For the better part of four years now, avid viewers of cable sports television could watch Oil Change, a reality series set in the Alberta capital and depicting – theoretically – the rebuild of the Edmonton Oilers. Oil Change seemed to appear randomly on the dial, mixed in with poker tournaments and mixed martial arts replays whenever there wasn't a live event to watch. Sometimes, you'd pause with the clicker and you'd be inside the Oilers dressing room, listening to Tom Renney or Ralph Krueger or, last year, Dallas Eakins make a coaching point or an inspirational rallying-the-troops speech.
The problem was, there were never enough plot twists to make Oil Change must-see TV – no cliffhanger endings, no surprising characters, just the same numbing repetitiveness that comes with loss after discouraging loss. Last year was especially challenging.
A year that was supposed to mark the turnaround point for the franchise was essentially over before it ever began. The Oilers recorded only four wins in their first 21 games – too much ground to make up in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.
So with a new season starting Thursday against the Calgary Flames, Oil Change is no more, cancelled by the club in the hopes that the evidence of any real change comes between the whistles of the next 82 regular-season games.
Some of the Oilers players, such as Jordan Eberle, haven't played a lot of NHL games without the hovering presence of a television camera and crew in their dressing room.
According to Eberle, there were both positives and negatives to the experience.
"Oil Change definitely gave the fans a chance to look inside the dressing room and inside our lives and that was great," said Eberle. "At the end of the day, you want to grow the game and get kids playing and it really did that.
"But I think it put a little extra pressure on, for sure. When times were tough, you just had the added pressure of the camera always on you – and it's nice not to have that any more. To be honest, it's a bit of relief that we don't have that this year."
What they do have is a revamped lineup that features veteran upgrades on the blueline (Mark Fayne, Nikita Nikitin) and up front (Teddy Purcell, Benoît Pouliot). Year over year, the goaltending tandem has also turned over, with Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth starting the year as a platoon.
If the goaltending is better and if the scoring materializes, then the Oilers may start turning that corner finally, after eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs.
One of the great myths surrounding the current edition of the Edmonton team is that it is a young goal-scoring machine. It's not. The team scored fewer goals than Calgary last season. Taylor Hall is a point-a-game producer, Eberle a reliable sniper and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins an undeniable talent, but after them, the offence really falls off.
Beyond stability in goal, the key may well be how 18-year-old rookie centre Leon Draisaitl adjusts to the NHL. Because of his size and physical maturity, the Oilers hope Draisaitl can do for them what Sean Monahan did as a rookie in Calgary last season, and make an impact right away.
On the morning of Draisaitl's NHL debut, Mark Messier and his brother, Paul, stopped by his locker stall for a visit. Paul Messier played for years in Germany with Draisaitl's father, Peter, a three-time Olympian, who is still coaching in Europe.
Growing up in a hockey family taught Draisaitl from an early age the commitment needed to become a pro, but says: "At the end of the day, it comes down to hard work and hard work has nothing to do with having a hockey dad or someone who can give you advice. But it was helpful to have him give me good pointers or tips."
Oilers coach Eakins took Draisaitl aside Thursday morning and also offered some pointers and tips. Eakins said he advised Draisaitl to "just go out and play," noting that he doesn't want his newest star pupil to be in awe of anyone on the opposing team when he goes in to face, say, the Sedins on Saturday night.
"I know that goes through a young player's head," said Eakins. "He deserves to be here. He's earned it. Let's get on with it now.
"The faster we can speed up that process – where he understands he's an NHL player and that he can do the job in this league – the better the results are going to be, for him and for us."