With the NHL Draft Lottery merely hours away, and the Edmonton Oilers guaranteed one of Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about the Oilers, their recent troubles, and what led them to this point. Now as a Canuck fan, I’m going to try and keep this cordial and as level-headed as possible. I don’t mean to offend the Oiler faithful, I’m just trying to speak objectively.
Where to start? Perhaps with the news this weekend of Sheldon Souray demanding a trade out of Edmonton. As the internet explodes with lullz and cries of Pronger: Part Deux, I’m not going to do that. I can’t pretend to know the pain of Oil Nation (though the Ryan Smyth trade did upset me), but I do know the futile feeling that no one wants to sign with your team. The Canucks have done a good job of building a team through trades and the draft, but outside of Oiler legend and infamous Canuck Mark Messier, the biggest UFA signing we’ve seen on the wet coast is Willie Mitchell — and it doesn’t take much to lure a hometown boy (so long as he’s not named Joe Sakic or Paul Kariya). I remember feeling teased each summer, as rumours swirled of the Canucks getting close to signing mid-level players like Ray Whitney, only to see them land in “destination” cities like… Columbus. Before Mitchell, Vancouver’s biggest free agent coup was Magnus Arvedson, a solid third line player who didn’t last a season before injury forced him into early retirement. I think that says it all. [Editor’s Note: It dawns on me that I am completely omitting Vancouver’s recent UFA success, having signed Mats Sundin, Pavol Demitra and Mikael Samuelsson in the past two years. Our fortunes have changed recently, but for the better part of the franchise’s existence, the Canucks have been built through trades and the draft. And not by choice.] I’m getting off topic, however. This is supposed to be about the Oilers.
Souray, like Mitchell, was signing with his “hometown” team. A native of Elk Point, Alberta, he grew up watching the Oiler dynasty teams of the 80s, no doubt dreaming of someday manning the point in the blue and copper just like Paul Coffey. When he signed his five-year, $27 million deal on July 13th, 2007, it was supposed to be a dream come true. Hell, the team even reverted back to their classic jerseys after spending the better part of this decade in drab navy pyjamas, while sporting bizarre sprocket-based alternate logos. And yet, right from the beginning, the dream became a nightmare.
“I got challenged by management on the very first day of my first training camp. The very first day. They said, ‘When are you going to play?’ I said, ‘I have a six month injury and I’m at five months.’ But I played.” And he got injured, just six games into his first season, in a fight against an unlikely combatant in Vancouver’s Byron Ritchie. Souray was remarkably candid about his misadventures as an Oiler over the weekend, and it’s landed him in some hot water with both team management and fans. GM Steve Tambellini called his comments “unfortunate” and “counter-productive”. Head coach Pat Quinn said, “If you don’t want to play here, don’t screw around. Get the hell out.” I for one salute his honesty.
When Chris Pronger high-tailed it out of town after the 2006 Cup run, it left a lot of bitter feelings, and one question: “Why?” It was assumed that Mrs. Pronger, an American, was unhappy living in Edmonton after becoming accustomed to the socialite life in St. Louis. All sorts of rumours abounded, some more ridiculous than others, but the end result was a lasting stigma that Edmonton was the Siberia of the NHL, a laughing stock of the league, and a city to be avoided at all costs. And it left both the city and the organization with an immense amount of bitterness. Pronger held his cards close to the vest. His reasons remained his own. And the city, the fans, and even the upper levels of power in the organization, tore him and his wife to pieces. Before suggesting Pronger should sooner divorce his wife than leave Edmonton, former Oilers chairman Cal Nichols put it best: “I think Pronger was too vague. He owed it to our organization and to the fan base to be just a bit more specific about it, because that is what is annoying everybody.”
Souray didn’t make that mistake. He laid it all on the table and said publicly what the hockey world has been mumbling for quite a while — that Kevin Lowe is a poison that has been eating that team from the inside out for years now. “It’s not a players thing. It’s not a fans thing or a city thing. It’s a management thing,” he clarified. “They’ve given up on me, and it’s a two-way street. […] The fans are great, they’ve accepted me here, I see the jerseys in the stands. I couldn’t have pictured a more opposite vision of what my experience here would be like. What the organization here would be like, overall.”
Now, Souray hasn’t exactly done himself any favours in Edmonton. Most of his struggles stemmed from injuries incurred in unnecessary fights. And he hasn’t exactly helped his trade value by taking pot-shots at his current organization. Still, at his current price tag, whatever teams were going to be interested in his services this summer should still be interested. And it takes a lot of guts to slam your boss before you’re out the door. It’s a necessary wake-up call in a city that has let alumni appointments destroy their upper management. I have a lot of respect for Tambellini from his days in Vancouver, but there is a sentiment out there that he is but a puppet in Edmonton, and Lowe is still pulling the strings. It was a difficult decision for the Canucks to break away from their stagnant past and go for the unlikely hire when Mike Gillis was given the reigns as General Manager. It was an unpopular choice at the time, but two years into his tenure and it’s looking like the best move the team could possibly have made. The Oilers are in dire need of a similar shake-up. Souray spoke to it somewhat, and a growing number of fans are coming around to it too.
As I write this, the Oilers have just won the draft lottery and will pick #1 overall in the draft in June. Good. I’m glad. For starters, it’s about time that a team in the Western Conference gets to pick a generational talent — it is far too infrequent that we get to see the Crosbys, Ovechkins and Stamkos’s of the league in person. The West has Patrick Kane, and little else. Matt Duchene might hit superstar status soon, but he’s not there yet.
Beyond my own selfish reasons, this is good for the Oilers, and believe it or not, good for the Canucks. The Edmonton-Vancouver rivalry has always been a good one, and it wasn’t long ago that they were some of the most exciting games on the schedule, as both teams employed up-tempo offensive styles which lead to great back-and-forth games. I don’t mean to sound spoiled, but the division race to the NorthWest title was exceptionally boring this year. While there is some degree of schadenfreude in seeing the Flames collapse and the Oilers fail so spectacularly, it would be more fun to go down to the wire. To have real competition. To earn it. Colorado lacked the experience to get it done down the stretch, and they were the closest thing the Canucks had to a challenge this season. I want to be able to hate the Oilers again the way Edmonton hated Vancouver this year: not because we’re natural rivals, but because they’re good.
Losing Souray won’t hurt them. He’s a win-now player on a team that’s years away from contending. Whoever they pick, be it Seguin or Hall, he will join a young core that already includes Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svenson. It’s a group that has the potential to blossom into something that will rival the young guns that Chicago is currently enjoying — and while Edmonton brass have been making that promise of their youngsters for years now, this time around, it’s actually true. I look forward to watching them grow into their potential together. More than that, I look forward to begrudgingly giving them something the Oilers haven’t had for years now: my respect.