When it comes to the 2013-14 Edition of the Edmonton Oilers, the pundits are out in droves to start pointing the finger. Scrutiny is an inevitable companion when you begin a season 4-14-2. Sometimes when a team starts the season with such a poor record, it isn’t always an indication of quality of play. Unfortunately, for the young, talent-laden Oilers, it has been like a watching a bad B-horror flick. When it rains it pours, and the rain has been falling heavily on the plains.
The real question is: Who is to blame?
Up until a few days ago, the consensus would have been head coach, Dallas Eakins—proclaimed in the off-season as the best coach not currently employed in the NHL. Many viewed Eakins—known for his ability to get the best out of young players—as the guy to step in and save the day. He was supposed to parade into town and be the catalyst. He was supposed to be the Messiah, sent to translate immense talent into instant success.
With what has transpired in the last few days between the Oilers and former 1st overall pick, Nail Yakupov, a new villain emerged. Yakupov stole headlines across the hockey world when he openly criticized the Oilers’ for underutilizing his talents. In the City of Champions, known for its blue collar pride, there is a new Public Enemy No. 1. All of a sudden, Eakins looks like he is off the hook…well, maybe not.
After the two most obvious scapegoats, there are a plethora of minor stories that emerge, surrounding the mediocrity in Edmonton. Is Taylor Hall a band-aid? Is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins a big game player? Why didn’t the Oilers’ go after a shutdown defenceman in the off-season? Why do the Oilers keep drafting one-dimensional forwards? How old is Ryan Smyth? And to top it all off, the Oilers signed “Mr. Universe” himself, Ilya Bryzgalov—a 6 foot 4, walking distraction.
I don’t think it is any of the above, or at least not exclusively. My feeling is that the Edmonton Oilers simply lack culture. Every great franchise has a clearly defined culture. Good franchises don’t necessarily build around players. They build around ideals and values. They then comprise their teams with players who fit the mould of the culture.
For example, look at the Detroit Red Wings. From 1967 until 1983, the Red Wings only appeared in the playoffs twice. They were abysmal. Things didn’t start to change until they looked at changing the culture. When Scotty Bowman pulled Steve Yzerman aside and convinced him to play a different brand of hockey—two-way, 200-foot hockey—it was a turning point. He told Yzerman that he would probably have to sacrifice scoring titles to do it, but promised they would be replaced with Stanley Cups. Turns out he was right. Between 1991 and 2013, the Red Wings appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs 22 consecutive times.
When Steve Yzerman—criticized for being a one-dimensional player earlier in his career—changed his game, the rest of the team followed suit. In subsequent years, the Red Wings thrived with the culture of “Complete Hockey”. With the Red Wings, no one player overshadows the team. Everyone understands the value of sacrificing individual awards for the greatest team award.
I had the pleasure of having dinner a few years ago with a walking testament of the power of a strong team culture. Dan Cleary’s life changed dramatically, both on and off the ice, when he became a member of the Detroit Red Wings on October 4, 2005, after signing a one-year contract. Cleary was at a crossroads after being non-tendered by the Phoenix Coyotes and the Detroit Red Wings extended an invite to training camp, with no promises. The 2005-06 season saw Cleary undergo a massive transformation, developing into one of the NHL’s most reliable defensive forwards. The transformation earned him a new contract and eventually a Stanley Cup in 2008.
Back to the Oilers. Is it fair to say that Dallas Eakins doesn’t have what it takes after 20 games? I don’t think so. The Oilers struggled badly last season and I don’t think it’s fair to expect Eakins, a rookie NHL coach, to magically turn the tides. Eakins deserves at least two years to implement his system into Edmonton and work with the young core. It sickens me to see teams hire coaches and the fire them 15 to 20 games into a season. It shows that the organization doesn’t have confidence in their decisions and it exudes panic. This filters into the culture and inevitably into the on-ice product.
Should the Oilers trade Nail Yakupov? There are two ways to look at it. You either forgive and forget, or you make a statement. I think they should trade him. I have nothing against Yakupov and I think he made an honest, youthful mistake, but if you are going to implement a strong culture, you need to set the precedent that no one is bigger than the team. Yakupov would benefit from a fresh start and certainly a new agent.
As for the other minor themes, well, what team doesn’t have its issues. One thing is for certain. You can only hit the panic button so many times before it loses its meaning. With a core group in their early 20s, it’s not going to happen overnight. Let Eakins get settled in, and let him do what he does best—motivate and teach. With the core group signed to long-term contracts, there is time to see what this group can achieve.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither were the Detroit Red Wings.