If I had to describe the state of the Oilers franchise right now in one word, it would be frustrated.
The franchise player is frustrated. The newest 50-goal scorer is frustrated. The lovable good soldier that has been through it all and has never said a word about it until his exit interview yesterday is frustrated. The CEO is frustrated. The owner is frustrated. Of course, the fans are frustrated.
Nobody is happy with how this season went. The Oilers will have yet another top 10 pick this summer. The team doesn’t have a GM or a head coach at the moment. The franchise is very much in flux.
The focus right now is not on the season that was. There aren’t many people talking about how the majority of Oilers forwards regressed significantly in their offensive production this season compared to last. Nobody is really talking about how the injuries to Klefbom, Russell, and Sekera impacted the team’s defence. Nobody is really talking about the team’s inability to move the puck quickly or to play the game quickly. Nobody is talking about the amount of turnovers in the defensive zone, except for a brief mention of that by Keith Gretzky today. Nobody is talking about the inconsistent goaltending right now. Those stories have been discussed at great length throughout the course of the season. No one is talking about those things because none of it matters now. All people care about is that this season wasn’t good enough.
The new focus is on the future.
Everyone is focused squarely on Nicholson’s search for a new GM and on what other changes could be made to the hockey operations department. If you missed today’s press conference, you really didn’t miss much. There was no new information reported. Nicholson is looking to only hire a GM, not a President of Hockey Operations. That new GM will make decisions on whether or not to keep current members of the hockey operations department. That new GM will also make a decision on who will be the coach next season. Nicholson reiterated that he wants to emphasize open communication and more utilization of analytics and sports science with this hire. Gretzky said that he wants to be the GM and that he knows the team needs more speed and skill. He also talked about using analytics as a tool when making decisions on player personnel. Nicholson also reiterated that he is going to take his time with this hire to make sure that he gets it right.
Blah, blah blah, blah blah. That’s all most Oilers fans hear when Nicholson or anyone in the organization talks at this point. Actions speak louder than words. Anyone with any sort of vested interest in the Oilers organization just wants the team to win. Enough talk, just fix this!
There is a lot that needs fixing. The word “culture” was only brought up once today, and that was by a reporter that asked Nicholson to identify three specific things that he would to be a part of the culture here. He responded by reiterating his focus on open communication and a greater emphasis on analytics as values the new GM should hold, which really didn’t answer the question. The lack of discussion on culture was welcome news for many fans because of the clear need for an increase in the amount of speed and skill on the roster, but the culture is also an issue.
As I stated in a recent article about “culture”, the word is defined as being a set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. For the Oilers, that entails the attitudes and values of the hockey operations people when it comes to what to look for when evaluating and developing players. It entails the systems that the coaching staff implements. It entails the rules that the players are forced to abide by. It also entails the social norms that exist in the dressing room.
What is it about the Oilers culture that results in so many futile efforts at home? What is it about the culture that makes it so bloody hard for them to stop losing streaks quickly? What is it that makes the Oilers play down to the level of inferior opponents? What is it about the culture that made it so difficult for the majority of Oilers forwards to produce offence this season when they have shown that they are capable of it as recently as last season? Why was Ryan Strome able to go to New York and increase his production over what it was in his first 18 games in Edmonton this season by 78.8%? Why was Drake Caggiula able to increase his production by 31.6% in Chicago after the trade? Why did Cave’s production go down by 64% once he came here? It’s clear that the roster did not have enough speed or skill, but the fact of the matter is that less than half of the forwards on the Oilers performed at levels that they are capable of performing at. Why did so many players struggle so mightily at the same time, and why were players able to perform at a higher level on other teams?
That is what Nicholson was getting at with his infamous line about the culture in Edmonton. “There’s something in the water here that we don’t have right.” Whatever the existing attitudes, values, goals, and practices are, they are clearly flawed and they need to be improved.
The one important step that I feel Nicholson needs to take is talking to the players and getting feedback from them. Players today need to feel like they are a part of the process, and their voices need to be heard. I was pleased to hear Nicholson echo those sentiments today. He said that he has had good dialogue with McDavid. He said that he has talked to all of the players, although those meetings were likely just their annual exit meetings. That dialogue with the players needs to continue.
We know that there will be changes made to the roster. Keith Gretzky said it. He also said that the players are aware of that reality. We don’t know the specifics as to what roster moves will be made or who will make them, but Keith Gretzky does have the authority to make trades until the new GM is hired. What we do know is that the Oilers need a minimum of one top 6 winger, more scoring from the bottom 6, a puck-moving defenceman (preferably one that is right-handed and that can play on the top pairing), and a reliable back-up goaltender for questionable starter Mikko Koskinen. The other thing we know is that the Oilers’ cap situation isn’t ideal. Those are the big challenges that will face the incoming GM.
The good news is that there are a lot of good pieces already in place here. We have the best player on the planet in McDavid. Draisaitl emerged as a legitimate top end star this season. The Oilers arguably have the best 1-2 punch in the game right now. Nugent-Hopkins is an excellent 2nd line centre. Nurse continues to improve every season, and he just scored 10 goals and put up 41 points this year. Klefbom’s game had taken a step forward before his injury this season. There is a solid core in place.
There are also more good prospects developing in our system right now than we’ve had in decades. Bakersfield has had a great season. Caleb Jones showed quite well in his 17 games with the Oilers this season. Ethan Bear and William Lagesson on defence also appear to be close to NHL ready after this season. Tyler Benson is 1 point off of the rookie scoring lead in the AHL, but he has played in 6 fewer games than the leader. His 63 points are good for 8th in the AHL. Cooper Marody is 3rd in AHL rookie scoring, and he is in a tie for 14th overall. Kailer Yamamoto took a bit of a step back this season, but he is still a good prospect.
The good news doesn’t stop in Bakersfield. Evan Bouchard had another great season for London, and he is dominating the OHL playoffs right now. He is in a series against Dmitri Samorukov and his Guelph Storm team. Samorukov put Oilers fans on notice with his exceptional performance at the World Jrs this year, and that play has carried over to Guelph. Ryan McLeod got an extended look at Oilers training camp this season, and he had another solid campaign in the OHL. Kirill Maksimov had a really good season too. Joel Persson had another good year in Sweden, and he will be coming to North America next season. He is a good bet to be on the Oilers next season. There is a lot to be excited about with the prospect pool in the next couple of seasons, and the Oilers are about to add another top 10 pick to this group.
A lot of the heavy lifting has already been done for the incoming GM. A solid core and a good prospect pool are already in place. The supporting cast just needs to be overhauled. That is what makes me think that the Oilers can turn this around quickly. The Avalanche were historically bad in 2016-17 (48 points), and they have made the playoffs in each of the two seasons since. They traded Matt Duchene at the beginning of the 2017-18 season, and they have improved since then! How about the Islanders going from allowing the most goals in the NHL last season to having their goaltending duo win the Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the league this season. They finished 2nd in the Metropolitan division after losing John Tavares for nothing in free agency! The parity in this league means that the margin between a bad team and a playoff team isn’t as great a chasm as it appears to be.
Next season will be Connor McDavid’s 5th season. A lot of fans were upset that the Oilers were not a playoff team in his 4th season. Everyone is frustrated. Even Nugent-Hopkins is frustrated. The Oilers don’t have time to wait anymore. They need to fix the roster this summer, not next summer or the summer after that. Like all of you, I’ll be anxiously waiting to watch this summer unfold, and I’m hopeful that the team will be better next season! For now, we wait.