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Searching For Cam Neely

The Oilers have spent a young man's lifetime searching Cam Neely's progeny - and they've wasted so much in doing so.

photo by Meowwcat, via Wikimedia Commons

Searching For Sugar Man is one of the best movies, let alone documentaries, I've ever seen. In it, two fans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom, search the world to find Sixto Rodriguez, an unknown 70's musician from Detroit who became a force of nature in South Africa. The Legend of Rodriguez, the true subject of the movie, made him a national icon, despite Rodriguez himself not knowing about it. Sadly, his fans were never able to connect with the legend because he disappeared, rumored to have killed himself on stage in America.

The Edmonton Oilers have spent a dozen years on their own search, the search for a big and strong forward who hits with the force of thunder, who can fight like Sam Langford and score goals like Boom Boom. They've been searching for Cam Neely since the moment Kevin Lowe ascended to the front office at The Skyreach Centre. But Searching For Sea Bass is much different than Searching For Sugar Man, for in the end it's much more disappointing. Perhaps, like Segerman and Strydom, the Oilers are searching in all of the wrong places.

While this was a significant problem in the Oilers' draft strategy from 2000-2004, Lowetide has covered the "coke machine" era in depth, so I'll spare you the gory details and start with the more recent crew. Over the last five off-seasons, the Oilers have spent five draft picks in their search for Neely: Cam Abney, Drew Czerwonka, Travis Ewanyk, John McCarron, Mitch Moroz. If you're keeping track, those picks are a 2nd, two 3rds and two 6th round picks. The two 6th round picks are excusable - the late rounds are for longshots and flyers, boom-or-bust picks, it's a time to go crazy with draft picks. They've also traded Tobias Rieder, a 4th-round pick, to Phoenix, for Kale Kessy, another 4th-rounder.

But that they've wasted three early picks on players who should've been drafted in the 6th round makes the search for Neely a terrible failure. Like Neely, the players they've targeted with those picks can hit and fight, but the Oilers forgot the reason that Neely was such a good player - he could actually play the game. He could score.

*As I did with Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner, I normalized Neely's production to compare him to Abney, Ewanyk and Moroz. In Cam Neely's draft year, he played 72 games and totaled 120 points. Normalize WHL games to 4.5 goals per team per game and Neely's 120 points is equivalent to 93 points in 72 games. Here's how the Oilers' troika stacks up:

Player Normalized Draft Year Points
Cam Neely 93
Mitch Moroz 32
Kale Kessy 32
Travis Ewanyk 32
Cam Abney 7

I notice a trend.

It doesn't matter how hard these players go to the net, or how much space they create, or how underrated their hands are. If you're going to chase a specific type of player (big), the first thing you have to do is make sure there is enough offense to make the NHL in the first place.

What would the Oilers' system look if they took the highest-scoring, big penalty minutes forward available, instead of just a big forward? Remember, the Oilers went way off of the board to select Abney and Ewanyk and took Moroz at least 25 picks higher than even the most optimistic draft watcher had him going.

Below is the list of "big" forwards available and taken within the next 10 picks of each Oilers' selection:

Cam Neely 93
2009 Norm Draft Year Points
2011 Norm Draft Year Points
2012 Norm Draft Year Points
Cam Abney 7
Travis Ewanyk 32
Mitch Moroz 32
Cody Eakin 75
Logan Shaw 58
Phil Di Giuseppe 90

Andy Andreoff** 57
Lukas Sutter 72

Mitchell Heard** 70

Nic Kerdiles N/A

**Overager, points normalized to prior season

None of these guys are going to be Cam Neely, nor were any of the Oilers' picks. The alternatives aren't under-sized sprites. While Eakin is not a fighter like Abney, he was 6'0 190, when drafted. Shaw was 6'3 204, Andreoff 6'1 217. Di Giuseppe was 6'1 200, Sutter 6'1 214, and Heard 6'1 194.

Consider how much the wrong-headed decision to pursue size and toughness, rather size and scoring, while searching for Sea Bass has cost the team. How much differently would the Oilers approach free agency, the draft, the 2013-14 season if they had Eakin, Andreoff and Di Giuseppe or Eakin, Shaw and Sutter instead of Abney, Ewanyk and Moroz?

I won't reveal more about Searching For Sugar Man, but let me put it this way: a self-financed Swedish documentarian shooting with an 8mm app on his iPhone and a couple of broke South African fans ended their search in a much better place than the Oilers have ended theirs.