Everyone has a chance in that kooky, zany Western Conference wildcard race, people say.
“This team isn’t far off,” Edmonton Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson told CBC News' Lydia Neufeld earlier this week. “We are still focused on trying to get this team in the playoffs now.”
After Tuesday's home loss to the Arizona Coyotes, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins spoke of “battling to find our way back into the playoffs.”
Playoffs, eh? The Oilers, at least verbally, remain committed to that idea. They sit six points back of eighth and have a game in hand on the Minnesota Wild. On paper, it’s not impossible for Edmonton to go on a run. Tuesday’s illness aside, the Oilers still have Connor McDavid, after all. The St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks were left for dead months ago, and they’ve surged back toward relevance.
But if we’re all honest with ourselves, we know the Oilers are not the Blues or the Blackhawks.
After Tuesday’s loss, this team is 2-12-0 in its past 14 home games. The Oilers have lost five straight and 11 of their past 12 games. Forget “six points out of a playoff spot.” This team is five points out of last overall in the NHL standings.
It’s no longer a matter of whether Edmonton can pull off a miracle. It's a matter of whether Edmonton should care about a miracle. The question interim GM Keith Gretzky and Oilers Nation should ask now is: would a miracle really benefit the franchise? Will Edmonton gain much by coughing and wheezing its way to a No. 8 seed and the privilege of getting pummelled by the Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets or Nashville Predators in Round 1?
The Oilers are better off salivating over a lottery pick than a playoff berth. The former would solve a serious problem. It’s possible the Oilers enter 2019-20 still pretty hamstrung by the salary cap given how challenging it will be to find takers for the anchor-like contracts of Milan Lucic, Kris Russell and Andrej Sekera – all of which include full no-movement clauses. The Oilers will thus be hard-pressed to ink a top-end UFA, especially keeping in mind blueliner Darnell Nurse will need an extension as an RFA at the end of next season. They also don’t have so much elite farm depth that they’d want to surrender an important piece like Evan Bouchard or Kailer Yamamoto to chase a win-now upgrade.
The best way the Oilers can drastically improve, then, is to score, say, a Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko at the 2019 draft. Unlike some recently shoehorned Edmonton prospects, either is elite enough to instantly deserve a good, honest NHL job next October and would significantly upgrade the team’s forward corps – at an entry-level cap hit, most importantly.
Pipe dream? Not as much as a playoff push is. Mathematically, drafting Hughes or Kakko is a better bet than making the playoffs. According to The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn, the Oilers have a 6.0 percent chance of getting there now. If they finish the season in their current NHL-standings slot of 27th, they’ll have an 8.5 percent shot at first overall and 8.7 percent chance at second overall.
So even if Gretzky can’t find a good seller trade at the deadline, with assets too financially prohibitive to attract much interest, that doesn’t mean he should flip the switch and become a buyer. Even standing pat and letting the 2018-19 ship sink dutifully would qualify as a mature decision and a small victory. The Oil would score a high-end first-rounder even if they don’t win the lottery and would add him to pool that includes a piping-hot feeder system in the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors. With a little patience, Edmonton turns its fortune around in another season or two. And before this team considers giving 2016 No. 4 overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi away for 60 cents on the dollar, consider what's happened to 2015 No. 3 overall pick Dylan Strome since he landed in Chicago. Take a deep breath instead of doing something rash. There's no reason to rush at this point.
Maybe that’s not what people want to hear given McDavid’s prime years are a-wastin'. But for every Sidney Crosby or Wayne Gretzky who matches championships to individual hardware in his early 20s, there are many more Mario Lemieuxs or Alex Ovechkins who take a lot longer to achieve team glory. Lemieux didn’t even make the playoffs until season 5 of his career. 'Ovie' won the Cup in season 13. So even though history suggests McDavid is arriving at his statistical peak seasons for point production, that doesn’t mean he has to be chasing a Cup this instant. Steve Yzerman became a three-time Cup champion long after his boffo scoring seasons.
So cut your losses, Oilers. Take a step back to take a step forward. Or at least don't take a step at all. Stand pat if you can't find a seller trade. Stop worrying about the playoffs. Missing them will do you more good than making them.