EDMONTON, Alberta – The Edmonton Oilers are in a rebuild. They’re finishing consistently low in the standings and getting high draft picks, including the No. 1 overall choice three straight years. It seems like the way the Buffalo Sabres want to go.
Except for the results.
After losing Thursday’s game, 3-1, against the Sabres in Rexall Place, the Oilers are still 29th in the NHL’s overall standings. And they’re wrapping up their eighth straight season without a trip to the playoffs.
For Sabres fans and other observers who think the high draft choice mode will immediately turn the Blue and Gold into the next Pittsburgh or Chicago, you also have Edmonton’s path to ponder.
The Oilers are Exhibit A of how it doesn’t always work out.
Edmonton lost Game Seven of the Stanley Cup final at Carolina in 2006 and hasn’t made the playoffs since. The Oilers took Sam Gagner at No. 6 overall in 2007, got Jordan Eberle at No. 22 in 2008, whiffed at Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson at No. 10 in 2009, got Taylor Hall at No. 1 in 2010, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at No. 1 in 2011 and Nail Yakupov with the top choice in 2012.
While Hall has become one of the NHL’s top scorers, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov have not. RNH has just 38 goals in his first 170 NHL games while the Fail for Nail campaign that marked 2012 has produced just 28 goals in 111 games.
Hall entered Thursday tied for 18th in the NHL in scoring with 64 points. Meanwhile, Eberle (knee) and Yakupov (ankle) missed Thursday’s game.
So what’s gone wrong? The Oilers have always been weak in goal, something they hope they’ve fixed with the deadline acquisitions of Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. The defense corps has been iffy as well. But the signing of free agents Justin Schultz (from college) and Andrew Ference (from Boston) have helped. They took Sault Ste. Marie defenseman Darnell Nurse at No. 7 last year and likely could use Barrie stud Aaron Ekblad this year.
Close observers of the team point out there’s been no players in the age 25-27 range to help young players through their growing pains. There are veterans like Ference and Ryan Smyth on the roster but few elite mid-range players.
“It’s tough going through all the losing, but you have to say there’s opportunity to it,” Gagner said here Thursday. “You’ve got to make sure you’re ready every night. You try to get better on the ice, behave like a pro and that can go a long way.”
The prevailing wisdom is the Sabres will take a scoring forward in the draft – likely Kootenay’s Sam Reinhart or Kingston’s Sam Bennett — and that the Oilers will target Ekblad if they get the No. 2 pick. But they could still draft as low as No. 5 if they keep winning, as they entered Thursday 10-4-3 in their last 17 games.
“If you can upgrade, you upgrade,” Ference said. “You have certain assets for each team. You use what you have. Teams that have the most success maximize the potential of their personnel. If you’re big and strong, you direct your game toward that. If you’re speedy, same thing. You need all your players hitting that potential on a consistent basis.”
Hall has been a bright spot in Edmonton, improving his play each year and not getting bogged down by his label.
“It’s tough to live up to that sometimes,” said Ference. “There’s a lot to learn about the differences from junior to here. The really talented player has the ability to play the game without really worrying about their own game. They have enough talent. They’re good enough.
“They have enough awareness to take over a game on their own and at this level you can’t really do that. You have to have the awareness of your linemates, your D out there and everybody. That’s the big adjustment for guys, how to see everybody else.”
“These guys are professionals. They should be able to weather the white noise,” said coach Dallas Eakins. “In the end, I don’t think it matters where you’re picked. It matters how you play, carry yourself, what kind of teammate you are. All of those things. I could care less where you’re picked. It’s can you play or can you not?”
Ference went through this in Boston. The TD Garden was pretty empty some nights immediately after the lockout as the Bruins were an afterthought while the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics owned the town.
Slowly but surely, the Bruins made the necessary moves in the draft and elsewhere to build a Stanley Cup team.
“You want your fans to be happy, to be proud of what they’re seeing on the ice,” Ference said. “You don’t want them to get any feeling you’re not giving a full effort. People in knowledgeable hockey markets can deal with a rebuild and deal with losing, but they can’t put up with a perceived lack of effort or a real one.”