“It’s definitely special, you saw the excitement in the building,” Oilers forward Connor McDavid said. “The fans are excited, we’re excited. There is a lot of work left to be done still.”
The road to the 2016-2017 season has been a long one and most fans would probably rather forget many of the details along the way, but looking back can prove instructive – especially when it comes to determining what the future could hold.
When one considers that the Oilers had almost moved all the way out of Edmonton in 1998 after owner Peter Pocklington nearly made a deal to sell the franchise to Houston, one recognizes how much water there actually is under the bridge.
The Oilers were saved in 1998 by the Edmonton Investors Group and committed to remaining in Alberta. Conversely, the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques had relocated to American markets in the mid-1990s and salvaging the Oilers was almost necessary for NHL hockey to remain a formidable option for Canadian markets.
But the halcyon days of the Edmonton dynasty were in the rearview mirror and the Oilers were one of those dreaded “small market teams,” which meant payroll was low and the CBA had to come to their rescue after the 2004-2005 lockout. The salary cap put the whole league on a budget, while an improving Canadian dollar helped Edmonton compete. They spent some money, bringing in the likes of Chris Pronger, and found themselves in the post-season following a robust 2005-2006 season.
And in 2006, Edmonton drove their cobbled-together freight train all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. They lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games, but they were a formidable team once again – for a while. They boasted a roster that included Ales Hemsky, Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, Ryan Smyth, Raffi Torres, and Fernando Pisani.
Unfortunately, it was not to last.
Pronger asked for a trade four days after the Stanley Cup Final and many players left for free agency. Smyth, the heart and soul of the team, was traded to Long Island and the hobbled Oilers went on to post a 32-43-7 record in the 2006-2007 season – their worst record since 1995-1996.
In 2008, Edmonton announced a “restructuring” to go with new team owner Daryl Katz. Kevin Lowe was promoted and Steve Tambellini became the new general manager. After a disappointing 2008-2009 season, the coaches were canned and more players left via free agency. An attempted trade for Dany Heatley was proffered and bungled after the Ottawa Senator winger refused to play for the Oilers. Unsurprisingly, the Oilers finished with the worst record in the NHL.
By then, the rebuild was on. Big time.
Edmonton began a historic run of first overall draft picks, starting with Taylor Hall in 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Jordan Eberle made his debut in the 2010-2011 season and the club shuffled the deck to reflect the impending youth movement. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was the top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, while Nail Yakupov was the top pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Coaches came and went and the front office changed with it.
And then, someone named Connor McDavid was selected in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and the rebuild looked to have hit its apex. Todd McLellan was named the new head coach in May of 2015 and changes were made to the entire coaching operation, including the scouting department. The Oilers even moved arenas, shifting from Rexall Place to the new Rogers Place.
McDavid was named team captain in October of 2016, becoming the youngest captain in NHL history.
And now, here we are. It’s been quite a ride and the Oilers have been through reconstructions before, but this one is different in a lot of ways. It could be argued – and indeed it is argued – that McDavid is the reason for the season in Edmonton.
But there’s more to it: McDavid is the right player at the right time on the right team. The rebuild has been extensive and sometimes exhausting, but it’s paying off. And this year, there are more than a few reasons to believe Edmonton could take yet another step toward total franchise renewal.