Culture club: Between a rock and an entitled place

The challenge with changing the culture of the Edmonton Oilers, and that’s exactly what needs to be done if this flailing franchise is going to reverse its fortunes, is that doing so hinges on the veteran core of the team.

The problem facing new coach Pat Quinn and GM Steve Tambellini with changing the core in question — captain Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff, Steve Staios, Sheldon Souray and Ales Hemsky — is two-fold.

First, this is a group of players that, essentially, was given a free pass for several seasons by former coach Craig MacTavish, who was far more inclined to flog Dustin Penner or Robert Nilsson publicly than hold the core group to the same level of accountability.

How much resistence, especially behind closed doors that we will never be privy to, is Quinn going to get from these veterans, who are finally seeing that finger of accountability pointed at them? How much did Quinn get in that 90-minute meeting with Moreau, Horcoff, Staios, Souray, Hemsky, Penner and Nikolai Khabibulin Sunday?

The second problem, if this veteran core says to Quinn, "We don’t think so" after being empowered by MacTavish, is changing this group of players is next to impossible in today’s NHL.

Many of them, Horcoff being the most obvious, have contracts that are virtually impossible to trade thanks to deals handed out like bubblegum after the 2006 Stanley Cup run by Kevin Lowe.

Now, it’s up to Quinn and Tambellini to clean up the mess.

Heart of the matter

I’m not giving Tambellini a free pass by any stretch, but the heart of the matter when it comes to what’s ailing the Oilers isn’t the acquisition of a Dany Heatley or a third-line centre who can win face-offs and kill penalties.

It isn’t about who gets to play with Hemsky on the first line or whether Gilbert Brule deserves more ice time. It isn’t about how lousy Patrick O’Sullivan or Tom Gilbert have been.

Yes, those are matters of personnel and strategy that play into the equation in no small way, but to change a line here or add a body there, even one as talented at Heatley, is akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The real issue, the iceberg this team has steamed headlong into in three straight years out of the playoffs, remains. The fortunes of the Oilers hinge on a largely over-paid and under-achieving veteran core that had the run of a divided dressing room under MacTavish.

Quinn has been chipping away at that privately in the room, like he did Sunday, and publicly with the media, hinting at the issue of "culture." Quinn wants change. He expects leadership.

He’s leaned on some of his veterans, often without naming them. He did it again today. It’s not difficult to read between the lines. Quinn has leaned on others, like Hemsky and Mike Comrie, by name. No favourites.

Inaction at the top

Tambellini? He’s been harder to read.

Widely characterized by frustrated fans as sitting and dithering with his thumb up his backside, Tambellini is charged with making changes to the core, assuming the vets don’t come around to Quinn’s way of thinking.

Obviously, it’s not as easy as picking up the phone, as some people seem to think. Then again, it didn’t help that, in a recent interview with NHL.com, Tambellini came off as attributing many of the Oilers woes to injuries and illness. He sounded like he was making excuses.

Maybe Tambellini would really like to say, "I think Moreau has fallen short as captain and I’d like to give the letter to Souray." Or, "I’ve got a lot of respect for what Kevin Lowe has done for this franchise, but I’m screwed right now because of the fat, long-term contracts he gave players like Horcoff."

Tambellini can’t, obviously, say what he really thinks. He has to spin things. Still, it’s understandable fans are frustrated that he hasn’t made significant changes and upgrades to the roster.

I’m guessing Quinn will join their ranks if the veteran core, empowered for too long by MacTavish, made comfortable by no-movement clauses and un-tradable by fat contracts, doesn’t respond.

Change the culture? Change the veteran core.

— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Wednesday and Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on TEAM 1260.

  • Hemmercules

    I sort of see where you're going with this Robin, but I can't entirely agree with you. Whatever you might think about the contracts that these six guys have, there are only two of them who you can really say are grossly overpaid relative to the market (cap number, not salary) – Moreau and Staios. It's not like they're pulling down a ton of cash either, although it could presumably be better spent.

    The thing of it is though, a health 83/10/27 can and have produced playing the toughs. Souray has produced well when healthy. I'm not convinced that it's their contracts screwing Tambo so much as the fact that they haven't been healthy.

    This team, at the moment, just has no depth. 83/10/27 can hold their own with the other team's toughs, maybe a bit better, but the Oilers aren't going to be a 100+ point team because of them – if the Oilers are going to be a 100+ point team, it's going to be because they have excellent depth that can overwhelm the other team's softer players. Making some smart bets and finding goalies who can get it done doesn't hurt either – they needed to buy into some smart risk there and didn't.

    This is how teams that don't have franchise type players have to do it. It's how the 2003-04 Oilers (a very good ES team let down by abysmal special teams play) and the 2005-06 Oilers (another very good ES team, albeit one with terribly goaltending) did it. The bonus of building teams like that is that when a star becomes available, you can grab him.

    The problem with the recent editions of the Oilers is that outside of the top three forwards, everybody is playing competition that they aren't good enough to handle. Moreau and Staios stick out because they're grossly overpaid for their roles and not particularly good at handling them.

    Personally, I don't think that meetings about culture are going to get them anywhere. I said last year that it wasn't the coaching (although MacT may have needed to go for his own sake as much as anything else) and this year I don't think it's the culture of the team. There are just too many guys in roles that they have no track record of being able to handle.

    • Good points, but I'm not arguing all the contracts of the core veterans are huge overpays or out of this world.

      What I am saying is the money guys like Horcoff or Staios or Moreau make is a factor IF they don't buy into what Quinn is selling and Tambellini decides he has to move them. It's not like the malcontents are at the bottom of the pay scale and easily moved.

  • Oh so all we have to do is change the veteran core. Thanks for making it so simple Brownlee. While you're at it do you have a solution for peace in the middle east? How about just to deal with removing the scourge of "truck nutz" and mullets from the streets of Edmonton?

    What do you suggest they do other than Quinn leaning on veterans?

    @ GSC
    I always liked Tackleberry better on the Police Academy front. I'll just have to wait until I can find a clever way to defend Horcoff along that vein.

    • Not sure if you're being sarcastic or not. I can assure you, though, this is something I've thought of writing dating back to last season after sniffing around and trying to get a feel for what's happening. It's not something I just thought I'd throw out.
      In any case, it's not a matter of "all we have to do," as in it being easy. It is, however, the crux of what's wrong with this team, at least the way I see it.

      The splits you heard about last season and even before that in the dressing room were a direct result of the vastly different ways in which MacTavish handled veterans as opposed to younger players and fringe guys. Penner screws up, he gets scratched. Moreau screws up and, well, nothing . . . etc

      Now, Quinn is looking at a group of veterans who previously had things all their way and pointing the finger at some of them. My guess is some will buy in, some will push back. In any case, until the veterans are either on board or gone, the outlook for this team won't change significantly.

  • Rogue

    Souray and Staios would be the 2 to lead, not sure about Moreau and Horcoff. As I see it,what Great Leader has played with these guys here? No one. I can never see Hemsky as a leader in the dressing room. Hemsky needs someone to show him how to take the next step. Souray has been with the Habs and Devils, so in my mind he qualifies.
    The Oil have never been able to bring in a quality older player with some skill left to teach anyone here the concept of Leadership.Or maybe no one wants the job? Do the kids listen anyways. Only the Shadow knows.

  • GSC

    HERE HERE, Robin.

    Now we sit back, pop open a cold one, and wait for Horcoff's roaming gang of mathematicians to storm the Bastille in defence of the mighty #10…I'm picturing something along the lines of Bobcat Goldthwait leading his mob in Police Academy.

  • Dyckster

    Bingofuel is on fire today with the pics!

    First Tambama, now Boy Ales….well done BF.

    Nice read Robin, there have been 1,432,621 philosophies as to what ails us. At first read this one seems to make the most sense and more importantly, can be ALMOST immediately impacted by our current personal (coaches and players alike). No pie in the sky trades or waiver wire signings required…for now anyway.

  • Great story Robin, & no sugar coating unfortunately. Quinn has been giving a lot of kudos to guys like Potulny & Reddox. Arsene has been gotten some praise too. Quinn love the routine & practice.

    It's too bad that 'core' group hasn't bought into the practice how you play that Quinn has been preaching. It's starting to show.

    What did Allen Iverson say 'bout practice?