NASHVILLE — Here’s what Edmonton Oilers fans don’t want to hear: The Oilers are playing for right now, and right now is worth more than a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick.
I know. You’ve heard that for years. I get it.
I’d be skeptical, too.
First of all, “right now” doesn’t mean they really think a playoff spot is realistic. Edmonton was eight points out of the playoffs with five teams to jump over prior to Monday’s game in Nashville. The organization has to talk like it is still in the hunt, but you or I do not.
They’re not making the playoffs.
So why not sell everything for whatever you can get? Because trying to build something, under a head coach that might finally be finding some traction, is a better idea.
“Right now” doesn’t refer to a playoff push. It simply means that this organization can’t have another season where the final 21 games are garbage time. They don’t need one meaningless game. Gawd, has any organization played more meaningless games than this one?
Ken Hitchcock won’t be back next season, but if he can leave a legacy to the next guy it will be a team full of players who don’t cough the puck up in the neutral zone and slowly meander their way to the bench for a change. It will be, as he likes to say, leaving behind a team full of players who “play for each other, not just with each other.”
Hitchcock’s mandate has been about changing the culture in Edmonton, and although it hasn’t happened as fast as you may like — a culture this broken does not repair in eight weeks — the team’s competitive level shows us that he’s getting there. Had interim GM Keith Gretzky cleaned house on Monday, the roster wouldn’t have been able even to compete down the stretch. They’d have given up like in so many other seasons.
Rinse and repeat.
That is why Gretzky did not trade Alex Chiasson for another mid-round draft pick. It’s pretty clear that extra draft picks aren’t the solution to solving what’s wrong with “the water” in Edmonton.
On trading Chiasson, Gretzky said the deal “had to help us today and tomorrow. I wasn’t going to take a player who was four, five years away, and is going to be a fourth-line player. If you’re going to give up a player like Chiasson, we needed something back. It just didn’t happen.”
Gretzky would have moved players had the market made those moves worthwhile. It did not pan out. He couldn’t even get the third-round pick for Chiasson that Pat Maroon had yielded a year ago.
“We tried to add some forwards, of course,” he said. “If the right deal was there we would have moved a forward for a forward. It just didn’t pan out.”
Our take is that Chiasson is a pending UFA you want to keep. He has tons of character, some skill, and he is a third-line player you can build a team with. I’d make him part of this thing, as long as he is willing to stay for third-line money.
We get it. You’ve heard it all before. They’re running out the string on another season — why not just trade away as many players as possible?
Well, Hitchcock finally has this team playing proper hockey. Now, they have no choice but to compete. No excuses not to compete.
And for years now, this team has been simply looking for a reason to stop competing. For a free pass to play out the string.
Gretzky never gave his roster that excuse at this trade deadline. In fact, he showed some faith.
Now it’s up to these players to repay that faith with some performance.
Its up to Leon Draisaitl to maintain what is growing into a solid defensive game, that starts down near his own goal line and works its way 200 feet to the other team’s end. It’s a chance for Josh Currie and Colby Cave to show us if they are players, or the GM needs to find replacements for them this summer.
It’s up to Milan Lucic to stop talking the good game and start playing one. To stop going to the net for that shot he never deflects, and get to work learning how to tip pucks and score goals from the dirty areas. The game that got him that contract is a distant memory, and it’s on him to find something he can do to help this team, even it’s from the third or fourth line.
“We’ve played well lately,” Gretzky said. “I talked to a couple of players and told them, ‘I’m not going to move you just to make a move.’”
At some point, players who are here have to become part of the solution, instead part of the revolving door that has spun in Edmonton for a decade.
Gretzky has given them a chance to be that guy.
Now, let’s see who they are.