by Steven Darnell Stauffer
The Edmonton Oilers broke my heart.
Much has already been written, and will be for years to come, about what it took to take a team featuring the greatest, fastest, and most best player of his generation and turn it into this. The management, historical in its impotence, and the product, breathtaking in its mediocrity, make for excellent tragedy, and of course there is Connor McDavid. It’s a good story, full of twists, turns, and teachable moments, and any ink spilled thereupon will have dried for a good cause.
Personally, however, and speaking only for myself, I am not haunted by what the Oilers are, but what they so very, very, very easily could have been.
Ask any George Jones song what really keeps you drinking. It’s not the bad years, it’s how close you came to good ones. And how good they could have been. Her touch lingers on your skin, her smile fills your dreams, and her voice…. her voice echoes in your ears, whispering of all thing things you could have done together, the years you could have spent laughing, the paths you could have walked, if only…
(In the interests of inclusivity I’ll add that this could also work with “his”, though I can’t quite imagine how. I find men distasteful.)
Anyway, beauty haunts, and the Oilers could have been beautiful. Not just good, a feat so pedestrian even the Flames have managed it, and not necessarily great, alchemy promised to no one, but beautiful. Beautiful, dynamic, thrilling, dangerous, and just so gosh-darned fun. And really, what are any of us watching this for? Our health? Hockey is not a moral good, and nuts to anyone who thinks it is “important”. I’m watching for fun, and we came within a breath of having one of the most fun teams of the millenium, if not ever. They would have won a lot too.
Allow me to explain.
In the summer of 2015 the Oilers had two special players: Connor McDavid and Taylor Hall.
Connor McDavid is, to put it bluntly, the faster skater in the history of hockey. Prophesied as the next scion since he was just a boy, fans have long debated whether his arrival was more reminiscent of Lemieux, Lindros, Gretzky or Crosby, but none of these comparisons quite fit. The wise among us knew it all along: he is the reincarnation of Pavel Bure, only better. While he has Bure’s speed, shot, and drive, he also loves passing, playmaking, backchecking, and his instincts are perfect. He is a human highlight reel without cheating for offence. He is the most dangerous, explosive player in the game and every shift he takes is a potential story you’ll tell your grandkids. He is the hyperbole made flesh.
And Taylor Hall- who better than a fanbase raised on Glen Anderson to appreciate the Kingston Cannonball? Hall is a reckless, relentless force who gets the puck and puts the pedal down like a young Burt Reynolds. He is one of the top three or four transporters in the game and once in the attacking zone is a mysteriously underrated playmaker (quick, who has more assists per game, Hall or Tavares? You’re probably wrong.)
Yet despite all this finesse Hall is most famous for playing like he is trying to kill himself. Rubbing is racing for this fella and no one celebrates more goals by crashing ass over teakettle into the net, goalie or boards, as his results come from sprinting at ever-accelerating speeds into the nearest danger area with no regard for safety, decency, or whether children might be watching when he finally explodes.
The man is a stock car and his pedal is always hammered down. He scored a point in 26 straight games on his way to a Hart trophy, and as of this writing leads the league in percentage of games with a point.
I don’t know how long he’ll be able to keep the needle in the red like this but my sweet hot damn, it is one helluva thing to watch.
In addition to these fine players, the Oilers had something else, the 16th overall pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft. They waited until they saw who was available at 16, and then they traded it. Who was available? Who was, in fact, the highest rated player available?
Make a list of the the three most exciting players in hockey. Got it? Good. Now if you think that, bar none, the most fun, most thrilling, most I’m glad-I-am-both-alive-and-watching-hockey right now players in the league are Connor McDavid, Matt Barzal and Taylor Hall, well, I’m not sure you’re right, but you are definitely not crazy.
Barzal is a waterbug, shifting directions in willful and wanton defiance laws of momentum, laughing at the idea a player has to choose between north-south and east-west. Great scorers are able to find spaces without the puck; Barzal seems able to find them even when he has it. He loves lapping the zone while lugging the biscuit, exploring the space with no fear of the reaper until suddenly the right play presents itself and he executes like Bush-era Texan. He is evasive, quick, subtle, and whether playing with pylons through the neutral zone or cutting to the net like someone has taped down the accelerate button on his genesis controller, he is a joy to behold.
Now! If they had kept Hall, Barzal, and Connor, would they have lost some games? Yes. Would things have been perfect? No. Are rhetorical questions obnoxious? Sometimes.
But the team would have so much fun! So skillful, so sublime, so insatiable in its creativity… and remember the Oilers didn’t just have the three thrill-rides, they also had Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl, who are all excellent, if not quite as electric. That’s enough talent to have a team where Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, and Mathew Barzal were on three different lines and each had at least one guy who could work with them.
Virtually every shift with one of the three most exciting players in the league on the ice, introducing adrenaline like a needle to the heart. Every shift an attack, every line change a threat, every ticket for the whole seat when you’d only need the edge… it could have been, in a word, beautiful. It could have been so beautiful.
And it got away.
The defence was bad and needed fixing so goodbye Hall, goodbye Barzal, and now the defence is still bad and needs fixing, but at least we can’t score either so it’s not a total loss.
I was going to write about how we got to here, describing each move in surgical detail, why they were mistakes and why it was easy to see so at the time. (We already had Pat Maroon, dammit, we did we need- nevermind.)
But if you’re reading this, you already know all that. What’s the point? You’ve read the forensic autopsy, you know what happened, and who did it, and if you’re still defending him at this point, then I hope your spouse appreciates just how lucky he or she is to have found someone so unbreakably loyal; otherwise, may I say Mrs Chiarelli, that I want you to know I am not impugning your son’s character, which I’m sure is fine, only quibbling about a few decisions around the office.
There are a lot different moves that could have lead to a winning team-maybe even a better team than the one I’m offering-but none that would have lead to a more thrilling team, that would have brought more stunned, outrageous joy. (Except possibly drafting Thomas Chabot, the only counter-argument I’m willing to entertain). Besides, this one was right there. All they had to do was nothing.
They still might make the playoffs this year, you know, and bully for them if they do. If you can’t be with the one you love, et cetera et cetera. But even when you’re trying your best to love the one you’re with, sometimes, late at night, the wind will whisper her name into your ear and your chest will tighten and your eyes will mist and you will remember how once, a long time ago, you had the chance to fight for beauty.
And you threw it away.
You can find Steven on Twitter, where he often shares his thoughts about the Oilers, politics, movies and music, but mostly the Oilers.