Oilers close decade of darkness with renewed hope for change

The Oilers were up 6-0 but gave up five straight, nearly falling to the Rangers but hanging on for a 7-5 win.

EDMONTON — Ken Hitchcock, one of eight— count ‘em, eight — men to stand behind the Edmonton Oilers bench as a head coach since 2010, had just lost at home to Arizona.

He had 20 players on his roster, but not nearly enough who made a difference on the night, a familiar theme for any Oilers coach between 2010 and now, 2020.

"We have to find a way. We have to find more people to do more," Hitchcock begged, his tone a familiar one. "Whether it’s the group that’s here or the group that’s somewhere else, we have to find more people to do more if we expect to get a different result."

If there was ever a quote that summed up 2019 in Oil Country, that is it. So perhaps it is timely that in their final game before the calendar turned, it was all hands on deck in a nervous 7-5 win over the New York Rangers — at least for the opening 40 minutes.

James Neal had a hat trick to get to 19 goals on the season, on night when the Oilers took a 6-0 lead, then hung on for dear life as Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome led a comeback that took New York to 6-5 late in the game.

Edmonton hadn’t won a game on New Year’s Eve since they beat Philly back in 1985, lugging a 0-13-3 New Year’s record (with one tie) into a visit by New York. On this New Year’s Eve, however, the ball dropped on Bulgarian goaler Alexandar Georgiev, who got steamrolled with three goals on the first six Oilers shots and was extracted a few minutes before the second intermission, the score 6-0 for Edmonton.

The Hitchcock quote, uttered back in January, sums up the decade of darkness in Edmonton, as did the Oilers nearly blowing a 6-0 lead — something that has never happened in NHL history. As for the calendar year 2019, Tuesday’s game hinted at reasons that the pining bleat of the understaffed Oilers coach may start to become a thing of the past.

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Start with farmhands like Kailer Yamamoto and William Lagesson, both who joined the big team last night and acquitted themselves just fine. The speedy winger Yamamoto played on Leon Draisaitl’s flank and looked NHL-ready, adding the crucial empty net goal while Lagesson’s quiet game came as advertised through 11:37 in ice time.

As we turn the page on 2019 the Oilers farm is stocked better than it’s been at any point in the decade, with players who GM Ken Holland promises not to promote until they’ve spent the commensurate amount of time learning the pro game. Lagesson, 23, has a season-and-a-half of AHL experience to go with 49 games in the Swedish Hockey League, while Yamamoto is the rare Oilers first-rounder who found himself still simmering in the AHL at age 21.

If that’s a nice change in 2019, so too are a set of NHL standings that show Edmonton right in the hunt near the top of the Pacific Division as January and the second half of the season arrives. This is a town that has seen its team eliminated by Thanksgiving — both Canadian and American — in recent years, so no matter the minutiae of the recent win-loss record, or Leon Draisaitl’s plus-minus, sitting four points south of Division-leading Vegas on Jan. 1 is progress, plain and simple.

The Year 2019 brought Oilers fans some unfinished business on the Jesse Puljujarvi front, as the big Finnish first-rounder’s agent began to hint back in February that it was perhaps time to annul the marriage between player and team.

We asked Markus Lehto back in February if a re-set was possible under an incoming duo of a new GM and head coach, and the agent was dubious: "I think it’s hard to re-set," he said. "It’s like, when the player isn’t trusting anymore… ‘Do these guys really want me here? Do they really trust me to become a Top 6 guy? A Top 9 guy? An offensive player?’ The player is uncertain.

"Are we reaching the point that for the team and for the player, it might be actually beneficial for going different paths, different routes?"

They reached that point in 2019, and as the calendar turns Puljujarvi lives in purgatory, manning the top line for Finnish Liiga club Oulu Karpat. Meanwhile, Holland patiently shops the player, with the Feb. 24 trading deadline looming.

This year will also be remembered as the year Leon Draisaitl scored 50 goals and 100 points, and his Oilers restarted the rebuild for the umpteenth time, clearing out the front office and ringing in Holland, Tippett, et al.

And Dec. 31 will be remembered for a long-awaited New Year’s Eve win, not for one that almost got away.

Maybe, just maybe, it is a sign of change in a town that would dearly welcome a new storyline.

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