Monday, June 26, 2017

What If

At the start of the last season my expectations were pretty low. This was an Oilers team coming off yet ANOTHER bottom five finish, and they showed us that without the best player in the world tilting the ice for them, without Cam Talbot having a full Vezina caliber season, and with a hodgepodge of AHL quality defensemen playing too far above their skill level, this was still a very flawed team. "I don't think they'll make the playoffs, but if they're still fighting for a wild card spot come March, this season will be a huge step forward" I said. And then the Oilers went ahead and blew all my (and realistically almost everyone's) expectations out of the water.

The Oilers got incredibly lucky last season; their top six forwards missed one game, total. Let me repeat that; THE SIX OF THEM COMBINED MISSED ONE SINGLE GAME. They got a world beating performance from Cam Talbot, who stopped more pucks than any other goalie in the league, including Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. They had actual NHL defensemen playing in all six spots this season, the first time since before Sheldon Souray wanted to tear Steve Tambellini limb from limb. And they were able to take advantage of a hilariously bad Pacific division. Aside from being jobbed out of a trip to the conference finals by some questionable officiating, I'm confident every Oiler fan was ecstatic with how the year turned out. But as you can see pretty much everything broke in their favour for the first time in 11 years. Is that guaranteed to happen again in 17/18? I'm not convinced.

We're still just under a week away from free agency, so who knows what the makeup of this team is going to look like come opening night. But based on the moves that we've seen Peter Chiarelli and the Oilers make over the last few days I feel like we can start to piece together what Peter Chiarelli's plan is. And from what I can tell that plan is "just do the same thing we did last year and hope it all works out again!" Which, as far as I'm concerned, is not that good of a plan.

Once the Oilers showed that not only could they make the playoffs, but win a round (almost TWO) that, to me, signalled that it was time for the team to push all their chips in. Enough with coveting draft picks, enough with worrying about the cap hit three years down the road, go out and spend whatever money/picks/prospects you have to in order to load the team up with as much firepower as you can and gun for a cup win in the last year of McDavid's ELC, before he makes all the money and it becomes more difficult to build a complimentary powerhouse around him.

I will say that their performance in the playoffs ALSO signalled that the roster still needed to be beefed up. They barely beat a San Jose Sharks team with Joe Thornton playing on one leg and then got their show ran almost single handedly by Ryan Getzlaf in the second round. It should have been used a good jumping off point, and shined a light on the holes in the roster that still needed some patching.

So what did they do? First, they looked to shore up their secondary scoring woes by trading their third leading scorer for a guy who in the last two seasons combined had 7 more points than Jordan Eberle did last season, a season which a majority of the fan base thought was atrocious. I've already defended why it would be a bad idea to trade Jordan Eberle, so I won't rehash that, but either way the Oilers (once again) ended up with the lesser player in a trade. But, of course, Strome is a guy who Oiler fans have heard of, has draft pedigree and has never played for the Oilers before, so by default that makes him better than whichever player the Wheel Of Blame® has landed on, logic and evidence be damned!

Next, they said to themselves "We're going to be missing one of our top three defensemen for what could be the first half the season. What do we do?" Did they go out and make a trade for someone like, OH I DON'T KNOW, Travis Hamonic, a player they've been coveting for two summers now? Did they look somewhere else, maybe at Colorado for Tyson Barrie, maybe at one of about 16000 defensemen Vegas currently has? Did they swing a deal with Anaheim to get one of their good defensemen for a package, so Anaheim didn't end up losing one of them for nothing in the expansion draft? NOPE! Instead they went ahead and gave Sekera's partner, whom Sekera dragged around the ice all season, a 4 year $16 million extension! Look, say what you will about Kris Russell (I think he's a capable number five defenseman on a lot of teams, including the Oilers) but that is an overpayment. Last year he was a number five D-man playing in the number four spot, and this year it appears he's both being paid as, and will be put into the role of a number three defenseman.

And this also doesn't even end up solving the problem of missing Sekera in the first place, because they still need someone to play with Russell on that second pairing. As of right now it looks like that job will be Matt Benning's or Darnell Nurse's to lose, depending on how training camp goes I guess. And I like both those players a lot; Matt Benning was the diamond in the rough signing we have hardly, if ever seen the Oilers make over the last decade, and he impressed the hell out of everyone. I still have very high hopes for Darnell Nurse (I'm sitting beside my Nurse jersey which has occupied a spot on my chair since the end of round two) but two seasons into full-time pro hockey duty he still looks very raw in his own end of the ice. And this (FINALLY) brings me to the title of this post; what if?

What if Matt Benning has a sophomore slump and doesn't build off his solid rookie campaign?

What if Darnell Nurse's ceiling ends up being that of a very good bottom pairing defenceman, but not a top four guy?

What if Ryan Strome doesn't find chemistry with McDavid, and we find out that his ceiling is that of a third line center/wing, not a top six scorer?

What if Jesse Puljujarvi still isn't ready to step into an NHL top six at 19 years old?

What if Pat Maroon hits a wall and doesn't replicate his success last year?

What if Milan Lucic fails to hit 50 points?

What if Cam Talbot has only a good season instead of a great, Vezina caliber season?

What if Connor McDavid isn't able to replicate his 100 point season?

What if, GOD FORBID, Connor McDavid gets hurt and misses any length of time? Same for Oscar Klefbom or Adam Larsson or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins?

Does Chiarelli have a Plan B for any of these possibilities? Because as it sits right now it doesn't seem like it. Obviously there's risk with literally any move a team does or does not make, but for me it's just frustrating that not only did the Oilers not go out and make moves to actively make the team better and shore up weaker parts of the roster, it feels like the ENTIRE plan is just "go out and replicate last season" which seems like an ill-advised move.

The Oilers went into the summer with $20 million in cap space, and the ability to load the roster to the tits with talent before they had to worry about a cap squeeze when McDavid's second contract kicked in a year from now. But rather than pushing all their chips in and legitimately making a run at their first championship in 18 years, they've decided that worrying about the cap hit for 18/19 and beyond, and having a late first round draft pick two years from now is more of a priority than winning a Cup while the best player in the league is unrealistically cheap.

And look, I, more than anyone else, hope I'm dead wrong about all of this. I hope the entire roster not only replicates the success of last year, but is even more successful. I hope Milan Lucic scores 65 points for the first time in his career. I hope Matt Benning emerges as a legitimate top four defenceman in his second year of pro hockey. I hope Connor McDavid scores 200 points. I hope Cam Talbot wins 75 games. I hope Jesse Puljujarvi only needed one summer to find his game as an elite forward in the NHL. I hope Darnell Nurse does turn into the second coming of Chris Pronger. And I hope the Oilers cruise their way to an easy Stanley Cup victory in the spring of 2018. But does any of that seem realistic? (Probably just the Connor thing)

Like I said up top there's still plenty of time for them to sign free agents and make trades before training camp opens up, so who knows what else Chiarelli has up his sleeves. But to me it seems like he's either A) confident a roster that I would argue has been downgraded from last season is good enough to compete or B) looking at trying to win a cup in 3 to 5 years, rather than winning one right now. As far as I'm concerned neither one of those is ideal. But hey, if all you want is this team to make the playoffs then you're probably set. I'd like them to win the Stanley Cup every year, but that's just me. The only thing we can do now is just hope absolutely everything goes right again this season, and none of those what if's come to fruition.

BUT, what if...


David S said...

This is my worry too. Maybe it's still early in the summer and moves are still yet to be made but for now it seems Chiarelli believes a hell of a lot in "maturation".

I'll say it right now:

- Sekera won't be anywhere near 100% until close to playoff time
- Talbot WILL float back to league average
- Injuries to our top six WILL happen
- Kris Russell is NOT a top four D man
- Strome cannot replace Eberle's production
- Milan Lucic is right at the drop off point

As it stands right now there's virtually zero margin for error on this roster, no matter how much Benning, Klefbom and Nurse improve.

Anaheim was the better team for most of the series and yeah "questionable calls" but we got the crap kicked out of us. There would have been nothing left in the tank even if we won. From where I sit at some point betting the house on tight margins for success is going to bite you in the ass.

Unknown said...

You've read my mind. Don't talk about it on 🐦 'cause ⛈. But it afears me bad that we're not as good a team as last year. I'll hate so much if things go badly. And will love it if I'm totally 100% wrong to be pessimistic.

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