When Tom Petty wrote "Free Fallin'", he almost positively wasn't thinking about the Edmonton Oilers and their current bout with futility. It really is almost a complete certainty, for a number of reasons:
1) Petty is from Florida, where, despite the two teams located there currently, there's almost no acknowledgement of the existence of hockey on the part of Floridians.
2) The references in the song are of areas in Los Angeles.
3) The song came out in 1989, a year in which the Oilers were on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.
So, in a way, the song constitutes a constant reminder, or at least should, of how far the team has fallen over the past two decades. Now, this post is not going to be about Wayne Gretzky, nor of how Oilers owner Peter Pocklington essentially sold him to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 (hey, maybe "Free Fallin'" was about the Oilers, after all!), because, as should have been made plainly obvious, the Oilers were able to win hockey's holy grail without him.
No, this post is about how the Oilers of today suck, boasting a record of 1-6-1 in the team's last eight games and 1-13-1 in its last 15. Interestingly enough, prior to this slide, they had actually won five straight, but that streak was such a long time ago that it might as well have taken place in '89.
It's absurd to consider that the Oilers are losing on purpose just to solidify the first overall draft pick in this coming draft to get the Windsor Spitfires's Taylor Hall. Sure, Hall will likely turn into the cornerstone of a model franchise once he gets a chance to turn pro, but professional athletes are such a competitive bunch that the mere idea of losing on purpose is something that just does not compute for them. And it rightly shouldn't.
So, how else to explain the Oilers's current woes except to admit that they're just plain awful? There probably isn't another way, so let's stick with sole option number one.
The defense? Lubomir Visnovsky is at least doing his job, scoring 29 points in 42 games, but most everyone else isn't. Sheldon Souray was considered a glorified pylon during his best years with the Montreal Canadiens, when he regularly netted over 10 goals a year. Now he has just three, to go with nine assists, in 31 games. Translation: Deadweight at the bargain price of $5,500,000 this year.
Their goaltending? Dreadful. Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers, bless his heart, is not a number-one goalie. While his 3.03 goals-against-average is more an indication of the horrible defense in front of him, his .899 save percentage does not even begin to hide the holes in his game.
Yes, Drouin-Deslauriers is just keeping the net warm for Nikolai Khabibulin, but Khabibulin wasn't exactly the shining star in goal when he was healthy that his four-year, $15-million contract would lead you to believe.
Now that Khabibulin has had season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, any hope the Oilers have of making the playoffs rests squarely on the shoulders of Drouin-Deslauriers, and, no offense to him, he's clearly not capable of carrying a team on his back. Once his is healed, maybe Khabibulin is the guy, but, at 37 years old, it's more likely that he was the guy.
Their forwards? When your leading scorer is perennial disappointment Dustin Penner and star Ales Hemsky is out for the year as well, having undergone shoulder surgery, the Oilers's problems up front read like an open book.
Penner admittedly deserves a lot of credit for being the go-to guy on the team, but the problem is he isn't a go-to guy. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure he is a stand-up guy and all, but when you think of Dustin Penner, you don't think of a first-line forward. Indeed, following his last four-point performance on December 11 against the St. Louis Blues, he has just five points in 15 games. Granted, it's not just him who's unable to put the puck in the net, but it does serve as some indication as to how bad things have gotten in Oil Country when Penner isn't even producing at last year's by-all-standards inadequate 0.47 point-per-game pace.
Andrew Cogliano, who, along with Sam Gagner, was the toast of the town just two seasons ago, has just 12 points in 47 games, producing at a snail's pace, a far cry from the speed that has been his trademark and initially earned him a roster spot in 2007-2008.
Patrick O'Sullivan, who once led the American Hockey League in goals, now only has 10 on the year and co-owns the team's worst +/- rating with a -21. Shawn Horcoff is the other culprit, and has just 19 points in 42 games. For someone who was expected to pick up some of the scoring slack once Hemsky went down with injury, Horcoff just isn't delivering… along with everyone else.
Clearly, there isn't one player who can be singled out as the heart of the Oilers's problems this year. The old adage goes that you win as a team and lose as a team. Right now the Oilers aren't just losers. They're underachieving losers.
Bright spots do exist in Gilbert Brule and Ladislav Smid, who have in part been able to rip off the waste-of-a-first-round-pick labels that have dogged them their entire careers, but, even in those cases, more was expected out of them when they were drafted in 2005 and 2004 respectively. And while prospect Jordan Eberle has a huge amount of potential following two-straight dominant performances at the World Junior Championships, there's a chance he might not be able to translate his success as a junior to the professional ranks. It has been know to happen. And if he is able, he's still probably at least five years away from being the top-end forward he's projected to be.
So, clearly, those bright spots don't mean fans should be all that optimistic that the light at the end of the tunnel is close, especially seeing as even if the Oilers finish last in the league there's no guarantee that the team will even get the first pick to draft Hall. That's why the draft lottery exists… and right now the Oilers are looking like a very unlucky bunch. Free falling, you might say.