Dallas Eakins said something the other day he didn't think Edmonton Oilers fans wanted to hear – despite eight years out of the NHL playoffs they would need to show patience a little bit longer. After being deposed as the Oilers' coach by general manager Craig MacTavish this past Monday following a 1-15 slide, Eakins suggested he could speak more freely as the former coach than as someone charged with the day-to-day task of improving a young team that still needed time to mature.
It's an interesting idea – that an incumbent coach cannot lay it all on the line while he's still working, presumably because of the need to consistently toe the party line. Eakins figured the Oilers wouldn't be humming on all cylinders for another year or more – until they move to their new building, in 2016.
Of course, you can look at it the other way too. Most people who care enough about the NHL to follow it closely also understand that in the era of the quick fix that it does take time. What should bother them is how many of those years were wasted at the beginning – three years of futilely struggling to make the playoffs before finally making the decision to go all scorched earth; and then coming up with so few real prospects during the next five years that they've quietly had to begin the rebuild within the rebuild.
This phenomenon – of starting over again – is not something teams want to acknowledge, because it makes everybody look bad; and really amounts to the hardest sell in professional sport.
Teams genuinely believe they cannot turn to their fan base and blurt out the painful reality – that Plan A didn't work and so now, they're off to Plan B. Just trust us, this one will work better. Really, it will.
The fact is, it can – and for proof, you need only look at another once proud NHL team that had fallen on hard times, the Chicago Blackhawks, to see how its blueprint for success eventually emerged.
Starting in the 1997-98 season, the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for six out of seven seasons, and the seventh, 2003-04, turned out to be the worst of the bunch.
They'd finished 15th in the Western Conference, with a miserable 59 points, and imagined they'd eventually turn it around with a young core of players that included Daniel Cleary, Ty Jones, Steve McCarthy and the infamous ABC line of Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell and Kyle Calder. They drafted Russians high that didn't play (Mikhail Yakubov, Pavel Vorobiev); Finns that spent their careers chronically injured (Tuomo Ruutu); and the one home run they might have hit – goaltender Craig Anderson, 73rd over all in 2001 – got away before he hit his NHL stride.
By the time the NHL shut it down for the 2005-06 season, they'd effectively wasted seven years – and had to start all over again, under general manager Dale Tallon, who took over in 2005, as the team underwent a massive front-office shift. The building was empty, and interest minimal when the Blackhawks, in consecutive drafts, plucked Jonathan Toews at No. 3 in 2006 and Patrick Kane No. 1 over all in 2007. Tallon inherited a couple of quality defensive prospects, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but made arguably the smartest decision of his managerial career when he hired Joel Quenneville to replace Denis Savard as coach four games into the 2007-08 season.
This was no easy sell.
Savard was one of the most popular players in Blackhawks' history, a franchise icon (sound familiar Edmonton fans?)
And yet, Tallon understood that the Blackhawks, at the same time as they were re-engaging with players from their glory days, needed an experienced and fresh voice from outside the organization handling the bench. Most of the players accumulated during the first phase of the Blackhawks rebuild were shipped out and Quenneville was tasked with taking the second wave of youngsters and accomplishing with them what the first wave couldn't do.
You know the rest of the story. The Blackhawks have become a model NHL franchise – two Stanley Cup championships in the past five years, plus a trip to last year's Western Conference final. But they couldn't have managed it without saying goodbye to a lot of promising players, many of them high draft choices, who didn't pan out. That's a hard thing to do – and a harder thing to sell. But if it works, who's going to complain?
If the Oilers continue to struggle, they'll have a chance to land a Toews-like piece in either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the 2015 NHL entry draft. The question they'll need to ask – and this is why MacTavish is behind the bench right now – is which of the players from spinning-their-wheels stage of the team's rebuild survive, and which ones move on?
Eakins didn't quite phrase it exactly that way, but that's really what this is all about in Edmonton – the rebuild within the rebuild; and the sooner they characterize it as such, the easier it will be for a pretty sophisticated Oilers' fandom to digest why it is necessary.