The to-do list

If I was King of the World, or better yet, Daryl Katz, and could snap my fingers and shape the Edmonton Oilers until they fit my vision of what a hockey team should be, there would be changes. Brother, would there be changes.

With the Oilers sitting at 14-14-2 through 30 games after Wednesday’s 4–2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, some fans are frustrated beyond words with the performance of a team coach Craig MacTavish deemed in pre-season as a contender for a Northwest Division title.

Then again, despite the inconsistencies — like playing one of their best games of the season in a 3–0 win over the Canucks last weekend before getting their backsides handed to them without a whimper in a 9–2 loss to Chicago Tuesday — optimists might peruse Western Conference standings today and insist, “It isn’t that bad.”

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Well, it is that bad, at least in my mind, and I didn’t even like the make-up of this edition of the Oilers as much as some fans did when the season began. I picked them to be in the mix, as usual, but to finish ninth.

What would I do?

Ain’t Rocket Surgery

Let’s first state the obvious — it’s infinitely easier to sit in front of a laptop and pontificate about what must be done, who should be traded and who should be acquired, than it is for GM Steve Tambellini or president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe to pick up the telephone and make it happen in the real world. Duh!

That said, here’s my list of things to do — in order of importance — based on what I’ve seen and heard, what I know and what I think. And, yes, much of it is Master of the Obvious stuff that has already been suggested by people smarter than I…

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1. PICK TWO GOALTENDERS. Three doesn’t work. Never has. Never will. I don’t care which two, as long as one of them is Jeff Deslauriers because I’m not willing to lose him to waivers for nothing at this point.

  • With no takers via trade right now, I’d send Dwayne Roloson to the AHL, even if he’s played better than Mathieu Garon at this point. Roloson’s a pro and he gets his full salary in the minors. He’d be a mentor to Devan Dubnyk.
  • It’s time to find out if Garon can regain his form of last season and prove he’s a legit No. 1 starter. If Garon can’t do that by starting, say, seven of the next 10 games, I shop him. If he doesn’t move, I send him to the minors, recall Roloson and ride Deslauriers the rest of the way.
  • In any case, Roloson’s gone after this season. What I want to know is if Garon or Deslauriers is my starter next season or if I’m diving into the trade and free agent pool to get a stopper.

2. SORT IT OUT UP FRONT. And, for crying out loud, stop trying to force square pegs into round holes, as was the case too often with MacTavish early this season when he tried to make a center out of Fernando Pisani and a left winger out of Erik Cole.

  • Keep Dustin Penner, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky together as the first line. It’s working.
  • Cut your losses and trade Cole. He’s not producing. He’s not re-signing in Edmonton as an unrestricted free agent. Get what you can for him — picks, prospects, a bag of pucks. The sooner the better.
  • Consider going with three offensive lines instead of the traditional two scoring lines, one checking line and an energy/grinding line format. Is there enough talent on the second and third lines with Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Gilbert Brule, Pisani and Rob Schremp or Marc Pouliot in the mix as your second six? While I’ve said before I’d rather not have more than four “small” forwards on the roster, I’d look at this group for 10 games to find out.
  • Establish a fourth line. For me, it’s going to be captain Ethan Moreau on left wing and Kyle Brodziak at centre every game. The right winger is Zack Stortini or Steve MacIntyre, when he’s healthy again.

3. FIX THE PK. Stop the presses!

This season’s miserable showing by the penalty killing is a bit of a mystery to me because the personnel up front — Horcoff, Moreau, Pisani and Brodziak — has proven capable in the past, although it’s obvious the Oilers have lost too many face-offs leading directly to goals and aren’t blocking shots like they have in past seasons.

  • Given that I’d move Cole and would like to at least look at the mix of the seven forwards mentioned above as components of secondary scoring lines, I’d be looking to move No. 26 for a proven face-off man who can kill penalties. If that took Cole and, say, Pouliot, Nilsson or Schremp, so be it.
  • Add a tough-as-nails-mean-as-hell defenceman (not named Jason Smith) capable of clearing the front of the net like a D9 Cat with a jammed throttle. See below.

4. TOUGHEN UP THE D. On paper, having a back end loaded with puck-movers makes sense — and it certainly works for the Detroit Red Wings — but the Oilers have sacrificed grit and shutdown capability with the personnel in place now.

  • Keep any three from the group of Denis Grebeshkov, Tom Gilbert, Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky and trade the odd-man for a proven veteran who can play a shutdown role.
  • In my mind, the likeliest candidates to go are Gilbert and Grebeshkov because both are relatively soft and I’m not willing to give Grebeshkov a long-term contract to keep him. Besides, not many teams will take Souray’s contract, despite a great start, because of his age and injury history.
  • If I’ve got, say, Souray, Visnovsky and Gilbert as my three offensive D-men plus a shutdown guy for whoever I trade, then I’m keeping Staios and Smid as my fifth and sixth guys for now and Strudwick as my swing man.

5. TAKE STOCK. Who’s who and what’s what?

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  • Decide once and for all by the trade deadline if Brule and Schremp fit in the long-term plans. If they don’t, move them.
  • Get a read and make a call on whether Theo Peckham is ready to play in the NHL next season. How about Taylor Chorney? Any chance Jordan Eberle is ready for 2009–10? If he is, does that make one of the small forwards on the roster available as trade bait?
  • Does Dubnyk factor into the goaltending picture at the NHL level next season? I’m guessing not, but my scouting staff has to be all over him for the rest of this season to find out if it’s a possibility.

6. THE BOTTOM LINE. Pink slips for failure.

  • If the Oilers miss the playoffs this season after tweaking and tinkering from the 40-game mark to the trade deadline, MacTavish and assistants Charlie Huddy, Bill Moores, Kelly Buchberger and Pete Peeters are sacked, fired, gone. No questions. No song and dance. Gone.

  • Fiveandagame

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    Damn I was hoping for different numbers from Valiquette.

    I see your point. If Roloson's contract wasn't so big he might be an attractive guy for a team to have on the bench if they are going on cup run.

    This is probably what Tambellini and company have been encountering all year trying to move either one. Garon is cheap but hasn't played well and Roli has played well but is expensive and old.

  • topshelf

    If we COULD actually get anything for Roli right now and if there is a market out there for him I really believe that we should move him. Why not get something, anything for him while we can because like you guys have said, he won't be back. To me its blindingly(is that a real word?) obvious.

  • jiggy

    @ Fiveandagame:
    Fiveandagame wrote:

    @ Jonathan Willis:
    I personally Think Staios will be moved before the year is out. Either to someone looking for a veteran presence on the blue line for a cup run or a young team in need of stability (anywhere in the southeast).

    Staios and Stability? You can't be serious, their polar opposites at this point. If by veteran presence you mean "old", then I guess I see your point.

    We'll be extremely lucky to pick up a second round pick for Steve at the deadline.

    The only change this team needs is a leadership change. Our leadership consists of third line pluggers. Moreau and Staios should be leading by example on the ice… yet all their capable of doing is showing the young guys exactly what not to do on the ice.

    Consistently good teams have their young guys looking up to star players who they strive to become. Our young guys? They have nothing to look up to, except plumbers who preach nothing more than "work hard".

  • Fiveandagame

    @ jiggy:
    I didn't say we would get anything for Staios, I just said I think he'll be moved. To a team like St Louis or Atlanta, he's not a bad option for your bottom pairing.

    Some extra pucks for him would be nice….(That isn't a typo I do mean Pucks not picks)

  • rent-a-goalie

    Roli has been the best of the three and you want to send him to the minors? it's probably not far fetched to think of him back next year since there's next to no chance of DD being ready.

    a contending team that wants cole is not going to give up a reliable faceoff guy to get him. if cole goes it's for picks and or prospects.

    other than that I can't argue, the young guys and top prospects are too small. despite some opinions of him I think you could net a decent return for Grebeshkov.

    the thing is, all the teams are still bunched close together, maybe this is a playoff team but if they're not in the thick of it come the deadline, sell what you can. aside from frustrating the fanbase there's no point doing anything until then.

  • kris

    Great article Robin. (Do you think you'll still be allowed in the press box, now. 🙂

    A few points in relation to Robin's recommendations:

    1. Robin is dead right about the goalies. Play Deslauriers for 7 of the next 10 games. If he falters, send him down and no one will sign him. If he succeeds, waive either Garon or Roloson. At this point, it doesn't matter who you waive because I Garon isn't signing here next year given the current gong show, and I can't see a 40 year old Roli getting us into the playoffs next year either. That is, we're probably going to go with Deslauriers and some yet to be signed free agent next year. (N.B. it doesn't matter how much we like Garon since management obviously has no faith in him.)

    2. We're not going to make the playoffs, so we might as well clear some dead wood to lower the cap and create more ice time for young players. That means at least one of our overpaid veterans have to go: Staois, Moreau, Cole, and maybe even Pisani. (N.B. Pisani is great and isn't overpaid, but could fetch a lot in a trade with a playoff team. Given, their cap hits, I wouldn't expect much of a return for Moreau and Staios.

    3. Hemsky, Visnovsky, Souray, Horcoff, Penner, and Gilbert are the core of the team now. It's a good core at a good price. What we need to do is figure out which of the kids are part of the core going forward. Obviously, Brule, Schremp, Gagner, Cogliano, Grebs and Nilson are too similar and too soft to all play on the same team, especially given that the core players above are pretty soft. I'd trade Nilson, Grebs, and Schremp, but that's just me.

    4. I like MacT, but I have doubts about his staff. Even if you're not going the head coach, why not fire some assistants or at least add some assistants whose sole job is to work on the finer, strategic details of the game? (The anti-buchberger?) I know MacT is responsible for his staff, etc., but I think this is can be done and could really improve the team.

    5. Fans and management in Edmonton are still suffering from sort of PTSD about rebuilding; after all 'we're rebuilding' ued to mean 'get used to not winning, because we can't sign good players.' We were always told 'maybe next year' and 'look at our young guns', but deep down we knew there was no hope. So, now when we hear we should rebuild the team, we freak out. But we have to get over our PTSD or we're gonna be the next Maple Leafs.

  • Big Deal

    Robin, I agree with some not with others.
    #1…agreed. Three goalies never works period end of story
    #2…agreed. Move Cole simply because it's a round peg in a square hole. Penner on first line, doesn't work. Not enough speed, skill or desire. Let's face it, he is a third line player.
    #3 agreed. fix the PK sack Bucky and bring back Daum. He is a teacher and can adapt. Bucky cannot and never has shown that he can teach young players. All he did last year was yell at the young players.
    #4 agreed. They won't/can't sign Greb, so move him along with Staios for something, 2nd round draft would work for me.
    #5..OK fine
    #6…this is the big one. The old boys club has not worked. The Oilers have not won with them as the coaches. Peters has made every goalie he has taught worse…the numbers don't lie. Bucky is not a coach, Rob Daum and Bill Moores are coaches, I haven't got a clue what Huddy does (nor does anyone else). As for MacT, sorry I like you and all but coaches have a shelf life and his is done. Time to move on and out!

  • Jonathan Willis

    Big Deal wrote:

    I haven’t got a clue what Huddy does (nor does anyone else).

    Huddy runs the defense. We've written about it at OilersNation as recently as this summer.

  • David S

    Jonathan – or any of you guys – who coaches the PK?

    Robin – Fantastic article. Makes me kinda sad in a way that this won't make it to print. Thanks very much for your insight. Its great to hear from a guy who actually knows what he's talking about and has a ton of first-hand experience versus the usual horde of couch GM's and coaches. I'd be very interested to hear what Jason thinks in contrast.

  • Jonathan Willis

    David S wrote:

    Jonathan – or any of you guys – who coaches the PK?

    I don't know – I was hoping one of our actual journalists would fill in the blanks.

    Based on the sudden drop-off, I'd guess Buchberger; a coaching change would be the most logical explanation for the unit's poor performance, yes?

  • RobinB

    @ PaperDesigner:
    Huddy and Moores are long-time assistants hand-picked by MacTavish. If you're of the mind there's a long-time problem of the team under-achieving under this head coach, it follows his assistants had a hand in it. Buchberger is also hand-picked by the head coach.

    A new head coach would want to pick his own staff, no?

  • Clarkenstein

    Interesting Robin… you don't see this kind of stuff in the rags else they scolded!! Couple things… The critical 20 game stretch you talked about a couple weeks back is now 5-5 and heading for the ditch. Not even the slightest chance of getting 28 or more points now. After 30 games do we honestly think this is a championship calibre team? No, I don't think so either so I would humbly suggest we do a mini blow up now and rid some cap crap and then blow the whole thing up at the trade deadline. Honestly, there are only 4 or 5 untouchables and the rest are along for the ride. The cap is going down probably for the next 2 or 3 years and we're paying too much dough to these guys to be in 14th place. Be nice to be down to a commitment of between $30 – $35 Mil by year end and give us some room to work in the summer FA market.
    And finally Robin I realize you probably can't or won't say it but you CANNOT let Kevin Lowe continue down this obviously wrong path. He's the architect of this mess and he has to go. If Katz keeps him then he is as big a loser as the rest of this (mis)management team.

  • Dennis

    I thought I wrote this before I fell asleep but RB's list should really begin with an improvement for the PK.

    If they don't address that, nothing else will matter.

    And, yes, Lowe is hand-shaking these days, when his hand isn't up Tambellini's a$$, but I find it interesting that Brownlee would have basically everyone fired except for Lowe.

    Hmmm…

  • OilW30

    RobinB wrote:

    Cole is NOT re-signing here next season.

    Is this just your sense of the situation, or is this based on something you've heard?

    I agree that he's going to go, but just wondering if you've heard anything.

  • Rick

    @ Dennis:

    For a guy that seems to fancy himself the smartest guy on the planet I would think you would have picked up on the pre-text of Robin's column.

    You know the part where he effectively says what he would do if he had Tambellini and Lowe's job.

    How do you fire a guy that isn't in a position to be fired?

  • RobinB

    @ Rick:
    Dennis pisses and moans about the PK, the lack of a defensive forward and a shortage of shot-blocking to no end, but when I suggest trimming a goaltender and sorting out the forwards — which would make it easier to acquire players with those skills — he bitches because I listed the PK third in my priorities instead of first, even though the three are obviously connected.

    By the way, Dennis, you've written countless times about the PK, even in threads that had nothing to do with it, saying "When are you going to mention this and that, blah, blah, blah . . . " I get to that issue as part of a larger look at things and you still whine.

    Smart? No so much.

  • Rick

    @ RobinB:
    I asked you further up but I don't know if you missed it or just didn't have an opinion.

    But since you and Gregor were talking about leadership in the room again last night I figure I will ask again.

    From what you see in the room, how does Rollie fit in to the leadership hierarchy, if at all, and does that factor in to which goalie to move when looking at salvaging this season?

  • RobinB

    @ Rick:
    Roloson has been very professional and what players and coaches like to call a "good teammate" since arriving. Several of the other veterans are solidly in his corner and have nothing but good things to say about him.

    While Roloson has occasionally been prickly with the media, I haven't heard anything about him being a disruption in the room. I think his actions alone provide what we call leadership.

    I'm sure that factors into the equation, but I can't say for certain to what degree.

  • Zamboni Driver

    I am agreeable on most of this, Robin.

    Particularly because I think the Oilers are actually going to NEED to lose some dead weight through waivers, because really, no one is going to trade for Roli or CERTAINLY Garon (maybe like a 6th rounder, that the brain trust will use on Hayley Wickenheiser because they have 'this feeling, and she has hockey smarts').

    The one thing I would say on D- it's going to have to be a Grebeshkov, because there are 29 GMs across the league laughing at $4mil for Gilbert.

  • Nice article Robin – I pretty much agree with your take.

    After the 40 game mark the brain trust has to decide if we are a contender or pretender – the closer we get it looks more like pretender. I think it will be tough for them to run with JDD & more kids, but the fans would like it more.

  • Dennis

    Rick: Katz has the power to fire anyone; Lowe included.

    RB: You can still acquire penalty killers without a major re-shuffling.

    Anyone who doesn't know that should be looking inward and not outward.

    Unless you want to spend a lot of money on shotblocking and faceoff prowess; which is something I've never really advocated in the first place.

    I've always said you can pick up two guys for the 4th line and penalty killing and they don't need to play top nine. For example, let's call Stortini and Reddox as 11th and 12th and now we'll replace them with guys making around a mill who can do the dirty work and – SHAZAM – you don't need to make all these moves. At least if you think the PK is a big problem.

    Smartest guy on the planet, Rick? Not close.

    But smart, RB and Rick? You ******* betcha:)

    Anyway, RB and I will be at loggerheads and that's cool with me. I took the initial shot when I said he's been kissing Lowe's can for lo these last 8 seasons and that wounds the big fella so he comes back with a whining allegation. And I'm sure I make the occasional whine:) and I'm certainly sure that Brownlee continues to pucker up!:)

  • RobinB

    @ Dennis:
    Who is this arrogant little Dennis King prick and why does he feel the need to come over here from another Oiler website with no other real intention than to piss people off?

    Last reaction from me, Dennis. You're done.