This last off season has all the signs of being just as disappointing for Oilers fans as the season itself was. Once again, Oilers fans started with high hopes; they imagined that after Peter Chiarelli and the new Oilers management had settled in and assessed what they had, there would be changes designed to make the Oilers a team who could contend for more than top spot in the draft lottery.
In many respects, their faith has been rewarded. There have been changes; changes that no one would have expected just a year ago. The Oilers are a new-look team to go with their move to Rogers Place. However, it would be foolish to assume that these changes have increased the faith of Oilers fans in their management. In fact, this off season has done a great deal to diminish the belief that Oilers management is more capable in this form.
One of the major stumbling blocks for Oilers fans has always been, and continues to be, the mismanagement of talent and inability to evaluate what a player is actually worth. Historically, gaffes like drafting Mitch Moroz at 32nd in 2012 or trading Tobias Rieder for Kale Kessy have raised questions about whether or not Oilers management truly understands what a player is worth. Further questions about the Oilers understanding of what combination of players might lead to success have continued to linger. After all, there can only be so many small, skilled forwards drafted before a pattern emerges.
Then the team brought in Peter Chiarelli and everyone thought "here is the change we need. Things will get better now." Only they haven't. The Oilers claimed players off the waiver wire in the final quarter of last year and then preceded to play call ups from Bakersfield ahead of them, creating a head-scratching situation as to why they were claimed at all. Then came the off season: the time where the most spectacular changes were expected to happen. No one was safe except Connor McDavid, we heard.
For once that wasn't an exaggeration with Taylor Hall being shipped out to New Jersey for Adam Larsson on June 30, 2016. This trade seems to gather up everything the skeptical Oilers fan was worried about into one maelstrom of awful. The Oilers took a proven elite talent and traded him for a lower-level talent. Is Larsson a player the Oilers needed as a team? Yes. Is he likely to be a player worth the cost paid for him? Not in the immediate future. If Larsson has the potential to be a top defenseman, which is yet to be determined, the Oilers aren't likely to see it this year as Larsson adjusts to a new system. However, the Devils are likely to see an immediate positive impact from acquiring Taylor Hall. The trade of Taylor Hall has brought to mind the rather considerable trade gaffe Chiarelli made if dealing Seguin to the Dallas Stars, a trade which no point of view seems to indicate Chiarelli won.
To make matters worse, Chiarelli also added free agents in early July that should charitably be described as past their best before date as effective players in Jonas Gustavsson and Mark Fraser. So, the evidence is mounting that this new incarnation of Oilers management is no better at marketing players they wish to move for maximum return or judging players they want to sign. Chiarelli had every GM in the NHL to pitch Taylor Hall to at the NHL Entry Draft, and the best he could do was Adam Larsson? His signings—expect Lucic - in free agency make it seem like he also isn't able to evaluate talent and potential now instead of a player at their high point.
Finally, there are signings. There are two categories of these. There are the numerous entry level contracts, which it would be foolish to assume play for the Oilers this season - Caleb Jones, Nick Ellis, Drake Caggiula, and Matthew Benning. The most troublesome of those is Matthew Benning. Chiarelli drafted him for the Boston Bruins in 2012, and since the Oilers are not actually the Boston Bruins, this may be a case of Chiarelli bringing in a player he likes whether or not that player fits any need for the Oilers organization. The Oilers might be clamouring for right-shot defensemen, but adding players who don't appear NHL-ready means yet more waiting and questions for Oilers fans. Will this one work out? Or have Oilers management pinned their hopes on another player that will fail to develop? There's no way to know. Since most of Chiarelli's signings this summer have been players which aren't NHL-ready, waiting seems to be name of the game for Oilers fans yet again.
The problem with that is after a decade spent in the basement of the NHL standings and being an object of ridicule for fans throughout the league for poor management (something Chiarelli only added to this summer), Oilers fans are bit short of patience. They have been told to be patient and wait too many times for them to have any faith in those type of promises. Which is why Chiarelli's last roster move so far this off season is crucial to re-establishing his credit with a part of the Oilers fan base.
Chiarelli landed Milan Lucic to a whale of a contract, which should keep Lucic as an Oiler well-past his best playing days as well. Lucic brings many positive attributes to the Oilers on the ice, but it also creates a level of concern. At 28, Lucic is at the zenith of his career. The Oilers are betting on him having at least five more fairly productive years to justify the 42 million dollar cap hit. Beyond that, their inability to move Lucic when Connor McDavid becomes a restricted free agent in two years may create some complications where the future of the organization (in other young talents) is mortgaged because the cap room just does not exist to sign them. The Lucic signing is a completely contradictory move to most of what Chiarelli has attempted in the off season. Charitably, those moves seem focused on long-term growth and success where the Lucic signing seems to be all about paying dividends right now.
There needs to be a mix of long- and short-term planning for the future of the Oilers organization, but unfortunately, it doesn't appear to be a well-considered mix this off season. Something else that Oilers fans are more familiar with than they'd like to be.
At the end of this day, this off-season brought Oilers fans a splashier version of the same problems they've had in the past. They were just played out on a bigger scale. When Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins used to be the biggest contracts the Oilers had, Oilers fans at least had the comfort of knowing their best playing days were ahead of them. Now Oilers fans have a gamble they hope to win in Lucic, and a clock winding down on whether or not the right cast of supporting characters can be assembled. Over the course of the off season, Oilers fans have gravitated more and more towards Connor McDavid - hoping that he will be named the next captain of the Oilers and bring some new life to a struggling team.
Again, the same song but a different verse as fans had the same reaction about Taylor Hall in 2013. For Oilers fans, it seems the only thing that can be relied upon is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.