Apparently The Detroit Model Doesn't Work

Jonathan Willis
January 29 2010 12:01PM

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks

Steve Tambellini was warmly welcomed by pretty much everyone in Edmonton – not just by the people who hired him, but also by the fans, the local media, and even sceptics like myself. He was part and parcel of the new era promised by Daryl Katz’s ownership, a man unconnected to the Oilers glory years and with a ton of experience as an NHL executive.

John MacKinnon was perhaps the most effusive (although it’s once again worth noting that he wasn’t alone) in a piece that comes across as comical in retrospect. Right from the opening paragraph, where Kevin Lowe is described as “the smartest guy in the room”, “wise” and “secure” it’s hard not to laugh at what gullible rubes we all were. The “three day” decision to hire Tambellini also serves as a fun contrast to his constant calls for patience and time to assess.

The kicker, though, is this paragraph:

 

In hiring the classy, well-respected Tambellini and adding "assistant GM" to Kevin Prendergast's existing title of vice-president, hockey operations, Lowe has bolstered the hockey office that lost the capable Scott Howson, who left for the GM's job in Columbus in June 2007. By design or not, the Oilers front office begins to resemble the gold standard, that of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

 

For all the sick humour any fan looking at the standings now can find in that paragraph, it is right about one thing: this year’s edition of the Edmonton Oilers has been a group failing. I wrote defending Kevin Lowe the other day because I don’t think it’s remotely fair to blame just him. Don’t get me wrong; he deserves to be fired too for a host of sins since July of 2006. Even ignoring the Pronger trade, the offers to Thomas Vanek and Michael Nylander on their own merits should have been enough to get him fired.

I’m going to take a minute to focus on Kevin Prendergast, the man responsible for the Springfield Falcons. There’s more to it than simply looking at the diminishing returns of the AHL team, but let’s do that anyway:

  • 2007-08: 35-35-10
  • 2008-09: 24-44-12
  • 2009-10: 15-24-10
  • Totals: 74-103-32

In two and a half years of affiliation with the Oilers, the Springfield Falcons have won just over one-third of their games. There’s no lottery pick for finishing last in the AHL, and pretty much every highly-touted prospect the Oilers have assigned to the team has struggled. Expensive minor league veterans that do get signed either implode or get hurt; the franchise has been an inexcusable disaster ever since becoming affiliated with the Oilers.

I see no reason why Kevin Prendergast should be allowed to remain in a hockey operations job, given the record of the team he is responsible for overseeing – both in terms of games lost and prospects drowning in the deep.

Rick Olczyk is a more difficult person to assess. His responsibilities include “player contracts, negotiations and other CBA related issues.” It’s difficult to know how much say he actually has, and the Oilers have signed some bargain contracts during his time with the team (Mike Comrie, and ummm... Mike Comrie). That said, one of the Oilers’ multitudinous problems is their inability to manage the cap, and that reflects poorly on Olczyk. Getting caught by surprise on the negotiating window for Heatley may or may not be Olczyk’s fault, but it reflects badly on him too. Jason Gregor may or may not have misinterpreted Olczyk when he said that Gilbert Brule wasn’t waiver eligible (he was) but again it reflects badly on Olczyk. Essentially, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence and very little concrete evidence here, and it would take an insider to know whether or not Olczyk should go.

That brings us to the final member of the Oilers management quartet, Steve Tambellini. Lowetide and I have both commented on how the bar keeps moving for Tambellini, which adds some nuance to trying to establish his performance. I’ll explain:

  • July 31, 2008: Steve Tambellini is officially hired as Oilers GM
  • April 13, 2009: Jason Gregor tells us that the plan was to bring Tambellini in for a year to “assess” but that he’s in charge at this point.
  • April 13, 2009: Robin Brownlee tells us that Kevin Lowe stepped back from the day-to-day when Tambellini was hired, and that it will be up to Tambellini to “orchestrate the changes.”
  • May 30, 2009: Terry Jones tells us that “this very much became Steve Tambellini’s hockey club with the hirings of Quinn and Renney.”
  • January 28, 2010: Steve Tambellini says that Daryl Katz “has given me complete authority” over the team and Dan Barnes stresses that Lowe is responsible for the predicament up to this point.

Personally, I don’t think it’s that complicated. Kevin Lowe stepped back on July 31, 2008. That’s when Steve Tambellini stepped in and took over day-to-day operations. That’s the date Steve Tambellini should be accountable from, and since that date the Oilers have gone 54-65-15. The Oilers penalty-kill has been disastrous since day one, and Tambellini has made no moves to address it. The team has been unable to win faceoffs and prior to Marc Pouliot’s return had exactly one centre on the team born prior to 1987.

Tambellini’s moves are rarely blatantly bad in themselves (particularly his trades) but two key exceptions stand out: his acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin, and his love of “grit.” I’ve gone into the Khabibulin in detail time and again, and it’s a firing offence all on its own: Tambellini gambled $15 million that Khabibulin would be both healthy and competent, despite his age, his injury record, and his inconsistent work in Chicago. That’s nearly seven percent of his total player budget for the next four years, gambled on a 36-year old who averages just under 20 missed games per season and has a grand total of one good year in his last four. When Khabibulin was dehydrated and had to leave a pre-season game, Pat Quinn stated that the team didn’t know it but that had also happened in Chicago. That’s the sort of simple thing a G.M. is supposed to find out before committing massive money and term to a player; the fact that the Oilers didn’t dig too deeply into Khabibulin’s medical history shows an astonishing inability to perform basic due diligence.

As for Tambellini’s love of “grit,” it’s a less important but also interesting point. He brought in Steve MacIntyre, and then he brought in Jesse Boulerice; apparently the fact that neither could play hockey and that the latter has twice jeopardized the careers of opposition players were immaterial. More serious was Tambellini’s pursuit of Chris Neil; the fact that he offered the Eastern Conference version of Zack Stortini a three-year deal in the neighbourhood of $2.0 million per season is a frightening reality. It’s also a mark against the notion that Tambellini was hamstrung by Kevin Lowe-era contracts; for those keeping track, between Neil and Khabibulin Tambellini offered more than 10.0% of his cap space in two ill-advised contracts.

The flaws in this hockey club are exactly the same as they were the day Steve Tambellini was hired. The Oilers are inexperienced at centre and throughout the forward corps. The Oilers lack players who can, as Steve Yzerman put it, play a 200 foot game. The Oilers lack competent penalty killers. The Oilers lack top-six players who can play a physical game. The Oilers lack a defenceman who the coaching staff can rely on to play against the Western Conference’s big guns. The Oilers have an over-abundance of small, unidirectional forwards and management has been loath to make a decision on any of them – a problem exacerbated by the fact that the team’s most NHL-ready prospects are either incomplete (Paajarvi-Svensson) or incomplete and small (Eberle, Omark). The Oilers lack a single goaltender who can be relied upon to a) stay healthy and b) stop pucks (the guy they had left town because the team apparently decided that multi-year contracts to old goaltenders were a bad idea).

In a year and a half on the job, Steve Tambellini has done precisely nothing to fix the Oilers key problems, and in a few cases he’s managed to make those problems worse. The most likely explanation is that he simply doesn’t understand what those problems are. Yesterday he told Dan Barnes that the first step in fixing the problems he has now would be to find out “who truly wants to be an Oiler.” I’m not sure if it’s sadder that he thinks that should be goal one or that after a year and half with the team he’s still asking the question, unsure of the answer.

The problems with this hockey club are directly traceable back to the four men making the decisions. Given that the problems are both numerous and those men show no public indication of even understanding them – let alone fixing them – it’s time to clean house.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach
January 29 2010, 03:01PM
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@jeanshorts

You have a website?

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#52 rubbertrout
January 29 2010, 03:05PM
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Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach wrote:

Messier hasn't even put a team together yet has he?

To me the reason guys like Messier and Yzerman get the jobs for team canada is for their name and because the more qualified people have bigger positions in the NHL.

No he hasn't. I'm just mentioning it due to the ridiculous suggestion that he would be a good GM with no background at all. Even if he puts together a good team for the WHC why would someone think he is good enough to be a GM?

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#53 Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach
January 29 2010, 03:08PM
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rubbertrout wrote:

No he hasn't. I'm just mentioning it due to the ridiculous suggestion that he would be a good GM with no background at all. Even if he puts together a good team for the WHC why would someone think he is good enough to be a GM?

Well if he can put together a winning team of players that doesn't include the superstars of the eliminated teams then maybe he gets some credit, but otherwise I agree. How hard is it to pick the best of the bunch.

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#54 jeanshorts
January 29 2010, 03:08PM
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@Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

Like I said yesterday, money can buy pretty much everything.

Especially my love and/or friendship.

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#55 common sense
January 29 2010, 03:10PM
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I agree that I would probably clear house of management. I was never a fan of Prendergast. This organization needs reform top to bottom.

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#56 Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach
January 29 2010, 03:11PM
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jeanshorts wrote:

Like I said yesterday, money can buy pretty much everything.

Especially my love and/or friendship.

So are you asking me to pay you to go to your website that you said no one goes too?

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#57 Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach
January 29 2010, 03:12PM
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How is it that everyone is so high on our prospect pool yet they want the guy responsible for it gone?

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#58 jeanshorts
January 29 2010, 03:14PM
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@Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

Absolutely not. In fact, I should probably be paying people to read it considering the lack of content/quality.

I just meant that even an a-hole like me who can barely work a remote can have an honest to goodness website, for the right price.

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#59 Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach
January 29 2010, 03:16PM
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@jeanshorts

So 6 posts later and I still don't know what your web address is? Let me guess you are the same guy that can have a one night stand, but still not figure out if the girl is interested in you or not?

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#60 jake
January 29 2010, 03:29PM
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I have patience to let these draft picks from the last 6 or 7 years weed themselves out. The only move I didn't like from Tambellini is waiting so long for Heatley to answer him - bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad - major desperation revealed.

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#61 jeanshorts
January 29 2010, 03:42PM
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@Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

But, I mean, I called her like 9 times the next day, and she didn't pick up, but I'm pretty sure she's just busy or she couldn't find her phone or something.

She'll call me back ANY minute........

www.jeanshortsandbaggedmilk.com

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#63 David W. Lincoln
January 29 2010, 04:53PM
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Who then should be brought in to the front office? Because it is one thing to point out mistakes, it is something else to do something about them.

Do you think Hitchcock would be good front office material?

Just asking.

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#64 6 ring circus
January 29 2010, 05:32PM
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What a GONG SHOW this organization has turned into,Does Katz run the rest of his business like he does the Oilers? and Tamballinis comment that he wants to see who wants to be an Oiler,is even a bigger F*cken joke,It looks like he better order up a new hockey team,The way they are playing no one wants to be here.

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#65 David S
January 29 2010, 07:03PM
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jeanshorts wrote:

I wrote this on my own website, but since no one reads it, I'm going to write it again on here. Ahem:

I like to compare the Oilers under Steve Tambellini's watch to a burning skyscraper. Basically, Tambo rolled up, looked up and saw that the building was slowly burning at the top. Someone tried to run and call for help but he stopped them and was all like "Wait, let's just see where this goes".

And right now that same building has basically been reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble, and someone asked him what they should do now, to which he responded "Let's just see where this goes".

I'll give it to him, the man has some serious patience.

*curls up in the fetal position*

That what a helluva post, given that it was written by an a-hole. Heh heh.

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#66 RossCreekNation
January 29 2010, 10:44PM
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Great read J-Dub.

What if Tambellini was given the chance to fire Prendergast & Olzyck and hire new peeps serving up a nice plate of 'scapegoat' first?

To me, those two gotta go regardless. Tambellini, however, was thought of as a "smart hockey guy". It's possible that that was inaccurate, but perhaps he deserves a second chance (with his own hires). After all, he's under contract anyway, and his replacement is, too (Quinn). And his replacement (Renney). And his (Daum). And his (Steve Pleau).

Lowe can stay as ambassador/consultant/governor or whatever.

EDIT: Just read Guy Flaming's piece basically saying as much. Good stuff Willis.

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#67 RossCreekNation
January 29 2010, 10:55PM
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The Towel Boy wrote:

Does anyone know how to cancel a bid on E-Bay?

I put in a bid for a "Mickey Mouse Outfit", and now it seems I am only six minutes away from owning the EDMONTON OILERS!

halp!

I almost spit rice all over my computer screen at this. Totally did not see that coming. LOLZ.

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#68 RossCreekNation
January 29 2010, 11:07PM
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Harlie wrote:

I agree...Ted Turner Prendergast should be canned.

Still LuvIt

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#69 RossCreekNation
January 29 2010, 11:20PM
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jeanshorts wrote:

But, I mean, I called her like 9 times the next day, and she didn't pick up, but I'm pretty sure she's just busy or she couldn't find her phone or something.

She'll call me back ANY minute........

www.jeanshortsandbaggedmilk.com

Did you tell Dakin there's fresh meat coming?

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#70 alphah
January 30 2010, 12:53AM
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Posts like this one are incredibly potent evidence as to Jonathan Willis' being one of the top hockey writers in the business.

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#71 Marc
January 30 2010, 03:06AM
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It's hard to disagree with your assessment of Tambellini's work do far Jonathon, but firing him is a recipe for disaster.

Who do you replace him with?

First of all, it is difficult to assess who will be a good GM. Burke looked like a genius in Anaheim but is a disaster in Toronto. Howson looked a lot better last year than he has this year. Who exactly are the candidates that we're certain are better than Tambellini?

Then ask yourself if anyone who is good would really be interested in a job where his predecesor was fired for not turning around a flawed team in 18 months? It may be completely justified, but firing Tambellini now sends a message to the next guy that says if you can't turn this team into a contender in one season then your job is at risk. The best candidates will want to wait for a job where they know they'll get a chance to succeed.

Finally, the guy we do get in the end will be trying to work fast to turn things around. Experience tells us that when a GM feels he has to work fast he sacrifices picks and prospects for veterans he hopes will help now. And that's when the most disastrous hockey decisions get made.

Tambellini may not be the right guys for the job, but odds are if he's fired now then the next guy will be worse.

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#72 Travis Dakin
January 30 2010, 03:31AM
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RossCreekNation wrote:

Did you tell Dakin there's fresh meat coming?

I'm getting some things ready for the new meat and Poo Czar is going to bust a nut because of it. The new meat, not the things I do....

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#73 OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F
January 30 2010, 10:09AM
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Marc wrote:

It's hard to disagree with your assessment of Tambellini's work do far Jonathon, but firing him is a recipe for disaster.

Who do you replace him with?

First of all, it is difficult to assess who will be a good GM. Burke looked like a genius in Anaheim but is a disaster in Toronto. Howson looked a lot better last year than he has this year. Who exactly are the candidates that we're certain are better than Tambellini?

Then ask yourself if anyone who is good would really be interested in a job where his predecesor was fired for not turning around a flawed team in 18 months? It may be completely justified, but firing Tambellini now sends a message to the next guy that says if you can't turn this team into a contender in one season then your job is at risk. The best candidates will want to wait for a job where they know they'll get a chance to succeed.

Finally, the guy we do get in the end will be trying to work fast to turn things around. Experience tells us that when a GM feels he has to work fast he sacrifices picks and prospects for veterans he hopes will help now. And that's when the most disastrous hockey decisions get made.

Tambellini may not be the right guys for the job, but odds are if he's fired now then the next guy will be worse.

"Then ask yourself if anyone who is good would really be interested in a job where his predecesor was fired for not turning around a flawed team in 18 months?"

That's a little tilted, he turned a PO contender into a lotto team. That's alot different then what you are suggesting.

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#74 Cervantes
January 30 2010, 05:56PM
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Tambi has made some good moves and some bad moves, but (as much as it pains me) some of his best moves have been no moves.

Should we have brought in several players over the summer? If we wanted to keep being an 8th place battler, yes. But Tambi chose to evaluate what he had. It's a harder choice, it hurts more, but in the long run it's better. Who knew Cogs could hit? Would anyone have bet on Brule being able to make a comeback? Stone being an NHL player (4th line, but still)? Potulny looking like a real solid cog to have in the middle of your machine? Dubs being so close to ready? These are all things we wouldn't have known if we'd brought in Malhotra and Betts and the several other players that we could have.

Yes, he's screwed up. Sully was a swing and a miss. Khabi was just a headscratcher. But no-one can be perfect, and he's matched a few bonehead moves with some really good ones (gettng anything for Garon, for instance).Now, we have a pile of RFAs to move or let go, he has free lease to trade pretty much anyone he wants, and we have some good kids coming up next year. He's evaluated who and what we have, and we're not going to try patching holes we now know we can fill internally.

Yes, this year sucks, and is a test of your faith as a fan. But now Tambi is set up so he can make whatever changes he wants, and we know what changes we need. They will be reasoned, well thought out changes, not kneejerk reactions. Last summer was a little disappointing in terms of volume, but the effort was there. This summer is the true test. Tambi will sink or swim based on what he does before the next exhibition games, and as much as we'd all like instant action, we should wait until then.

Or, yanno, we could make a bunch of trades before the deadline, fill all our needs, and miss out on Seguin.

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