“The stink is still there from the season. Right now, it’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not gonna lie.” – Taylor Hall.
When or if Hall returns to the Edmonton Oilers next season, he won’t have far to look to see the light that appears so distant after yet another 29th-place season. It wears No. 97, and now it appears that uniform will have another date with the sewing machine.
Connor McDavid will be named as the Oilers’ captain at the age of 19 next fall, one of the items that was deduced at general manager Peter Chiarelli’s season-ending press briefing Sunday. Asked if his team would have a captain next season where this year it did not, the GM responded quickly: “I would think so, that we would have a captain next year.”
There is absolutely no way that another Oilers player would command that statement. In fact, the only question was whether McDavid would be ready next season, or if Chiarelli would give him another year.
Now you have your answer.
“He was the leader on the ice by the end of the season,” said Hall.
“He does everything the right way,” added goaltender Cam Talbot, who along with Hall is heading to the world championships to play for Canada. “He doesn’t take shortcuts, he’s always the first one up the ice, first guy back on the backcheck.
“Connor is just one of those guys who leads by example and that’s a guy you can follow.”
We should add that Hall made it plain he wishes to stay in Edmonton, hopefully to play his first playoff games after the first six seasons provided nary a sniff. He’s become a very good player for whom a team-leading 65 points this season was a tad disappointing, as it included a long second-half slump.
But there is no doubt who the best player on this team is, and who will be the central figure in any rebirth in Edmonton. It is McDavid, who unlike Hall in his early years has a GM with the skills to surround him with the requisite talent to form a proper team.
The irony concerning Hall is, it may take a Hall trade to meet those ends.
Chiarelli wouldn’t single out the three forwards who the hockey world believes form the pool from which a top defenceman can be procured: Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle. But they are his most valuable assets not named McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
Chiarelli did confirm, however, that the trade market is his preferred method for improvement, that he likes size, and that he has a surplus at forward and a deficit on defence. It was a ‘you figure it out’ moment that put smaller forwards Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins to the top of the list. Hall might bring back the greatest return however, so there is that.
“I could trade our draft pick,” the GM offered, when asked if he could keep everyone here and still get the defenceman. The only that happens if Edmonton – which will pick between first and fifth overall – moves back a spot or two in the draft for immediate help. What’s more likely is Chiarelli drafts a 6-foot-3 Finnish winger and trades from the aforementioned core.
He’s been cultivating trades for defencemen since about midseason, and said Sunday, “I am reasonably confident that I will able to address (his defence) in a meaningful way, yes.”
“Via trade?” he was asked.
“That’s probably the most effective way,” he said.
After that, assessing his first season on a franchise that has been driven into the ground by owner Daryl Katz’s Old Boys Club, Chiarelli was almost sarcastic in pointing out the incremental gains he saw, describing the end product as “a taller midget” than what he took over last summer.
Compared to 2014-15, Edmonton had more points (70, compared to 62 last season). The Oilers had more wins prior to the shootout (27-19); improved its goal differential (minus-85 to minus-42); improved both goals against and goals for, both special teams, and finished 17 points shy of the last playoff team this season, compared to 35 points in 2014-15.
“We did have improvements in areas, but the bar was pretty low,” said Chiarelli, who had hoped for an 82-point season. “Here’s what I saw: I saw better structure; I saw a better level of compete. We were in more games. Our power play and penalty kill were better. Our possession numbers were better. Our goals against were better.
“Again, the baseline isn’t great,” he said. “I would have expected greater improvement than we had this year.”
The one, clear positive from this season is McDavid, who could literally challenge for the NHL’s scoring lead next season. He is incredibly good – the kind of dominant player around which great teams are built.
Now he will be captain. Oilers fans hope the ship finally learns to sail.