The Pessimists’ Guide To Building A Hockey Team

Jonathan Willis
May 11 2012 11:23AM

I strongly believe that NHL general managers should be pessimistic when they’re building their rosters. After the jump, I’ll explain why, as well as what taking that approach would mean for the Oilers’ offseason.

When I write here about pessimism, I’m not talking about the philosophic school of thought (I know we have a few highly educated readers that would be bound to point this out to me) but rather the common definition: placing an emphasis on negative, rather than positive outcomes.

That’s not to say a general manager should sound pessimistic. Steve Tambellini shouldn’t be saying things like ‘Nikolai Khabibulin’s NHL career is over’ or ‘Ryan Whitney might never be healthy again’ or ‘Eric Belanger may never regain his form.’ Relentless optimism in word is absolutely the right approach.

It is in deeds where a manager should display a pessimistic attitude.

In net, the Oilers have a good young goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, as well as a veteran goalie with a long and distinguished career in Nikolai Khabibulin. Looking at comparable players, we know that Dubnyk could continue his excellent play (likely) or implode (less likely, but still possible). Based on Khabibulin’s red-hot start to 2011-12, he could be competent with a light workload (possible) but he might get injured or just play miserable hockey (likely). An optimistic manager would keep both, banking on the best possible outcome. A pessimistic manager would bank on Khabibulin being finished and be open to the possibility of Dubnyk struggling; he’d dump the veteran and bring in another goalie who could play a lot of games if needed.

On the blue line, the Oilers have a few (relatively) sure things. Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry and Nick Schultz are all good players who seem likely to repeat what they did last season. Ryan Whitney, hobbled by serious injury, is a major question mark. Andy Sutton is near the end of his career, and it’s certainly possible his performance will drop off. Corey Potter was an AHL’er for a long time and toward the end of the year he played like it. Theo Peckham, Colten Teubert and Cam Barker all looked in 2011-12 like guys who shouldn’t be NHL regulars.

An optimist would bank on the first three, expect Ryan Whitney to be able to play a top-four role, and count on Sutton, Potter and Peckham to offer stable depth. A real optimist might trade on of the latter three and bank on Teubert to be NHL-ready in the fall. A pessimist would not count on Ryan Whitney as a top-four defenseman, and would recognize that the trio of Sutton, Potter and Peckham is not a group to be relied on. He would probably have Potter on the NHL bubble, with the possibility but not certainty of making the team out of camp. He’d ideally see Sutton in a reserve role, the seventh defenseman who alternates in and out of the lineup (given Sutton’s suspension history probably not a bad idea anyway). He might deal Peckham at the draft. Then he’d add two NHL defenders, one of them a top-four option.

The Oilers are in a state of flux up front, with young players pushing for more responsibility and old players struggling to hang on to key jobs. Major question marks include Ryan Smyth (age, fading performance down the stretch), Ales Hemsky (bad season in 2011-12), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (will he keep building on a great rookie season, or struggle a little in year two), Eric Belanger (players his age with seasons like his last can sometimes be in irreversible decline) and Jordan Eberle (he’ll be good, but can he repeat a season where a lot of things went perfectly).

The optimist assumes advancement for Nugent-Hopkins, stability (or possibly a 40-goal season) for Eberle, a return to form for Belanger and Hemsky, and at least a competent year from Smyth. An even sunnier outlook might also plan for advancements from Taylor Hall and Sam Gagner, and third-line caliber performances from Ryan Jones and Ben Eager.

Any of those things might happen. All of them happening would be the stars aligning. A pessimist would look at the young players and, knowing that development is not always linear, allow for the possibility of a year without significant gains for Nugent-Hopkins, and possibly even slight regression for Jordan Eberle (there are tons of examples of this sort of thing, with one of them being Ryan Smyth, who scored a still career-high 39 goals at 20 and then failed to pick up even 39 points for the following two seasons). He wouldn’t count on Belanger to play above the fourth line, wouldn’t count on Hemsky being healthy, and wouldn’t lean on Ryan Smyth in a tough-minutes role.

The Oilers’ approach for years now has been largley optimistic. Last summer, they bet that Ryan Whitney wouldn’t miss a beat, despite serious injury questions. They bet that Minnesota Wild castoff Cam Barker could play top-four minutes if needed. They’ve continued to bet on Nikolai Khabibulin, and seem likely to do the same this year. At the deadline, they bet that Jeff Petry was ready to replace Tom Gilbert. Not all of their moves were bad; for example, they went too long on both Eager and Belanger but the idea of shoring up the forward corps was a good one. The main issue is that the club still tends to bet on positive outcomes.

The problem with betting on positive outcomes is that in the real world things go wrong. If things go right for the optimist, than everything’s okay. If some things go right and some things go wrong, there’s trouble. If a lot of things go wrong, the Oilers announce a full-blown rebuild at the trade deadline.

Building in flexibility for negative outcomes (to the extent possible – the salary cap and waiver rules mean that it’s impossible to be completely prepared) leads to a stronger team. If things go right, the team finds itself with surplus assets or having a great year; it’s a nice place to be. If there’s a mixture of good and bad surprises, the flexibility means the team can handle it. If a lot goes wrong, things might get bad, but probably not nuclear meltdown bad.

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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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#1 Bucknuck
May 11 2012, 11:49AM
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"In net, the Oilers have a good young goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, as well as a veteran goalie with a long and distinguished career in Nikolai Khabibulin. Looking at comparable players, we know that Dubnyk could continue his excellent play (likely) or implode (less likely, but still possible). Based on Khabibulin’s red-hot start to 2011-12, he could be competent with a light workload (possible) but he might get injured or just play miserable hockey (likely). An optimistic manager would keep both, banking on the best possible outcome. A pessimistic manager would bank on Khabibulin being finished and be open to the possibility of Dubnyk struggling; he’d dump the veteran and bring in another goalie who could play a lot of games if needed."

Hallelujia! That's what I have been trying to say (unsuccessfully) in about a half dozen comments on other threads. Thanks JW.

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#2 AronV
May 11 2012, 12:09PM
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Great post,

I'm having a really hard time being this pessimistic about my own team. But it's easy being pessimistic about the Oilers and the Flames for that matter

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#3 Dan the Man
May 11 2012, 12:59PM
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The Oilers should expect the best and prepare for the worst but it seems like they expect the best while also preparing for the best.

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#4 50 in 39
May 11 2012, 01:45PM
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This is exactly my problem with Tambellini last season. He failed to take a pessimistic (realistic) look at his defense group. Barker and Whitney had predictably underwhelming seasons. Even with Smid, Petry and Potter playing well above reasonable expectations, the defense as a group was not up to the job.

Either Tambellini did a terrible job of evaluating his defense for 2011-12 or he lost on purpose and lied through his teeth about meaningful games and expectation of playoff contention.

I guess since he is being extended I will try to believe the latter, as insulting as that scenario is to knowledgeable hockey fans.

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#5 gongshow
May 11 2012, 02:09PM
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@50 in 39

Exactly. ST provided us with some ELPH for a good chunk of the season. He had to have known that the D and G positions weren't up to snuff, but assumed that some offense would keep the fans happy.

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#6 jooks
May 11 2012, 03:15PM
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I think we need to consider the possibility that Tambo told us a boldfaced lie when he said he expected that we'd compete for the playoffs this past year. Otherwise, he would've signed Hannan and Vokoun. It is likely he looked at the odds of finishing 16th vs. 17th and decided we were likely to finish 17th, and if so, let's finish in the lottery instead. I find it unlikely that Tambo doesn't understand the concept of 'revert to the mean' with regards to someone like Khabby (and the mean has not been good in the past three years). But then again, maybe I'm an optimist.

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#7 majin_oil
May 11 2012, 03:28PM
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I think you should change the title from pessimist to realist. Good points

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#8 RyanCoke
May 11 2012, 04:13PM
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That was the most obvious article I read on this site, maybe I am a pessimist but to me I thought that everything said was like "Duh" lol

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#9 Rama Lama
May 11 2012, 04:16PM
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I'm optimistic that Renny will grin like he just won the lottery! Oh yea.......he did.

What an excellent GM.

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#10 DonDon
May 11 2012, 07:15PM
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Pessimist, realist, risk manager; they all mean the same in business and sports.

Will Tambellini and Renney be rewarded for a 30th, 30th and 29th place finish over the past three seasons? This would be described as abject failure and a prudent owner would fire both.

At the moment Katz purchased the Oilers, I opined he hire someone of the calibre of Scotty Bowman to advise him on building the franchise. I don't believe Kevin Lowe is of the same calibre of Scotty Bowman. Otherwise this team wouldn't be wandering in the desert, indefinitely.

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#11 Mark Loewen
May 11 2012, 08:42PM
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I wonder if it was optimism or was it more like.. Let's go with this lineup in this development year(s) and if we get lucky injury wise we should improve a fair amount. If things don't go prefectly...? Meh. Another Lottery Pick. ;)

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#12 Al
May 11 2012, 09:06PM
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If they hire Sutter they will at least add someone who at least looks pessimistic all the time.

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#13 morese
May 12 2012, 05:15PM
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this is a great article jon. overly optimistic projections should be should be guarded against in any type of business. this is especially true when the business is winning and player and coaching performance is what allows you to attain the overall goal.

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#14 Oiler Al
May 12 2012, 05:23PM
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If the Oilers dont make the play offs next year, then you can call it a Nuclear Breakdown. Running 29, 30, 30 and what 25th? is not what I would call optimistic.

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