The NHL has a problem, and that problem is the Edmonton Oilers. Not necessarily for the reasons you're thinking, though. Not totally because, after winning the NHL draft lottery, they're soon to take their fourth first overall pick in the past six years; although that's definitely a part of it. But because the Oilers have, in recent years - and if we're being honest with ourselves, probably even longer than that - a history of failing to properly look after their players.
Most people who play in the NHL get hurt at some time or another. That's the nature of playing a contact sport at the highest level. What's really important, though, if how you managed your injured players. And from the Oilers, we see a long, repeated history of ignoring injuries, encouraging players to play through them for no good reason, and mistreating the injured parties.
With the Oilers receiving the first overall pick of this draft, in which projected generational talent Connor McDavid is available... that's not good. That's not good because McDavid is someone who should be an asset to the sport, but if the Oilers continue to act like the Oilers, we'll see a lessened career thanks to ignored and untreated injuries.
Yes, this is a Flames blog. So why am I writing about this? It's not because I'm afraid of what McDavid, as an Oiler, will potentially due to the Flames; it's because I'm sick and tired of watching an organization essentially abuse its players time after time after time and yet continue to be rewarded for it.
That's where this post - documenting just some of the Oilers' medical failures we're aware of - comes into play. Thanks to the help of a couple of close friends - one of whom is an Oilers fan, and who asked me to write this - here's some of just what McDavid might be getting into.
The Sheldon Souray incident
The Oilers did their damnedest to sweep the situation under the rug by banishing Sheldon Souray to the AHL for a year.
Before then, though, he demanded a trade, specifically citing management. This was at the end of the 2009-10 season, right before Taylor Hall was drafted. How much has management really changed since then? What, Steve Tambellini has been swapped for Craig MacTavish, and the Oilers fell their way ass backwards into another top pick?
His experience in Edmonton began on the wrong foot for Souray when he arrived at his first training camp nursing a shoulder injury.
"I wasn’t even ready to play when I came here, but it was like, ‘We signed you, you go out and play.’ I hadn’t been cleared to play yet, but I was being questioned by the organization: ‘When are you going to be able to play?’
"I go out, play six games, and I get hurt."
But things really came to a head in his final season with the Oilers, when it ended on Jan. 30, 2010 following a fight with then-Flame Jarome Iginla. Souray broke a bone in his hand, and ended up having to spend additional time in the hospital thanks to a staph infection - one that could have cost him that hand.
But okay, that was under Steve Tambellini's watch, and he's not in Edmonton anymore. Still: his superiors are, and that's how they felt the need to treat one of their then-prized acquisitions. Rush him back from injury, say nothing when his season is over with a serious injury, and banish him when he calls them out on it. (By the way, it's mentioned that at least trainer Ken Lowe kept in tabs with him... and boy, doesn't that last name sound familiar?)
That time Colin Fraser had a broken foot
Remember back when Ryan Smyth demanded out of Los Angeles, and the Oilers brought him home? Nice moment, wasn't it? (I say that in all sincerity: it's awesome when old time favourites come back.)
The Oilers needed to trade someone for Smyth, though; not everyone is a Jordan Leopold who gets traded because of a really nice story. So they gave up Colin Fraser. And, uh, things got kinda bizarre:
Oilers centre Colin Fraser broke his foot in March. The Oilers doctors advised against surgery and thought the injury would heal on its own.
Fraser was traded for Smyth in late June. At the time, Oilers GM Steve Tambellini told the Kings that the best advice from Oilers doctors was that Fraser would be ready to resume training in a few days. But when the Kings’ doctor examined Fraser, he determined Fraser wasn’t healing and would need surgery on his broken foot.
Fraser eventually ended up getting the surgery. Now, obviously the human body is a tricky thing, and doctors are going to disagree. But months after the Oilers' doctor determined surgery wasn't necessary, the Kings' doctor said it was, and Fraser's foot still did not heal on its own, nearly half a year after the Oilers said it would. That was all in the spring-summer of 2011, back when Souray was still banished in the AHL.
The perpetually broken Ales Hemsky
Ales Hemsky is a pretty great player, even if he did have to play with the Oilers a lot. The unfortunate thing with him is he had a tendency to be oft-injured. So even when he was close to putting up point-per-game seasons with the Oilers, the actual games were limited.
Some players just have bad luck, though. But considering what team we're dealing with here, it's entirely possible more than bad luck played into Hemsky's shortened seasons. After the 2010-11 year - shortly before the Colin Fraser drama came to light - the Edmonton Journal's Bruce McCurdy noted Hemsky's recurring injuries, and suggested he may have come back too soon over the years.
This includes when he lost most of his 2009-10 season to a shoulder injury. Hemsky took a hit, and that was the last straw... after playing with said shoulder already injured over the past month. While that season was lost to a shoulder injury, he continued to lose more time to more of those over the following years.
And that's to say nothing over what actually happened to him in 2010-11. Via McCurdy:
This past season saw a groin issue, an early return after three missed games, resulting in a reinjury the first game back which caused a further 10-game absence.
It's almost as if the Oilers should consider trying to let their players heal properly, eh? By the way, he ended that season on shoulder surgery, too.
It's not that players never get recurring injuries; it's that when a player on a team with as spotty a track record as the Oilers is in and out of the lineup thanks to aggravating already-existing conditions, you start wondering just what, exactly, is going on there.
The ongoing saga of Taylor Hall
While the Oilers are now known for their first overall picks, they had to start somewhere. That beginning was in 2010, when in the midst of the Taylor vs. Tyler debate, the Oilers, with the first pick, opted to take the left winger. A phenomenal offensive talent, he was going to be the beginning of the turnaround in Edmonton.
It took him a while to get going, and Hall didn't score his first NHL goal until his eighth game. Something that might have had an impact on that would have been the shoulder injury he sustained in junior. That was known about. And untreated. For years.
"About four years now," he laughed when asked how long [his shoulder has] been a bother. The goal-scoring winger initially suffered the injury in junior, but it's been a nagging concern that got reaggravated upon a collision earlier this season.
"I've playing with a pretty bad shoulder a lot of this year, and I'm excited to see what it'll be like when I have a new one."
From that same piece on the Oilers' site:
General Manager Steve Tambellini and Head Coach Tom Renney knew that he'd require surgery at some point, but they were both hoping Hall could last the season before it was decided. Regardless, it was a decision made by everyone; coaches, the player, the club's trained medical staff and Dr. Miniaci, an orthopedic surgeon in Cleveland where the procedure will be performed, all had a voice.
"It was assessed by the medical people that he's better off at this point during the season that we get this done now," Tambellini said.
The problem? That was published on March 27, 2012. The Oilers were pretty firmly out of playoff contention then, by 15 points. A month before, they were out by 14 points. A month before that, still 14. So basically, the Oilers consulted everyone at their disposal, from higher ups to actual doctors, and knew that Hall would need surgery sooner rather than later... and then waited to actually get him that surgery, even when the team had literally nothing to play for.
Something that might have been a catalyst behind the delay is the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, Kevin Lowe was named as Team Canada's GM for Worlds in Helsinki that year. And his move was to essentially blackmail his young players into playing for him:
Lowe said if a young player like Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins or Gagner have hopes of playing for Canada at the next Olympics, assuming the NHL decides to go, they'd be advised to play in Helsinki.
Lowe made those comments at a time when he knew Hall's shoulder was getting bad enough - had already been bad enough - to require surgery. He was advising a top player who was supposed to be his organization's saviour to continue playing through injury, until things finally got so bad he couldn't even do that anymore.
Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins ended up going.
If the Oilers hadn't finally given in to the inevitable, Hall probably would have gone as well, continuing to play at less than 100%, as he had for his entire NHL career to date.
And it's not as if, years later, things have gotten better for Hall. As recent as this season the Oilers still seem to have no clue as to what they're doing.
Taylor Hall has been in the NHL for five years now, and he has yet to play a full season.
At least five years of this, continuing in present day
Something the Oilers did to kick off their off-season was bring Nikita Nikitin into the fold, an attempt at addressing the longstanding question of "Will the Oilers ever try to get an actual defenceman?" Nikitin didn't exactly end up fitting the bill, but hey, at least they tried.
Maybe a little too hard, as he was apparently playing with a back injury for a prolonged period of time. And yet, the Oilers continued to play him under guise of... something. "Veteran leadership" from someone who can't perform at an optimal level in December is veteran, right? It's a perfect example for the kids, yeah?
That's at least five years of mistreatment of various Oilers players - including past so-called "saviours" - by various members of team staff, from the President of Hockey Operations to team doctors. Bodes well, doesn't it?
"I’ve already lost a job because of my values. In Edmonton, I was asked to play young players more who had recently undergone operations. I reduced their ice time. But I had to play them because they were very good and we were selling hope. But I acted according to my conscience."
Although, back in 2011, Renney continued to play Ales Hemsky and Steve Staios through concussions. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins may well have been rushed back from shoulder injury in 2013, although he did play 80 games that year while putting up respectable numbers.
Still, with years upon years of Oilers staff holding very little regard for their players' safety and recoveries, who can say for sure what's going on there?
It's obvious to everyone outside of Daryl Katz that the Oilers' management group needs a massive overhaul, but that isn't happening. And now, Edmonton has been rewarded yet again for its massive incompetence with the biggest prize in recent years: a kid whose future may very well be in the hands of those who disregard concussions, broken bones, and shoulder injuries, among other various ailments.
All in the name of "selling hope" that has yet to materialize, and has instead made the Edmonton Oilers the laughing stock of the NHL for something close to a decade now.
It's not as though Connor McDavid is the only one who has to go through this; clearly he isn't, because the Oilers have a history of mistreating veterans and rookies alike. But the almost certainty of McDavid joining the ranks of Edmontonian failure should draw an additional spotlight to this ongoing problem: both for his own good, and the good of the sport.
Enough is enough already. An organization with such deep-rooted problems isn't about to be fixed by an 18-year-old. Especially not if - when? - they break him first.