For a time, the Edmonton Oilers were considered a template for how teams in patient (read: Canadian) cities rebuild. The mantra was as follows: Strip the team of expensive contracts, allow for a few years in the NHL’s basement, reap the rewards of top draft choices, and watch as a young core grows up together. It worked for the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have transformed from being an afterthought on local television and laughingstock respectively, to perennial contenders and champions. The same was expected in Edmonton.
Instead, the Oilers have stalled, requiring President Kevin Lowe to fire depression-era General Manager Steve Tambellini in favour of the impatient Craig MacTavish. When the playoffs finally seemed within reach in 2013 in a shortened season, the Oil sputtered in the final weeks, gracelessly falling again to the bottom third of the league. What are the differences between Edmonton and recent Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh and Chicago? What could newly appointed manager Joe Sakic and the Colorado Avalanche stand to learn from their predecessors’ cautionary tale?
Are the Colorado Avalanche Top-Heavy?
The Colorado Avalanche have missed the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. The one season they qualified (2009/10) was the largely the result of then relative-unknown goaltender Craig Anderson. In the time since, they have drafted near or at the top of the draft pool, selecting the contractually-renewed Matt Duchene, captain Gabriel Landeskog, and Nathan MacKinnon. Like the Oilers and MacTavish, the Avs have brought in team alumni in Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy to steer the ship in the right direction. In an odd twist, they have retained GM Greg Sherman, who President Josh Kroenke said “deserved” to enjoy the fruits of his labour. The team seems poised to walk the path the Oilers have trodden, only the team in Edmonton has little to show for it so far.
Like the Avalanche, the most notable draft choices in Edmonton in recent years have been scoring forwards. Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Nail Yakupov are all diminutive players who have shown flashes of individual success but have not been able to translate that into overall team success. Edmonton’s struggles on defence and goaltending are well-documented. Those positions are often the hardest to fill and require the most amount of patience and foresight from management. For the young core in Edmonton, this lack of team infrastructure has led to a delay in development. Many felt the playoff door was open for the Oilers in 2013 and in the end, they missed the post-season by ten points, going 3-7 in their final ten games.
Defence brings stability
Drafting MacKinnon and re-signing Duchene were good decisions that should prove fruitful. In the press conference announcing Duchene’s signing, Sakic proclaimed: “(Matt) represents the identity we want the Avalanche to be”. Those young players, however, will need support and it may behoove Sakic to act sooner than later. Even Blackhawks Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, aged 30 and 28 respectively, had to answer questions in the 2013 playoffs after having already won a Cup. Nashville Jones Predators pick Seth may not have been able to help the Avalanche this year while defenceman Erik Johnson at age 25 still has room to develop.
The added responsibility and psychological makeup it requires to be a top line defenceman in the NHL gives a team stability on and off the ice. The Avs were likely in on recruiting Andrew Ference during Free Agency but he chose his hometown Oilers instead. And now, with Ference locked up and rumours – just rumours – that Dion Phaneuf could one day become an Oiler, Edmonton seems poised to attain that long-awaited team harmony. In fact, their first choice in this year’s draft was defenceman Darnell Nurse. The last time they chose a defenceman with their first, first-round pick in the draft was in 1989. Nurse, meanwhile, has been named captain of the Soo Greyhounds for 2013/14 and has been deemed NHL captain material.
The Oilers, still looking to improve on the back end, may use restricted free agent Sam Gagner as leverage in a trade if the arbitration hearing on Monday does not go well. Similarly, centreman Ryan O’Reilly, having been moved to the wing in coach Roy’s projected lineup for next season, may be an asset that can bring a top-flight defenceman to Colorado. He becomes eligible for trade on February 28 2014.
The Colorado Avalanche must also focus on developing their young defenceman. 2011 first-round draft pick Duncan Siemens is on his way up the organization. But in an odd twist, Adam Foote was hired this off-season to work with the defence – for home games only. Foote will not travel with the team on the road and this raises some serious concerns. You may remember the unceremonious fashion with which former Maple Leafs and now Avalanche goaltending coach Francois Allaire left Toronto. When his methods were questioned by the organization, he was not invited to road games, meaning goaltenders Ben Scrivens and James Reimer received mixed messages from coaching staff. This was the season that, as Brian Burke put it, was akin to an eighteen-wheeler falling off a cliff. And though Foote is on better terms with the Avalanche, the opportunity for mixed messages is there.
The comparisons between the Oilers and Avalanche are evident. Patrick Roy will play a run-and-gun offence that could be beneficial for all the talent they enjoy on the front end. Keeping Greg Sherman was perhaps an early warning shot. But the sooner they find balance in Colorado, the better it will be for all concerned.