Is this godforsaken season going to be over any time soon? I’m asking for an entire country.
And no, I don’t mean winter, although come to think of it, that works, too. I mean the NHL’s regular season. Or, as it’s known in six of the league’s seven Canadian markets, the only part of the season we’re going to get.
Apparently we Canadians used up all our hockey karma in Sochi, because the country’s NHL teams are all going through various stages of misery. If the season ended today (and 80 percent of Canadians would vote for that if we could), the nation would send only one team to the playoffs for the first time in more than four decades. And even that one team isn’t considered a real contender.
The question isn’t whether this had been a bad year for Canadian NHL teams; it’s whether it’s been the worst year ever. In fact, it would be tempting to break out Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday speech and tell the entire country that “We are in hell right now, gentlemen,” except that couldn’t be true because at least hell is warm.
How did we get here? Where did it all go wrong? And is there any hope for the future? Let’s take a look at each of Canada’s teams, and try to figure this mess out.
The Expectations: After years of misery, this was going to finally be the year the Oilers broke through. Their core of young players (including three former first-overall draft picks) were entering their prime, they’d hired the league’s most sought-after young coach in Dallas Eakins, and Craig MacTavish has returned to the organization as general manager while promising bold moves.
Nobody was calling them Cup contenders, but at the very least, they’d be solidly in the playoff mix.
The Reality: Disaster. They started 1-6-1, and by November 15, they were sitting at 4-15-2 and were already dead in the water. Eakins’s heralded “swarm” defensive system ended up being a complicated misfire, Taylor Hall seems to have regressed, Nail Yakupov looks like a bust, and the goaltending was a nightmare. Only a total washout by the Sabres has kept them from making a return to dead last.
What Went Wrong: Nobody knows.
Honestly, I think that’s a fair assessment. I’ve read more analysis of the Oilers than any other NHL team this year, and there’s just no consensus on what happened.
Goaltending was the biggest problem early, as Devan Dubnyk floundered and Ilya Bryzgalov didn’t help. But it certainly wasn’t the only issue. They’ve been a terrible possession team and have often looked lost defensively. Eakins sounds smart when he talks about the issues, but whatever he’s doing to fix them isn’t working. (And picking silly fights with his best player over water bottle accidents won’t help.)
As for that trio of first-overall picks, they’re now generating headlines like “They took the wrong players.” That’s not good.
Firing Squad: MacTavish isn’t going anywhere. It’s always possible that president of hockey ops Kevin Lowe could be pushed out, but that seems unlikely and wouldn’t change much. That leaves Eakins, if someone has to take the fall for this year’s debacle. But he’s been on the job only for one year, and a knee-jerk firing of your new coach after one season is a Cleveland Browns move. Are the Oilers the Browns of the NHL? [Thinks about it.] Uh, may want to grab a few change-of-address cards, Dallas. Just in case.
Ominous Sign: They just lost a game in which one of their own fans littered the ice with a jersey. That’s bad. The final score in that one was 8-1. That’s worse. It was to the Calgary Flames. That’s … well, they haven’t invented an English word that captures that level of awful yet, but I hear they’re leaning toward “Oilerific.”
Ray of Hope: There are several, believe it or not. The new goaltending tandem of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth has looked competent, sometimes even downright good, so there may finally be some stability at the position. The core of the roster is still young enough that you can convince yourself they’ll improve, especially once Eakins figures out what works at the NHL level. And they’ll have another high pick in this year’s draft, which they could use to take Aaron Ekblad, a blueline stud who’d help a team that’s used its other top picks to load up on young forwards.
YouTube Video to Cheer Up Oiler Fans: This feels like it was a million years ago.