The Rebuild Conundrum, Part II

Jonathan Willis
March 10 2010 10:45AM

NHL Board of Governors Meeting

Yesterday, we looked at the difficulties with assuming that a lottery pick is a magic bullet that fixes a team’s problems. Because there’s so much more to building a team than just finding a superstar and then glomming random players around him, a bad general manager can make even the greatest pick almost completely irrelevant.

The problem is that the kind of managers who see their teams fall into a position to make a lottery pick are generally the same kind of managers who have that sort of reverse-Midas touch.

The Oilers didn’t spend their season preparing to tank. Steve Tambellini didn’t come back after a year of assessing and say, “we need to blow this roster up.” No, he came back and said he didn’t like the culture of the team and he didn’t like the lack of grit, and he addressed those things by firing Craig MacTavish and bringing in Pat Quinn, who in turn stuck J-F Jacques on the first line.

I’ve been over Tambellini’s summer time and again, and I won’t go into detail here. He did a bad job, and we all know it. He didn’t address holes in the lineup, he put too much emphasis on the coaching change, and he signed an aging, injury-prone goaltender coming off his first good season in four years to a four year contract, and did it with an unproven backup. While he was stuck on culture, tangible problems – like the penalty kill, and the team’s imbalance up front and on the back end – went completely unaddressed.

Now, there are indications it perhaps wasn’t entirely his fault. We know that owner Daryl Katz has meddled in the past, including an attempt to sign Georges Laraque to a four-year deal. Thankfully, Laraque wanted to play in front of his mother, and thus signed in Montreal, where things have gone disastrously. We also know that Kevin Lowe gave him a fairly tough place to start, signing disappointing veterans to long-term, big-money deals. We know that the Oilers AHL affiliate has been a black hole under assistant general manager Kevin Prendergast. We also have reason to suspect that cap guru Rick Olczyk may not understand NHL waiver rules.

There is plenty of blame to go around at this point. But before I buy into the notion that a rebuild will fix this team’s problems, I want to see blood*. And not this guy’s blood:

Despite two seasons of diminishing returns, the only people in the Oilers organization to pay a price for failure have been the coaches. With the exception of Kelly Buchberger and Rob Daum (who already spent some time floating in limbo), the coaching staff has been gutted: at the NHL level, the AHL level and the ECHL level. It hasn’t made a positive difference, and it’s possible to argue that it has in fact made things worse. Aside from those sacrificial lambs, the only other thing I’ve seen to suggest that the Oilers are making changes to adjust for managerial incompetence are the constant revisions of when Steve Tambellini took full control of the team – originally when he was hired, then at the 2009 trade deadline, then in the summer of 2009 and finally back in January.

Suffice to say that despite incredible managerial incompetence, the managers remain safely employed. That needs to change this summer.

I don’t want to see superficial change, either. I expect the team will elect Kevin Prendergast as the next scapegoat; the AHL performance has been poor, there are some unfortunate draft picks that can be pointed to, he wasn’t hired by Steve Tambellini and there were whispers that he was going to get fired last summer.

The changes cannot stop there. Whatever Prendergast’s faults, he isn’t the one who put together this edition of the Oilers. He didn’t hang a bunch of contractual millstones around the neck of the team. He didn’t sign Nikolai Khabibulin without looking into his dehydration issues or injury record.

The blame here falls on Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini. Every decision made by this team since the summer of 2006 can be traced back to one of those two men. Lowe made a bunch of them, but was allowed to jump above the fray and bring in Tambellini. Tambellini has continued in the same vein, all the while talking about what an asset Lowe is as a source of counsel.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for change. It’s one of the items that was pointed to by people who believed MacTavish was a good coach but still wanted him gone. It’s been used by both fans and the general manager to justify the Grebeshkov trade – he may not have been the problem, but what the Oilers had wasn’t getting the job done.

Personally, I agree that there’s a need for change. But I don’t see any reason to believe that this change should be confined to the lower and middle ranks of the organization, because I don’t see any reason to believe that the majority of problems are coming from anywhere other than the top. My personal solution goes something like this:

The Oilers organization has the option of treating either the symptoms of the disease or the disease itself. The scorched earth rebuilding model should do a fine job of removing the symptoms, given enough time, but if the disease stems from the top then no amount of turnover among the players, coaches, scouting staff or low-level managers is going to eradicate it. The only way to end bad management is to bring in different managers.

I don't see that happening, and that's why I remain gloomy about the Oilers future despite the likelihood that they'll attempt a proper rebuild.

*metaphorical blood, not literal blood.  I'd hoped that was obvious but felt I'd better clarify.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, 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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#151 TigerUnderGlass
March 11 2010, 11:41AM
Trash it!
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@BarryS

I get it, you have this weird notion that a person's opinion is invalid unless they have the power to act.

You now no longer have to repeatedly tell everyone that we don't get to make the decisions, because we are well aware of the fact the we do not own the team. Try saying something new, it might change your life.

By the by...if you want to talk about hope then let me ask you, would you rather have hope or faith? They are not the same thing at all. Faith implies a measure of confidence and belief in the result, hope implies nothing more than a wish. We all hope the Oiler's win the cup next year, but do you think it likely? Do you believe they will win even though you hope it?

This is a concept on which I had hoped a former peddler of religious literature would have a solid grasp.

In a sense you are right, without hope there is nothing, but why are so many people so eager to settle for having only hope? Are you really saying you are happy having something you can only hope for rather than something you can believe in?

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#152 BarryS
March 11 2010, 12:18PM
Trash it!
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@TigerUnderGlass

Actually I never peddled religious literature. Quite clearly you never browsed the stock.

As for the continual beating of heads against walls one has no power to break down, it gets as tiring after a while as it is hopeless.

As for winning the cup next year, or any particular year for that matter, the chances of my finding the winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk is somewhat better.

Guess what, hockey is an entertainment, not a necessity of life, though by many of these blogs you would never know it.

The team needs to be more entertaining, more often, this is true. But as has been proved in this city before, winning all the time is just as boring and loosing all the time. I know, because there were times in the cup runs I couldn't give unneeded tickets away, to say nothing of selling them at face value. Nobody wanted to go because the Oilers always won.

On the whole, pinning my life on winning the cups, at best a 1 in 30 chance, is a lot less satisfactory the being entertained by the game.

The crime of the Oilers this year, is not being a cup contender, its playing boring games. And until they can play exciting, fan involving games nearly every game, they will continue to lose fans, cup contenders or not.

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#153 TigerUnderGlass
March 11 2010, 01:30PM
Trash it!
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@BarryS

Yeah I remembered it was educational materials after I hit "post". Too lazy to delete it.

It isn't that hockey is important in general, it's that hockey is important on this site. This is where we discuss our various opinions on the state of the team. Thats pretty much the exact purpose of this site, so you can probably see the irritation created by having you repeatedly come on here to tell us we don't own the team.

We are just talking, and having a strong opinion about something does not equate to giving it a position of importance.

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