The Edmonton Oilers’ weekend meltdown was the latest nadir for a franchise that’s been a nadir factory in recent years. Being thrashed 8-1 by their provincial rivals from Calgary was humiliating enough, but when head coach Dallas Eakins and star winger Taylor Hall got into it on the bench – with Hall throwing a water bottle whose contents hit Eakins and finding himself benched for a stretch of the game – it was enough to send already-touchy Oilers fans over the edge.
Although both Hall and Eakins spoke Monday and said the incident was behind them, the optics of the blowout were brutal in a year that’s been brutal in all-caps. The longer the Oilers are allowed to continue operating without major changes to the roster and management, the more the situation makes the organization look like a once-gorgeous mansion that’s fallen into disrepair and now resembles a clapboard, run-down rooming house. And it’s their preoccupation with past glories that’s keeping them from achieving future success.
I’m not saying this as a personal indictment of any Edmonton player. I am saying that, for too long, the Oilers have looked to the franchise’s glory days for guidance in the present. President of hockey operations Kevin Lowe was GM for eight years before being promoted to his current position with the team. They made the playoffs under him just three times (although, in fairness, one of those times led to the Stanley Cup Final). Lowe also hired former Glory Years Oiler Craig MacTavish to be his head coach throughout his time as GM – and he doubled down on MacTavish last April when he was hired to replace former GM Steve Tambellini.
Stocking an organization with former stars in management position might make the home base feel good for a while, but it rarely leads to Stanley Cup championships. A simple look back at the history of Cup winners demonstrates the opposite.
The reining-champion Blackhawks have a GM (Stan Bowman) who never played a moment of pro hockey, and a coach (Joel Quenneville) who didn’t play for Chicago during his NHL career. The Kings won thanks to GM Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter, neither of whom had any ties to the organization before joining it. Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien had zilch to do with the history of the Bruins before they joined forces and won it all for Boston. Neither Ken Holland nor Mike Babcock were members of Red Wings teams of lore, but they’ve managed to do just fine. The list goes on and on: Jay Feaster in Tampa Bay; Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh; Randy Carlyle and Brian Burke in Anaheim.
For my money, this demonstrates that the next round of Oilers changes – and they have to be coming this summer or risk significant civil unrest – must turn away from familiar Edmonton names of the past. Lowe can claim he knows a little bit about winning, but no GM or upper management gets this many kicks at the can after this many embarrassments.
You do have to remember your heroes that delivered you glory. But you can’t see them as infallible geniuses who only need a couple more years to see their plan begin bearing fruit. Edmonton’s tree isn’t exactly bereft of fruit, but the gardeners who’ve tended to it for nearly a decade-and-a-half simply haven’t developed enough of it to fill a bushel and keep their loyal supporters hopeful they’re on track to one day deliver the greatest trophy in all of sport.
Until they look to someone with no ties to the organization who can come in and dispassionately assess the sins and successes of the recent past, the Oilers appear destined to continue making newer, uglier nadirs – and more incensed fans.