The Edmonton Oilers rebuild is actually on track. Seriously.
An evening at Rexall Place has become formulaic for success-starved Oilers fans, who show up with hopes that this will be “one of those great nights” for their flashy young team. If, by the middle of the third period, the more likely scenario has unfolded and Edmonton is struggling to stay with a bigger, more experienced foe, Oilers fans can be seen digging through their pockets for 50/50 tickets on a draw that sometimes pushes past $60,000.
On this particular night, the Montreal Canadiens are in town. It is game four of the 2013–14 season and Edmonton is 1-2-0. That roughly 40 percent of the seats are occupied by people wearing the bleu, blanc et rouge is disturbing enough, but something else is going on here. By the 12-minute mark of the third period, the Habs are leading 2–1, and clearly the two best youngsters on the ice are not Oilers property.
Brendan Gallagher, drafted 146 picks behind Taylor Hall in 2010, steals the puck from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and blazes away on a two-on-one with Alex Galchenyuk, chosen two picks after Nail Yakupov in 2012. Gallagher already has a goal on a pass from Galchenyuk, and seconds later will return the favour to seal the 4–1 road win, one of a landslide of losses for the Oilers early in what is supposed to be phase two of their rebuild. Oh, and P.K. Subban had three points, while Edmonton’s answer—Justin Schultz—went minus-2.
Losing is hard enough when you’ve endured what the Oilers have put their fan base through the past two decades. But getting crushed by some other team’s prized prospects—none of whom were drafted No. 1 overall—wasn’t in Kevin Lowe’s game plan.
The most overused term in hockey today is “rebuild.” Because the question really is, when did the rebuild start and simple mismanagement come to an end? And when is it supposed to start bearing fruit? True rebuilds are signified by one thing: When teams stop shedding top picks in favour of short-term help; when they embrace losing and hold on to prospects. It’s a tough sell, for ownership, those in the front office, behind the bench, on the ice and for fans. Because there’s always the danger that it will never end, that the beach ball of losing will just continue to spin. No matter how many times you refresh. Think Columbus, Florida and the Islanders.
That’s exactly what’s been happening for decades in Edmonton. It’s been abysmal for about 20 years now. Since 1993, the Oilers have made the playoffs just seven times, winning five rounds. And they now hold down the longest playoff-less streak in the NHL, seven years and counting. But there’s hope, of sorts. For the Oilers, the rebuild began with a crippling run of injuries during the 2009–10 season, when they chose not to hit the trade market to prop up an already hopeless team. Edmonton fans embraced the coming tear-down with open arms, and it started that summer, with the first-overall selection of Hall. Nugent-Hopkins was drafted at No. 1 the next June, and the 29th-place Oilers won the draft lottery to select Yakupov with the top pick in 2012. It was all so very exciting.
But a roster full of flashy kids does not a winner make. What everyone needs to remember is that these things take time—usually more time than executives with itchy trigger fingers and fans yearning for parades would like. Even the model-rebuild franchises had to exercise extreme patience. If you don’t accept that fact, Oilers fans, this thing will never work.
Here’s the bad news: This is year four of Edmonton’s rebuild, and history tells us that year four is perhaps the most disappointing of all. Just look at the two teams every fan of a rebuilding club wishes they cheered for: The Blackhawks and Penguins. Despite having missed the playoffs six of the previous seven years, Chicago’s rebuild really only began in 2004 when the Hawks selected Cam Barker third overall, however misguided that turned out to be. They needed to wait for guys like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to develop, and pick Jonathan Toews third overall and Patrick Kane at No. 1 before they would finally find the stuff to end a 49-year Cup drought, seven years after the rebuild began. But in year four, Chicago finished 26th in the NHL. Pittsburgh nabbed Sidney Crosby the year after picking Evgeni Malkin No. 2 overall and two years after selecting a franchise goalie with the draft’s top pick. And still, it took the Pens another four years of roster building and player development to climb the mountain. The Penguins bottomed out in the fourth year of their rebuild, finishing 29th in the league.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, three No. 1 picks later the Oilers don’t have anyone approaching a Crosby or Toews, and are no closer to the Cup than they were three years ago, because there is much more to it than just collecting top-end players. “It takes time,” says Dale Tallon, the current Florida GM who led the rebuild in Chicago. “Some other guys have to spend some time developing in your farm system. Then you might bring up two or three at one time—hopefully you can bring up three or four another time, and then you’ve got your nucleus of guys who you drafted over a three- or four-year period.”
But in the aging pews of the arena formerly known as Northlands Coliseum, all the people ask for is a shred of evidence that this project is going somewhere. These are Canadian hockey fans who, when they set aside their passions, are sophisticated; well aware that the recipe for a winning team includes stay-at-home defencemen, wingers who do their best work in the defensive end of the rink, and goaltending. Size has been neglected in the construction of this team, and must be remedied. And in any 82-game schedule there will be far more final scores of 2–1 and 3–2 than 6–5. So you must build a team that can win the low-scoring close games as well, if this thing is going to get anywhere.
The construction is being led by two rookies themselves. MacTavish played more than 1,000 games and won four Cups as a faceoff-winning, penalty-killing defensive specialist. He was the yin to Gretzky and Messier’s yang in the ’80s, and knows plenty about defending in the NHL. Eakins was a journeyman blueliner who sprinkled 120 NHL games across 16 pro seasons. He is a Roger Neilson disciple and has a motivational/fitness bent that rivals Richard Simmons. This is Eakins’s first NHL head job, and he chose it over at least one other opportunity. A lengthy stint in Toronto’s organization as an NHL assistant and coach of the farm team had him well prepared to make the next step, but this isn’t exactly sliding behind the wheel of a Lamborghini.
Beginning his third season, Hall—now out with an MCL sprain—had this city buzzing with discontent. The experiment of moving him from left wing to centre while Nugent-Hopkins recovered from off-season shoulder surgery was a disaster, and was aborted as soon as Nugent-Hopkins returned. On that night, the Oilers trailed New Jersey 3–0 after two periods. It was game three of the season and already the fans at Rexall Place were fed up, booing their team roundly after 40 minutes before the game was salvaged by a four-goal third-period Oilers outburst and a successful shootout. The Edmonton Sun adroitly summed up the victory with this headline: “Oilers Rewrite Tired Script With Comeback Win Over New Jersey Devils.” A few games later, even the uber-positive countenance of Dallas Eakins showed its first crack. “I knew this renovation was going to be messy,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this messy.”
But it is. Start in goal, where the organization spent a first-round pick on Devan Dubnyk way back in 2004, and still isn’t sure he’s a legit No. 1. MacTavish was asked that very question by Oilers season-ticket holders during a summer Q & A session, and did not exactly ooze confidence when he said, “If you have to ask the question, you know the answer.” Since coming on in April, he has actively sought to acquire Jonathan Bernier, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop, showing he has about as much faith in Dubnyk as anyone who has watched him struggle this season. When MacTavish added defenceman Andrew Ference, defensive centre Boyd Gordon, and the defensively minded Eakins, it seemed reasonable to expect Dubnyk—who posted a .920 save percentage last season, behind a defence that left him absolutely exposed on a nightly basis—to respond positively. Cue the worst start of his career, an absolutely inept run that made him the focal point of the “When does this thing turn around?” crowd.
Though he has promised bold moves, MacTavish has moved slowly, acquiring Ference, Gordon, and swapping Magnus Paajarvi out for David Perron. He added toughness in Mike Brown, then traded him recently to free up cap space, a move seen as a portent of bigger, bolder things to come. Eakins, meanwhile, has kept his poker face behind the Oilers bench, even on nights when the fan base is apoplectic. But when you draft and sign players as skilled as Edmonton has, you don’t get many who have ever had to spend much time on their defensive games. Hall and Nugent-Hopkins are still finding their way, while prized college free-agent defenceman Justin Schultz can still appear to be absolutely lost in his own end at times. And Yakupov’s defensive disinterest gave Eakins his first real teaching moment when he sat the young Russian for a Saturday game in Toronto, and again two nights later against Alexander Ovechkin in Washington.
This is the first tough love to come from the organization in years, a sign that phase two is under way. Defenceman Darnell Nurse—drafted at No. 7—was the first top pick not to make the opening day roster since Paajarvi in 2009, evidence of some functionality returning to Edmonton. Both GM and coach have maintained a gradual, measured approach to rehabbing the organization. And while the start to this season is disconcerting, the standings have obscured gains made in areas like faceoff wins and puck possession; important, if decidedly unsexy areas of play. So in many ways, you can say this rebuild is right on track—just don’t tell that to the fan wearing a Jari Kurri sweater and checking his 50/50 tickets.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.