NO, EDMONTON OILERS MANAGEMENT DIDN’T DESERVE CONNOR MCDAVID LAST YEAR. BUT THE LONG SUFFERING, OFTEN INSULTED OILERS FAN BASE DID
(This is a revised edition of a story that appeared on Hautnews.com last September)
In the days leading up to 2015’s NHL Draft Lottery, I’d abandoned any notion that my Edmonton Oilers had any chance (or business) winning it’s fourth first overall pick in the span of six years, let alone landing teenage phenom Connor McDavid. I assumed that Buffalo or Arizona or Toronto would win that honour and my Oilers would be drafting third or fourth. Around the time I was wondering if highly touted defenseman Noah Hanifin would be ready to step directly onto the Oilers woeful blue line the following season (and what the odds were that our inept management would rush him if he wasn’t anyway) I checked my phone to see who had won the McDavid sweepstakes.
Forget a double take, I had to do a triple one because I couldn’t believe my eyes the first two times. Somehow the Edmonton Oilers, the team I’d adored since childhood and who had spent the past nine years unapologetically wiping their feet on my exhausted loyalty, had won the biggest hockey lottery in recent memory.
Before I knew it, my social media was filled with complaints and howls of outrage (because I was somehow responsible for the way the lottery balls fell). The Oilers didn’t deserve another first overall pick! they screamed. Edmonton would ruin him, they whined. McDavid needed to pull a Lindros and refuse to play for the Oilers. And while the Oilers improbable victory should have laid the multiple conspiracy theories that the NHL’s draft lottery was fixed to rest, it sparked absurd new ones that the draft was fixed in Edmonton’s favour.
It was a sweet river of salty tears.
video via Jordan Love
It prompted a buffet of jokes, indignation and genuine fear that Edmonton would win the first overall pick in 2016 as well, earning the right to draft Auston Matthews this year (check out the comments to the video above). And I get it. I may be a die-hard fan but I’m also a pragmatist and few were more critical of this team’s horrible management then I was. I could go on for pages listing the Oilers numerous faults and failures, but Craig MacTavish summed it up during his end of season post mortem press conference last April. He predicted that the 2015-2016 season would be another “transitional” season. Translation: another season where the team spun its wheels at the bottom of the standings and were eliminated from the playoff conversation by Halloween (Christmas at the latest). This was virtually two years to the day that he promised bold moves to get the team back to respectability as the team’s new General Manager. In two brief years he had gone from selling long suffering Oilers fans hope to stealing it away.
And all of that after a nine-year playoff drought. It was a rotten time to be an Oilers fan. Until the evening of April 18th 2015, when the lottery balls blessed us with McDavid.
I was initially ecstatic, but that excitement soon gave way to dread. If there was any organization on Earth that could ruin a guaranteed shot at a generational talent, it was Edmonton. But even if they got it right (a rarity for Oilers brass), I was afraid that getting McDavid could hurt the franchise in the long run.
When Craig MacTavish replaced Steve Tambellini in April of 2013, Tambellini was widely considered the worst GM in the NHL. MacTavish (who had zero management experience on his resume) somehow made the team worse. And when team president Kevin Lowe wasn’t insulting Oilers fans, he was presiding over the entire train wreck. Lowe was the one constant during the Oilers nine year playoff drought; different players, coaches, GMs and even different owners came and went, but Kevin Lowe was there for all of it and was allowed to keep making decisions. The problem with the Oilers wasn’t their players, it was their management.
But it seemed like the franchise had finally reached a turning point where fan frustration and relentless on ice humiliation had reached critical mass. Fans who had defended management with their dying breath were now the minority as most of the fan base had turned on the front office. Fans bought billboards and full-page newspaper ads urging the team to fire Lowe and eventually MacTavish. Jerseys were being thrown on the ice, seats were left empty and scalpers couldn’t sell five-dollar tickets to see a team that once sold out night after night. Management had all but lost everyone in the local and national media and some Edmonton sports writers admitted that players were quietly urging them to keep the heat on the faltering management team. But McDavid could have been a get out of jail free card for the Gruesome Twosome, his arrival in Oil town possibly buying Lowe and MacTavish an extra few years where they could continue to harm the team through incompetence and neglect.
When people talk about McDavid saving this franchise in the years to come, they won’t just be talking about the miraculous things he’ll be doing on the ice. Less then 48 hours after winning McDavid, a hurricane of change was sweeping through Oil country with a vengeance.
Bob Nicholson, who built Hockey Canada into the powerhouse it is today, was appointed CEO of hockey operations. One of his first orders of business was to push aside Lowe and demote MacTavish, installing Peter Chiarelli, the architect behind the Boston Bruins (who won the Stanley Cup in 2011, returned to the finals in 2013 and won the Presidents Trophy in 2014) as GM and President. Chiarelli then brought in Todd McLellan, one of the best coaching free agents on the market, to tend the bench and the team continued to revamp its coaching and scouting staff through the summer. Would any of those dominoes have fallen without McDavid? Probably not.
As excited as I was last summer, I still tempered my expectations. There was just too much ground for this team to make up in a single year to return to the playoffs and the non stop parade of severe injuries to big names (which started as early as training camp) not only sabotaged Edmonton’s chances to compete for a playoff berth, but at times felt like karma’s way of punishing the Oilers for winning McDavid (who wasn’t immune to the injury jinx, missing three months to a shattered collar bone). But last September was the first time in years I was looking forward to the beginning of the season, the first time in years I had genuine hope. I even dug out the Oilers jersey that had been exiled in shame to the back of my closet.
So yes, the old regime didn’t deserve McDavid, and I absolutely understood the frustration of other fans. But Oilers fans deserved McDavid, not just for our loyalty or for enduring the years of jokes and insults, but for our faith that one day our beloved copper and blue would be free of the clutches of the incompetent and the reckless. It turns out McDavid was the key to that freedom.
Now let’s see what’s in store for McDavid: Year Two.