In that long, rambling mea culpa that doubled as a press conference last week, Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MascTavish largely preached staying the course – because what else can you do when your best-laid off-season plans lie in ruins?
Well, on a practical level, that's one possible approach. The Oilers didn't set out to be bad this season, but now that they are, there's no point in trying to aggressively correct the course and become merely mediocre. In a year when you can potentially draft a generational player – a Connor McDavid or a Jack Eichel – by having an acutely dismal season, it really needs to be all or nothing.
With 19 points in 29 games, a 1-13 record in their past 14 and coming off two losses in a row on their California road trip, the Oilers have zero chance of making the playoffs. They are 15 points out of the final spot and would need to leapfrog seven teams to get there. It isn't going to happen.
Luckily, the consolation prize for being really bad is really good. One could argue that the last true generational players to play in Canada were Wayne Gretzky and/or Mark Messier. To have a McDavid or an Eichel land in Edmonton would create symmetry, if nothing else. But to think MacTavish's hands are completely tied is a false premise too. There are two steps he could take – one likely obvious to him, the other maybe not – to make the final two-thirds of the season productive on some futures level.
The first would be to shop for a lateral trade.
This is a strategy that has fallen out of favour in the 21st-century NHL for reasons that are difficult to explain.
The presence of the salary cap helped create the current era of trade gridlock. Everybody gets that. Nowadays, if a team is capped out – say, the Boston Bruins – but wants to reinforce its blue line, sorry, it just can't happen easily in December. Better to wait until March and the trading deadline, when three-quarters of the dollars have clicked off those contracts and it's easier to fit the newcomer under the cap.
But that doesn't rule out the possibility of making a trade just to shake things up. Once upon a time, in the 21-team NHL, when all the general managers of the era – Bill Torrey, Lou Nanne, Cliff Fletcher, Harry Sinden – were fishing buddies as well, they did that all the time.
The theory, as Fletcher once expressed it to me, was that you weren't necessarily trying to win a trade outright or delude yourself into thinking that if you swapped your third-line forward for someone else's it would have a major repercussion on results.
Instead, you were hoping for more intangible benefits – getting the attention of a team potentially growing stale, with the same old personnel in the dressing room, by waking them up.
But those were experienced managers, confident in their abilities, who understood that risk was part of the game. So many current GMs are so insecure that if they cannot win a deal outright they'd rather do nothing than look stupid or risk the perception they'd been fleeced.
There are a lot of reasons to ponder why the New York Islanders are so improved this season, but adding what looked like a small piece – defenceman Johnny Boychuk – coming out of training camp made a significant change to the dressing-room dynamic.
The other move within reach is to ponder the benefits of addition by subtraction. You look at the struggles of Nail Yapukov and the support the Oilers are showing for him and you wonder: Is he really learning and improving or showing signs of becoming the next Alex Daigle? And if you believe the latter to be true, maybe it makes sense to trade him.
Sometimes, you'll hear GMs pedantically sniff that they won't make a trade just to make a trade. My question: Why not?
As a manager, there is a fine line between showing patience and acting stubbornly. Being patient is generally a good thing – it proves you won't act rashly in the heat of the moment and immediately have seller's regret. But being too stubborn, and needing to show an increasingly disenchanted fan base that, yes, you were right all along, is a bit like pride. It frequently comes before the fall.