How we got here: a brief history of the post-Sather Oilers

Jonathan Willis
April 12 2013 12:50PM

When Glen Sather left the Edmonton Oilers for a job in New York in 2000, it was a major milestone for the club. Head coach Kevin Lowe replaced Sather at the helm and launched the current era of Oilers’ history.

The Early Years: 2000-2004

When Lowe replaced Sather as general manager, he immediately set about ushering in changes. He replaced himself as head coach with Craig MacTavish, and around the same time put Kevin Prendergast in charge of the amateur procurment department, replacing the departing Barry Fraser..

This group operated in difficult financial circumstances, and honestly probably don’t get the credit they deserve over this span. The Oilers work at the draft over these years is an article in itself; the team made some terrible picks but also managed to produce six quality NHL’ers (Hemsky, Markkanen, Stoll, Greene, Brodziak, Dubnyk) so while the overall record was bad it didn’t come close to the really atrocious teams (unlike, say, Tampa Bay).

As for Lowe and MacTavish, mistakes were made but the team was quite good relative to dollars spent – they were Nashville before Nashville was Nashville. Over four seasons, the Lowe/MacTavish Oilers went 149-111-47-21 with a plus-58 goal differential; that’s 17 games over true 0.500 while losing players like Weight, Guerin, Carter and others thanks to monetary concerns. For the sake of contrast, Glen Sather’s Oilers went a total of nine games under true 0.500 over the previous four seasons and managed a plus-14 goal differential.

For all the problems, there was a good, competitive roster that only lacked top-end talent.

2005-06

Things changed after the lockout; the Oilers added stars Mike Peca and Chris Pronger to the roster, and after a year spent in Europe Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky were to emerge as bona fide stars. The Oilers barely squeaked into the playoffs thanks to the total implosion of Ty Conklin/Jussi Markkanen, but they were a much better team than they got credit for at the time. To pick one statistic, in the Western Conference only Detroit had a better shot differential than the Oilers; naturally that was the team the Oilers faced in the first round.

(A lot had to go right to get by Detroit – starting with Dwayne Roloson but certainly not ending with him. In game six against the Red Wings, the Oilers were down 3-2 in the third period and facing the prospect of going back to Detroit for a seventh and deciding game; watching it at the time I remember thinking they’d win the series at home or not at all. Ales Hemsky scored to tie the game with four minutes left, jamming the puck at the side of the net past Manny Legace seemingly through sheer will. A little under three minutes later Hemsky scored his second goal of the game – the one in the video above – and won the series for the Oilers.)

The Oilers were full value for their second and third round wins; if not for that Dwayne Roloson injury in game one I still think they would have got past Carolina in the Finals. (Another side point, while we’re righting historical wrongs: Marc-Andre Bergeron may have thrown the hit that ended Roloson’s season, but if Matt Greene hadn’t been beat cleanly on the outside it never would have been an issue. The Oilers’ finals loss typically gets hung on Bergeron and Conklin, both of whom were certainly to blame; it’s just that Greene’s an equally deserving member of that trio.)

Kevin Lowe, though he took too long to address the goaltending and left the Oilers with the trio of Bergeron, Greene and Dick Tarnstrom as their bottom three, was in fine form that year. Aside from the additions of Pronger and Peca, he added Sergei Samsonov at a very reasonable price and absolutely swindled Chicago in a trade to land Jaroslav Spacek – the Oilers got an honest-to-goodness top-four defenceman for the low, low price of Tony Salmelainen and a conditional draft pick.

Post-Pronger: 2006-2010

The summer departure of Chris Pronger for a pile of futures should have triggered a mini-rebuild, particularly given the Oilers’ inability to shore up their blue line. Ultimately, the trade of Ryan Smyth later in the year did kill the Oilers, who added a bunch of futures from Long Island in that deal and drafted Sam Gagner sixth overall that summer. Still, they decided a long rebuild wasn’t for them, and had a busy summer, adding Dustin Penner, Sheldon Souray, and Joni Pitkanen.

The 2007-08 season, where a lousy Oilers team nearly made the playoffs thanks to a) a career year from Mathieu Garon b) a zillion shootout wins and c) an insane percentage run for the “kid line” of Gagner, Robert Nilsson and Andrew Cogliano. In retrospect, it was terrible for the franchise – while the team and at least one local columnist were flushed with success, the Oilers were nowhere near as good as 2007-08 made them seem and years of trying to build on a faulty foundation were to follow.

It took until 2009-10 for the patchwork to really fail, when the decisions to bring in Pat Quinn to coach and sign Nikolai Khabibulin to a four-year contract blew up in spectacular fashion. Steve Tambellini had become the team’s G.M. in the summer of 2008, and given his long history with Quinn it seems likely that he was the primary decision maker at this juncture, though the Oilers power structure is pretty opaque and it’s difficult for any outsider to really judge which minds were responsible for which decisions.

Since Then: 2010-Present

The Oilers tanked in 2010-11. Management did little; Tom Renney, a capable NHL coach who likes to do things like “match lines” went with the Rawhide strategy that year and just rolled ‘em, rolled ‘em, rolled ‘em. While it’s popular among the club’s apologists to say the Oilers did the same thing in 2011-12, they emphatically did not – management brought in Ben Eager and Eric Belanger and Cam Barker and Andy Sutton to solidify the depth up front and on the back end, and seemingly overnight Renney’s in-game management underwent a dramatic change. The fact that he was not retained after a disappointing finish to the season serves as further evidence that the goals had shifted, and the team wanted to start winning again. They have yet to do so.

Legacies

The track record above is necessarily condensed, and could be condensed still further. In my view, while the low-budget years were tough, Lowe and Co. did a pretty decent job of keeping a competitive team together. 2005-06 was a brilliant year. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse: the last few years with Lowe as G.M. didn’t go well and since Steve Tambellini’s hiring “didn’t go well” would be a ridiculously charitable description of the Oilers’ fortunes. Healthy teams don’t blow everything up; they certainly don’t bring in an over-35 goalie and a veteran coach to finish dead last in the NHL.

Looking at the record, the Lowe years were a mix of good and bad early on, but there was more of the former than the latter. The Pronger departure was a blow Lowe’s team never fully recovered from, despite the mirage of 2007-08. The addition of Steve Tambellini coincided with the club stepping into the elevator shaft.

If and when Lowe moves out of the Oilers’ hockey operations department, I suspect I’ll remember him more fondly than many; his work in the early years is underrated and that brilliant 2005-06 run was made by a team he built. The legacy Tambellini has built to date is far less impressive; perhaps he’ll get the opportunity to improve it but if he left office today there would be precious little to recommend him.

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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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#51 Smokey
April 12 2013, 06:50PM
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Oiler Al wrote:

Penner.. honor this guy with a $4.25 x4 contract and the guy shows up for camp out of shape and over weight. He'd skate on length of ice and would be waving his stick to get a change.

His 30 goals mostly came on the PP and hanging around the net where pucks would bounce off his butt .[ once one bounces off his lip, honest ].

Didnt look so great on a good team[ L.A.]. and thats why Sutter had him in the press box for most of the season.

I think the guy should be in a beer league backhome in Winkler.

Ill take a lazy 25-30 goal scorer with a propensity for pancakes. The guy had a good Corsi, the pucks always going in the right direction. Every since we traded him we needed a guy with size. We weren't happy with what we had and now wanting Lucic, his one goal in 25 games, and a potential 6 mil albatros. Ill takre Penner at one year .2.5 and his 20 goals and his fustrating play.

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#52 MAC962
April 12 2013, 07:00PM
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NEWSFLASH !!!!! HEMSKY INJURED. " I HAVE TAKEN PILLS AND SHOTS AND NOTHING HELPS." Hey Hemmer.... try a plane, And dont come back. You always puss out when it gets real tough. Anyone ever tell you about Bob Baun playing on a broken leg in a day where the pain killers were not like today ? Or REMEMBER RYAN SMYTH Taking a Pronger shot to the chiclets in the playoffs ? He may have missed a few shifts.

You are soft, always have been always will be, Go play in Florida.

I worked with herniated C6-C7 Discs, and it was physical work... for what you make in 2 minutes. Way to go hide as usual ALICE.

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#53 madjam
April 12 2013, 07:07PM
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Why do so many of players we let go do better elsewhere ?

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#54 DSF
April 12 2013, 07:28PM
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madjam wrote:

Why do so many of players we let go do better elsewhere ?

They get to play with better players and are coached by better coaches.

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#55 Eddie Shore
April 12 2013, 07:36PM
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@MAC962

Injury-prone, sure. Soft, not a chance.

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#56 Time Travelling Sean
April 12 2013, 07:37PM
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MAC962 wrote:

NEWSFLASH !!!!! HEMSKY INJURED. " I HAVE TAKEN PILLS AND SHOTS AND NOTHING HELPS." Hey Hemmer.... try a plane, And dont come back. You always puss out when it gets real tough. Anyone ever tell you about Bob Baun playing on a broken leg in a day where the pain killers were not like today ? Or REMEMBER RYAN SMYTH Taking a Pronger shot to the chiclets in the playoffs ? He may have missed a few shifts.

You are soft, always have been always will be, Go play in Florida.

I worked with herniated C6-C7 Discs, and it was physical work... for what you make in 2 minutes. Way to go hide as usual ALICE.

He was playing through the injury when the games mattered you stupid, he is pulling himself out now that we can't make the playoffs.

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#57 Craig MacTambeloweni
April 12 2013, 07:45PM
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Just a few more draft picks and this team will be great..

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#58 Where's Your Towel
April 12 2013, 08:12PM
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So Lowe is our Garth Snow. Got it.

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#59 K_Mart
April 12 2013, 08:27PM
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Smokey wrote:

Ill take a lazy 25-30 goal scorer with a propensity for pancakes. The guy had a good Corsi, the pucks always going in the right direction. Every since we traded him we needed a guy with size. We weren't happy with what we had and now wanting Lucic, his one goal in 25 games, and a potential 6 mil albatros. Ill takre Penner at one year .2.5 and his 20 goals and his fustrating play.

I would too, but that's not what Penner is.

That stats simply do not lie, he had one season where he lead the oilers in points, goals, assists, corsi, scoring chance differential, and +/-. (hemsky was +1 better than him, but he only played 22 games)

The key factor is ONE season. He ended up being 4th among oilers forwards in scoring chance % http://www.coppernblue.com/2011/5/4/2149477/dustin-penner-scoring-chances-2010-2011 during his tenor. To me, that seems like he must have had some bad stretches to be ranked as low as fourth when he was on the top line and recording 30 goals. So, while oilers fans were able to see the obvious flaws in his game and were able to see beyond the small sample size, all the stats guys just figured 2-3 seasons can't possibly be too small a sample size.

I understand you work with what you got and when you're unsure... always trust the numbers. But it was just so painfully obvious that Penner was not as good as the numbers suggested and that those numbers, in the end, would come back down to eath.

Glad to see that LA got one good game and one good goal out of him on their cup run.

Congrats on 34pts in 110 regular season games.

I'll take 4.25m extra cap space, a developing top 4 d man(klefbom), a depth d man(teubert), and an increased shot at selecting #1 overall every day all day. That trade was undeniably the right deal for the Oilers.

I'll steal a quote from that article

One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulas have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than was originally put into them. --Heinrich Hertz

In the end, the numbers averaged out and penner's uselessness has been exposed.

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#60 madjam
April 12 2013, 08:30PM
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Maybe this is year one of the rebuild , as new management will lead us next year out of the doldrums ?

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#61 David S
April 12 2013, 09:17PM
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MAC962 wrote:

NEWSFLASH !!!!! HEMSKY INJURED. " I HAVE TAKEN PILLS AND SHOTS AND NOTHING HELPS." Hey Hemmer.... try a plane, And dont come back. You always puss out when it gets real tough. Anyone ever tell you about Bob Baun playing on a broken leg in a day where the pain killers were not like today ? Or REMEMBER RYAN SMYTH Taking a Pronger shot to the chiclets in the playoffs ? He may have missed a few shifts.

You are soft, always have been always will be, Go play in Florida.

I worked with herniated C6-C7 Discs, and it was physical work... for what you make in 2 minutes. Way to go hide as usual ALICE.

I'm almost at the point where I willingly offer Wanye a substantial amount of money to build a negative props button.

Juuuuust about there.

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#62 Eddie Edmonton
April 12 2013, 10:08PM
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David S wrote:

I'm almost at the point where I willingly offer Wanye a substantial amount of money to build a negative props button.

Juuuuust about there.

And,.!.. and when a comment collects 10 negative anti-props it is automatically deleted. Get that garbage out of here. "Verbal Diarrhea"

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#63 Love Monkey
April 12 2013, 10:30PM
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Still get chills from the Game 7 opener...

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#64 Dog Train
April 13 2013, 12:11AM
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For the most part, I liked Lowe as GM. His teams usually stayed competitive. Everything he touched turned to gold in 05-06. The great exodus that happened after 05-06 really hampered the team. The expectations had clearly gone up and I think Lowe let his emotions get the best of him in some of the deals that he made from that point on. He got some flak for the Pronger deal but we still have Smid and Eberle to show for a player who wanted out. Much better than the whole Souray fiasco played out.

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#65 geeker99
April 13 2013, 12:51AM
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We have to be ready to trade picks to a cap strapped team for a ready 25-30 old players. if we don't win soon anyone with potential is gonna want out. You can just see it in Hall that he is sick of suck. there is a losing stench to this club that is festering from the front office. only the fans seem to care. god bless season ticket holders.

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#66 Wax Man Riley
April 13 2013, 02:31AM
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DSF wrote:

They get to play with better players and are coached by better coaches.

Do they alligate with better alligators?

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#67 Romulus' Apotheosis
April 13 2013, 08:27AM
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Ducey wrote:

Thats bunk.

Look at the transactions involving the Red Wings prospects the last 3 years. GUys like Abdelkader, Smith, Tatar, Kindle. The bounce back and forth between the NHL and the farm like yo-yos. Often they are called up for a few days and go back down without playing a game.

No. Your comment is Bunk.

There is a huge difference between placing a young prospect in the regular NHL roster and either having him sink or sit in the press box and calling up a player for either spot duty because of injury or for a check in cup of coffee with the expansion of the roster at the end of the season.

Just look at the players you mentioned. They were all AHL regulars until they were ripe:

http://redwings.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8471716

23 when he finally, properly cracked the Wing lineup and still split the season with 33 AHL games.

http://redwings.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8474090

24. this is his first proper year in the NHL. 14 games at the age of 23 for spot duty.

http://redwings.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8475193

22. still only played 18 games in the NHL this season after 3 FULL AHL seasons.

http://redwings.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8471693

24 when he finally, properly cracked the Wing lineup.

Now, look at the Oilers:

http://oilers.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8475165

At 19 starts the season in the NHL plays 56 games only to be out of his depth, sit in the box, finally get send down.

http://oilers.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8475175

At 19 starts in the NHL. full season. next season up and down, season after that the same.

Detroit is the opposite of the Oilers. Radically so.

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#68 The Real Scuba Steve
April 13 2013, 09:17AM
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Fired all the boys on the bus gang, time to rebuild the management.

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