Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Edmonton Oilers: State of the Rebuild

Edmonton Oilers: State of the Rebuild

The Edmonton Oilers are an interesting franchise to examine as they have recieved a fair amount of attention in the recent past, although not quite for the reasons you would typically expect such as winning, but rather as a result of a run that has resulted in three consecutive  first overall picks (years: 2010, 2011, 2012) in the NHL entry draft. They finished last in seasons  2009-2010 and 2010-2011, and 29th with only the Columbus Blue Jackets behind them in 2011-2012, that same year they won the draft lottery resulting in them picking first overall for the third time in a row.

Although the shortened 2012-2013 season is still going and the standings in the Western Conference are rather packed, the Edmonton Oilers do not appear to have taken a major step forward.. While such results are expected of teams who are rebuilding, we will take an in-depth look at the Edmonton Oilers rebuild and whether the organization has done an optimal job in the process. To do that, we will look at the four elements – the Oilers environment, the draft yields, the team composition, and the identity and culture. Each of them I believe are the major sticking points and the reason as to why the process has not been optimal.

The Oilers environment
First, let's take a look at the Oilers' environment and the current state of the franchise. Although rebuilding is all about future, let us examine why the Edmonton Oilers had and continue to have problems competing in the Western Conference. The Western Conference as compared to it's Eastern counterpart is thought of as the grittier, bigger, tougher conference. The Edmonton Oilers in their current state continue to struggle at elements like engaging and winning puck battles, boardwork, clearing the front of the net and puck possession, it is a team that is frankly outmatched both in terms of compete level and size. If it looks to you like man against boys out there, well that's because it is. It is true to a degree that the team is rebuilding, and full of kids and thus shouldn't be expected to compete with older, physically mature and experienced squads. But it is worrying when you look at the fact that the only core player capable of excelling at the type of game played in the Western Conference is Taylor Hall. While you don't need to have your entire team filled with those type of players, that is a serious deficiency when compared to most teams in the conference.

The draft yields
Now  not all of that was in their control, let's take a look at the players they selected as the core pieces to build around . While it is too early to judge the past couple of drafts, it is fair to say that none of them quite had the Stamkos/Tavares home-run pick that could set up a franchise for years. To repeat while it is too early to judge the recent drafts and whether the Oilers made the right selections or not at the top, let's assume for the sake of the argument that they did take the best player available. Even in that event the Oilers would be rather unlucky to wind up with one center and two wingers, as I find wingers the least important position on the team. A center or a defensman (and a goalie, but I am not a proponent of drafting goalies with lottery picks as they are often too hard to project) are far more ideal to build a franchise around. In short they wound up with a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (a rather smallish center but strong on the puck for his size with terrific hockey sense), Yakupov (a flashy goal scoring winger) and Hall (a gritty explosive winger). They also snagged up another core player in Eberle (a skilled winger with a high hockey IQ) with a late first round pick. While those players are nothing to sneeze at, the result is far from ideal in terms of team composition. Consider that three first overall picks in 2009, 2008, 2007 would net you Tavares, Stamkos, P. Kane. In 2006, 2005, 2004 that would net you E. Johnson, Crosby, Ovechkin. The result of those lottery picks for the Oilers was winger heavy and with a very projectable if smallish center. Overall rather weak on the top-end talent when compared to past drafts and not quite ideal in team composition when you consider the fact that most winning teams are strong and deep down the middle, on defense and in goal. 

Team composition
Which brings us to the next point – team composition. When we take a look at the Edmonton Oilers and what they have in terms of core players at key positions, there isn't quite a lot to hang your hat on. A long-term look shows lack of depth and quality on center, defense and in goal. They do have Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down the middle, Schultz, Klefbom and some nice prospects on the back-end, and Dubnyk in goal, but it is generally speaking not nearly enough once you take a look at for example the current Stanley Cup champions. The Kings boast Quick in goal, Kopitar, Richards at center (not taking into account Carter as he is capable of playing center as well), Doughty on defense as standouts. While some of those have arrived via trades to the Kings it is important to remember the Kings had a similar future outlook even prior to them (Kopitar and B. Schenn at center, Doughty, Jack Johnson on defense and Quick and Bernier in goal) and a similar team composition can be found by observing other contenders. 

Identity and culture
Last, let's take a look at the type of environment the Oilers management provided their youngsters with. In my opinion there was and is a clear lack of culture and identity in the organization. I did not see a pattern emerge as to what type of identity the team wants to establish (the latest successful rebuild – the Los Angeles Kings had even from the beginning a very clear vision of a big, gritty team set on outcompeting the opposition) The closest I can think of is a skill team, although I wonder if that is not simply as a result of the infusion of talent via lottery picks rather than a set philosophy. It seems like the team has finally realized it needs to become tougher to play against (the Fistric addition for example), but the whole thing comes off as terribly reactionary instead of proactive in establishing an identity. A better job could and should have been done in providing an environment that lends itself to a winning culture and proper nurturing of it's highly-touted youngsters.

To finish it off, it is clear the Edmonton Oilers will improve as a simple function of all the talent infusion through the draft and through lottery picks, but the question remains just how far can they go, is the management doing the best job in nurturing and providing the type of environment and supporting cast needed for a future contender or a Stanley Cup winner? Is there a winning culture and a clear identity being built or is this team just a collection of players, assets with no clear direction? Did the current management show enough for you to trust them to lead the Oilers to the status of a perennial contender? While the draft results at the top have been somewhat out of their control (as mentioned before, the top talent in those draft classes arguably falls short to that of years preceding them), I have not seen enough in previously outlined elements – a large mismatch in values between Western Conference and the Oilers, lack of proper team composition, and lack of an established culture and identity that would lead me to believe that. Lastly even in the event some of the highly touted pieces have to be moved, maybe one of the highly touted wingers to bring in a defensman or a center or a goalie, have you seen enough quality work from the current management group and GM Steve Tambellini to believe they will make the right choices? Despite the team finishing at or near bottom in the past 3 years, there is still lots of work to be done before the Edmonton Oilers can climb to the upper echelon of the NHL.

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