That was my initial reaction after hearing the Edmonton Oilers won the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft Lottery. The consensus is that the Oilers will draft Connor McDavid, the central scouting bureau’s top rated player, from the OHL’s Erie Otters. Jesus, not the Oilers, was the general response from the hockey community, even though McDavid’s dad assured everyone his son was not disappointed, definitely not. This will be Edmonton’s fourth first overall pick in the last six drafts. Those picks weren’t totally squandered; all three have deepened the oil well. But having not made the playoffs in nine straight years, and only twice in the last thirteen, the thought—or more like the reality—of a prospect with Sidney Crosby-like hype going to the once legendary organization was depressing for fans and hockey insiders who haven’t forgotten what playing in Edmonton used to mean.
The last decade has been exasperating in Edmonton. The Oilers have loaded up on young offensive talent, but the defensive corps lingers like a cat’s dirty litter box—they use it because it’s there, but it stinks like hell. “It is, however, more than a little unfair to pin all of Oilers [sic] defensive woes on the netminding. Truth be told that the club has iced a subpar group of defenders in recent years, and for all of [Craig] MacTavish’s bluster about “impatience” and “bold moves” upon assuming the GM post, the collection of blueliners that subsequently came to town was underwhelming to put it kindly,” Bruce McCurdy blogged for the Edmonton Journal. So I found the notion of trading the number one pick to acquire an NHL-ready defenseman or, perhaps even and, a goalie appealing. The draft runs June 26-27 in Florida; that’s plenty of time to shop the pick in an effort to improve the back-end product for next season—and maybe forget that Devan Dubnyk became a Vezina Trophy finalist in his first full season away from Edmonton.
Trading the pick, rather than the player, made the most sense. Sure, McDavid is insane, and most teams, regardless of their depth at forward, would not pass up a player Wayne Gretzky called “the best player to come into the league in the last 30 years”—even at the risk suffering a hyperbole-related injury. But the pick provides the Oilers with the most leverage by allowing any team willing to trade for it to use the pick how they see fit, rather than acquiring a player they may not need as badly. The Boston Bruins ranked eighth this year in total goals allowed (209), but came in at 22nd in goals scored (201). Would Cam Neely be willing to entertain a discussion about potential offensive improvements that could be obtained in a package deal for some back-end talent like Torrey Krug or Tukka Rask?
Well, that was my position, but it isn’t now. Edmonton will make the pick and keep the player, as it should (and, without question, was always going to).
The management structure in Edmonton fueled my support for the trade theory. Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, as president and GM respectively, were awful. (That alone, I understand, turns the trade argument into Swiss cheese. The Oilers’ brass couldn’t turn the team around in ten years, why would it suddenly be capable of exchanging the top pick in return for something as valuable as McDavid?) The need for regime change has been obvious for years; I almost wrote my graduate thesis about it. Now, in a little over a week since the lottery announcement, it’s become clear to the Oilers too, and the front office revamp is finally underway. Lowe and MacT are out, assigned to other roles in the organization, absent the power to renovate. In comes Peter Chiarelli as the new GM and president of hockey operations—he, until twelve days ago, of the 2011 Cup-winning (and 2013 runner-up) Boston Bruins.
Chiarelli’s hiring ends an era in which players pivotal to Edmonton’s 1980s dynasty were considered the best option for rejuvenating the club in the 2000s. “The announcement stands as the demarcation line between an ugly past and a promising future. It is that simple,” ESPN’s Scott Burnside wrote. It’s not crazy that Lowe and company were given a chance—all pro-sports are comprised of good ole’ boys—just that they lasted so long. Chiarelli, despite some questionable personnel moves, turned around a Bruins team that had either failed to win a first round playoff series or even qualify at all in the six seasons before he was hired. Now the Oilers are primed to benefit from Chiarelli’s track record because it will attract the attention of the top coaches on the market this summer. (Todd McClellan is a popular name. Team Canada’s current World Hockey Championship coach split from the San Jose Sharks this year after nearly a decade.) And a club consisting of that kind of front office and coaching pedigree should, in theory, make acquiring and retaining good players more feasible. That did not happen under the old guard in Edmonton, nor was it going to. Or as one NHL scout told me last week, “Fuck Edmonton. They never spend any money.” The expectations of a team in seemingly perpetual rebuild now appear closer to actually being met; the Oilers aren’t a playoff team yet, but faith will be restored sooner than later.
“That ownership would not or could not see that Lowe’s continued place at the top of the hockey pyramid was counterproductive to rebuilding a badly constructed team is both an embarrassment and a shame,” Burnside remarked. And that’s true. But everybody can learn from their mistakes at some point. And a club with five Stanley Cup banners can only lose so much before it remembers how to win again. Let Peter Chiarelli make Connor McDavid that reminder.