LEARNING WITH LOU

Jason Gregor
January 25 2012 08:34AM

 

Recently I had the chance to chat one-on-one with one of the NHL's most successful general managers, Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello has been in the game for, basically his entire life, and he shared his thoughts on what it takes to build a winner, making the tough decisions to improve your team and how being a school teacher helped him become a successful GM.

 

JG:     Where did your passion for hockey start?

LOU:  Well, I certainly grew up in the old Rhode Island Reds American Hockey League team with a lot of players, being a stick boy, and certainly playing and growing through my dad's relationship with the pros and played in college and certainly coached in college for over 15 years. But hockey was something that I grew up in, especially in the professional end of it, which a lot of people didn't know. And, in fact, it started with an icon of the game.

           When I was very little, Johnny Bower's wife, Nancy, actually lived with my parents while Johnny was playing with the Providence Reds. So there was an association from a very young age with the professional game. And certainly while I was coaching in college I had a lot of players who signed and played professional hockey, and then it just grew from there. I was very fortunate to be around great people.

JG:     Early on in your tenure, you went through a few coaches until you got to Jacques Lemaire, and obviously he was very successful ‑‑ won the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. Talk about the feeling as a GM on how you make that tough decision on when to let a coach go and how do you know if it's the right or the wrong move.

LOU:   Well, the seat that you sit in, you should have more knowledge than anyone else as to what your needs are and what the reasons are, and it's not the intelligence of a coach or the knowledge or simplistically the talent of the players. What I saw when I came to New Jersey -- and that's all I can relate to; I really can't relate to any other organization other than ours because this is the one that I know and the integral parts of it ‑‑ is that I came into New Jersey and had had a tremendously hard‑working team of the players that were drafted. And they felt good about just working hard, and I found that the culture had to change.

          That was my thought process at that time, and it was just something that was no one's fault, I mean, they had to turn the team over. The job that Max McNab and Marshall Johnston and David Conte with the drafts was just tremendous, but the culture had to change. And then once you feel that has to change, you react ‑‑ any team that you have, a coach can bring it just so far. And as we got better and better, we needed something that players could relate to. In my opinion, I thought we were ready, and that we could really challenge. We went through a couple of series in the early years against Pittsburgh and lost, and they went on to win the Stanley Cup. And I felt the players at that time just had to find somebody that they believed could get them there. And when Jacques came in -- and certainly Larry came with him and Jacques Caron ‑‑ when they walked in the room, there was a presence. I felt we had the talent to do it, and that put us over the hump. And then after that we just tried to sustain and change, but coaches for teams and teams for coaches.

           But it was always committed to winning, not a coach being an scapegoat or a trade being a scapegoat. It's just, where I sat, I felt I had to do what was right for the organization and get the personal ends out of it, and that's what's transpired. In fact, we've had a coach come back after he had worked before because I felt he could do the best for the team that we had at that time. And I think as long as you're upfront and you're honest, you're all going in the same direction, there's no hidden agenda, it's all about winning. No matter what we say, we're going to be measured on what the success is and what the final day come.

JG:     Before you were involved with the Devils, you were also a teacher in the 1970s, and teachers have to deal with a lot of personalities regardless of what age group you're involved in. Did your background of a teacher help you deal with the personality traits in hockey? Because you've been a guy whose been a hard negotiator as a GM. You've also been someone whose been able to convince players to stick in that organization ‑‑ Stevens, Niedermayer, Brodeur ‑‑ for long times and maintain your dominance. Did any of that reflect on what you learned as a teacher?

LOU:  I think that anything that I went through in my past was an asset to anything. It's experiences, it's relationships. I was very fortunate when I was in college to play for two great coaches ‑‑ both baseball and hockey, which is what I played in college ‑‑ and they were exceptional individuals as far as being ahead of their time in the game, and I reflect on them quite a bit. I think what gave me the broadest background was when I was athletic director and I had 22 different sports with a responsibility, which meant 22 different coaches, a lot of them part‑time.

           You learn a lot about people and you learn a lot about coaching and you learn a lot about players and how they respond to certain types of coaches and when a coach loses a group of players. These were people who were working for very minimal amount of money, sometimes second jobs, and then as high as the elite. Those experiences, you cannot ever, ever not mention how important they are. And you learn. And you learn what to do, what not to do, and you see what works and what doesn't work. But I think the most important thing is the honesty end of it and the lack of hidden agendas and telling somebody what they don't want to hear more so than what they want to hear.

JG:     You were varsity letter in both baseball and hockey. Which game did you like better, and which one did you think you were better at?

LOU:   I actually put down the skates once baseball started, and put the bat and glove down when hockey started. I loved both of them, and to this day continue to love baseball and hockey and have been involved, as you know, in basketball. The only professional sport I haven't been involved with is football. But at that period of time, they were both great to me. I was coaching both when I got out of school after playing for a couple of years, and there seemed to be more of a connection to hockey, I sort of drifted towards it, and I've never looked back.

JG:     Where do you stand on realignment? Were you for the proposed idea, or do you think there should be some tweaking to it?

LOU:  Well, first of all, I'm for what's best for the game, and I have to get over the selfishness that we might all have because of our own individual situation. Although, when we make decisions, we have to make the best decision for our organization. But I look at what would be the overall good of the game, and I think right now that with the situation that we're in, I certainly would have accepted the new alignment because I thought it was maybe the best of all worlds even though I, for the New Jersey Devils, would not have wanted it to happen because I'm happy with our situation as is right now.

           Why? You mention it with travel, you mention it with the rivalries, and also because of our gates. Our gates are better with playing the Rangers and for Flyers and the Pittsburghs and the Islanders more so than, say, playing teams from the West Coast that our fans are maybe not as familiar with. In saying that, we have a year right now, whether it stays the same as it was or whether it's tweaked. I think that we'll just have to take that and see what people have to say and make the best decisions for the league. And that's where I will be in the bottom line, but I certainly will push in any way I can that's right for our organization.

JG:     You mentioned you can only talk about your own situation because that's all you've ever known. You've known success basically since the early '90s for 20 years, which is rare. Having great players is one key, but how have you maintained that level of success and been able to avoid any extended long droughts for New Jersey?

LOU:  Well, I think I've been very fortunate that ownership allowed me to sustain a consistent philosophy within our organization with the type of players that we want in our organization that will give us success, and that we predominantly are a home‑bred organization for the most part, as far as our draft picks. And yet, we have gone out at different times when we felt it was the best for the organization. But we start off with our own in our drafts and trying to have patience with them as best we can.

           Certainly the new system that we're in today we have to push the players a little sooner than we have in the past. We always had players play in the minors here no matter how good they were. I think we've only had three players to ever not play in the minors, and two of them could have stayed here but we sent them back to junior ‑‑ that was Scott Niedermayer and Scott Gomez ‑‑ where they made our team basically as an 18‑year‑old, and when they did come out as a 19, they went right into the team. And young Adam Larsson certainly this year is the third. So that's something that we try to do the best. We still continue to do that. Patrick Elias ‑‑ who, in my opinion, will get every recognition for the Hall of Fame someday ‑‑ these people don't realize he spent two and a half years in the minors, and those are the things we try to do. But I think just maintaining the same philosophy and the same style of play no matter who coached with tweaks here and there.

JG:     Looking at Larsson compared to Niedermayer. You've been around and you see the players and how they act and just how mature 18‑year‑olds are now compared to when you first came in. Are you amazed by that? And at the same time, though, is there too much pressure on young kids coming in today's game to be successful right away?

LOU:  Oh, I think that we're responsible for too much pressure. We're responsible for the marketing end of it and the expectations, and we forget that they're only 18 and 19 years old and that they're going to go through ups and downs. And we criticize them when they go through that, and that's something that we work very hard in New Jersey to try and minimalize. In fact, we get criticized as an organization for doing that and going the opposite way. And yet we feel, in the long run, it will be the best for our organization and also for the individual player.

           I have three older children, and I can't imagine one of them, when they were 18 ‑‑ seeing them at home and as mature as I felt mine were ‑‑ to actually go into and be exposed and have to read things that are covered in our game. That maybe things didn't go tonight, or is this a player that won't make it now. So there are tremendous pressures on them, and I think we have to give them a lot of credit. You talked about background. For 20 years I spent a life long of dealing with the 17‑ to 22‑year‑old person, so I know how they change, and I know what the maturity end of it is. And that's something which I think we end up maybe pushing some of these young players too far too fast. And there's only a handful, in my opinion, that have the ability to sustain that, and unfortunately we pushed them.

JG:     You made one of the gutsiest moves when you relieved Robbie Ftorek of his duties late in the season and put in Larry Robinson, and you guys went on to win the Stanley Cup that year. And a few years later you did it again with Claude Julien very late in the season. The teams had decent records. What made you decide to make those very courageous moves at that time of the season?

LOU:  Well, I look back sometimes and I say to myself, how did I do it? But I think that you have to be willing in the seat that you sit in, from the knowledge you have, to make the right decision for the organization ‑‑ not the easy one, not the one that the media feels is right, not the one of the fans, the one that you feel is right. And in both cases I felt that we had a team that was capable of winning, but I did not feel at that given time that we were goingin the right direction and what I felt that we had a chance of winning. And I took that responsibility, and I'll never look back because you make a decision on the knowledge you have, on the research and the homework; and if you do that, then you go forward. You only look back if you feel that you did not make the decision on the right preparation or the right research.

JG:     Recently the NHL lost a very good one in the Professor Ron Caron, a former GM of the St. Louis Blues. What comes to your think about Ron?

LOU:  Oh, I have a lot of fond memories of Ron because, first of all, Ron ‑‑ any time I spoke to Ron, he spoke to me about baseball first because that was his passion. And my former owner, the late John McMullen had owned the Houston Astros, and Ron always wanted to talk about baseball. So whenever he'd call me about a hockey player or a trade, the first conversation I knew was about some baseball player or some game he went to. The Prof always talked about that. And probably the second is that I always had to have a couple security guards next to him in the press box. I never knew when he was going to jump out.

It was interesting listening to his views on "sitting in the seat" of the GM. Self-doubt is not an issue, and while not every move he made panned out, which never happens, he clearly doesn't doubt any of them.

Lamoriello is one of the most insightful, and respectful hockey minds I've had the chance to talk to and it is clear why he's been able to keep the Devils a competitive team for 20 seasons.

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One of Canada's most versatile sports personalities. Jason hosts The Jason Gregor Show, weekdays from 2 to 6 p.m., on TSN 1260, and he writes a column every Monday in the Edmonton Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JasonGregor
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#1 Chris.
January 25 2012, 09:21AM
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Soft Hands McSteeley - FIST Movement wrote:

Interesting that you commented on this article at 9:54PM Jan 24th, while the article was posted at8:34AM Jan 25th.

Slick jedi trick you have Chris

If you want to beat me to a fist you have to bend the space time continuum.

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#2 Stocc
January 25 2012, 10:03AM
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@Chris.

I'm always looking for new ways to FIST but time travel? You got me there, bud.

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#3 Chris.
January 24 2012, 09:54PM
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Is Tambellini our Lou? If your gut says no... Why are we talking extension?

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#4 Soft Hands McSteeley - FIST Movement
January 25 2012, 09:12AM
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Chris. wrote:

Is Tambellini our Lou? If your gut says no... Why are we talking extension?

Interesting that you commented on this article at 9:54PM Jan 24th, while the article was posted at8:34AM Jan 25th.

Slick jedi trick you have Chris

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#5 dougtheslug
January 25 2012, 09:56AM
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@Quicksilver ballet

Amazing how having an all world goalie for 22 years makes you look like a genius. And how a Gretzky and Messier added IQ points to a Sather. And how a core of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom makes Detroit management look brilliant despite not drafting a player of consequence since 2004. Is it genius? Or is a lot of success just dumb luck.

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#6 Quicksilver ballet
January 25 2012, 09:25AM
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Great piece Jason.

If the Oilers had half of that leadership capability, they wouldn't be in this mess right now. Without it, we're just left to observe the carnage. Entertainment that if it was held in your own back yard, you'd probably close the curtains.

What a shame, Edmonton deserves better.

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#7 madjam
January 25 2012, 09:32AM
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Hemsky is a valuable asset, and the chances we can replace him and what he brings to team and fans are small . Prospects will not replace the huge void he would leave if they don't resign him . It might take them years to develop that type of talent . An upgrade would be nice , but i doubt we can get anywhere near that if we let him go . Another huge void to fill into the future ? It's about making the team better , not worse by his leaving from here . Our organization has done a poor job of upgrading over the last few years , a trend i hope stops this season and trade deadline in specific . Who replaces the Hemsky void adequately ?

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#8 ItsTheBGB
January 25 2012, 09:35AM
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Splendid interview, Jason.

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#9 Quicksilver ballet
January 25 2012, 10:16AM
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@dougtheslug

Right you are.....with three or four more Lotto picks, Tambellini and Lowe may come out looking like geniuses.

Just watched Insidious last evening. It certainly appears as though there is a traveller amongst us.

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#10 Souby
January 25 2012, 10:32AM
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madjam wrote:

Hemsky is a valuable asset, and the chances we can replace him and what he brings to team and fans are small . Prospects will not replace the huge void he would leave if they don't resign him . It might take them years to develop that type of talent . An upgrade would be nice , but i doubt we can get anywhere near that if we let him go . Another huge void to fill into the future ? It's about making the team better , not worse by his leaving from here . Our organization has done a poor job of upgrading over the last few years , a trend i hope stops this season and trade deadline in specific . Who replaces the Hemsky void adequately ?

I have always liked Hemsky and your point is valid when you ask "Who replaces the Hemsky void adequately ?"

My answer is Eberle. Hemsky is supposed to be this team's #1 RW, but I feel Eberle has surpassed him on the depth chart.

Would trading Hemsky leave a void at RW? Yes. Do the Oil need a RW if Hemsky is gone? Yes. Is it the most immediate need? NO.

If the Oil were in the playoff hunt, then trading Hemsky would be stupid. Seeing as the Oil are in the basement, I feel they need to address either the blueline or the goaltending in any trade they make involving Hemsky because those are the most immediate needs.

Tambo can always make a trade at the draft or sign a UFA winger to help bolster the offense.........hopefully!

Just my two cents....

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#11 knobby
January 25 2012, 10:49AM
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LOU: " Well, first of all, I'm for what's best for the game, and I have to get over the selfishness that we might all have because of our own individual situation. Although, when we make decisions, we have to make the best decision for our organization. But I look at what would be the overall good of the game, and I think right now that with the situation that we're in, I certainly would have accepted the new alignment because I thought it was maybe the best of all worlds even though I, for the New Jersey Devils, would not have wanted it to happen because I'm happy with our situation as is right now. Why? You mention it with travel, you mention it with the rivalries, and also because of our gates. Our gates are better with playing the Rangers and for Flyers and the Pittsburghs and the Islanders more so than, say, playing teams from the West Coast that our fans are maybe not as familiar with. In saying that, we have a year right now, whether it stays the same as it was or whether it's tweaked. I think that we'll just have to take that and see what people have to say and make the best decisions for the league. And that's where I will be in the bottom line, but I certainly will push in any way I can that's right for our organization."

Lamoriello's comments above struck me as quite revealing during the interview. The big market eastern teams really don't care about the western half of their league. For them, it is all about them being home in their beds before the 11 o'clock news. Never mind the exposure to western fan bases and the general expansion of the league's profile in both the west and east. They couldn't care less if fans in the west get to see Ovie and Sid. The playing field between west and east is anything but equitabole never mind equal as it relates to travel and schedule. It's that selfish outlook that shows that the league is being run by self-interested neanderthals that keeps it at the bottom pecking order of all professional sports in the U.S.

Lamorello says he is looking out for the best interests of the league but repeatedly qualifies his position by saying he will act in the best interests of the NJDevils. That outlook in my view is myopic and fraught with flawed logic.

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#12 Ian
January 25 2012, 11:24AM
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The results speak for them selves. A core of stars ie. Stevens niedermier brodeur will hold a team above water but the complimentary players are the back bone of a team. Full credit must be given for assembling and maintaining that quality of secondary talent.

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#13 Peterborough
January 25 2012, 11:26AM
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madjam wrote:

Hemsky is a valuable asset, and the chances we can replace him and what he brings to team and fans are small . Prospects will not replace the huge void he would leave if they don't resign him . It might take them years to develop that type of talent . An upgrade would be nice , but i doubt we can get anywhere near that if we let him go . Another huge void to fill into the future ? It's about making the team better , not worse by his leaving from here . Our organization has done a poor job of upgrading over the last few years , a trend i hope stops this season and trade deadline in specific . Who replaces the Hemsky void adequately ?

Nail Yakupov?

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#15 Bicepus Maximus - Huge fan boy!
January 25 2012, 12:16PM
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Chris. wrote:

Is Tambellini our Lou? If your gut says no... Why are we talking extension?

Excellent way to put it. And I agree with you in regards to what our expectations for a GM should be.

I love what Lou says here, and it applies and doesn't to the Oilers situation, "...I felt he could do the best for the team that we had at that time. And I think as long as you're upfront and you're honest, you're all going in the same direction, there's no hidden agenda, it's all about winning."

Question I have is this: is ST's quality of work going to be the same whether his contract gets extended or not? If yes, no extension. If no, extend and fire in the summer.

But there should be a strict policy in the first place, and everyone should be aware of it; NO NEGOTIATIONS DURING THE YEAR!

Oh and Jason, great interview as usual.

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#16 dougtheslug
January 25 2012, 12:28PM
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Ian wrote:

The results speak for them selves. A core of stars ie. Stevens niedermier brodeur will hold a team above water but the complimentary players are the back bone of a team. Full credit must be given for assembling and maintaining that quality of secondary talent.

Maybe half credit. I often wonder what the hockey landscape in Edmonton would look like today if, back in 1988, the Oilers weren't owned by a tapped out charlatan and the Canadian dollar was where it is today. With an enlightened and well heeled owner, Gretzky and Messier would have stayed, the team would have kept winning, free agents would have been lining up to play here, and it wouldn't have mattered who was managing or coaching, the "Edmonton model" would have been trumpetted as the way to go. Those two factors, which had nothing to do with hockey genius, probably have dictated the fate of Edmonton as much as anything. Maybe, with luck (last night Hall sure had a little whiff of a Mark Messier about him), a few more lottery picks, and an owner willing to stay the course, we might see a revival in a few years. Or not. If wishes were horses, we'd all take a ride.

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#17 Benny Botts
January 25 2012, 12:44PM
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Souby wrote:

I have always liked Hemsky and your point is valid when you ask "Who replaces the Hemsky void adequately ?"

My answer is Eberle. Hemsky is supposed to be this team's #1 RW, but I feel Eberle has surpassed him on the depth chart.

Would trading Hemsky leave a void at RW? Yes. Do the Oil need a RW if Hemsky is gone? Yes. Is it the most immediate need? NO.

If the Oil were in the playoff hunt, then trading Hemsky would be stupid. Seeing as the Oil are in the basement, I feel they need to address either the blueline or the goaltending in any trade they make involving Hemsky because those are the most immediate needs.

Tambo can always make a trade at the draft or sign a UFA winger to help bolster the offense.........hopefully!

Just my two cents....

well said and totally agree!

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#18 CJ
January 25 2012, 01:27PM
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Benny Botts wrote:

well said and totally agree!

Well said?

I fail to undstand the logic of replacing an asset with one you already have.

Hmm, I have two dollars, but if I give you a dollar, I still have the other dollar to replace it.

Makes sense to me.

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#19 Dave Lumley
January 25 2012, 01:28PM
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dougtheslug wrote:

Amazing how having an all world goalie for 22 years makes you look like a genius. And how a Gretzky and Messier added IQ points to a Sather. And how a core of Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom makes Detroit management look brilliant despite not drafting a player of consequence since 2004. Is it genius? Or is a lot of success just dumb luck.

Agree. Lots of luck for sure. Other than partially reassembling the Old Oilers for a cup run, Sather has come no where close to establish any lasting success. AND this is in a market where they have (or had) unlimited money, desired destination, good travcel, etc.

On the other hand it takes more than just bad luck to go into the toilet and stay there.

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#20 Souby
January 25 2012, 01:38PM
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CJ wrote:

Well said?

I fail to undstand the logic of replacing an asset with one you already have.

Hmm, I have two dollars, but if I give you a dollar, I still have the other dollar to replace it.

Makes sense to me.

What if the other dollar you speak of comes from the D-man or goalie that your acquire in the trade? Let's call it allocating the dollars where they are needed most.

The point I was making is the Oil need to address the immediate needs; and I did acknowledge that trading Hemsky leaves a void at RW. This void can either be filled by current players/prospects stepping up to fill the role, by trade or free agency.

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#21 Benny Botts
January 25 2012, 03:40PM
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Souby wrote:

What if the other dollar you speak of comes from the D-man or goalie that your acquire in the trade? Let's call it allocating the dollars where they are needed most.

The point I was making is the Oil need to address the immediate needs; and I did acknowledge that trading Hemsky leaves a void at RW. This void can either be filled by current players/prospects stepping up to fill the role, by trade or free agency.

Again.... Well said...

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#22 TonyT
January 25 2012, 04:53PM
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Difference between Tembellini and Lou:

"It's all about winning."

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#23 madjam
January 25 2012, 05:20PM
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Peterborough wrote:

Nail Yakupov?

We could end up with both if we keep losing . A 'bird in the hand is worth two in the bush ". Trade a valuable asset away for a " wing and a prayer" ? Our history has been dismal a majority of the time on filling voids left by major players . Hemsky is a valuable piece of our future whether it be first or second line status . If price is right sign him here , as he has plenty more years to contribute at high level .

Drafting Russian players is risky as long as KHL exist .

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#24 Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate
January 25 2012, 06:33PM
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Stocc wrote:

I'm always looking for new ways to FIST but time travel? You got me there, bud.

Just get your DeLorean up to 88mph, and BLAM.....

Twin trails of fire.

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#25 Bulging Twine
January 26 2012, 01:14AM
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So is Renney that coach who the players believe in? Is he the type who has "that presence"?

I don't think so. But he's developing the kids for now. RNH, Ebs and Hall are flourishing which is the name of the game right now. He'll do for now.

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#26 Bulging Twine
January 26 2012, 01:19AM
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The good (or bad) thing about hockey is that because NHL careers are often so long, if you get some great players you can have success for 15 years.

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#27 Devolution
January 26 2012, 05:28AM
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The one thing that can surely be said about Steve Tambellini, Kevin Lowe or Tom Renney is that they know a hell of a lot more about hockey than anyone sitting at their computer and posting here.

Have some patience, even though it is frustrating.

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#28 The Beaker
January 26 2012, 07:22AM
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Bulging Twine wrote:

So is Renney that coach who the players believe in? Is he the type who has "that presence"?

I don't think so. But he's developing the kids for now. RNH, Ebs and Hall are flourishing which is the name of the game right now. He'll do for now.

Those kids would probably flourish under anyone else too... they're top teir talents. Petry is coming along nicely.

Dubnyk, Peckham, Omark, sure arent coming along nicely (i know some circumstances there). But I guess you cant win em all?

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#29 nunyour
January 26 2012, 12:42PM
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there is no douting hemskys skill,but the injuries have killed the oilers the last few years,time to get healthy,lets move on already

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#30 vetinari
January 26 2012, 01:56PM
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Lou has been one of the most consistently successful NHL GMs for over 20 years.

I find it interesting that he talks about a "draft and build" model with UFA's supplementing what he's got. Many years he didn't even have a top 15 pick to work with, yet he continued to mine gems from the draft. Of course, it helps that Jersey's on the East Coast and players seem to gravitate there because of the favourable travel schedule and faith in the Devil's organization to field a competitive team. Lou will be a Hall of Fame builder some day and should be the gold standard by which other GMs try to measure.

Like one commentator said, I don't see Tambi as being our Lou but at least the most recent draftees are helping us out but we need to identify and obtain some quality grinders, goalies and defencemen in the next year or two, whether via draft or trade, to fill out the roster.

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