It shouldn’t be this hard. Really.
Building a competitive hockey team with the presence of Connor McDavid allows certain trivial aspects to fall by the wayside. Any concern for the power play becomes fruitless because, well, Connor’s got it covered. The top line will perennially be among the league’s best because, well, Connor is the league’s best. Finding yourself down by one in the dying minutes of a crucial game? It’s a good thing the deadliest offensive player of hockey’s modern era is on your side to secure that tying goal.
For the Edmonton Oilers, their lone remaining problems rest where McDavid doesn’t factor. As Gisele Bundchen once famously said, “My husband can’t throw AND catch the ball!” Yes, McDavid can score goals, burn defenders and somehow make Zack Kassian look like Great Value Brand™ Tom Wilson. But hockey is a sport that only allows one player to do so much.
Building a competitive unit atop the sturdiest foundation luck can buy essentially leaves management with one job: compile a group of players that won’t actively harm their own team.
The Oilers, ever since those lottery balls fell in their favour back in 2015, have failed to do that.
They’ve signed middle-to-bottom-six tweeners to top-six-worthy deals. They’ve allowed lame-duck general managers to hand a rookie goaltender in his mid-30s a lucrative contract extension only to leave him on the bench for the first game of a best-of-five series. They’ve taken players coming fresh off PDO-fuelled breakouts and turned them into anchors on their own cap sheet rather than playing them into assets at the expense of someone else’s.
Worst of all: the Oilers have wasted five years of McDavid’s prime.
So here we are, preparing for yet another postseason in which the game’s marquee player will again be absent. This is criminal — not simply for you and me, but for the health of hockey itself. The NHL needs McDavid in the few moments the spotlight of the sporting world shines on them. And McDavid? Well, he needs a change of scenery.
I’m of the belief that fans innately want to see superstars succeed, regardless of which team they happen to play for. That success fosters a sense of validation to the entire ordeal of sports — that somewhere along the way logic factors in and one’s hopes aren’t tied to a bunch of dudes randomly guessing at how well grown men can bat a piece of rubber around a frozen pond.
Even if your allegiance lies steadfastly Calgary Flames, look me in the eyes and tell me that watching McDavid hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup won’t bring a smile to your face. You can’t.
People want to see destiny fulfilled. They crave it.
McDavid’s destiny is to reach hockey’s highest peak. It has been since he was 13 years old. And after bowing out in four games to the lowest seeded participant in the Stanley Cup qualifying round on Friday night, the Oilers’ destiny doesn’t seem to line up.
Which begs the question: where do they go from here?
Now firmly into the offseason, Ken Holland will attempt to reload his roster in hopes the disappointment of this year serves as an outlier on a track record positively brimming with them. He won’t have much wiggle room to make that happen with, unfortunately.
As it stands now, the Oilers sit with $520,425 in available cap space, a figure which projects to grow to $10,148,835 heading into the next season, per CapFriendly. That, as the kids say, is a good chunk of scratch. And yet before Holland can even think of using that $10 million-plus to add some external pieces, he must first account for locking in a few that reside in the building already.
Pending RFAs Ethan Bear and Matt Benning require new deals prior to the beginning of the 2020-21 season, whenever that is. Those paydays won’t cap-strap the Oilers by any means, sure. But then there’s fellow RFA Andreas Athanasiou’s new pact, which he too requires before the Oilers touch the ice again. In theory, Holland could simply let Athanasiou walk out the door. The 26-year-old did just go scoreless in four games of qualifier action, after all, and happens to employ an agent known for getting his sick kicks from taking teams to the wall. But what of the 2020 and 2021 second-round picks Holland sent to Detroit for Athanasiou’s services at the trade deadline?
Is a team in a budget crunch willing to light a pair of potentially effective, cost-controlled young players on fire — especially with league-wide cap inflation at a standstill for the foreseeable future?
And remember, this must all be solved before Holland can turn to fixing a penalty kill that ranked 15th out of the 24 teams in the qualifying round, replacing a sure-to-be-departing Mike Smith (or re-signing him, knowing how much Holland loves his veterans) and surrounding his two — yes, two — Hart Trophy contenders with a suitable supporting cast.
All the while, McDavid will be forced to watch his professional cohort duke it out with each other for the game’s top prize, all from the same position as you and I: the couch.
And that, my friends, just doesn’t seem right.
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