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.