Sometimes it's just plain awful to be a fan.
We're not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury -- or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the sixth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists -- or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Edmonton Oilers, the once proud dynasty of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr that steadily devolved into a perennial loser whose draft-day hauls prompt visions of glory while managerial incompetence dooms it to yet another playoff DNQ.
TEAM 10: Winnipeg Jets | 9: Dallas Stars | 8: Columbus Blue Jackets | 7: Vancouver Canucks | 6: Florida Panthers | 4: Washington Capitals | 3: Buffalo Sabres | 2: New York Islanders | 1: Toronto Maple Leafs
Oilers winger Taylor Hall summarized the challenges of playing for a perpetual cellar dweller the other night on TSN. "It's been so long that I almost forget what it's like to be on a team that demands a win every night," he said. Brutally honest and on target, but not exactly the sort of attitude that a team wants its franchise player to harbor, let alone convey to the world. But can you blame him? The Oilers have assembled a group of promising young talent that includes Hall and forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle that has yet to play a truly meaningful game in their NHL careers. And you know that eats away at them. It takes a rolling series of blunders to miss the playoffs for eight years and counting, but the greatest mistake the old boys network that is running this team has made is allowing an acceptance of defeat to become the pervasive culture of the club.
Most notorious moments
• The endless draft debacles: A scout can dine for years on a successful draft, but no one has ever taken it to the extreme that Barry Fraser did after his magnificent returns from 1979 (Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson) and 1980 (Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Andy Moog). Given great leeway by the organization, Edmonton's chief scout moved his base of operations to Mexico where, between pina coladas on the beach, he made his decisions after watching players on tape. His due diligence was appropriately rewarded. During a 12-year stretch from 1989-2000, the Oilers made 16 first-round selections. Two, Jason Arnott (7th overall, 1993) and Ryan Smyth (6th, 1994) emerged as bona fide stars. Three others -- Tyler Wright (12th, 1991), Martin Rucinsky (20th, 1991), and Boyd Devereaux (6th, 1996) -- went on to become serviceable NHLers. The remaining 11 were epic disasters. Most made a brief appearance before disappearing into the history books -- Alexei Mikhnov (17th, 2000), we hardly knew ye -- but Jason Soules (15th, 1989), Scott Allison (17th, 1990) and Michael Henrich (13th, 1998) never played a game in the league. Brutal. The collapse of Edmonton's empire isn't totally on Fraser, but he and his scouts deserve much of the blame.
• The Gretzky trade: Oh yeah it still hurts. To this day in Edmonton, a thin wisp of smoke spotted in the distance is as likely to be from a burning effigy of former owner Peter Pocklington as anything else. The ire of Oilers fams was further stoked when attendance declined after the Great One's departure and Pocklington threatened to move the team to a U.S. city. Fortunately, the terms of the Oilers' arena lease mandated that he sell to local buyers, and he finally unloaded them in 1998 to a group fronted by Cal Nichols. Pocklington later went bankrupt.
• The curse of the married man: OK, so Edmonton's cold in the winter, and in terms of culture it falls short of New York, Chicago, St. Paul and Nashville. But it's still a pretty decent place to live ... unless you're married to an Oiler, that is. The town's picked up a bad rap with players' wives through the years and it's cost the Oilers. The worst case was when defenseman Chris Pronger begged out in 2006 after one year and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final because his spouse hated it there. Even a journeyman like Michael Nylander, who agreed to a four-year $22 million deal back in 2007 -- stupid money for the aging center -- reneged when his wife began crying over having to move to Edmonton. There have been rumors through the years of other players leaving money on the table to keep the missus happy, suggesting that it's not just the losing and managerial incompetence that keeps the Oilers from recruiting the veteran help the franchise needs to stabilize its roster.
• The Steve Tambellini era: Hired in July 2008, it seemed like he was overwhelmed by the scope of the GM job from the very beginning. At times, Tambellini seemed paralyzed by the potential for failure, nibbling at the edges with inconsequential signings (Cam Barker, Andy Sutton) or buying aging brand names (coach Pat Quinn, Nikolai Khabibulin) that had little left in their tanks. There were deals where the health (Ryan Whitney) or talent (Colten Teubert) of the player seemed to slip past his due diligence. If Tambellini had a vision for the franchise, he succeeded only in keeping it hidden from the world at large and he was shown the door in April 2013 after failing to make the playoffs even once during his tenure.
• Mr. Katz goes to Seattle: With negotiations over a new arena for downtown Edmonton at a stalemate in September 2012, owner Daryl Katz, who bought the team in June 2008, decided that a little emotional blackmail might serve to speed up the process. But instead of wringing concessions out of the city council, his very public visit to Seattle, a viable relocation site, aroused the ire of a fanbase that filled his building despite years of bad hockey and caused the politicians to dig in their heels. That reaction led Katz to issue a tone-deaf apology in two local newspapers that only amplified the impression that his interest in hockey comes nowhere near to his passion for money.
Another lost season in Edmonton sees the Oilers buried in the basement in the NHL's Western Conference. Sportclubstats.com dug 'em up only long enough to wrap a tag around their toes, giving them a zero percent chance of making the playoffs. On the bright side, they have a 10 percent chance of finishing 13th in the Western Conference ... so there's that.
In the system
Despite the advantage of picking at the front end of each round during the past several seasons, the Oilers have failed to complement their first-round jewels (Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle). Nail Yakupov, the overall No. 1 in 2012, has become a frustrating, underachieving headache with an attitude problem, and rumors are swirling that he's going to be given a trade ticket out of town. There are prospects in Edmonton's system, but it's nowhere near as loaded as it should be. Fortunately, what strength is there lies in the area of the team's greatest weakness at the NHL level: defense. Darnell Nurse (7th overall, 2013), Oscar Klefbom (19th, 2011) and Martin Marincin (46th, 2010) are all big, mobile blueliners with have top-four potential. Martin Gernat (122nd, 2011) tracks as a third-pair defender with some offensive game, which would make him a good match for the more conservative David Musil (31st, 2011). Up front, Anton Lander (40th, 2009) plays a smart two-way game and projects as a solid third-line center, but beyond him lie a lot question marks. Jujhar Khaira (63rd, 2012) is built like a fullback, but has forgotten how to score since transferring to the WHL. Marc Olivier-Roy (56th, 2013) is not without skill, but he lacks the scoring touch of a top-six winger and the grit of a bottom-six. Bogdan Yakimov (83rd, 2013) has size (6'-5", 212 pounds) and scoring touch but lacks NHL-level skating ability. With work he could get it there, but he's no sure thing.
Better Days Ahead?
This was supposed to be the season that the Oilers finally shed the shackles of mediocrity and took that first confident stride into playoff contention ... or was that last season? It's hard to remember. Better days have been promised for so long in Edmonton that only the very young or the very naive cling to those soothing words anymore. Until the points are on the board and the team is still on the ice in late April, every fan should be a skeptic.
Still, there is some reason to hope, right? The goaltending was razed to the ground and rebuilt, with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth a far more promising (that word again) duo than the pair that started the season (Devan Dubnyk, Jason LaBarbera). There is every reason to believe that the prospects on defense could comprise an imposing blueline corps one day. And with high-end young talent populating their top-six, filling in the blanks up front should be relatively easy ... as long as GM Craig MacTavish understands the value of junkyard dogs taking on those roles. There's enough there to wrap your arms around if you're determined to believe. But with no sign of the bold moves promised by MacTavish last summer, you might end up holding on to those hopes for a long time.
Are you an Oilers fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.