EDMONTON — You can fuss over a fifth-line centre, which No. 7 defenceman should have made the team, or whether Darnell Nurse and/or Leon Draisaitl are ready for prime time here in Edmonton. But if ever there was a big picture team among the seven Canadian clubs, this losing outfit is the one.
Today, Oilers fan is like Blue Jays fan — beaten down by years of futility. The embarrassed owners of the longest playoff droughts in their respective leagues.
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So Edmontonians are less interested in whether Brad Hunt or Martin Marincin make the opening day roster, and far more concerned with getting a meaningful game for their $200 in February and March, for the first time in ages.
The team that gave us the TV series “Oil Change” has ironically managed not to change even a bit. So we asked second year general manager Craig MacTavish on cut-down day: Why should fans think that this year is going to be any different?
“You’re underestimating the quality of our fans. The educated fan base would say there is a lot of reasons for optimism,” was how his reply began. Then he began to tick off the reasons:
“I know the goaltending is stabilized. We set out to make some changes and improve the depth on defence. We’ve done that. We’ve got development of our star players, [and additions] with Leon playing well. Teddy Purcell has played very well the last three games. Benoit Pouliot has been an extremely valuable addition.
“So there’s no question, in my mind, that we’re better. And we’re significantly better. But…” It was a big but. One that requires explanation.
The question with this team isn’t if it is better. Of course it is it, for all the reasons MacTavish just stated.
The busiest GM in the league, MacTavish has turned over every player on his team since he took the job, except for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz and Jeff Petry. Every other player and coach who was there when MacTavish took the job on April 15, 2013 — save goalie coach Frederic Chabot — is history.
The Oilers are better for it. But does that mean they are good enough to remain in the playoff conversation until Match 1?
“But we’re closing a significant gap,” is how that sentence ended. “We were a very poor team last year; a very flawed team last year. So my optimism is muted by the fact we have a significant distance to close to get into that [playoff] race.”
Centre is the last position at which the Oilers just don't have four NHL players. So Draisaitl, Edmonton’s no. 3 overall pick, makes this team hands down, ready or not. Nurse sticks, but only for now. He’ll begin the nine-game audition that junior-aged players are allowed, but unless his game can ascend with the rising level of competition, he’ll be watching the Grey Cup in Sault Ste. Marie.
As an organizational decision, Edmonton kept quiet fifth-line centre Will Acton around but sent gritty, aggressive winger Steve Pinizzotto to the minors. It is clear MacTavish and head coach Dallas Eakins do not see a need to change the fact that Rexall Place has been an easy, bruise-free zone for visiting teams for multiple seasons now. This columnist does not agree.
Small, hard-shooting Brad Hunt makes the blue-line for now, while Marincin gets the kick in the pants he needs: a trip to the minors to teach him that he’ll have to work for success, and he hasn’t done enough of that for management’s liking.
Centre Anton Lander got outplayed at camp again, and continues to disappoint. Big, former Maple Leafs defenceman Keith Aulie may or not be an NHL defenceman at this stage, but today he is not one. He is either blue-line insurance or a bad offseason signing by MacTavish — time will tell.
As for the centre ice position, when Eakins was asked about it he sounded very much like Evander Kane does when he is asked if he likes playing in Winnipeg. Tepid and noncommittal are words that come to mind.
“Are you confident in that group [of centres]?” Eakins was asked.
“Yeah. It’s, uh, the group, uh, that, that won the spots,” he said, sounding as nervous as a head coach can sound on a Sunday in October. “We only have so many centres in our organization, and those were the guys that, uh, with Nuge, [Boyd] Gordon, Draisaitl, [Mark] Arcobello and Will Acton, they were the guys that won the spots.”
Hey, even a claimer race has to end with a win, a place and a show.
The Oilers are better. The question remains, however: better than what?