Especially to fans of other teams, or at least to those who aren’t as keen to the minutiae of the Edmonton Oilers operation, one question is at the forefront. In fact, even in the front of mind for sections of Oil Country, analysis of any aspect of the organisation might bring the question to the tip of the tongue.
With, undoubtedly, the world’s best hockey player on the roster in Connor McDavid, as well as one of the few players worthy of consideration for the spot behind, in noted playoff performer Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers are blessed with immense talents. Two MVPs in one organisation is more than many teams can claim, let alone while simultaneously in their prime years.
Yes, over the years the Oilers team around the duo has had its share of issues, as even this season, in perhaps their best form to date, they were not quite good enough to win it all.
So long as McDavid and Draisaitl are on the roster, the Oilers and their fans are right to harbour some optimism about the team’s chances at competing for a Stanley Cup. The question is not whether or not McDavid and Draisaitl are good enough, but rather how much the burden of expectations should be focused on a championship. How much should the rest of the roster, coaching staff, and management be held to the standard of delivering a championship? There is a catchy, straightforward simplicity about reducing their evaluations upon the binary of winning a championship, but is that really a fair way to evaluate them?
Star power across the major sports leagues
Across all sports the conventional wisdom has a vector towards valuing the top talents to a higher degree. Whether it is quarterbacks in the NFL, NBA superstars, or even within the world of the NHL itself, top players are garnering more attention, revenue, and compensation than the field. The middle class is eroding, as players closer to replacement level are squeezed. As most North American sports have leagues that employ some salary cap system, these trends are inherently connected.
Paying top dollar to the biggest stars and filling out the rest of the team with whatever amount of cap space is left over afterwards is becoming a more accepted way to build a team. In most cases this might even be thought of as the prudent way in which to build a contender.
However, as much as there is some validity to this thought, hockey is a different sport than basketball or football, and there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that this team building concept has a limited application in the NHL. Of course, at least historically, the cap and player salaries continue to rise, but still, with 15 players with a cap hit of $10M or more it is notable.
Should the Florida Panthers or Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup this season, it will mark the first time in the cap era that a team has done so with a player with a cap hit of at least $10M. Aleksander Barkov and Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers, as well as Jack Eichel of the Golden Knights, are the only $10M players with a chance to end that streak this season.
While star power does matter in the NHL, depth is incredibly important as well. The main reason a $10M player has yet to win a Cup is because of the strain that a contract that large puts on the ability to fill out the rest of the team.
Hockey is chaos
Each sport has its own reality. In the NBA, where scoring is frequent and repeatable, having the best player on the court makes a huge difference. For this reason debates around “who the best basketball player of all time is” are the most popularly debated. Simply put, having a star player makes a considerable impact on winning. For this reason in player ranking debates the number of championships an NBA player has on their resume is a big part of the equation, and to an extent a fair criterion.
Meanwhile, in the NFL, only one position has enough effect on the game to be held to the standard of championship counting, the quarterback. Whether it is wide receivers, running backs, or defensive ends, no other position in the sport is held to that standard of team success. It is widely accepted that those players, who might be considered the best at their positions, should not be measured on a criterion that the nature of their position does not allow them to have an adequate degree of fundamental impact on team success. Football, too, is a game with more inherent chaos than basketball as well, where elements like coaching, number of players on the field, and the strange bounces of the oblong ball can swing momentum as much as individual talent can.
In the MLB individual talent might matter the least of the major four sports. An apt example exists in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, perhaps two of the best players of all time, failing to even make the postseason year after year.
To speak only on the nature of predictability in the sports themselves, this poignant dataset from an excellent article from 2018 examining the role of chance in postseason victory:
“How long would postseason series need to be in NFL, MLB and NHL to match the NBA’s ‘better team advances’ rate of 80%?
- In the NFL, a ‘best-of-11’ series is needed to match the NBA’s better team advances rate.
- In the NHL, a ‘best-of-51’ series is needed to match the NBA’s better team advances rate.
- And in MLB, an astounding ‘best-of-75’ series is needed to match the NBA’s better team advances rate.”
This dataset clearly illustrates how random results are in the NHL for the “better team” advancing. When we consider the impact that an individual or player or two has on an NHL team, a relatively small one compared to NBA players or NFL quarterbacks, the championship burden that should be placed upon McDavid, Draisaitl, and the Oilers at large is put into context.
With more factors piling on, from time on ice, time with the puck, streaky shooting and goaltending, the strange bounces of the puck, let alone the relative lawlessness of the NHL playoffs, the impact that any player, no matter how talented, can have in winning a Stanley Cup is somewhat limited. It is for this reason that expecting McDavid, Draisaitl, or the Oilers as a whole to win a Cup based on their individual greatness is not exactly reasonable.
It is understandable that fans should be hopeful for the Oilers Cup chances each season that McDavid and Draisaitl are in Edmonton. While some of the most extreme extensions of this thought process might paint GM Ken Holland or Coach Jay Woodcroft as “failures”, this misguided premise of evaluation can materialise in more reasonable objectives as well. As seen in our SC poll regarding the definition for a successful Oilers season, many of our voters favoured playoff advancement, especially based off of last year’s results, as the primary metric of evaluation.
The Oilers themselves, from GM to coach to players, expressed devastation and disappointment, lamenting their result despite hockey’s randomness. Despite the faulty premise of their expectations this is exactly what we should hope to hear from the team as fans. It is not that the players and their play doesn’t make a difference, rather that even with a strong team and a stronger effort, winning a Cup involves a high degree of chance.
Instead, a more rational approach to expectations would be to see the Oilers prove themselves as a strong team in the regular season. Conversations surrounding the failures of the coach, GM, or team around McDavid and Draisaitl become reasonable when the team fails to do so. In proving themselves over 82 games, positioning themselves for a chance to compete in the playoffs, as well as accounting for some stylistic and circumstantial analyses, the Oilers barometer for success can be more rationally expressed by their work leading into the playoffs.
This analytical approach should not be used to diminish or undercut the emotions of hope, excitement, or disappointment that ebb and flow through the seasons, rather to involve a perspective of objectivism into the evaluation of the process. Acknowledging the presence and greatness of McDavid and Draisaitl, pointing out the fact that they have not won a Cup yet, and throwing in some clown emojis might be succinct, but it does not represent a worthwhile evaluation of the team’s performance.
Photo by Brett Holmes/Icon Sportswire