Defining the history of the Edmonton Oilers rebuild

Jonathan Willis
July 12 2014 09:16AM

Defensive mess

The Edmonton Oilers’ rebuild has taken on a life of its own over the years. The official start date used to be hotly debated, though less of late as the need on the part of some to defend the Tambellini rebuild has dissipated. But looking back, it seems clear that the Oilers’ post-2006 wanderings fall into four distinct segments.

The Undeclared Rebuild

Lowe, Kevin

Timeframe: July 1, 2006 – July 31, 2008.

Here is a fact: the Edmonton Oilers never talked about rebuilding in the summer of 2006.

Here is another: when a team trades Chris Pronger and the best defenceman coming back is a 20-year-old Ladislav Smid, it’s rebuilding whether or not it actually makes use of the word.

The exodus in the summer of 2006 has been well-documented, and while Pronger was the name at the top of the list the departures of Jaroslav Spacek and Mike Peca and Sergei Samsonov were huge blows, too. The departures continued the following season with the loss of Ryan Smyth in trade to the New York Islanders (a loss which sparked this website).

The young players who were going to carry the team forward coming out of this period were people like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Mathieu Garon. They don’t sound like much now, but there was a time when papers like the National Post pointed to the Oilers as a great example of a successful rebuild based on the accomplishments of that group.

With a seemingly successful rebuild completed, Kevin Lowe stepped down in the summer of 2008 and handed the team over to Steve Tambellini.

“Finishing” Touches

35-Khabibulin-4

Timeframe: July 31, 2008 – January 25, 2010

It’s easy to forget that optimism was the rule of the day in the summer of 2008. The Oilers had finished ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoffs. We weren’t talking (much) about unsustainable shooting percentage, unsustainable save percentage and shootout luck; instead the focus was on the incredible skill of the five players mentioned above. Kevin Lowe had (seemingly) walked the team back from the brink and there was a great deal of optimism surrounding Tambellini – a veteran hockey man who had come up outside the Oilers’ old boys network.

When the 2008-09 season disappointed, Tambellini made changes. A new head coach, Pat Quinn, was brought in to usher in serious culture change. A high-priced goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, was signed long-term to stabilize the position. And tough, gritty players were acquired and promoted, often far beyond their talent level.

Then people started getting hurt. Khabibulin and Sheldon Souray and Ales Hemsky were all stripped from an already anemic lineup. Lowe’s retooling, aided greatly by Tambellini’s incompetence, had failed.

Official Rebuild

Steve Tambellini (2)

Timeframe: January 25, 2010 – April 15, 2013

On January 25, 2010, a victory by the Carolina Hurricanes pushed the Oilers into last place in the NHL. Within a few weeks, Tambellini was talking about a complete organizational overhaul, and the organization’s other leaders started using words like “rebuild.” There has been some attempt to retcon the date forward to the drafting of Taylor Hall, but that’s disingenuous. The firm plan to launch a full-scale rebuild of the team was laid out for the public during the middle of the 2009-10 campaign, and even the team’s most devoted apologists must admit that it started no later than that.

Unfortunately, the Oilers’ leadership concluded that a full-scale organizational rebuild didn’t mean making changes at the most senior levels of management, and so Tambellini took point in cleaning up the organization.

It would be wrong to say that everything Tambellini did was wrong – the changes to the Oilers’ AHL level, the refusal to bring in terrible, big-money contracts, and the lack of Milbury-esque trades of young talent all stand out as bright points – but on balance he was timid and ineffective and Edmonton’s rebuild demonstrated a critical failure of leadership.

That failure was finally acknowledged by ownership with the dismissal of Tambellini in the spring of 2013.

Bold Moves

Craig MacTavish2

Timeframe: April 15, 2013 – present

The firing of Tambellini and promotion of Craig MacTavish into the role of general manager marked yet another era in Edmonton’s seemingly ceaseless rebuild.

MacTavish opened by distancing himself from Tambellini, using words like “bold”, “impatient” and “risk” in his opening availability. At the time, I thought he was overpromising; in retrospect I think the overriding concern was in demonstrating that there was going to be a massive shift in the team’s approach.

There can be no doubt that MacTavish has delivered action. The results are still lagging, but if this particular epoch ends in failure it won’t be through timidity.

We’ll have a pretty good idea of which way this one is going to turn out by this time next summer.

Skip to the End

There have been fairly bitter disputes over whether the rebuild *actually* started in the summer of 2006 or midway through the 2009-10 campaign, as whether it really mattered whether the Oilers were dreadful in the 2006-09 period out of deliberate failed design or simple managerial incompetence. Whether Lowe was rebuilding or merely retooling in the period following the 2006 Cup run is an academic argument; the effect was largely to replace veterans with youth and the results were largely negative.

Lowe attempted a quick rebuild, and things started getting back on track – albeit with the same lack of elite talent – once he was able to rebuild (through free agency) much of the defence he’d demolished by losing Spacek and Pronger without replacement.

Tambellini came in with a mandate to take the team to the next level. For a season and a half he tried. His incompetence and a series of significant injuries combined to unravel all the progress the team had made.

Unremarkably, then-President Lowe and owner Daryl Katz concluded a full-scale rebuild through the draft was the next step to take. More remarkably, they decided that the G.M. who had necessitated it was the man to clean it up. The result was three wasted years before they finally undid their mistake.

And now? The franchise has a new guide, and he’s set off in a different direction than his predecessor. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if it’s the right one.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

74b7cedc5d8bfbe88cf071309e98d2c3
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 Lloyd B.
July 12 2014, 02:53PM
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Oilerboy1112 wrote:

What if Leon Draisaitl turns out to be better then Nathan MacKinnon and RNH? What if RNH, and Hall both get a 90 point season and Ebs and Yak get a 80 point season? What if Oilers defence plays great because of Ramsay? What if Eakins turns out to be great coach? What if Scrivens turns out be a legit starter?

What if...my Aunt had balls...she'd be my uncle !

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#52 Jason
July 12 2014, 03:17PM
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@RexHolez

It was required after the post Final exodus. Marion Hossa saw it and then Danny Heatley saw it, but it took a long time for the Oilers to acknowledge it. To what extent the new owner was meddling during this period might never be known. I think that MacT's real advantage over his predecessor is that he has a level of control over his moves that Lowe and Katz did not allow Tambo.

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#54 Total Points
July 12 2014, 04:50PM
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The rebuilt or whatever it is being called will continue until the oilers get a NHL coach.

Eakins is in way over his head. Hall said as much at the end of the season(he said that Dallas learned a lot this season). Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the head coach from the best player.

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#55 v4ance
July 12 2014, 04:56PM
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The problem is how people define "rebuild".

If you say a rebuild is a situation where a team doesn't make the playoffs, then, yes, the Oilers have been rebuilding for 8 years. To me, that definition is too broad.

In 2006-2009, I define that period as a "re-tool". The team still believed that they could make the playoffs and MAYBE contend for the cup with just a few top UFA signings and a hearty dose of luck, similar to how the 2005-06 season played out. They failed miserably in 2006-07 but just missed by 3 points in 2007-08 and 6 points in 2008-09 to make the playoffs. If we were rebuilding, we never would have chased Heatley, Nylander, etc. in those years.

I define a rebuild as a situation where a team has little prospects of making the playoffs and absolutely no belief that they can win the cup. With this situation, the team will not chase the best UFAs because they know they need more than just one key piece. The years of 2010 to the present fit that description.

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#56 Cold Hard Truth
July 12 2014, 05:06PM
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The Oilers keep pushing the goal posts back on their rebuild. Under MacTavish the Oilers have quietly begun a new rebuild. People who say the Oilers are still 3-4 years away are tacitly admitting this.

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#57 Total Points
July 12 2014, 05:08PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If you're trading Chris Pronger, either a) you're capable of getting a top pairing defenceman back in the deal or b) you're unspeakably inept.

Lowe could have held out for a deal to land a top defenceman. Instead he picked one that came with a whole pile of futures.

The trading of Pronger was the start of it all with nothing in return. 6 rings always has to have things his way or he strikes out in a blind rage and does stupid things. He did the same with Ryan Smyth, Sheldon Sourey in later years.

Klowe was the main problem and probably will be in the future.

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#58 Will
July 12 2014, 05:37PM
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Serious Gord wrote:

Scotty bowman was on prime time sports with bob mcown this past week discussing the Kane/Toews signings and he made (as he almost always does ) a very interesting comment on player asset management in the cap era:

He said the key to success is to retain your stars by paying what is required, but even more importantly to draft and or aquire young support players when they are cheap and then to trade them when they reach free agency and are going to cost much more and get back more prospects to fill the hopper. And that that is the only way a team can have enough cap room to pay their stars. In essence exactly the opposite of what the oil are doing (or more accurately are trying to do.

That noted - it certainly seems that until the development system for the oil is filed to the brim with players that will fill all roles needed the oil is in a catch22 - having to pay too much for mature mid level talent in order to patch the gaping holes in the line-up. And it's going to be a few years before they will be able to extricate themselves from that trap.

I would agree with you on your last point if it were not for the triple 6 mil contracts our first line has. Scotty Bowman is saying that is the only way to keep your stars, however signing your future stars to long term low money deals, seems like it will be a good way to keep them as well.

Kane and Towes alone are going to make more money than our entire top line + Perron. To me, that is poor asset management. Come next year he will be over the cap with only 15 players. That would be fine if he had a Purcell to cap dump and then promote from within on the cheap, but all he is going to have is previously promoted players, ready for a raise.

I also look at LA and see a team of players committed to winning for a few years, and taking a bit less pay to help management maintain a winner.

However, looking at Chicago's draft history in the last decade, it's pretty hard to argue how important good drafting throughout all rounds is to constructing a winning team.

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#59 hello
July 12 2014, 06:19PM
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i wonder how different the last 5 or so years would have gone had Hossa signed that enormous contract. Does anyone remember what the reported terms were?

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#60 JitanPren
July 12 2014, 06:36PM
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If you watch the first episode of Oil Change Lowe, Tambo, and Katz all talk about the period leading up to the decision to blow it up and start a full rebuild. Some of you of course will contest what they say however it is about as accurate a chronicle of these events there is and it's from the perspective of those who were involved in the decision.

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#61 The Swarm
July 12 2014, 06:38PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

If you're trading Chris Pronger, either a) you're capable of getting a top pairing defenceman back in the deal or b) you're unspeakably inept.

Lowe could have held out for a deal to land a top defenceman. Instead he picked one that came with a whole pile of futures.

Well that would be filed under a different category wouldn't it? It's called a bad trade. When star players demand trades you rarely get fair value. That said any GM would have been hard pressed to turn down the equivalent of the 5 first rounders that Lowe received. These picks/prospects could have been packaged up later to get another stud d-man, but they didn't end up doing that.

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#62 Serious Gord
July 12 2014, 06:46PM
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Will wrote:

I would agree with you on your last point if it were not for the triple 6 mil contracts our first line has. Scotty Bowman is saying that is the only way to keep your stars, however signing your future stars to long term low money deals, seems like it will be a good way to keep them as well.

Kane and Towes alone are going to make more money than our entire top line + Perron. To me, that is poor asset management. Come next year he will be over the cap with only 15 players. That would be fine if he had a Purcell to cap dump and then promote from within on the cheap, but all he is going to have is previously promoted players, ready for a raise.

I also look at LA and see a team of players committed to winning for a few years, and taking a bit less pay to help management maintain a winner.

However, looking at Chicago's draft history in the last decade, it's pretty hard to argue how important good drafting throughout all rounds is to constructing a winning team.

Two things: I may be wrong, but isn't this Toews and Kane's second contract whereas hall RNH and eberle are still on their first?

2. Who would you rather have? Iow who is the better deal - Toews or Kane at 10.5 or hall or the others at 6?

Either way the Blackhawks have stellar pro scouting and player development. And they sell high - not low. Three things the oil are among the worst in the league at.

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#63 Serious Gord
July 12 2014, 06:48PM
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JitanPren wrote:

If you watch the first episode of Oil Change Lowe, Tambo, and Katz all talk about the period leading up to the decision to blow it up and start a full rebuild. Some of you of course will contest what they say however it is about as accurate a chronicle of these events there is and it's from the perspective of those who were involved in the decision.

Never saw it, but I learned a long time ago not to pay a lot of heed to the history of events for anything from anyone who was directly involved.

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#64 MessyEH
July 12 2014, 06:54PM
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I really think Vanek and Hemsky would have been sick together.

We have gone through some Lowe, Lowe times since 2006.

We sure didn't get full value for Pronger. (Spitz.) I think that is when the rot started. Slow decay from the inside out. The players who remained, after the cup final, must have felt pretty Lowe.

Would we have been better off if Burke, had of, strangled Klowe to death in a barn? Probably not.

I may need a new prescription for "Rose colored hindsight glasses." I think they are kept near the reading glasses at my local WREX-ALL center.

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#65 R U Kidding Me!
July 12 2014, 07:28PM
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Teams don't rebuild after losing game 7 of the Finals. The rebuild started in 2010.

PS Tambellini reeks.

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#66 Chainsawz
July 12 2014, 07:52PM
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The Swarm wrote:

Bingo. A thorough objective summary of the facts, with the resulting conclusion being 4 years into the rebuild.

It should also be mentioned that the 2007/08 team was 3 points out of the playoffs - not exactly what I would call a "rebuilding team".

If January or March 2010 is the agreed start date of the rebuild, we aren't 4 years into, we're 4 years through and almost half way through year 5.

Lipstick on a pig but it's bit of a peeve of mine.

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#67 Spydyr
July 12 2014, 08:21PM
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What matters to me is not when the rebuild started but when it will end.That IMO would be the day the first Jersey thrower drops the puck for the Oilers first playoff game in way,way to many years.

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#68 Spydyr
July 12 2014, 08:23PM
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"The result was three wasted years before they finally undid their mistake. "

Will it be three years until they fix the Eakins mistake too?

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#69 Old time oil fan
July 12 2014, 08:28PM
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The Swarm wrote:

Not sure how a rebuild could have started a couple of months after coming 1 game from winning the Cup. All the haters talk of an "8-year rebuild" and it's ridiculous.

The rebuild started in earnest when management decided to stop chasing Hossa, Heatley, Nylander, etc... and building the team through the draft.

It's been a 4 year rebuild and was actually starting to trend in the right direction until last year's debacle with Eakins at the helm.

Had they added an experienced coach like Ramsay to Kruger's staff, we wouldn't be debating whether it's been a 4 or 8 year rebuild.

It seems kind of silly to debate "how long" the rebuild has been at this point because we still don't know when it will ever end. Sure the actual start date can be debated but until we actually make the playoffs it doesn't matter much to me. At the current rate of progress (i'm talking real progress in the standings not the hey it's the middle of July and we look better on paper kind of progress that we achieve every off season) a couple years won't make much difference if we end up having to debate whether it was a 23 year rebuild or 26 year rebuild!

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#70 Silo
July 12 2014, 08:29PM
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Pretty much any team that sucks can say they're "rebuilding" buy basically they just suck

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#71 madjam
July 12 2014, 08:44PM
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Our youthful core Gagner, Eberle , Hopkins , Yakupov ) had big plunges last year along with Petry , J.Schultz and Ference . Only Hall did better except for a big plunge in plus minus like the rest of them . That's basically our entire core that was supposed to be getting better . Now try and tell me that is not because of MacT. and the new coach .If the young core is already maxed out or stagnant we are in worse condition than any of us expected to be .

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#72 Harry
July 12 2014, 09:26PM
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@Tom

Ok. You just mentioned 3 of the 900 small forwards edm has drafted in the past 8 years. What about the other 897?

Just take a quick look at the makeup of the last 5 cup champs. A whole lote of diversity in their 18 man rosters. Now look at edm's roster prior to macs additions this off season.

Seems to me that other hockey minds who do this sort of thing for a living agree with me. Too much of the same thing and no diversity

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#73 camdog
July 12 2014, 09:38PM
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"Whether Lowe was rebuilding or merely retooling in the period following the 2006 Cup run is an academic argument;"

"A synonym is a word with the same or similar meaning of another word." From wiki.

I have always found it interesting that some like to use the term retooling during Lowe's run at the top, but call it a rebuild when Tambellini did the same thing, when essentially they are the same word. It's almost disingenuous to conclude that they are different, but good marketing with the Oilers for being able to convince the paying public that they are in fact different.

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#74 KozyMel
July 12 2014, 09:45PM
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@WhattaMike

What's the one constant to all of these:

"The main top reasons ... but with also the following:

1) humongous bad thought process for- and a lack of - a good farm team/development system ...

2) very bad pro scouting and UFA deals/trades ...

3) a bad set of amateur draft prospect picking ...

4) Adding into the very bad equation was of way too many coaching changes ...""

The guy at the top .....

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#75 Cccsberg
July 12 2014, 09:57PM
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Tom wrote:

Yeah right, what idiot brought in Yak and Eberle? And for the love of god fire the moron who decided RNH was a good idea, even though every GM in the league would have done the same. I cannot stand having all of these maturing superstars on the team. This year close to playoffs, say 18th, next year playoffs. We have arrived. Nothing but upwards swing from this point forward.

Self-delusion runs deep, but nothing we haven't heard for several years now. I guess we'll see in about 6 months whether a corner has been turned or more of the same...

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#76 v4ance
July 12 2014, 10:40PM
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camdog wrote:

"Whether Lowe was rebuilding or merely retooling in the period following the 2006 Cup run is an academic argument;"

"A synonym is a word with the same or similar meaning of another word." From wiki.

I have always found it interesting that some like to use the term retooling during Lowe's run at the top, but call it a rebuild when Tambellini did the same thing, when essentially they are the same word. It's almost disingenuous to conclude that they are different, but good marketing with the Oilers for being able to convince the paying public that they are in fact different.

Obviously, you don't understand the meaning of synonym, same or similar either.

From Merriam-Webster dictionary:

rebuild: to make EXTENSIVE changes

retool: to make especially MINOR changes or improvements

A rebuild is NOT equivalent or "same" as a retool.

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#77 Anoilfan
July 12 2014, 10:57PM
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@Oilerboy1112

I would go to the doctor

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#78 rickithebear
July 12 2014, 11:08PM
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MacT was made VP operations 2012. Involved in recruit of J. schultz. involved in selection of Yak; Moroz; Khaira

MacT took over in april 2013. Slot Howson builder of Columbus's team in to his V.p. slot.

We had Horcoff; Hemsky; Dubnyk; Petry Gagner from pre Katz era drafts. J. schultz from.

2008 draft on. Eberle; MP; HAll; RNH; YAK.

He moved Horcoff; MP; Hemsky; Dubnyk; Gagner.

Retained Eberle; Hall; RNH; Yak; Petry; J. schultz.

Has added in 13 months.

XXX-XXX-XXX Perron-Arco-Purcell Pouliot-Draisatl-XXX Hendricks-gordon-XXX Gazdic-Jeonsuu

Ference-XXX Nikitin-Fayne Marincin-XXX Aulie

Scrivens Fasth

16/23 roster players have been brought in by MacT. 16/23 changed in 13 months.

BOLD!

Yak and j. Schultz he was involved in the decision.

Only one of the 23 is currently a non Katz era acquisition. Petry.

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#79 Muji
July 13 2014, 12:08AM
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I like MacT's moves (Perron, Nurse, Gordon, Scrivens, Fasth, Fayne, Leon, etc.) but it's a little scary to think that all of it will be for naught if he didn't pick the right coach. The jury's still out on Eakins...

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#80 S4H1
July 13 2014, 01:01AM
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The Swarm wrote:

Not sure how a rebuild could have started a couple of months after coming 1 game from winning the Cup. All the haters talk of an "8-year rebuild" and it's ridiculous.

The rebuild started in earnest when management decided to stop chasing Hossa, Heatley, Nylander, etc... and building the team through the draft.

It's been a 4 year rebuild and was actually starting to trend in the right direction until last year's debacle with Eakins at the helm.

Had they added an experienced coach like Ramsay to Kruger's staff, we wouldn't be debating whether it's been a 4 or 8 year rebuild.

Ramsay only signed here because he has a per-existing relationship with Eakins and liked the idea of working with him. Most of the NHL was impressed by the Oilers' ability to sign Ramsay.

Kruger's team was buoyed by an excellent PP and high sh% that could never have been maintained. We would have been in a similar position this year and would have probably signed Eakins after the 13/14 season anyway.

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda. These are all speculation as it cannot be known what would have happened. What is a guarantee is that Ramsey would have never come here to work with Kruger.

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#81 The Oilers Shot Clock
July 13 2014, 02:04AM
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Who cares when it started. When is it over?

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#82 camdog
July 13 2014, 09:00AM
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v4ance wrote:

Obviously, you don't understand the meaning of synonym, same or similar either.

From Merriam-Webster dictionary:

rebuild: to make EXTENSIVE changes

retool: to make especially MINOR changes or improvements

A rebuild is NOT equivalent or "same" as a retool.

The biggest move made in the past few years was trading Pronger. All other moves have been minor when compared to the Pronger trade.

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#83 camdog
July 13 2014, 09:11AM
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@v4ance

It really is good marketing that the trading of the of the greatest defenceman of our generation is a "minor move" in Oilers revisionist history.

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#84 ubermiguel
July 13 2014, 01:23PM
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camdog wrote:

It really is good marketing that the trading of the of the greatest defenceman of our generation is a "minor move" in Oilers revisionist history.

I think that Lowe honestly believed losing Pronger would only need a retool, which scares me.

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#85 Oil Al
July 13 2014, 06:25PM
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Yes Tambelini was bumbling idiot for 3 years, lost in the forest. But, where was his boss [Lowe] when the house of cards was falling apart in all directions. Why did he not step to assist, guide or fire the guy. He was the guy at the top.. had all the power and say in the happenings, is this case none happenings.

Surely, even Katz could have see this wasn't going well? Hence three lost years.

In my opinion the rebuild really started in 2010... Hall onwards.

This team needs character and a winning identity if its is to move forward. Make Hall the captain.

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#86 Hockey fan 1976
July 13 2014, 07:28PM
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How about we all stop arguing about whether it's been 8 or 4 years of a re-build. The fact of the matter is, we've missed the playoffs for 8 straight freaking years, that's the real issue and our incompetent management team can't figure it out. Period!

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#87 Truth
July 13 2014, 09:08PM
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The rebuild started the day we traded away our heart and soul, Ryan Smyth, straight to the bottom of the league literally from that day on

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#88 roger
July 13 2014, 10:18PM
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@Total Points

i couldnt agree more the oilers need a experienced coach.the only real coach theyve had in years was quin.he got fired because he told lowe where to go and he was hiring his own assistants.kevy didnt like that .and yoour fired

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#89 BigOil Sanda
July 13 2014, 11:44PM
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2006 stands out because of the cup, which was a great year. Let's be honest, out this abrasion, this team has been rebuilding since K Lowe took over.

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