Decade of Futility: Part 1

You may have heard, but the Edmonton Oilers are going to make the playoffs. And for a blogger like myself, that makes things difficult. You can only write heartfelt love letters to Connor McDavid so often. Like nearly all Oiler fans, I’m thrilled with the direction the team is going, have faith in our leadership team, and don’t feel the need to blog about my general satisfaction with this season.

So, for fun, I thought I’d write about the past decade and what led us here. I thought this would be a mid-sized blog, but I had to break it up into two separate entries because once I started digging, I forgot how many hilarious/sad things happened. I started with 2006-2011.

2006-07

Record: 32-43-7

Coach: Craig MacTavish

GM: Kevin Lowe

Notable Stat Line: Joffery Lupul, the main player coming back in the Chris Pronger trade, put up 28 points in 81 games.

Notable Debuts: Tom Gilbert (12 GP), JF Jacques (following 9 games the previous season, he played 37 more… all without registering a point).

Memorable Moment(s): Ryan Smyth is traded mid-season and the team collapses afterwards; Daryl Katz made his first offer for the franchise.

Summary: After a spirited Cup run that none of us will ever forget, the Oilers came back down to Earth. Hindered by Pronger’s shock request to be traded, the Oilers were a little weak on the back end, relying on the likes of Ladislav Smid, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Jason Smith to carry the load. Despite the end result, the Oilers were firmly in contention in late February – at 30-26-6, they were a playoff bubble team. But the Smyth trade and injuries derailed the season, Edmonton went 1-17-1 (!) from late February until the season finale, only to win said finale and do notable damage to their pick in next year’s draft.

Optimism: Pretty high. The Smyth trade was rough, but Oilers fans have been through a bad season (or three) before. We’ll bounce back.

2007-2008

Record: 41-35-6

Coach: Craig MacTavish

GM: Kevin Lowe

Notable Stat Line:  Sam Gagner puts up 49 points as an 18-year old rookie; his linemates Robert Nilsson (71 GP, 41 PTS) and Andrew Cogliano (45 points) have stellar years.

Notable Debuts: Gagner, Denis Grebeshkov plays 71 games.

Memorable Moment(s): The Oilers name their least disciplined player, Ethan Moreau, as captain; they make three selections in the Top 21 (Gagner, Alex Plante, and Riley Nash).

Summary: Edmonton makes some big moves in the free-agent market, signing Dustin Penner to a 5-year, $21.25 million deal and Sheldon Souray to a 5-year, $27 million deal. Mathieu Garon is signed to back-up an underachieving Dwayne Roloson, and eventually wins the job. As a chilling sign of things to come, they make a big money offer to a number of borderline free agents. They sign Thomas Vanek to a mind-boggling 7-year, $50 million offer sheet (only for the Buffalo Sabres to match), before turning their attention to Michael Nylander, who is clearly on the decline at this point. Luckily, Nylander’s wife reportedly nixes the (five year!) deal. Veterans Ethan Moreau and Steve Staios are both signed to rich four-year extensions, back when signing a 31-year old journeyman forward and a 34-year old bottom pairing defenceman to four-year deals didn’t raise many eyebrows.

The season is slightly disappointing as Souray is injured after a third of the season, Shawn Horcoff – on a career high scoring pace – also gets hurt, and the team is never quite in playoff contention.

But a late season run fires up Oilers fans. Riding their new kid line of Robert Nilsson, Sam Gagner, and Andrew Cogliano (ages 22, 18, and 20 respectively) the Oilers go on a tear from late February on. They end the season on a 14-4-2 run, incredibly score 20 goals in three consecutive home games, and make it all the way back to actual .500, narrowly missing the playoffs. They also pick up Curtis Glencross from Columbus, who comes out of nowhere to score nine goals in the final 26 games and appears to be another piece moving forward.

Optimism: High. The Oilers have shown real signs of improvement, go into the off-season on a high, and the next generation looks ready (ahead of schedule!).

2008-09

Record: 38-35-9

Coach: Craig MacTavish

GM: Steve Tambellini

Notable Stat Line: Souray plays his first (and only) full season with the Oilers, leading the team with 23 goals; 33-year old Jason Strudwick plays 71 games.

Notable Debuts: Lubomir Visnovsky; Liam “The Red Ox” Reddox.

Memorable Moment(s): Daryl Katz buys the Oilers; it takes parts of four seasons and 60 games, but J-F Jacques gets his first NHL point; well-regarded Steve Tambellini is named GM and Kevin Lowe is promoted to President; the Oilers make a splash by trading Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll for Visnovsky; the Oilers lose 10-2 at home to Buffalo.

Summary: The Oilers don’t quite push on as planned. The Kid Line struggles, and all regress statistically and visibly. The Oilers inexplicably play hard ball with Glencross, who goes to their provincial rivals, the Flames. Craig MacTavish is crestfallen when his personal favourite, Marty Reasoner, leaves for Atlanta. Wounded, MacTavish finishes the season, but will not return for 2009-10 (this is my recollection).

But the Oilers, as the Oilers used to do back in these days, stay right in the playoff race. They are 25-20-3 at the end of January, and play .500 hockey for a couple months. A three-game winning streak in mid-March puts them firmly in the playoff picture, but the season crashes when they lose six of seven in the latter half of the month.

Optimism: A disappointing year, but this team doesn’t appear to be far off.

2009-10

Record: 27-47-8

Coach: Pat Quinn (!!)

GM: Steve Tambellini

Notable Stat Line: Dustin Penner has his one great season, putting up 32 goals and 31 assists, many of which come in the first quarter of the season when he was among the league leaders; incredibly Sam Gagner’s 41 points are good for second on the team.

Notable Debuts: Gilbert Brule; Patrick O’Sullivan; Ryan Whitney; Nik Khabibulin; a guy named Dean Arsene plays 13 games.

Memorable Moment(s): Memorable may not be the right word. A clearly senile Quinn is named head coach; the Oilers have a public blow-up with Dany Heatley, who refuses to come to Edmonton; Mike Comrie returns and Oilers fans immediately forget how he treated us like crap (an all-time low in fan forgetfulness); it’s worth mentioning again, but Penner was un-freaking-believable for a few months.

Summary: This is the true beginning of the Oilers “dark days.”

Incredibly, the Oilers start the season well. Khabibulin stands on his head as the team jumps out to 6-2-1 start. But things go very wrong very quickly. The Oilers only win four of the next 18, and the season appears lost.

But they surprise us, as December appears to offer new beginnings. They go on a shocking five-game road winning streak, and on December 11th they sit at 15-13-4. Things aren’t bad!

That’s followed by 1-18-2 in their next 21 games. The lone win is against Toronto, and they fail to win at ALL in January. An injury-plagued Oilers roster barely resembles an NHL team, and they continue to reel off losing streaks of 4, 3, 5, and 4 in the next few months. 62 points is the Oilers franchise low, everything goes wrong, and the Oilers suffer their first really embarrassing season. People wonder if Quinn is of sound mind; after this season, how could he be?

Do you remember Arsene, Charles Linglet, Johan Motin, Chris Minard, Ryan O’Marra or Colin McDonald? They all played for the Oilers this season.

Optimism: Low. So very low. But, I mean, injuries, right? And we’ll get a good draft pick… that always helps teams get better.

2010-11

Record: 25-45-12

Coach: Tom Renney

GM: Steve Tambellini

Notable Stat Line: Jordan Eberle puts up a respectable 43 points as a rookie, less respectably it leads the team; Taylor Hall scores 22 goals in an injury shortened rookie season; Magnus Paajarvi has a nice rookie season with 15 goals and 34 points; Ryan Jones scores 18 goals in a season because that’s a thing that happened.

Notable Debuts: Eberle; Hall, Paajarvi; Linus Omark; Theodore Peckham plays an entire season.

Memorable Moments: The Oilers draft first overall for the first time in franchise history; Oil Change, a propaganda piece documentary about the Oilers incompetence rebuilding debuts to laughs critical acclaim; Oilers fans begin to see we may have some institutional rot and this “rebuilding” may take a year, maybe two; Shawn Horcoff is named Captain when Ethan Moreau is claimed off waivers by Columbus.

Summary: The Oilers decide it’s time to rebuild, and bring in noted player developer, Tom Renney, to lead the troops. The roster is young, but the future does appear bright; finally, a late first-round draft pick has made the roster (Eberle) and Taylor Hall is fresh off a Memorial Cup triumph and is clearly a winner. This Paajarvi kid also appears to be the real deal, and Oilers fans start wearing shirts that say HOPE for Hall, Omark, Paajarvi, and Eberle. We understand this may not be our year, but it’d be nice to see things trending in the right direction. The Oilers show this directional change in their off-season moves, or lack thereof. Their most noted free agent signing is Kurtis Foster.

The season is not pretty. The Oilers are semi-competent for a few months, before crashing around Christmas. Everyone gets injured, the defence is shambolic (Smid, Kurtis Foster, Theo Peckham, Jim Vandermeer, Tom Gilbert, and Ryan Whitney is your opening season Top 6), and Nik Khabibulin’s career more or less ends with a hilarious 10-32-4 record, with a 3.40 GAA and .890 sv%.

The Oilers lose 11 in a row in March, at one point scoring seven goals in nine games. There are many to choose from, but an early season 8-2 defeat to the New York Rangers represents my Oilers nadir; it was as bad a performance by a team early in a season I have ever seen.

Optimism: Very low. Hall and Eberle appear to be the real deal, but very little else appears right. We’re growing increasingly frustrated by Tambo’s lack of doing… anything.

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