One of the few bright spots of 2017 has been the glorious bellyflop of the Edmonton Oilers. Two years after finally landing a generational talent with their 43rd consecutive #1 overall draft pick, they went on a playoff run last year and seem to believe that they were already a championship-ready team. They’re now 7-12-2. Now, it is absolutely true that this involves a lot of bad luck — before McDavid became ill this week their underlying numbers were solid, and they’re not as bad on their record. But what’s happened after McDavid got sick just underlines the issues with the team. They’re not so much a solid contender as a rather bad team with a transcendent superstar attached, and they can win only by having a McDavid at or near 100% playing huge minutes backed up by elite goaltending. It’s pretty hard to sustain that formula over 82-game seasons.
Did is have to be this way? It did not. The key problem is that Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli apparently looked at what the Colts did after falling backwards into Andrew Luck and viewed it as a model rather than a cautionary tale:
- In the NHL’s equivalent to Grigson trading a #1 pick for Trent Richardson, the Oilers traded the 16th and 33rd picks for massive draft bust Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart played 30 very ineffective games (1 one of the in the playoffs) with Edmonton, and was then exposed and taken in the expansion draft. He has not been good enough to crack the roster of an expansion team. Wait, it gets worse — the player the Isles took with that first rounder, Matthew Barzal, is already scoring and driving possession as a 20-year-old. Chiarelli’s trade philosophy seems to be “we need a defenseman, therefore any trade we make for a defenseman is good.”
- Speaking of which, despite the many positive reviews it has received, the Hall-Larsson trade was still a really bad one for Edmonton. Unlike Reinhart, Larsson is a useful player. But he’s a one-way player — very good defensively but does nothing to help shot generation. A top-pairing defenseman on a contending NHL team in 2017 needs to make a two-way contribution. The other fallacy involved, which is an excellent illustration of the difference between good and bad organizations, is that the Oilers seem to think that since they had McDavid Hall was therefore expendable. But losing him counts! Having another elite forward behind McDavid and Draisaitl would allow you to give McDavid a lower workload in the regular season, help marginal younger players develop, allow you to win some 5-4 games if your goalie doesn’t have his A game, etc. You can’t ignore these things. If you can’t get a genuine top defenseman for Hall, keep him — a good organization should be able to find a defensive specialist at a lower price.
- To “replace” Hall, Chiarelli signed an already-declining 28-year-old Milan Lucic to a buyout-proof 7-year $42 million dollar deal. Unlike so many players revered for their SANDPAPER Lucic was a good player. But didn’t skate well enough to play with McDavid even in year 1, he’s been less effective this year, and is the kind of player who ages badly, and yet he’ll be sucking up desperately needed cap space for 5 years after this. You just can’t afford this kind of contract when you have elite young players to sign.
- This offseason, in related news Chiarelli traded the useful Jordan Eberle for nickels on the dollar as a salary dump, another gift to Brooklyn. Which allowed him to…
- Think the Lucic contract was bad? Hold his beer! How about a 4 year, $16 million deal for 30-year-old replacement-level defenseman Kris Russell? (See point 1.)
- It’s true that the Oilers have struggled despite good possession numbers because Cam Talbot has had a bad year so far. But this isn’t just bad luck. Talbot was given a punishingly high workload for a 29-year-old goaltender last year, 86 games regular season and playoff. It’s far from unforeseeable that this would start to catch up to him eventually. And, worse, Chiarelli brought back the same backup the team didn’t feel comfortable playing last year. Either the Oilers need to give Brossoit some playing time, or they need to find someone they’re willing to play.
McDavid is so good that the Oilers are better than this even so. Talbot will play better than .902. But they’re already in serious trouble of wasting a year before the cap crunch becomes really serious — Dom Luszczyszyn’s odds, which take underlying numbers into account, give them a 15% playoff chance. (Unlike the Colts, they don’t have a division with no other good teams to help them.) May Chiarelli stay in charge of the team forever. I look forward to the Oilers trading McDavid for the second-best defenseman on a below .500 Panthers team, to the widespread acclaim of the local media.