The Edmonton Oilers find themselves in a very familiar and comfortable place – last overall in the NHL standings. Are the Oilers inexperienced or are they just a bunch of guys who have learned how to lose?
In a recent conversation with a longtime GM, I was told there has never been any serious discussion about limiting the number of times a team can have successive first overall picks in the draft. It has been discussed, he said, but not to any great extent.
I then asked him if he thought that would change if the Edmonton Oilers managed to get the first overall pick again in 2016 and the right to select Auston Matthews. “I’m sure it will be discussed,” he said.
We say this because with the season more than a quarter over, the Oilers are dead last in the NHL — again. Even though the league has tightened up the draft lottery rules, if the lottery were to be held today, the Oilers would still lead the league with a 20 percent chance of winning and would be assured of picking no lower than fourth overall in a draft that is projecting to be very strong at the top end.
Since 2010 when the Oilers used the first overall pick to take Taylor Hall, they’ve picked first, first, first, seventh, third and first overall. That’s a total of 14 draft slots in six drafts for an average draft slot of 2.33. Compare that to the Detroit Red Wings. If they’d kept all their first-rounders from those drafts, they would have selected 21st, 25th, 23rd, 20th, 15th and 19th. That’s a total of 123 draft slots for an average draft slot of 20.5.
What makes this such an issue is that the Oilers sometimes look as though they’re tanking the season. Monday night in Toronto was one of those nights. The Oilers were facing a bad Toronto team after coming off a really good effort in a 3-2 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and had the opportunity to end a long road trip on a positive note. They were going against a goaltender who had never faced an NHL shot and should have tested him early. They had just two shots through the first half of the first period and 24 overall. They looked at times uninterested and defeated.
And that’s the story of the Edmonton Oilers. At times they look like a bunch of eager young bucks who can skate and play with the best teams in the NHL. At others, they look like a group of kids that has gotten very good at learning how to lose and to accept losing. The fact that one of the reasons put forth is that the team is missing Connor McDavid, an 18-year-old who played all of 13 games before getting hurt, tells you all you need to know about the makeup of this team.
“It says we’re not where we need to be,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said after the Toronto game. “I think that’s the best way of putting it. We’ve got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, physically win more battles than we lose.”
The game came at the end of a five-game trip through the Eastern Conference that began with a shutout loss to Washington at the beginning and a shutout loss to Toronto at the end. Overall, the Oilers went 1-3-1 on the trip and scored just six goals in regulation time. McLellan turned his sites to some of his star players, saying they didn’t perform very well on the road trip. Hall had one assist in five games. Jordan Eberle had no points and was minus-8. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had one assist and was minus-8. Benoit Pouliot had 1-1-2 totals and Leon Draisaitl had just one goal.
“When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some real key, key people really underperform on the trip,” McLellan said. “Significant minus numbers, not hitting the scoresheet. Tonight, there was nothing offensively, nothing sustained, nothing hard at all. So that’s disappointing.”
Oilers center Mark Letestu, who was signed as a free agent this past summer to provide some veteran leadership, was even more brutal in his assessment of the team’s efforts.
“We didn’t test (Leafs goalie Garret Sparks) him nearly what we would have liked to and it led to him, I think, getting more comfortable as the night went on,” Letestu said. “I don’t feel like we gave ourselves the best chance to win. Our power play was bad. We didn’t create enough offensively.”
When asked why the Oilers came out so flat in the early part of the game, Hall remarked that it wasn’t as though the Oilers meant to have only two shots after the first 10 minutes of play. Of course they didn’t. But what they also didn’t do was find an extra gear, which baffles many people. With a team so young and talented, why does the engine die so often and seemingly so quickly after the first sign of adversity?
There’s an old saying that suggests if nothing changes, nothing changes. And that looks like where the Oilers are right now. And it just might result in another thing not changing – with the Oilers picking first overall again in the draft in June.