About the only thing you can count on with the Edmonton Oilers this season is the fact that they will frustrate you with their inconsistency.
Coming into 2013, there was a lot of anticipation with this team and larger expectations than many past seasons. This was the year they were no longer going to be in the league’s cellar and were going to compete for a playoff spot.
GM Steve Tambellini stated that the goal was they wanted the Oilers and their young core players to experience a playoff race and have them play meaningful games down the stretch.
Well, looking at where the team is now, that is certainly the case. The Oilers currently sit in 10th place in the Western Conference just four points back of the Detroit Red Wings and the 8th spot. Definitely still in the mix and far from out of the race.
The problem is that 2013 has been a tale of two very different teams. There is the team that recently went on a five game winning streak and beat some very good teams. The team who’s top line of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins combined for 32 points in those five games and were one of the most dangerous trios in the league. The team that overwhelmed with speed and offence.
Then there is the team that has lost the last three games, and many similar losses earlier in the year. This is a team that does not play inspired hockey each night and although has good stretches in games, they take many shifts off. The team that plays a lacklustre defence and gives up far too many chances, without producing much offence.
There are many bright spots individually on the team, like Hall, who sits in the top ten in league scoring and has been their best player, or Sam Gagner’s emergence, averaging almost a point a game. Unfortunately there have been just as many if not more underachievers. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t taken a step forward in terms of production and Jordan Eberle is well below the pace he set last year.
Perhaps no players embodies the team’s inconsistency more than Ales Hemsky. He was the team’s best player and goal scoring leader early in the year and dangerous almost every shift. He has tailed off somewhat and while still shows he is a threat on given shifts, he has been invisible on just as many lately.
To look at the season in its entirety, perhaps it is not all that surprising. They are a very young team, still learning what it takes to win at the NHL level. The fact that they are still within striking distance of a playoff spot in the final month of the season is probably exactly where they should be.
When the team goes on a run of winning games and playing hockey the way they are capable of doing, it’s hard to keep that in perspective. It’s often hard to fathom why they are so different night to night and game to game. That if they put just a few more games together over the course of the season, they would be comfortably sitting in a playoff spot.
That is not reality however, and such is the way of the rebuild process. They have been at the bottom for three straight years and have Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov to show for it. They have made strides toward improvement this season and are removed from consideration of the first overall pick for a fourth straight year. They have also shown they can compete with the best teams in the league, and have also been shown where their weaknesses lie. Regardless of the outcome, it’s an improvement.
The best thing to be taken from this season is the experience gained from playing must win games in a playoff atmosphere and potentially, if all things align at the right moment and they make a serious push, perhaps some playoff games.
With the core now in place it also shows where the cracks are in the lineup and what areas Tambellini needs to target. The core, for the most part, is in place with Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov and potentially Gagner (when he is re-signed) up front. They have Justin Schultz as well as Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid signed on the blue line, and Devan Dubnyk in goal.
They need supplementary pieces still to add to what they have, another legitimate goaltender to push Dubnyk, a power forward for the top six and a top pairing defenseman to complement Schultz, will be at the top of the wish list in the off-season.
No longer will they be facing an overall deficiency in talent and hoping to just bring the best player available in, now they have specific needs and certain areas to target. This is the next stage in the rebuild. The general amassing of young talent is there, and now they need to bring in some experience and specific skill sets to complement what they have.
It may be frustrating for Oiler fans, and many are becoming increasingly impatient with the rebuild process. The Oilers though, are right where they should be. Yes they likely should have more wins than they do, and have squandered more opportunities than they should have. However, the Oilers made the right decision in not moving any of their young pieces for a quick fix at the deadline to win now and still have assets to move in the off-season and cap space to work with.
In terms of comparables, the Pittsburgh Penguins had five consecutive years of top five draft picks from 2002-2006. They went the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and then won the Cup in 2009. The Chicago Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews in 2006 and Patrick Kane in 2007, they won the Stanley Cup in 2010.
The point is, a team generally can’t go last to first in just a year or two. It takes a few years for those number one picks to mature and develop. Both of those teams also added key veteran pieces in those years they won. Pittsburgh added Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin at the deadline and the Blackhawks added Marian Hossa entering that season. When done right, the team is a contender for years, not just one, just as those two still are.
The point is, the Edmonton Oilers are less than one year removed from drafting Nail Yakupov and signing Justin Schultz, and are moving towards the point of adding those key veterans, but aren’t there yet.
As hard as it is, give it some time and be patient Oiler fans. If in another couple of years they are no further ahead, they you have every right to be impatient and criticize away.
Until then, enjoy the ride.