Sunday, 7 February 2016

There's Something in the Water, pt. 1

There’s got to be something in the water.

Specifically, in Edmonton, Alberta, and Newark, New Jersey.

More specifically, the drinking water in the NHL arenas at those locations.

Why would I say such a thing?

Let’s first take a look at the more well-known case of the Edmonton Oilers. Almost 10 years ago, the Edmonton Oilers surprised many by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Carolina Hurricanes. Though they ended up losing, it was a miraculous run from a team that entered the post-season in 8th place in the Western Conference. It wasn’t that surprising that they made the playoffs; with some good young players who were developing perfectly, a very good captain in Ryan Smyth, a future Hall of Fame defenseman in Chris Pronger, as well as a rag tag group of slightly above average goalies, they were a decent team that could steal the odd game. It seemed as though they were taking over as the next great team from Canada, as the Calgary Flames had impressed in years before, but fallen significantly by 2006. The Oilers were ready to compete again after several years of mediocrity.

Except that was the last time the Oilers made the playoffs.

Everything started falling apart almost immediately after losing to the Hurricanes, starting with Hall of Fame defenseman Pronger demanding to be traded, saying that it was too much pressure to be in Edmonton. Next, Smyth was traded to the shock of many fans and seemingly for Smyth as well. The combined income of those trades were 2 first round picks, a second round pick, and 4 former first round picks. For being put in a difficult situation, it could have be argued that the Oilers came out alright. I definitely thought so back when it happened.

However, I now know how everything turned out.

After Pronger left, everyone seemed to want out. Gone were all the veterans that had been signed for their playoff run. Only one stayed, that being 40 year old goalie Dwayne Roloson. He was the playoff darling, turning the 8th place Oilers into the beast they became. Even being close to death (by NHL standards), he was thought to be the next starter in Edmonton.

He wasn’t.

They ended up finishing in the lowest position in 10 years of team history, but landed them a high pick of their own to add to the two from the trades. Of those picks from the trades, not one player made any significant impact on the roster. That’s rough luck, but explainable, since the draft is often more luck than anything. It’s incredibly lucky, then, to have 3 first round picks in one year and all of them turn into busts.

Of the players acquired in the trades, only one stuck it out for any amount of time, and he wasn’t really that good. Two turned into good players…after they were traded again to other teams. The return for those players were more picks and players that turned into busts and good players elsewhere. So if you’re keeping score, that’s 8 high-end prospects that fizzled out while in Edmonton. Some went on to figure things out later, while others shriveled up and died.

That’s an incredibly unlucky year for the Oilers. And it seems as though they never fully recovered.

2008 – Oilers do slightly better than the year before, still miss the playoffs. They land a Western sniper and Canadian World Junior hero by the name of Jordan Eberle in the 21st pick. So far, it seems to be working out. They also steal (almost literally) a young player from Anaheim, which gains their GM much criticism. It turns out, he wasn’t worth all the trouble.

2009 – Another bad finish, leaving them to pick 10th overall. They pick Magnus Paarjarvi-Svensson, who couldn’t crack 20 points or 50 games. They also try to acquire budding star Dany Heatley from Ottawa, but he refuses to go to Edmonton, even though he grew up in Alberta. Ouch.

2010 – The Oilers finish with their worst record in their franchise history, giving them first overall. They pick Taylor Hall over Tyler Seguin, who some thought they might take instead. Both have turned into very talented players, though Seguin has put up more points and has a Stanley Cup ring. That may have to do with his teammates, however. The Oilers officially enter into their rebuild, sending away anyone who could get them anything, including buying out one of the contracts they originally acquired in the Smyth trade in 2007. And he was originally taken 15th overall. More ouch.

2011 – Again, the Oilers finish dead last. They go for a skinny center from Red Deer named Ryan Nugent-Hopkins over Swede Gabriel Landeskog and future Calder (best rookie) winner Jonathan Huberdeau. Though he’s performed below expectations, he’s still the most second prolific scorer of that draft year (behind Landeskog), so I guess that’s ok. They also sign a bunch of gritty veterans, offensive defensemen and former 3rd overall pick. One of those players work out, and only for one season. And it wasn’t the high pick. We are now adding insult to injury.

2012 – Surprise, the Oilers are still the worst. They take another center with Russian Nail Yakupov instead of American defenseman Ryan Murray. Many think this is a dumb move, because the Oilers need defense. Many would still agree, as Yakupov has performed well below expectations. They then signed another former first round pick, defenseman Justin Shultz, who initially showed incredible offensive skills. However, he had few (if any) defensive skills, and he has regressed. The open would is now festering. Does somebody have any salt?

2013 – Hey, the Oilers aren’t the worst anymore! They make a big jump up to 7th worst and finally take a defenseman with Darnell Nurse. A labour lockout scrapped the first half of the season, but Taylor Hall looked like a legit star in the second. It’s been painful, but the salt is helping. The future seems…bright.

2014 – After 41 games, or half the season, the Oilers are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. They take German Leon Draisaitl at 3rd overall in one of the few occasions the Oilers would not win the draft lottery. New coach Dallas Eakins (the 4th new coach since 2009) is fired half way through the season. We told Edmonton not to pick at the scab, but did it listen? We’ve got a full-blown infection again. Hope is all but dead.

2015 – The Oilers once again win the lottery – their 4th time in 6 years – and take prodigy Connor McDavid first overall. He’s spent 37 of the 53 games on the injured reserve so far this year. The Hockey News publishes an article that claims the Oilers could make the playoffs this year, but Oilers fan have cauterized their open sores and have forgotten what winning feels like. Even with McDavid, they are afraid to feel, for fear of breaking their sores open again.

It’s like watching Will Smith in the Pursuit of Happiness. You want to hope for the guy, you really do, but you know that no matter what, he’s not going to be happy. Pity turns to annoyance as he continually is kicked while he’s down.

“Ugh, another high pick is a bust? Didn’t see that coming.”

(I think. I’ve never seen the movie. I have the Oilers to watch, and that’s enough pain for me)

To compare to other teams who have been the worst before, it took 3 of 4 years for Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay to start becoming regular threats to take the Stanley Cup, and have all won it at least once, with Chicago winning it three times and Los Angeles winning it twice. Tampa is the exception, as they do have one cup, but it came just before they started their most recent bout of sucking, and they made it to the finals last year.

There’s got to be another reason other than the worst luck aside from the Maple Leafs.

Well, Edmonton is the farthest North of all NHL cities. With the air being much colder the further north you go, the drinking water would undoubtedly be affected. My best theory suggests that there are microscopic icicles suspended in the water. When drunk, they immediately go to the brain and restrict information channels, especially those that make good decisions possible. This explains poor play by players who then go on to play well other places, or the choices of management on draft day and through trades (if I got into all of that, this article would never end). When players leave for warmer climates, the ice melts, freeing up the decision making parts of the brain. However, if left too long, the brain will go into a perma-frozen state, unable to ever be revived.

The Oilers dynasty may have appeared to bypass these harmful effects, until you look at their post playing careers of many of them. Craig MacTavish, Keith Acton, Dave Semenko, Glen Sather, Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini and even Wayne Gretzky have had their management careers all but terminated because of terrible trades, bad or questionable picks, and continually icing a team that keeps losing. Only Gretzky didn’t work for the Oilers, though. He screwed up the Phoenix Coyotes for a few years, then they recovered. This year, for the first time since 1980, the Oilers have a GM who didn’t play for the Oilers. That should be a good sign for things to turn around.

I mean, on top of the 4 first overall picks they already have that have worked out so well so far. 

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