The Edmonton Oilers began the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by not shanking themselves in the testicles with garden shears. This was a surprisingly satisfying way to kick off a Friday evening.
Yes, Steve Tambellini shook the magic 8 ball and it came up "PICK YAKUPOV YOU IMBECILE". So the Oilers have the most terrifying Tatar since
Nikolai Khabibulin Sultan Galiev. Sorry, Ryan Murray, you have to live the rest of your life as a Columbus Blue Jacket, or at least count down the years until unrestricted free agency or smuggle yourself into Rick Nash's luggage and when discovered shout "take me with you!" The Oilers didn't screw up! Crack open the bubbly and call off the hit!
Then the Oilers spent most of Saturday screwing up. For every pick that was at least interesting in a theoretical sort of sense there was one which gave the impression of Tambicakes bouncing up and down at the war table, Kevin Lowe looking exhausted as Tambi shouts "I want the big one! Give me the big one!"
What do you call it when a team gets the biggest decision, the only one which could really have changed the shape of the franchise, right, then botches so many of the little ones? Particularly when the big decision was staggeringly self-evident and it was only those little ones that demanded any degree of critical appraisal? I mean, the Oilers are leaving this draft with the best player. That's a success, right? They're also leaving it with two Coke machines trussed up on the top of their Ford Econoline and some players so old that they're already annoying Craig MacTavish with "when I was your age" stories.
The usual term for a draft like this is "mixed". But a mojito is mixed and I like those.
It's difficult to give the Oilers credit for making the decision everybody knew was the correct one. In hindsight it sure looks like the Oilers were torquing up the tension over the first overall pick to make the press and the Bettman happy, so why should we applaud Steve Tambellini's ability to not trip over his own feet and faceplant into the carpet? Every pundit knew Yakupov was the best player. Most fans, notwithstanding Derek's concerns about "Alberta and Canada's xenophobia," knew Yakupov was the best player. Congratulations, Steve Tambellini, you didn't fuck up? It sounds weird even in my tin ear.
Except that sometimes Hitler does invade Russia in the winter, and don't pretend you weren't worried the Oilers would botch and "draft for need". I was wearing my Oilers jersey around Vancouver yesterday and had three conversations about the draft because of it, two with complete strangers: all three started with "well, the Oilers need a defenseman" and all three had come around to "you're right, the Oilers should draft Yakupov" within a minute. Not because I'm a persuasive orator but because when you get out of that Pierre-McGuire-professional-draft-hype-artist mindset and actually think about how to make a hockey team win more games "draft the best player available" is an unbelievably self-evident precept that any functioning adult can grasp in a heartbeat. Steve Tambellini has not yet proven he is a functioning adult. Terror was reasonable.
So Tambellini makes us all feel better and gets a hearty Don Cherry thumbs-up for not being a total moron. And we sleep soundly in our beds and wake up, grab our Blackberries, see the words "Mitch Moroz", and think "huh, amazing that they're already finished the sixth round."
There's one thing worse than drafting for need and that's drafting for not need. The Oilers have plenty of useless cementheads in the organization. They don't need any more Coke machines; actually, no team ever needs more Coke machines but even if you hypothetically believe that every NHL team needs a big idiot who's only skill is taking penalties, you should also believe the Oilers have more than e-damned-nough of them. But Steve Tambellini is too stupid even for that.
It's a well-known phenomenon that people who observe one team more closely than others tend to overrate the members of that team. They learn these players inside and out, learn their strengths and their weaknesses, see how close they are to putting it all together, and forget that everybody has players like that because they simply don't get to know "everybody" well enough. Well, Mitch Moroz is an Edmonton Oil King, one who whacked an utterly unsustainable 16 goals on an excellent team and finished behind only Keegan Lowe (who at least actually does something) in penalty minutes. I watched one Oil Kings game in person this year and actually noticed Moroz without coming in aware of him, which is rare for me: I looked at my dad and asked him "who is this jackass?" Drafting Moroz at any position is stupid; drafting Moroz at the top of the second round makes me want to run Stu MacGregor through a Zamboni. "Magnificent Bastard" indeed; the original magnificent bastard was Rommel and he lost.
I'll confess that I know little of Jujhar Khaira, out of the Prince George Spruce Kings. I always approve of picking BCHL kids (only one member of the Victoria Grizzlies went this year, sadly) and, while a 6'3" player always raises some eyebrows when Tambellini likes him, at least Khaira gets real points and is more a skill forward with a wild streak than a penalty minute machine. He benefited from playing for a highly experienced Prince George team (that crapped its collective pants against Merritt in the playoffs but never mind), but impressed by winning his way onto the first line while young even for a draft-year player. He seems fine. A risk, but it's the third round. Plus he's off to Shawn Horcoff's alma mater so I'm going to pencil him onto our first line right now (What's that? Horcoff went to Michigan State and Khaira is going to Michigan Tech? Fuck this guy! F--).
Daniil Zharkov looks like an interesting player. Strengths: hands, size. Weaknesses: not falling over when the air conditioning turns on, scoring after Christmas. Luckily the Oilers are always eliminated by Christmas.
The Other Erik Gustafsson (SB Nation tech support, can we get that as his official name in the player link thingy?) is one of those over-agers I was telling you about. He turned 20 in March, which in prospect terms means he spends all day sitting on the porch sipping his lemon drink and reading The Economist. On the other hand, he had actually had a pretty good year in the Swedish Elitserien for a 20-year-old. On the other hand, Djurgardens was pretty shit last year with a -21 goal differential. Their best defenseman was Kyle Klubertanz. Did you think Bryan Young was good because he was playing in the NHL at such a young age? Then you're going to love The Other Erik Gustafsson.
Joey Laleggia seems like an interesting player; a bite-sized Burnaby blueliner who scored a million points in Penticton a couple years ago and had a fine year at the University of Denver. Now, drafting a defenseman who's generously listed at 5'10" sounds like Tambellini's preemptive PR strike. "We don't just pick guys because they're enormous! Sometimes we take hobbits!" On the other hand, Marc-Andre Bergeron had a few good years there and you can't quibble with his results. He is slightly younger than The Other Erik Gustafsson so can look forward to being the young gun of our blueline when Ryan Whitney finally explodes.
Then again, "Joey Laleggia"? What is that, Italian? As an Albertan and Canadian xenophobe I naturally disapprove.
John McCarron is an Ivy League semi-scorer/pest. But so was Steve Moore and look what happened to him.
On balance, the Oilers managed not to make any mistakes that sent me climbing up a clock tower with a high-powered rifle mumbling "I'll show you a higher level of compete." They also gave me plenty of gristle that I could turn into sour, sarcastic hamburger, so as a semi-professional angry person I am naturally pleased. As a hockey fan, however, I see room for improvement. My suggestion to Daryl Katz, since I know you're reading, is to get a set of those shock collars used on enormous, aggressive dogs. Every time an Oiler scout or management type suggests taking a player taller than say 6'2", give them the volts. If the scout feels so determined that he gets to his feet and takes the player anyway, live with it. If the scout immediately suggests somebody with actual skills, turn off the collar and take the hockey player.