Are Oilers ready to change things?

So much time has been spent this season talking about the treasures that await the league's last-place team that you start to think in rainbow terms.

A handful of truly awful teams following that brightly colored arc down, down, down the standings with the hope that what lies at the bottom, the very bottom, is a pot of gold and a ticket up.

Certainly that's how great the promise of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel is, with the duo poised to go first and second in June's draft in South Florida.

But among those teams lurching their way to the bottom as the season heads into its final two weeks is a team that is living proof that finding the "treasure" at the end of the arc guarantees nothing.

The Edmonton Oilers are once again among the worst teams in the league, despite a stretch dating back to 2009 that saw them pick first overall in the draft three times in a row (2010-12, only the second time in the history of the draft that happened), and pick third, seventh and 10th overall since then.

The Oilers have defied the odds by failing to turn such a treasure trove of picks into anything remotely resembling a playoff team, let alone a championship contender.

"By every measure, they seem to be failing," said longtime NHL executive Frank Provenzano, also a frequent contributor to ESPN's hockey coverage. "You shouldn't be picking that high and be that bad.

"If the Detroit Red Wings are defying gravity" by consistently contending without the benefit of high draft picks, "the Edmonton Oilers are defying lift."

The Oilers are in a neck-and-neck battle with the Arizona Coyotes and Buffalo Sabres for the worst record in the league, but even if we consider the likelihood they could add Eichel, McDavid or even the top defenseman expected to be taken in the draft, Noah Hanifin, what is the expectation that the Oilers could make a significant jump up the standings in the near future?




Longtime NHLer Ray Ferraro, now a national broadcast analyst based in western Canada, figures the Oilers will have two options. If Eichel or McDavid becomes an Oiler, they will likely join the lineup next season; that's how special they are.

"If it's anyone else, it's completely different," Ferraro said in a recent interview. "The last thing the Oilers need is another 18-year-old in their lineup."

If that sounds like Ferraro is preaching patience, it's because he is.

Although patience is something Edmonton fans can be excused for having little of given the team's history -- not only of failure but of repeating mistakes time and time again -- it does seem that is the only path out of the wilderness.

It's soon going to be nine playoff years since the Oilers' magical run to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, where they lost in Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, the Oilers took advantage of shrewd moves by then-GM Kevin Lowe, who acquired Chris Pronger, Michael Peca, Dwayne Roloson and Jaroslav Spacek to buttress homegrown talent Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, Shawn Horcoff and Fernando Pisani.

The Oilers snuck into the playoffs and then nearly ran the table as the No. 8 seed.

Seems like a million years ago, not just because of the team's failure to return to the playoffs, but also the failure to successfully draft and develop players to support the top picks who should be the cornerstone of an emerging franchise.

Whether the chicken comes before the egg or vice versa, the Oilers have had every opportunity to follow the path taken by other downtrodden teams such as the Chicago Blackhawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins. For a host of reasons, though -- poor draft decisions, poor player development or, perhaps most troubling, poor choices in the people who are making the choices -- that turnaround hasn't occurred.

Between 2003 and 2006, the Penguins drafted first overall twice and second overall twice. Then, far ahead of schedule, they made the playoffs in 2007 and have not missed since, winning a Cup in 2009 after losing in the finals in 2008.

But it wasn't just top picks Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal who created a winner from losers' cloth. The team's bedrock was homegrown talent Tyler Kennedy, Alex Goligoski, Kris Letang, Ryan Whitney, Maxime Talbot, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi, players who for the most part grew up in the Pens' system, playing for coaches Michel Therrien and Dan Bylsma, who would replace Therrien in Pittsburgh in 2009 and win a Cup a few months later.

The path traveled by the Blackhawks is similar, a championship franchise built not just on the shoulders of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Stability is part of it. Identifying talent and then developing it properly is another. Those are elements of team-building that have eluded the Oilers.

They have failed to find or develop a franchise netminder. On some level, it must be galling to watch Devan Dubnyk, the 14th overall pick by the Oilers in 2004, shoulder his way into the Vezina Trophy conversation with the Minnesota Wild after being unable to reach that level for the Oilers.

They have failed to build a defensive corps that can augment the raw talent that populates the team's forward ranks, a failure that might have contributed to the failure to find and/or develop a franchise netminder.

Could a prospect such as Hanifin, along with Darnell Nurse (seventh overall in 2013) and Oscar Klefbom (19th overall in 2011), who has shown good promise late in this season, be the cornerstones of such a blue line?


But there is a giant gap between those top picks and players selected in lower rounds who could become important parts of a team on the rise. Go past those players, "And who have you got?" Ferraro asked.

Anton Lander, the 40th pick in 2009, is a possibility. Russians Bogdan Yakimov and Anton Slepyshev have potential with the right grooming. But there simply aren't enough.

"Guys that balance the equation out are the guys that they don't have," Ferraro said. "They've drafted incredibly poorly."

Provenzano put it in militaristic terms: Top picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall are shiny fighter jets, but the Oilers need ground troops. And they don't have any.

Edmonton has rewarded those top picks with lucrative contract extensions in the hope they fulfill their great promise, that the team will grow behind them, but that has created the potential for ongoing issues in team building if they do not mature as expected.

"They have been failing for a long time. They just should not be this bad. It's a fundamental fact," Provenzano said. "They're beating the system in a bad way."

And so as the Oilers careen toward another playoff miss, the team is once again left to shine a hard light inward. And perhaps that light has never shone brightly enough for a team that still clings -- unhealthily, some would say -- to its glory days in the 1980s.

Lowe remains as president of hockey operations. Former Oilers player Craig MacTavish, the last coach to take the team to the playoffs (in 2006), is the GM. They have an interim coach in Todd Nelson after another unproven coach, Dallas Eakins, was fired less than two seasons into his first NHL head coaching job.

But make no mistake, the dynamics surrounding the team are different.

Owner Daryl Katz has embarked on a new arena project in downtown Edmonton. Longtime Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson has been brought in at a top executive level by Katz. The question remains, though, about what exactly Nicholson's mandate is for the hockey club.

Will he have input into decisions on the futures of Lowe, MacTavish or Nelson?

It would seem imperative that Nicholson have that kind of control if the team is ever going to break the cycle of failure that has defined the Oilers for most of a decade.

A new voice at the top "is imperative," Ferraro said.

"Those guys have been together there so long, back to their playing days," Ferraro said. "You need an outlier a little bit. There has to be a dissenting voice somewhere, not even a disagreeing voice but a different voice."

Does Katz, seemingly enamored with the old boys from the glory days, have enough faith in Nicholson to effect meaningful change, even if that change means replacing MacTavish and/or Lowe, or changing the distribution of power within the hockey operations department? Does the will to win outweigh whatever loyalty ownership feels?

Tough calls are ahead, no question.

Clearing the waters a bit is the fact that the team has played better under Nelson, even if that improvement isn't reflected in the win column.

The Oilers are 13-18-6 under Nelson heading into play Wednesday, but the power play has been much better.

Nail Yakupov seems to be getting it now in a way that once seemed impossible. MacTavish has been effusive in his praise of the young forward and his rapid maturation in the second half of this season, which is important given the steep learning curve for the former first overall pick. Jordan Eberle is at a point-a-game clip under Nelson, with 38 points.

Ferraro said he sees a more relaxed, confident team since Nelson took over. Organizationally, there are signs of a new thought process in building the team.

Earlier this season, the team sent Leon Draisaitl (third overall in 2014) back to junior, although curiously not before the World Junior Championship and after he'd burned the first season of his entry-level contract with the big club. Nurse spent the season in the Ontario Hockey League.

"They have to break the cycle of playing these kids right when they draft them," Ferraro said. "I sense a real understanding that that's the way it has to become."

Still, the record remains a sobering reminder of the long road ahead. The Oilers still stink when it comes to playing their foes from the Western Conference -- they are a woeful 5-26-10 after Monday's loss to the Winnipeg Jets -- and that remains a major stumbling block to returning to relevance in the conference after so many years in the shadows.

Regardless of what treasures await at the end of this season's draft rainbow, there is still yeoman's work to be done to repair nearly a decade's worth of mistakes and missed opportunities.