Edmonton and Number One: A Tragic Love Saga

Two questions for you, fellow hockey enthusiasts: “What the actual fuck?” and “How did this happen AGAIN?”

Hockey fans all over the country watched the NHL Draft Lottery this past weekend, but those of us from Buffalo and Phoenix paid extra close attention. We had to, because our entire fucked up, catastrophic, impossible-to-watch-but-can’t-look-away-from car wreck of a season came down to this one night. Coyotes and Sabres fans alike, we all had one question on our minds: was The Tank about to be worth it? Was the big payoff only a few minutes away?

As it would turn out: NOPE.

Well, Yes and No, but we’ll get into that in a minute…

We all knew what was at stake here, especially after one of the longest and most painful seasons in the history of either franchise. And after the past few seasons, that’s really saying something. Buffalo hasn’t broken 40 wins in a season since they went 43-29-10 back in 2010-11, the very same season that they last made the playoffs (they ended up getting booted by Philadelphia in the Quarterfinals). The 2014-15 season, the most recent and second in a row that Buffalo would finish dead last in the league, resulted [[SOMEHOW]] in more wins than they tallied in 2013-14, seeing the boys in Blue and Gold go 23-51-8 compared to the previous seasons finish of 21-51-10.

The final game the Sabres hosted this April, a regulation loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins (boo), was like a weight being lifted off of the chest of an entire fanbase. An entire city, really. There wasn’t much hockey related stuff to be excited about- we were losers again, we lost our coach and a lot of our more skilled players, and the media was BRUTAL about all of it. Now, I can’t speak too much for the sports media in Phoenix, but the main radio/television sportscasters and reporters here in Buffalo have all but lost their collective minds, talking about how it’s morally wrong to lose out on purpose to get the best pick in this year’s draft (the sexiest draft in years, I might add), and something that I’ve honestly never heard of before: ethics in FANDOM.

Excuse me, but fucking HOW? How can you root for a sports team incorrectly? How is being excited for a loss somehow evil and unethical when the team’s management was putting a squad out on the ice that COULD NOT POSSIBLY WIN THE GAME? Rooting for the Sabres to lose was the hockey equivalent of rooting for the sun to rise: it was going to happen, and it was going to happen every damn day. Cheering for a team to lose so they can immediately get better the following season (assumed, obviously) is not the proper way to be a fan of a sports team?

The big argument was that near the end of the season, Sabres fans were actually cheering the scores of opponents. That rightly didn’t sit well with some of, if not all, the players, but if fans pay for a ticket then they can cheer for whoever the hell they want, right? Personally, I would never go to a home game and cheer an opposing team’s goal, but you better believe I did at home. I think we all did by that final regular season loss to the Penguins.

I think the thing we learned here is that when sports writers get sick of bad mouthing the players, owners, management, coaches, league, rules, uhh…equipment managers, they have nowhere else to turn for their bad-mouthing fix than the fans. They need something to write about, you know? And that’s screwed up, man. We’re all sick of the losses and even more sick of the local reporters and personalities bitching about the fans (only in fucking Buffalo, right?), and hopefully after this year’s NHL Draft, we won’t have to hear it ever again.

I think a lot of fans in a lot of other cities don’t realize that. The Buffalo sports media literally bad mouthed the people that buy their newspapers, watch their television segments, and listen to them on talk radio, all because they wanted the team to finish last so they could get the best possible chance at the top two overall picks in this year’s NHL Draft. They despised the idea of fans wanting their favorite team to lose, but in actuality all they wanted was for the team to get better, and this was the only way how- the front office made sure of that. Montreal sports media might be notorious for being hard on the players and management, but I’ve never seen writers talk shit about their audience before.

But I’m getting off topic.

More importantly here though is we all saw what happened Saturday night, and boy was it painful.

As a Sabres fan, I can’t say I’m all that surprised because this town, Buffalo, New York, has some kind of sports curse on it. If something can go wrong for a Buffalo sports team, it will. Buffalo Bills? Cursed. Buffalo Sabres? Cursed. Buffalo Blizzard? Folded (like you knew who they were anyways…). So why is anyone surprised that the one time all the cards were stacked in Buffalo’s favor, the tower came crashing down?

My first reaction when the Draft Lottery concluded was disappointment and anger, but that didn’t last very long. Now I just think what happened, the 28th place Edmonton Oilers winning the chance at the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, well…that’s just plain funny. Buffalo is guaranteed the second overall pick (Operation Tank: Accomplished!), and Arizona is stuck with the third overall pick- not bad, but their ultimate goal of losing out just wasn’t as robust as the epic losing power that is found in Western New York.

We’re pros at it, trust me.

So why is it funny that Edmonton ended up with the first overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft? You read this far, so you might as well keep going because I’m about to lay it the fuck out and hurt your brain at the same damn time.

First of all, it couldn’t have happened to a worse franchise- I know there are a lot of articles online right now explaining why that is and you can read up on all the dynamics behind how Edmonton getting a shot at the first overall pick is a nightmare, but damn. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially considering two teams literally traded away their best players so they could lose out and not look like they were doing it on purpose (even though it looked like they did it on purpose, because…they did it on purpose).

The motivation to initiate “Operation: Mega Tank” this season was clearly there though: this draft contains what many believe are two “Generational Players” which is a phrase I’ve never heard before but one that we’ll all be hearing a ton of in the weeks leading up to the Draft. Generational Players: guys who are studs in every aspect of the game. Guys who can turn the game around simply by being on the ice, by being that X Factor so many teams would kill for. Guys that struggling teams like the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes can build their franchise around for years to come.

The Generational Players I’m talking about (as if you didn’t know) are Erie Otter’s forward and hockey prodigy Connor McDavid, who is set to go first overall in this year’s NHL Draft (congrats Edmonton, lol), and Boston University freshman forward and 2015 Hobey Baker Award winner Jack Eichel. Fun Fact: the last freshman player to win the Hobey Baker, awarded to the best men’s ice hockey player in the NCAA, was The Mighty Duck man himself: Paul Kariya.

McDavid, who had a respectable 44 goals/120 points in 47 regular season games this season for his Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League (compare that to a measly 28 goals/99 points in 56 games last season…fucking scrub) is being compared to the likes of Sidney Crosby and, since Edmonton will have the first crack at him in the Draft, Wayne Gretzky.

In fact, Gretzky commented that McDavid is the best up-and-coming player he’s seen in the last 30 years. Gretzky was PLAYING 30 years ago! I know this isn’t what he meant, but it’s the way I’m going to interpret it: Wayne is saying that compared to McDavid, everyone in the past 30 years has been shit and this dude has come to lay waste to rinks all over the NHL, descending upon the ice with a flaming hockey stick and nourished only by goals and assists and rage. He’s going to score a goal on you and then fuck your girlfriend and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Or whatever he meant, I don’t know…

Jack Eichel, on the other hand, has 26 goals/71 points in 40 games (don’t forget that nifty Hobey Baker Award win on top of that) as a college freshman for Boston University this season. A big fear that many Buffalo fans have is that he may just stay in college and not even come up to the pros for next season, but the amount of money they’re going to flash at him will make it worth the trip up to the NHL. Eichel is being compared to Alex Ovechkin (I don’t see it) which is a fitting compliment to McDavid’s Crosby comparison. Another player Eichel is compared to? Connor fucking McDavid.

That brings up another question: who would you rather have? A kid that can tally 5 goals a night, or a kid compared to the kid that can tally 5 goals a night? It’s tough to say, as they have such similar skill sets but most “hockey experts” like McDavid more. Personally, I would have rather had Buffalo get a crack at McDavid- Eichel is just as good (possibly better? Only time will tell), but the name Connor McDavid is enough to bring UFAs flocking to Buffalo and cause jerseys to fly off the shelf.

Side Note: have you seen the list of Unrestricted Free Agents for 2015? It’s nuts. Martin St. Louis, Mike Green, Shawn Horcoff, Antti Niemi, Sergei Gonchar, Justin Williams, Michael Ryder, Francois Beauchemin, Jarret Stoll (lol), John Oduya, Derek Stepan,  Jonathan Bernier, Braden Holtby, Joel Ward, Peter Budaj, and the list just goes on and on. Crazy.

Buffalo is also currently without a head coach. If they had been able to grab McDavid, what coach wouldn’t want an opportunity to help mold a player like that? I’m not saying Eichel doesn’t have that same effect, but still- a chance to coach the next Gretzky? And that responsibility could very well be falling in to the hands of Todd Nelson? I’m not trying to sound unfair to Nelson, because Edmonton has gone through several head coaches the past five seasons, as has Buffalo, but c’mon, son! I would except to see a coaching change there soon, but we’re talking about Edmonton here and if there’s one thing they don’t know how to do right now, it’s manage a hockey team.

And believe it or not, I actually LIKE the Edmonton Oilers! Can you believe that shit? After all the bad stuff I just said (and will say) about their franchise. Its Dynasty from the 1980’s was a few years before my time, but I’ve watched plenty of reruns of those games and read the history of how dominant those Oilers crews were-  the product they put out on the ice season after season was magical. Gretzky. Mark Messier. Grant Fuhr. Paul Coffey. Jari Kurri. Glenn Anderson. Andy Moog. Craig MacTavish. All coached by the legendary Glen Sather. The first year the Dynasty won the Stanley Cup, they had FOUR players with more than 100 points in the regular season; Gretzky led with 87 goals/205 points, and Anderson just missed out with 99 points. Statistics like that are simply amazing.

But a lot has changed since the Championships the Oilers collected in the 80’s and the consistent playoff runs they had in the 1990’s. The same can be said about the Sabres and Coyotes, too. But Edmonton is the hockey equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. Players go in, and then they vanish. Guys who should be on the first line drop to the third. Players that should be tallying 60 points a season are putting up numbers that are more embarrassing and painful to watch than the time Ben Stiller zipped his balls up in his pants.

I truly can’t imagine being a hometown fan of the Oilers and watching this team game-in and game-out and it’s just the same thing each night. It must be a brutal feeling- I should know, I’ve been living it with the Sabres for just under half a decade. And I’m still saying that being a diehard Edmonton fan would seem like it would feel worse even after the Sabres have come in DEAD LAST for the past two seasons.

Being an Edmonton Oilers fan must be a lot like being a Buffalo Bills fan. Each season they bring in a new coach and new players and they make all these outlandish promises and the fans get all excited and amped up for the new season and then WE MISS THE PLAYOFFS FOR FOURTEEN STRAIGHT YEARS. FUCK YOU, DOUG MARRONE! AHHHH-but seriously come on, guys, let’s make the playoffs this year.

To further understand why the 1st overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft couldn’t have happened to a worse team (besides maybe Boston, because fuck the Bruins always and forever), you need to look at Edmonton’s draft record. The first NHL Draft was held in 1963; Edmonton didn’t join the NHL until 1979, where they were previously part of the World Hockey Association (WHA), which was, you know…the league that the film SlapShot was based on. By the time of the merger, Gretzky was already an Oiler- Wayne was never part of any NHL Draft, instead signing a contract when he was only seventeen (the NHL had rules about signing players under 20, the WHA did not), which is kind of crazy if you think about it.

Now, if I’m going to fucking do this, it’s going to be done right, but there’s one thing you need to know about NHL Drafts before we start: picks don’t always pan out. In fact, most picks only see a handful of games in the NHL, if any at all. I’ll mention some of the bigger of the names selected each Draft, but not all of them because you’ve never heard of them and I’m kind of lazy and tired and I’ve been writing/editing this post for days now. So, let’s go all the way back to Edmonton’s first NHL Draft, in the magical year of 1979, the very same year Sid Vicious died of a drug overdose (not relevent to this story at all, I’ve just been trying to fit that into a post for a while now, kind of a weird thing to know…)

1979, Edmonton took Kevin Lowe (21st overall in round one), Mark Messier (48th overall in round THREE!), Glenn Anderson, and three other guys that didn’t even play a combined five games in the NHL.  Lowe played most of his career in Edmonton, and he was part of the Dynasty years. He coached the team for a brief stint and currently sits as the President of Hockey Operations for the Oilers (this will come up again later). I don’t think I need to tell you about Mark Messier- guy was a damn stud. Anderson was another key member of the Oilers Dynasty team, racking up a ton of points in the 12 seasons he wore a Blue and Orange jersey.

1980 saw more great picks for Edmonton, who managed to snag Paul Coffey (6th overall pick), Jari fucking Kurri, Walt Poddubny (only played one season in Edmonton), and goaltender Andy Moog, and four other guys that never played in the NHL. 1981 was similar, with the Oilers taking my dude Grant Fuhr (8th overall), Steve Smith (not that one, this dudes from Scotland and also he’s never played in the NFL), and Marc Habscheid. 1982, you got Jaroslav Pouzar and Raimo Summanen. 1983, Jeff Beukeboom and Esa Tikkanen. 1984, Todd Ewen way down in round 8.

Out of the twelve picks from 1985, the only player really worth mentioning is Kelly Buchberger. The 1986 Draft…let’s just skip this one, ok? 1987 brought Brad Werenka, Geoff Smith, and Shaun Van “Gogh” Allen to Edmonton. 1988, Francois Leroux, Len Barrie, and Shjon Podein. 1989 saw Josef Beranek and Anatoli Semenov.

Now we’re in the 1990’s (that’s Brisk, baby!). Some big names from this decade: Martin Rucinsky and Tyler Wright (91), Kirk Maltby (92), Jason Arnott, David Vyborny, and Miro Satan (all in 93), Ryan Smyth (94), Georges Laraque (95), Boyd Devereaux, Tom Poti, and Fernando Pisani (96), Jason Chimera (97), Shawn Horcoff (98),Mike Comrie and Alexei Semenov (99).

Ready for the 2000’s? Let’s see if any of these names ring a bell: Matthew Lombardi (00), Ales Hemsky (01), Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene (02), Marc-Antoine Pouliot, Zack Stortini, Kyle Brodziak (03), Devin Dybnuk and Rob Schremp (04), Andrew Cogliano (05), Jeff Petry (06), Sam Gagner, Riley Nash (07), Jordan Eberle (08), and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson (09).

Now we enter the era of First Overall Picks. It should have been a happy, promising time in Edmonton, but so far it’s brought nothing but grief. Starting in 2010, Edmonton drafted Taylor Hall (first overall) and Martin Marincin. 2011 saw them take Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (first overall), Oscar Klefbom, and Tobias Rieder (who coincidentally now plays for Arizona). 2012, the Oilers took Nail Yakapov (first overall). In 2103 they were cruelly denied the first overall pick, instead taking Darnell Nurse seventh overall. Nurse, by the way, is awesome. He plays in the OHL with Sault Ste. Marie (currently in the race for the OHL Championship, against none other than the Erie Otters), tearing it up on defense and DEVELOPING HIS GAME LIKE HE SHOULD BE (hint: Yakapov). In the 2014 season, Edmonton was finally cut a break and given the third overall pick, which they used to grab Leon Draisaitl.

So in six NHL Drafts, Edmonton has picked: 1st overall, 1st overall, 1st overall, 7th overall, 3rd overall, and, unless they trade this year’s pick, 1st overall.

Remember, the NHL created this lottery system to make the Draft less biased and more fair for all the teams. So why is it that the same franchise, who have squandered their last three first overall picks, gets yet another first overall pick? Why isn’t there some rule in place where if you get two first overalls in a row, you get the second overall pick (or worse) in year three? Or one first overall pick every three years? Or some other fucking stipulation that stops shitty teams that don’t know what to do with young, talented players from getting said young, talented players?

It’s frustrating from a fan’s standpoint and I can only imagine how the Arizona brass feel right now.

So why did I do this? Why did I list players that Edmonton has drafted on to their team since the Oilers were a part of the NHL? Because they used to be smart- they saw what parts that the team needed to fill and they built a contender. And also to show you that sometimes, draft picks don’t matter all that much. In fact, a lot of players that a team will select in the Draft don’t even make it to the NHL; But not this year. 2015 is the biggest draft in recent memory and a team that literally doesn’t know what to do with hot young players has a chance to get the next Gretzky.

Out of all the number one picks Edmonton has had (3 so far, 4 after this season unless they trade the first overall pick away), only Taylor Hall has really lived up to (not exceeded) expectations. Nugent-Hopkins and Hall should be tearing that division up, backed by a strong supporting cast of veteran skaters. Yakapov should have been down in the AHL, developing his game and getting used to North American hockey, not playing 81 games a season in the big league.

Oilers management is like a gang of alchemists from the Middle Ages. Except, instead of taking ordinary metals to turn precious, they start with gold and turn that gold to shit. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Taylor Hall deserves to be on a stacked team, one where he ISN’T relied on to be the best player. So does Jordan Eberle, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail, and Viktor Fasth and ALL THOSE GUYS that wear the blue and orange (or copper, whatever). These guys are all good, they’re pros and they need to stop being dicked around by management and a coaching staff that doesn’t know what the hell is going on.

The Sabres and Buffalo Bills cleared house a few years ago when new management took over (Terry Pegula now owns BOTH teams, thank you very much) and shit is definitely looking up here in Western New York. I’m not too well versed on the financial/ownership situation in Edmonton, but they need to do SOMETHING or else it’s going to be a PR nightmare when McDavid has 33 points in 82 games.

At this point, I’ve been writing this post on and off for three days, and I no longer even remember what I set out to do. Originally, I opened a blank document and just typed “FUCK EDMONTON” knowing it would turn into something, but I don’t even believe that anymore. As I said earlier, I like Edmonton. The Oilers are like a lovable bunch of scamps, a bunch of kids trying to be as cool as their Big Brother that won a shit load of Championship, but just can’t get their shit together no matter how lucky they get with draft picks- the pieces refuse to fall into place and it’s tragic and heartbreaking and I just want to go rescue Yakapov and tell him that “it’s alright, there are better teams and you’ll get through this, my dude!”

If anything, I should write “FUCK THE NHL DRAFT LOTTERY” and be done with it, but I’ve come too far and typed too many words to be that easy on Bettman (like he’d ever see this, but, “Fuck Off, bud!”) and the ever changing shitty system fans are forced to deal with season after brutal season. This draft system is dumb, and the league is going to keep changing it because why not? Why shouldn’t a team that hasn’t gone .500 since the 2007-08 season keep getting the first overall pick? Why shouldn’t that same team get four of the last six first overall picks? Is this the leagues way of throwing the Oilers a bone because they haven’t had a solid playoff contending team since the 90’s? This squad keeps getting worse, season after season, and now they have a chance to corrupt the assumed best player since Wayne Gretzky? They haven’t tarnished enough young talent already?

Another question to ask re: Edmonton sucking is “What’s the remedy?” I don’t know, but the situation there is bad. Could we potentially see McDavid pull what Eric Lindros did to Quebec back in the 1990’s and refuse to show up when they draft him? Honestly, not a chance- McDavid is going to suit up for whatever NHL squad takes him because he’s got shit to prove and the kid loves hockey. It’s not even an option, and McDavid doesn’t seem like a diva like Lindros was. The situation is eerily similar though: amazing young talent getting shipped off to the worst team in the league, set to take on the roll as cornerstone of the rebuilding franchise…

I don’t know the first thing about managing a hockey team, but I think if Edmonton is able to gut their management/operations (Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Rick Carriere) and replace them with a team of guys that have some actual vision, get a head coach that can help these young players develop their game (keep Craig Ramsay in house though, dude is amazing), and go balls out by signing talented free agents and trading for key players (wow, that sounds so damn basic “trade for a good hockey team!”), they MIGHT not mess this up. I think realistically, Hall or Nugent-Hopkins will be on the trading block –possibly both –and we could see a big move up to Edmonton sooner rather than later. But right now, with the things they are…it STILL doesn’t look well.

Ask yourself this: if Connor McDavid signs with Edmonton, will they make the playoffs? Not “will they become a better team?” but “will they make the playoffs?” Not a chance. Not with management the way it is now and the roster they currently boast. No one player is that good. But if McDavid went to any other team, I’d be much more optimistic on what that team will accomplish in 2015-16.

Giving Edmonton the first round pick is like giving someone that doesn’t know how to drive the keys to a Lamborghini. What’s the point of having a fast car if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing with it? It’s disgusting, the amount of wasted talent on their current roster. And if the league/system doesn’t change, it’s just going to continue.

I wonder what it’s like to root for a winning team? Hopefully Sabres and Oilers fans can find that out together.

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