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The Last Place

Another NHL regular-season campaign has ended, and who’s lagging hopelessly at the bottom of the league for the second year running? Yup. My beloved Oilers are seriously taxing my continued use of that adjective. Certainly, circumstances are extenuating. Endemic injuries to basically irreplaceable pieces (Hemsky, Horcoff, Ryan Whitney), sub-standard options at many positions (especially the once-robust defense, where regulars Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, and Jason Strudwick were overmatched on a consistent basis), and reliance on enthusiastic but unrefined rookie talent eroded what could have been a slightly more respectable year-end point total. Playoffs, though? Not even with all of the various stars aligning, I doubt.

The point is moot, anyhow. 30th place in a 30-team league shouldn’t really require laboured explanations, though we in Oil Country (and its continental diaspora) are being offered them nonetheless. The team is young, we are told. Growing pains, but aren’t Hall and Eberle and Paajarvi and Omark exciting? Anyway, Edmonton is a cold and remote third-rate urban centre and it’s tough to attract top-flight talent. Just wait until we get taxpayers to foot the bill for a multi-million-dollar downtown arena! Then those good times will get around to rolling!

This spring will mark the five-year anniversary of the Oil’s last playoff appearance, that fabled, magical 2006 run to the Stanley Cup finals that is the one shining moment for a generation of Oilers fans that has had too few of them. That team has now been completely dismantled by Kevin Lowe and his oft-maligned successor, Steve Tambellini, in an ineptly delayed rebuild that shows few signs of being close to over. And what has replaced it? A grasping billionaire owner. Young, poorly-utilized offensive talent. Wasted millions on Sheldon Souray, a power-play specialist who pissed off management and now can barely keep up in the minors. A broken-down, haunted funhouse of a million-dollar veteran starting goaltender. Irresponsible firewagon last-place hockey.

And hope? Maybe a bit. Taylor Hall shows ever sign of being an evolved scorer, Jordan Eberle potted some highlight reel goals, Magnus Paajarvi can flat-out fly. Whitney and Hemsky were genuine stars (albeit on a mediocre team) before they went down. Devan Dubnyk looks like a legitimate NHL goalie, and should be expected to make another step forward next year, assuming Nikolai Khabibulin’s frustrating mercurial saga doesn’t drown him out and cause regression. Theo Peckham and Ladi Smid can finally nearly almost be relied upon, maybe. Sam Gagner always gets left out of the discussion somehow, but he’s turning into a fine player without much notice.

The guy in the back led the team in points. No foolin'.

But for all the positive arrows, a certain beaten-down cynicism persists. It is kind of ridiculous to transpose that striving, marginal feeling of shaken community confidence that underlies Edmonton as a place onto the on-ice results of its city-defining pro hockey club, even if it invariably happens. That eternal E-town sense of not quite being as fill-in-the-blank as Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Bilbao, or wherever, despite major growth in every sphere of civic importance, is in danger of being hitched firmly to the Oilers wagon. A hockey team that was once ascendant despite being based in an underdog city now risks becoming an underdog hockey team based in an ascendant city that still thinks of itself as an underdog. We’re already seeing this in the new arena debate, where a potential cash cow for Daryl Katz and the Oilers organization is being sold to a needlessly jittery populace as a cure-all for their litany of perceived civic ills (and a cure-all that they must pay for, too!). And it’s creeping into the on-ice product, too, where back-to-back last place finishes are, apparently, reason for optimism.

If there’s one player in the organization that seems to typify the ideological state apparatus of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s got to be Linus Omark. Sublime puck-handler and passer, YouTube shootout sensation, cheeky bastard, and all-around notable hockey figure, Omark, like the team whose jersey he wears (for now), is constructed by both his supporters and doubters as a plucky outsider who will never quite make it, despite his obvious talent and drive. Opponents huff about classiness and the Code when he shows them up in a shootout or even in regular play, and management shuffles him into lesser roles in the minors even as it elevates less experienced and proven players like the Young Trio. And his supporters? They love him all the more for his marginalization. Though I have plenty of respect for Tyler Dellow as a blogger, he has a consistent weakness for the position of the maverick-y truth-teller, the kicker against the pricks, and he invariably sees Omark in that light. His on-ice actions surely play into such fondness, but then they’re really just an extension of this image; Omark seems to delight in bettering his opponents, to play with a cocky edge that makes him irresistible but also makes him a target in the endlessly conformist hockey world (see Subban, P.K.). Even if he has ample statistical substance as a hockey player, his style, his feeling, his panache… they take the spotlight.

Does Edmonton want their Oilers to be Omark writ large? Does Edmonton itself want to be Omark writ large? To be noticed, but not respected? To impress, but not to achieve? To overlook the present for the future, to be potential energy personified? Or will Edmonton and its legions of hockey die-hards demand a bit more accountability from the management of its beloved Oilers, who have allowed the youth procurement staff to do all the work of improving the roster while half-heartedly tossing out middling bums to fill out the lines? Can this city and its team stop wishing it could be more and just BE more? Between the arena debate and the desultory youth-movement optimism, this Oiler fan, for one, hopes that this summer is the time for some tougher decisions with regards to the outliers and role players on this roster, and maybe with some key pieces as well. The future is all well and good, but it’s about time to start reeling in that horizon.

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Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports
  1. Mary
    April 11, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Smid! You left out Smid!!
    I’ve had a soft spot for Smid ever since I realized he would fight (poorly) at the drop of the gloves. It’s that combination of reckless stupidity and occasional talent that seems to embody the team as a whole.

  2. April 11, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    “Theo Peckham and Ladi Smid can finally nearly almost be relied upon, maybe.”
    I wouldn’t forget poor old Smid.

  1. October 30, 2011 at 1:17 pm
  2. February 3, 2012 at 12:59 pm
  3. February 26, 2012 at 9:30 am

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