When the court eunuchs carry water for the Caracallan terror that is Justin Schultz, a regular line is that Schultz "needs a change of scenery." You see, they theorize, playing under the thousand-yard stares of traumatized Edmonton Oilers fans, wallowing through a perpetual mire of decadence and incompetence, learning his trade from a legion of dimwitted coaches, and absorbing lessons from the likes of Andrew Ference and Nikita Nikitin, has so corrupted his youthful development that it is no wonder he has fallen prey to sloth and uselessness...
Okay, when you put it like that you sort of see their point, or would if we didn't have three years' proof that Schultz is, to go from the Roman Empire to Willy Wonka for a moment, a bad egg. But perhaps it works the other way. The Badger Without Teeth was a healthy scratch in Los Angeles, hotly rumoured to be off at the trade deadline for a burlap sack full of pinecones or something. All of a sudden, the Oilers could go into the Staples Centre and look... decent. Not "good," my God never "good," but okay, like a facsimile of a team that may someday play real hockey.
The Oilers' scenery changed, and Schultz is most emphatically scenery of the Mordorian flavour. It worked wonders.
Look, I don't want to talk this up too high, but the Los Angeles Kings are a real hockey team. Drew Doughty, the NHL's most aptly-named player! Jeff Carter, the NHL's most generically-named hockey player! Anze Kopitar, who is neither but still fantastic! Jonathan Quick, making saves off the Saviour with the eyes in the back of his head! Vincent Lecavalier—okay, yeah, but he's been good more recently than the Oilers! They even hire beloved ex-players for the front office then, rather than ask them to find Jan Hejdas (and turn up Jan Vopats), give them nebulous management duties that include old-timers games at fantasy camps!
All on song, at home, up against a team of cast-offs, cancer patients, and first overall picks (ho-hum). Yet the Oilers played 'em well! Zack Kassian, whose acquisition gave me an aneurysm, got some talented linemates and proved that just because you're a big guy the Oilers wanted doesn't mean you can't play. I still don't know what Jordan Oesterle is but he acquitted himself well out of his weight class. Darnell Nurse, well, he ran into trouble in the third against Dwight King, but that's hardly shameful and in general he looked more like an untutored rookie than the human Spinmop we've seen in certain other defensive contexts. As a whole they were totally different from the bunch that had Todd McLellan one shorthanded goal away from becoming breaking news. If they could look like that for half a season, I might not want to rampage through team headquarters like the Praetorian Guard on a bender.
"Ah," you may say, smiling, waggling your finger, looking knowing and cynical, "but the Oilers blew it." Yes. Yes they sure did. Forty fair minutes, gone to waste because of faceoff trouble and an inability to clear out the second attacker in. Well, what of it? The points were inconsequential. Indeed, Kevin Lowe may well have whispered "get lost, son, for Auston," into Mark Fayne's ear during the second intermission. We're not making the playoffs. We're not finishing anywhere respectable. Our best-case scenario is, what, 23rd? So even those of us who'd never want the Oilers to lose on purpose (because they do it so well by accident) shouldn't get too ornery about the result itself.
What counts is the performance, and that was fine. So the Oilers deserved to lose and looked inferior on the road to a team with decent Stanley Cup chances. C'est la vie. The Oilers have looked a lot worse than that, especially when you remember that they still have, what, two-and-a-half defencemen? It was, most importantly, an obvious improvement in both skill and effort over the usual standard we've seen during the Decline and Fall of the Oilers Empire. Probably it was just a good day, maybe fired up by their coach's passion. Logically it would be insane to say it was all because the team looked around and saw no Justin Schultz, auguring holes into his own blueline and shrugging as Bobby Ryan skated between his legs.
But it so obviously was.