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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and the Perils of Expectations

October 18, 2011 2 comments

Wayne Whozky?

Another NHL season has dawned across the continent, and, in Edmonton at least, with it comes the stirrings of hope that inevitably accompany a roster chocked full of blazing young talents on entry-level contracts. If the Oilers’ young star quotient is tilted disproportionately towards the forward lines at the expense of a thin rearguard and half-unproven, half-queasy goaltending tandem, then you can’t exactly blame that plethora of talented forwards for that. But expectations are also tilted disproportionately, and, since this is the Edmonton Oilers, their listing trends towards the late 1980s, of course.

After scoring a goal in his NHL debut that was a combination of skill, hustle, and anticipatory ingenuity, 18-year-old #1 overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins followed it with a slick hat trick in a loss to the Vancouver Canucks this past Saturday night for a national audience on Hockey Night in Canada. Although the third goal was of questionable attribution, to use an art world term, there’s little doubt that the young man known variously as RNH (in Oilogosphere shorthand), the Nuge (in the full-throated shouts of the fans), and Hoppy (dubiously, in the Oiler dressing room) was impressive, and hardly needed a bit of feel-good narrative-building official sleight-of-hand to emphasize that.

It’s not only Nugent-Hopkins’ offense that is of note, either; he cleared the crease on an alert goal-saving defensive play, and both the plus-minus and the advanced stats suggest that he’s far from a liability when the opposition has the puck, which is not usual for rookie straight out of junior. His face-offs are still lagging a bit behind, sure, but very few centres, even potentially elite ones, come into the league winning a high percentage of their draws right off the bat. It’s a subtle art that needs to be learned from experience, but from all indications thus far, Nugent-Hopkins is blessed with boatloads of subtlety on the ice.

It is that surfeit of subtlety that must surely have inspired CBC’s HNIC studio crew to make a distinctly unsubtle comparison between Nugent-Hopkins and another famously tricksy Oiler centre who bent the game elegantly and almost imperceptively to his will: Wayne Gretzky. Puck Daddy’s Ryan Lambert documented the atrocities very well, but left out the concept that attempting to understanding the Nuge through the lens of the Great One is par for the course in considering the Oilers. The ghosts of past championship glory refigures perspectives with the deformations of nostalgia.

"Are you a mod or a rocker?"

Making strong associational insinuations about Nugent-Hopkins’ first hat trick on the same night that Gretzky broke the all-time scoring record, 22 years later, or constructing the bold and heedless Taylor Hall as a modern, rushing Mark Messier as the in-game commentators did, is all part of parcel of an official narrative that shoehorns this exciting new group of parvenus into the role of resurrected Boys on the Bus. They cannot be allowed to be themselves, only peach-fuzzed bodhisattvas of Edmonton’s long-spent sporting glory years. Whatever they end up accomplishing, it is preconditioned by the achievements of the greats that they are supposed to be re-embodying. Not only is this unfair to the players themselves as concerns their own results in a very different NHL, it does them a disservice in the realm of individual hockey aesthetics. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky, and not only because this is not 1979 and because he will (probably) not win 4 Stanley Cups and shatter every offensive record in existence. He is not Gretzky because their energies are different, their contexts are divergent, their abilities shaded with distinct hues.

For Nugent-Hopkins, as equally for Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Paajarvi, Linus Omark, and whichever other young Oilers will still be around when (and if) this team grows into a winner, expectations can drive performance and can provide motivation for success. But expectations related to the specific fulfillment of vague, re-incarnatory prophecies of hockey history by quite distinct individuals do no one any favours, and can indeed be perilous from the observer’s point of view. Hockey may or may not be an art, as it definitely resembled when practiced by the likes of Gretzky, but it stubbornly resists narratives and is an ill-fit for myths. Whatever other hopes we fans clutch to our chests as concerns our tribal team allegiances, we’d be well served to remember and heed this warning.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

The Prodigal Smyth

June 26, 2011 2 comments

Please, please don't let them put me on a line with Cogliano...

After a weekend’s worth of rumours, false confirmations, aborted starts, and excruciating stress for Oilers fans, the deal to bring Ryan Smyth back to Edmonton from Los Angeles was completed today. The price was not exactly steep. A 7th round pick, which the Oilers would have doubtedlessly wasted on the talentless kid of one of the team’s accountants or something like that (they selected the offspring of team scout Frank Musil as well as the son of Oilumni Craig Simpson this year, and missed out on Kevin Lowe’s boy by one pick), and a bag of pucks. Okay, that bag of pucks was actually named Colin Fraser and would have made $825,000 next year. But I remain unconvinced that an actual bag of pucks would be less valuable. Vulcanized rubber ain’t cheap, boy.

Whether Fraser or the more expensive but more trade-killingly injured Gilbert Brule (Bono’s new BFF) would have been the better trade bait, it matters little. And even if Ryan Smyth, who has remained productive outside of the familiar confines of that old arena at Northlands (20+ goals every season save one since that lamented deadline deal in 2007) and surprisingly durable for a guy who plays like he does, doesn’t light the stat sheet on fire in his second stint in the city, the faithful won’t really mind.

This is already a symbolic victory for the Oilers and their long-suffering fanbase, before Smyth plays even a single game or scores even a single goal off his skull or performs even a single mullety hair-flip. The town that has watched star after star (most of them admittedly much better players than the worthy Smytty) depart for greener pastures now sees one of them return, and even want to return. For a team that has been the NHL’s worst for two straight seasons and whose roster still has more holes than a certain road in Blackburn, Lancashire, it’s a sign of hope and faith, a reminder of a brief, miraculous time when things were better, and very nearly as good as they could be. Five years after the 2006 Cup Finals run that galvanized a new generation of Oiler faithful, one of that great run’s key components is back to give it another go.

One must not be too rosy about things, of course. The 2006 Oilers were briefly, blazingly great for many more reasons than the guy wearing #94 and standing in front of the net on the PP, and only a fool would expect a team as horrid as last year’s Oil to turn things completely around due to the addition of a 35-year-old top six forward. They could still use a reliable veteran defenseman or two, an actual fourth (or even third) line, and a starting goalie who isn’t so gruesomely, brutally lamentable. Another #1 overall draft pick (spent on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’s even more likely to stay in junior for a year with the acquisition of the older Ryan) will help one day, and another year of seasoning will improve the prospects of the young guys. There’s a way to go, but the arrows are pointing in the right direction, and more so now.

Technically, this is only blasphemous if you're in Calgary.

So Smytty will pitch in some points, help the awful powerplay, and perhaps provide some veteran leadership (though that sort of amorphous intangible is not worth giving too much creedence to). But he may well mend some broken bridges and close some open wounds that have been left largely unchecked for the past playoff-less half-decade in Edmonton. Steve Tambellini’s near-scotching of the deal with LA will leave his local detractors even more leery of his stewardship, but something this symbolically potent couldn’t even be derailed by a front-office incompetent for the ages.

Even if the hockey media grants far too much power and influence to metaphorical discourses and fuzzy narratives and purported feelings, there is some level where they matter. Somewhere between the 300 seats in the upper bowl and a sports bar on Whyte Avenue, Ryan Smyth’s return to Edmonton has more power than it will on the ice or in the dressing room or in the salary cap ledger. Way to make next season mean just a little more despite yourself, Tambo. Now try not to screw up the rest of the offseason too blatantly, all right?

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

The Last Place

April 11, 2011 5 comments

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.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports