oilers: What I literally do not get about all this Oilers-griping is that people would have rather seen teams that tried to tank win out over a team that's just genuinely poorly run? Every team that wins the draft lottery is rewarded for its ineptitude. That's how the draft lottery literally works.
Florida Panthers: Love when a team gets locked into a spot, then people are like, “Uhh, yeah, Anze Kopitar was a No. 11 pick.”
Los Angeles Kings: Jarret Stoll is a UFA on July 1. I'm sure there will be lines around the block. I mean line around the block.
Minnesota Wild: Love any goal scored with a broken stick.
Montreal Canadiens: Bell Centre is a lovely place to catch a game.
Nashville Predators, America's Favorite Hockey Team: This Shea Weber injury seems like it's pretty serious. That is, uh, bad.
New Jersey Devils: If I'm Lou Lamoriello I might seriously consider trading the No. 6 pick. Y'know, to save my job and whatnot.
New York Islanders: Count the Islanders on this Alex Ovechkin goal and you will see that it is somehow not a Capitals power play. Gotta maybe get a little more active in your own zone. And maybe cover the perennial 50-goal guy.
New York Rangers: It's really easy to forget that Kevin Hayes almost lost his damn leg in college.
Ottawa Senators: RIP the Hamburglar.
Philadelphia Flyers: Dan Bylsma coaching the Flyers would be an amazing outcome. I can't think of a better one. This would be perfect.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Remember when everyone thought Sidney Crosby was a playoff-losing bum? It was before Game 2. Now he's great again. Crazy how that works.
San Jose Sharks: This is a baffling headline.
St. Louis Blues: Saturday's result seems more in line with what people expected from this series.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ben Bishop remains a mildly important piece of the puzzle for the Bolts. He was very good on Saturday.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Oh no, now the Leafs have to settle for Dylan Strome. How horrible for them.
Vancouver Canucks: Calgary turned a gorilla into a Canucks fan. This is fantastic.
Washington Capitals: The Caps have a very good offense but they may wanna tighten things up defensively. You shouldn't have to rally from two separate two-goal deficits. Doing so is great, but having to do so is not.
Winnipeg Jets: A franchise made to suffer, apparently. Avoidable collapses made very much unavoidable.
Play of the Weekend
This Crosby kid is okay.
Gold Star Award
Scoring a hat trick in the playoffs is good, in my opinion.
Minus of the Weekend
Gotta love the image of the a dozen GMs rushing to the league to complain about the draft lottery after Edmonton won. “Boo hoo, this stupid and already unfair system is all of a sudden stupid and unfair now that it hasn't benefited me.” Come on here.
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week
User “SufferingCatFan” will probably keep suffering.
Ekblad + Panther's No. 1 (11)
Oiler's No.1 (McDavid)
I was thinking about making fondue with cheddar cheese for dinner tonight.
Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.
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