“It’s a joke.”
Andrew Ference, captain of the Edmonton Oilers could have stopped right there. Instead, however, he went on to speak of the many things his team still does wrong. The catastrophic giveaways, two shorthanded goals against in one power play (“a joke,” he said again), the absurd line changes… The lessons he has been trying to hammer home in his nearly season-and-a-half as Edmonton’s captain, that simply are not taking with this group.
“We’re still hammering the same nail,” Ference admits.
For the record, Ference said nail, not Nail. But perhaps the erstwhile No. 1 overall pick of 2012 provides a place to begin when trying to mine the depths of dysfunction and ineptitude upon which the NHL’s 30th-best team is constructed.
The Edmonton Oilers scouts did not want Yakupov at the draft table that day in June of 2012. Upon the rarest of occasions that this collection of hockey men was barking up the right tree, someone from upper management — or perhaps even absentee owner Daryl Katz himself — stepped in to overrule, declaring that Yakupov would be drafted first overall in 2012.
We have since learned that Yakupov can produce offence, as long as he is allowed to cheat defensively, fly the zone early and generally leave the heavy lifting to everyone else. Asked to play an NHL game, as he has this season, Yakupov is flaccid, on pace for a 23-point season and a minus-30 rating. He is young and may thrive elsewhere one day.
Of course, it would be hard to blame anyone for overruling the Oilers’ amateur scouting group, as it is unconscionably poor. Of all the things wrong with this team, its draft record is the most derelict, most culpable for its annual failures.
In the eight drafts dating from 2005 to Yakupov’s draft in 2012, only two players chosen in Rounds 2 or lower have played more than 94 games as an Oiler: Jeff Petry and Theo Peckham. The remaining sub-first round picks — there are 47 of them — are a sorry lot brazened by ‘maybes’ like Martin Marincin, Tyler Pitlick, Riley Nash (now in Carolina) and perhaps the best of them, Tobias Rieder, who the Oilers dealt away to Phoenix. (Coyotes coach Dave Tippett recently compared Rieder to Jere Lehtinen.)
On the pro scouting side, all one really needs to know is this: Somebody in the Oilers organization (assistant GM Scott Howson) thought Nikita Nikitin would be a good free agent acquisition. Thought he could play, even a bit.
He can not, and Edmonton surrendered a fifth round pick and a two-year, $9 million contract to find out what Columbus already knew. That on a good defence, Nikitin is a No. 7. On a bad one he is a No. 5, on a good night. He will be bought out this summer, we predict. Next stop, Avangard Omsk.
The goaltending, for two straight seasons under MacTavish, has left this team chanceless. The play of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth does not remotely resemble what a No. 1 goalie should provide. Couple that managerial error with the shallow defence and the fact Edmonton has just two NHL centres, and it is clear that poor head coach Dallas Eakins doesn’t have a prayer.
Which isn’t to say Eakins should last. My suspicion is that he will be let go after a loss on Wednesday in Winnipeg, and MacTavish will take over behind the bench with assistant Craig Ramsay. Eakins was never ready for this job, and like his predecessors, has let the young players run amok, with leashes so long that the rank and file players simmer every time they suffer another minus on yet another egregious Taylor Hall giveaway.
Defenceman Justin Schultz, whose game has digressed alarmingly under Eakins, was allowed to make far too many selfish mistakes before Eakins finally cut his ice time this past week. Hall, the Oilers best player, and his linemate Jordan Eberle are still allowed, however, to make the same mistakes game after game after game, while Eakins keeps running them out there.
Teammates are rolling their eyes now, and Eakins is caught in a place young coaches allow themselves to go. He needs Hall’s support to keep his job. But retaining that support, in the face of Hall’s nightly errors, is costing him the rest of the room. It will cost Eakins his job, likely before the weekend.
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As an organization, the Oilers should be indicted for what they’re doing to 19-year-old centre Leon Draisaitl. He is being exposed at the NHL level and should be back in junior. But MacTavish messed up, couldn’t find any centres, and now a young prospect pays the price. This kid should go from the world juniors straight back to Prince Albert, and meet his new coach next fall in Edmonton.
And the mood in the dressing room is, predictably, downtrodden and defeated.
“Can’t you see it?” Ference asked a reporter after the team’s 10th straight loss Monday. “To have to come here and try to convince guys they should be happy to play in the NHL, and be excited, have some pride and not mope around… It’s a joke.
“Until guys figure that out, it will be a constant cycle.”
Here’s what really defines “a constant cycle.” Over a decade, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish created a Hockey Operations Department in which nary a single element is up to snuff. When it all blows up, as it has again this season, Katz leaves the same men in charge of fixing the problem.
Beginning with MacTavish and Lowe, I have many friends inside an organization that I have covered for 25 years. I am genuinely sad to say, I can hardly think of one person who deserves to keep their job.