Nathan MacKinnon has taken the Stanley Cup Playoffs by storm.
The 18-year old rookie has catapulted the Colorado Avalanche, the lovable worst-to-first story in the Western Conference, to an early 2-0 series lead over the Minnesota Wild, and he’s done so in grand fashion. MacKinnon is tied with teammate Paul Stastny for the NHL lead in postseason points through two games.
The kid has dazzled all season, becoming only the 10th player in NHL history to score 60 points as an 18-year old. He’s been at the forefront of the hockey revolution in Denver, ushered in by first-year head coach Patrick Roy and carried out by “veterans” such as Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and Semyon Varlamov, the eldest of the group at 25.
Colorado’s business model is reminiscent of how the Pittsburgh Penguins brought their franchise from the brink of oblivion to an enviable empire nearly a decade ago. After drafting phenoms such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, Mario Lemieux’s bunch was on it’s way to building the cornerstone of a juggernaut that would last for years.
After all, this is the new model for success in a cap-restricted NHL. You cultivate young talent through the draft, allow them to grow either via college, junior or European professional hockey, assimilate them into your team’s system, and make them part of a well-oiled machine to go along with the budding stars you’ve been able to acquire as a result of your franchise’s bottoming out.
But what about them? Weren’t they supposed to be this year’s “it” team? Hilariously, Adrian Dater of the Denver Post cited Edmonton as one of his teams to watch after the 2013 lockout, posting them third in his power rankings. Like, third in the league. Of all the teams. Third out of 30. I swear I’m not making this up.
That, in itself, is a glowing advertisement for why power rankings are hopelessly pointless, but that’s another story for another day.
But Dater wasn’t alone. Dozens of hockey “experts” and tons more expected this to be the year the Oilers turned the corner, especially with new no-nonsense head coach Dallas Eakins at the helm. After all, this team has chosen first overall in the NHL Draft for three consecutive seasons. It’s about time they start making a push, even in the uber-competitive Western Conference.
So what happened?
Brushing aside their glaring need for a consistent goaltender and anyone who can even find their own blue line–equally troublesome issues that become exponentially worse when combined– let’s take a look at their draft history, shall we?
A quick examination of the last five draft classes (granted, the jury is still largely out on 2013, and even 2012 to a lesser extent) shows that the Oilers’ lack of success is a result of gross organizational incompetence in conjunction with being the unluckiest team in the history of ever.
Consider this: in 2009, the first overall pick in the NHL Draft was John Tavares, by the New York Islanders. In 2013, the Avalanche took MacKinnon first overall. In the three years between those two picks, the Oilers selected first all three times. They chose Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012). Hall had an outstanding season in 2013-14, and is primed to become one of the game’s elite players.
Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov? Not so much.
But hey, anyone can swing and miss with the first overall pick. While the draft has become more and more of a science with each passing year, the scouts and general managers are still always at the mercy of the caliber of that draft class.
While the Oilers got arguably the best value of any pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by selecting Jordan Eberle 22nd overall, they have struck out spectacularly since. Excluding the three players taken first overall, just five of Edmonton’s selections since 2009 have played a single NHL game for the franchise.
Three of them are forwards (Magnus Paajarvi, Anton Lander, Tyler Pitlick) and have combined for 267 games played. In that time, they managed just 29 goals and 38 assists. That’s .25 points per game, for those of you scoring at home.
The Avalanche had four from the 2009 draft alone, including Ryan O’Reilly and Tyson Barrie, who enjoyed breakout seasons in 2014. Then there’s that Matt Duchene guy. He’s good at hockey. And with any luck, Colorado will regain his services for the Western Conference Semifinals.
The infusion of young talent in Colorado, undoubtedly spearheaded by MacKinnon, has made the effect Roy has had on the team all the more infectious. The kids are buying in, and the veterans are believing in the results. This is a team that went from picking first overall to beating out the Blues and Blackhawks for first in the Central Division.
In Edmonton, they prepare for another long summer filled with questions of what’s to come next from another high draft pick. With no definitive game-changer readily available in this class, it makes you wonder if we’ll be thinking the same thoughts about the Oilers a year from now. Where will they be then? What might have been?
Meanwhile in Colorado, MacKinnon & co. have the locals dreaming of a Rocky Mountain high they haven’t reached since 2001, the last time the team won the Stanley Cup.
Remember who won the Conn Smythe Trophy that season? Yep, you guessed it.
And aside from being the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award, Roy’s got his hopes pinned to capturing another prize. You could even call it one of his oldest friends.