EDMONTON — For years Edmonton has been the National Hockey League’s laughing stock. All those first-overall draft picks, yet, a constant diet of lottery-pick finishes.
Fans in 29 cities laughed, and that hurt. But what really killed the Oilers was that they were laughing just as hard in 29 dressing rooms across the NHL. Sometimes 30.
Then the Oilers hired Bob Nicholson to run things, and he brought in a respected veteran general manager in Peter Chiarelli who, in turn, brought in a proper head coach in Todd McLellan. And they won the right to draft Connor McDavid. Then everything changed.
On July 1, 2016 the Oilers announced a seven-year, $42 million deal for the top free agent on this summer’s market, the burly Milan Lucic. As opposed to all those other July 1st’s, when the Oilers would sign a second-tier player for first-tier money — because that’s what it took to get a player (and his family) to choose Edmonton.
“The McDavid factor changes it all,” beamed Lucic. “I go back to Pittsburgh. Before they got Sidney Crosby no one would sign there either. But once they got a piece like that guys started going there, and the team and city got rewarded with two Stanley Cups. With the McDavid factor here, the same result can happen. That’s why I chose to come here.”
Sure, the money and term were top notch. But there were likely five other teams offering a similar contract.
“Hey, I’ve spoken to a lot of GMs since Monday, and had a lot of different places I could have gone,” Lucic said. “I chose Edmonton.”
It is incredible to think that since 2006 there has not been a playoff game played in Northern Alberta. That an Edmontonian born in July of 1990 is about to celebrate their 26th birthday, and but for a fluky run a decade ago, they have not had a serious contender for a Stanley Cup in their lifetime.
The drought here has been long, and it has been embarrassing.
Now, suddenly, the clouds have parted. The end is in sight.
“There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel here, and there hasn’t been that for a long time,” Lucic said. “I truly believe that in a couple of years we’re going to be contending for a Stanley Cup.”
The 6-foot-3, 233-pound Lucic, at 28 years old, is one of hockey’s premier power forwards. He will be a fixture on McDavid’s left wing, where a return to 30 goals is hoped for, while on the right side a spot is waiting for 6-foot-3 2016 first-rounder Jesse Puljujarvi to claim.
Leon Draisaitl, at 6-foot-2, will centre the second line. Wingers Pat Maroon and Zack Kassian (both 6-foot-2) have been acquired by Chiarelli, while 6-foot-4 Darnell Nurse mans the back end with the 6-foot-3 Adam Larsson and 6-foot-2 Oscar Klefbom.
After a decade of being pushed around physically, the new Rogers Arena will be far less hospitable than Rexall Place ever was.
“I can tell you from an opponent’s standpoint, you were never scared or intimidated heading into a game against the Oilers. That’s something we all have to change, as a group,” Lucic said. “That attitude, that swagger, you have to build it as a team.
“You’ve got to have the right kind of cockiness, knowing you can win every game,” he said, belying an attitude gained during his Cup-winning days in Boston, plus a year with the Los Angeles Kings. “You can’t be arrogant, but … be a harder team to play against. Wave after wave, shift after shift. That’s how the process of being a harder team to play against starts.”
Lucic will take his junior number (No. 27) in Edmonton, which was previously worn by legendary Dave Semenko, and Georges Laraque. His physical tide will raise all blue and orange boats.
“Over the course of a season (size) helps,” Chiarelli said. “And we’re in a heavy division. You look at guys like Connor and Leon at the end of the year when you go out to California, those are tough matchups. You have to be able wear down the opposition, and you have to be able to play. All those (aforementioned big) guys can play.”
The term and Lucic’s foot speed will be a cause for concern in the ever-rising pace of the NHL, as well as the fact that McDavid may be the fastest player in the game. Can Lucic keep up?
“Look at the (centres) I’ve played with over my career. I’ve been able to keep up and produce with these players,” he said of players such as Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and for much of last season Anze Kopitar.
“Whether it’s McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins or Draisaitl, they’re all great players. My abilities go further than just the intimidation factor. There’s more I know I can bring to the Oilers.”
Just the fact that he was standing there in downtown Edmonton on July 1 is enough for now.
Edmonton’s biggest hurdle has been cleared. Can a playoff team, at long last, be far off?