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, 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.

  • Oilchange64

    Heard Quinn's rant on the radio today where he came close to calling out everyone. Can't say as I blame him and frustration was clearly evident. While half way thru last year I felt it was time for MacT to move on – it was time for a change from everyone's perspective – I never believed he was the sole problem. But you can't change the whole team, and MacT's shelf life had expired. Not certain going public at this point is the way to go – certainly MacTavish would have been crucified if he had. The reality is the team is just not good enough. I like Quinn as a coach but taking this approach could get old soon. The next 10 – 20 games will be interesting and we will soon know whether meetings, public floggings, etc. work, and on whom. Not necessarily by wins either – let's see who "changes" and buys into the "system".

  • Corsby31

    LMAO…Kevin Smith…Thank you for the best moment of the Oiler season to date…"I like the Oilers cause I smoke alot of weed" …lol…that pretty much sums it up doesn't it Oiler fans…
    Welcome to being an Oiler fan Kevin, bit of advice for you…keep a big bag handy every game for the rest of the year…You will need it!!!

  • Eric Johnson

    This was a fantastic read.

    This article is the reason this site is turning the old regimes of hockey information into dinosaurs.

    How long before Jim Matheson is working for Oilers Nation?

    Mr. Brownlee. Kudos may be rare on this site but this is a fantastic and gutsy article. I appreciate you willing to point out these issues with the current roster. I can only imagine how tough it can be after writing something which could be construed as "Less than flattering" to walk in the dressing room and ask that very player for their thoughts on the game.

    I appreciate your candidness and this fantastic contribution.

    As for the article itself. This team had a much different culture around it when Jason Smith was the captain. The problems have become evident since then. I know many players have turned over since then but the fact that Moreau can't play himself off the 4th line must speak volumes. What's the mantra? Work smarter not harder?

    Thanks for the read and for not having to look up stats to form and argument or opinion. (Not a slight JW just refreshing)


    • Brownlee,

      I couldn't agree more. The veteran core must change. Everyone says Hemsky's contract is so good that it is not one that the Oil would trade. I'd like to suggest a package deal; send out Hemsky (bargain contract) with Horcoff (horrible contract) with Moreau and get the best possible grouping of fast, bigger players back in return. I know, at first glance, this may sound preposterous, but it may be a way to move Horcoff's fat contract and provide the team with a way to get new leadership with moving Moreau out.

      Sure, such a three-man out trade would shake the team to its core, but Brownlee is that not what you're suggesting anyway, when you recommended a change in the "Core"??? As for Hemsky, he is not a game changer. He is not, nor ever will be, a Superstar. He will not work to become a superstar, as evidenced by being the first one off the ice after practices. It's time to part ways with Hemmer. Yes, his contract is a good "deal", and that's exactly what would make moving him, Horcoff, and Moreau palatable to another team.

      Remember Oilers Nation, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results. How long will we continue to "just miss" the playoffs with this core? Change them.

      • Actually, I'm not necessarily suggesting a trade, although it's a possibility.

        The core can change by adapting and buying into Quinn's way of doing things and his expectations and it can also change by way of personnel moves. The likeliest scenario is a combination of the two.

  • I'm a bit confused here. So the vets weren't held accountable and the young guys have a sense of entilement? Are those not one and the same?

    So if the above is true, why are the vets the "bad guys" here… would all parties not be equally responsible seeing as both sides are failing to be team orientated?

    Are their any happy medium players here?

    • devilsadvocate

      when appointing a captain you need a player that is going to be playing….Souray would be a good captain if he wasn't always injured for long period of times

  • rindog

    My comment wasn't directly at this article, more from the overall theme from the last couple of days (if not years).

    Namely, in your article you talk about the vetrans feeling entitled, and now being challenged on it. But in Gregors previous article he states:

    "The young guys who want to be in the top-six haven’t earned that role, and if they don’t get over a sense of self-entitlement then they won’t anytime soon."

    So like I said, if the above are both true (re vets and young guys). Then we've basically got a team full of guys that wont play as a team.

    • I don't think younger players wanting to fill top six roles constitutes entitlement as much as it does ambition.

      It could simply be a coincidence that Gregor used the same term in describing younger players, but I can't say for sure.

      It's not the kids who got the sense they could do no wrong under MacTavish, it was the veterans who got a broad benefit of the doubt time after time after time.

      • Hemmertime

        Quote: 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.

        Landing Heatley would also have cleared off two more contracts off the books, an excuse Tambellini has been using when others fail. Also, if we made the deal June 30th come free agency we are seen as a way more attractive destination. The superstar is attractive to play with (see: Atlanta).

        Even just landing the third line center is a start. I am happy with the moves that Tambellini has made already, O'Sullivan even though he is not scoring was a great pickup for someone who was to be leaving for nothing. Dumping Garon and getting something worthwhile it seems is a bonus too; hell he even successfully negotiated with Ottawa for Heatley. However, the core is the same, none of the moves address the needs that have been identified time and time again.

        If I had to grade his performance so far it would be a C to C+… just doing enough to get by.

  • Shawn Cronin

    @ RB

    Thanks for the clarification.

    I guess the next question for me: What exactly does accountability include? Lack of ice time? Criticized through the media? Does doing those (or other) things make the vets better? Does it make the young guys better?

    Also, for the most part I'd say the vet group has been pretty good, it's the young(er) guys that have let the team down. (ie for the most part we've got our primary scoring… the secondary has been the issue)

    Souray has obviously been good

    Hemsky, has left us wanting more. But you can't really question his production.

    Horc was pretty weak the first 12, but has played solid 2 way for almost the whole year and now has 9 points in 8 games

    Haven't looked but I'd have to guess Moreaus goal scoring is top 5 on the team 5 on 5. His penalty's have been blown out proportion.

    You only need to look at how weak and soft the defense looked when Staios was out to see his value.

  • HansBaurMesserschmittWatson

    said Tippett.
    "You gotta get pissed off in this game. If you're not pissed off to lose, than you're playing on the wrong team."

    who on 'yotes would like to be an oiler ?

  • VMR

    I think this is pretty much BS. What have I heard Quinn say on at least a dozen interviews? our young guys dont know how to play defence yet. He's made the same comments MacT did, not complaining about the vets hacking on the young guys. Only difference MacT started naming names last season when he threw Penner under the bus.

    • Dan the Man

      I wouldn't call it BS, but I do agree that the common theme seems to be Quinn calling out the young guys (or more specifically the skill guys). I know I've missed some pressers, but I don't think I've heard refrence to Horcoff or Staios… and I can't think of more then one-two times where he may have been talking about Moreau. Meanwhile the skill seems to be taking alot of heat from the coaching staff.

  • Perfectly stated!! Good article!!

    "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!!"

    Captain M, best days are behind him ..and I feel all due to the consistent injuries he had over the years. The heart may be willing, but the performance..dictates…time for an ew captain to step up. A leader such as Souray could easily encourage the vets and teach the "kids" !!!

  • The problem with this, as pointed out by Tyler, is that the work effort from guys like Horcoff, Moreau, Pisani, Staios has always been there. That can't be questioned. These guys may or may not have had various levels of success in adapting their games to the systems Quinn has put in place, but I don't think there's a lot of attitude problems coming from these guys.

    Dustin Penner's brought a new attitude this season, and it's been a really big factor…he looks like he's interested in playing his heart out every night. Whether that's because he's realised that he's more talented than he believed, whether it's because he lost a couple of pounds, whether it's because he feels he's got more reins under Quinn…he's not the same player he was last year. If he was playing like he was last year, I expect that Quinn would be challenging him as well, just as MacTavish did. Since he's turned that corner? He's a welcome addition to the core.

    The players you mention are guys that are willing to get their nose dirty, and the bigger problem, bigger than any culture issue, to my mind, is that it is a different bunch of talented players…Gagner, Cogliano, Gilbert, Grebeshkov, O'Sullivan, Nilsson…who aren't always committed to playing in traffic, fighting for their spots, winning the battles along the boards. If I was going to be concerned with an attitude, it would be the attitude that it's okay to play the game without commitment to doing these things.

    I think Moreau is on his last legs with the team. He's lost a step, and he's holding on as a fourth liner now. But is HIS culture really an issue? He's taken bad penalties, that's true…but he's putting forth a consistent effort every night. He just can't do what he used to be able to. I would like to see the Oilers trade him this year if we can get anything for him…but surely most of the league can see what we can…that he's in the sunset of his career.

    Staios has actually looked pretty good playing his simple game this season. He might be slightly overpaid, but he's done well when he's been healthy this season. Better than I expected. I'd definitely take him for that money than say, Brent Sopel…who makes the same coin as the sixth/seventh d-man in Chicago.

    Horcoff had a tough start to the season, and having the contract he does, that amplifies the pressure on him from fans, from himself and probably to an extent from teammates. It has to be hard hearing EVERY day how much your paycheque is. Even if it's enough that you can go home and roll around in all your money. Despite what appears to be a pretty serious nagging shoulder injury (he's taking fewer and fewer draws in the last few games), he's seemed to turn the corner recently…he's quietly put together a five game point streak. He's consistent at playing a two-way game, whether he's scoring or not, and he's rarely outmatched when heads up against the other team's best guys, which can't be said for many people on the team.

    So here's the question…is this veteran core doing a lot of bad things that Quinn needs to change? Or do they have the work ethic that both Quinn and MacT have asked the team to demonstrate on a more consistent basis? I think it's more of the latter…which means that the culture change probably applies more to the players that aren't buying in heart and soul yet.

    But then, I've always thought it better that players took losing hard, and from the few murmurs of discontent last year, it sounded like the older players took it a lot more to heart than the younger guys. You'd like to think that it mattered to those guys, but at least, if it doesn't, some of those contracts would be a lot easier for Tambellini to move…

  • Robin, an interesting read but I don't buy into all of your reasoning for these reasons:
    – The vets, Staois, Souray, Horcoff, Moreau and Hemsky are all very intense & competitive in their compete levels. Each of course has different skill sets and ability but I don't see them indifferent to winning.
    -It's hard to teach old dogs new tricks such as the new game plan the new coaching staff has implemented. It will take some time to learn how to play the new system after 8 years of MacT's coaching.
    -There has been almosty no continuity in the team due to illness and injuries. Hell of a challenge to implement a new game plan with the revolving doors so far.

    Overall the team does not have enough talent to beat the top teams but they can play more competitivly than they have shown lately once they get their key players back and have a time to meld.
    Tambo does need to strengthen the team via trades as he does not have any other leaverage to move. Moving some of the vets other than Hemsky will be difficult because of their paychecks. I believe it is going to be a slow process to improve the talent on this team.
    Let Quinn and co. do their thing before trashing the core.

  • All these stories about changing the culture…What does this REALLY mean? Are you saying the vets are not trying and not being benched? Are the vets and the young guns not getting along? Do the vets resent the young guns cuz they don't seem to work as hard for what took years for the vets to get?

    Just saying the culture needs to change isen't enough information anymore. I want specifics.

    My guess about this team is it's not close. The older guys hang together or with their families and the young guys hang together as single guys would do in their situation. There's such an age gap and maturity gap there and it's preventing the team from truly gelling, and resentmet slowly builds.

    Anyways, that's my guess, but I'd sure love someone in the media to have the balls to actually give an example of the culture problem rather than dance around it.

  • VMR

    Reading a few of the other comments…

    I think the issue with this team is NOT with the vets. Yeah, Moreau is not as good, but is still better than most of the young pups on this team.

    I really think this team's youth is not as talented as we give them credit for. Guys like Gags, Cogs, O'Sullivan, Gilbert are all talented, but are not on the same level of youth on other teams which are thriving, like the guys in Chicago (Toews, Kane, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook), Philly (Carter, Richards, JVR) and other teams. I think we are expecting too much from them at this point. AT the very least, few of these young talents on the Oil have learnt what it takes to be successufl at this level on a consistent basis.

  • @

    Adamfromoilfan, Benhur, Matt

    Well said guys, I basically agree with the points.

    If the team wants to take away the "perks" the vets had, sure. But I don't really see them as the problem in the effort (save Hemmsky's practice) attitude, or distaste for losing catagories. I'd place those firmly on the non-core guys.

  • Agree with you Ogden Brother.

    Robin, from your replies in the comments field, it's like you're saying the vets haven't been playing well and they have a sense of entitlement, hence the culture change needed.

    I have watche every minute this year, and personally, I think the vets have been the best players, save for a few. It's on guys like Gilbert, Grebs, O'Sullivan, Cogs, Gags, Pouliot when he plays and others to bring it night in and night out. Go to the hard places, and sacrifice to do it.

    The funny thing is, some nights it does click. Usually it's when there's an example set by other Stone, JFJ, etc.. Hitting and effort should be contagious, but it's the one bug they can't seem to catch this year.

  • Get off it or get gone. It's real easy. Don't make defending somebody else's dickish approach — saying I think you're wrong wouldn't have drawn the same response from me as calling the item BS — the hill you die on here. Then again, that's up to you.

    Disagree with what I write with respect and you'll get a reasoned response back. Come in looking for a fight and you'll get one.

  • I don't understand, Brownlee, why are injuries not a legitimate excuse? Yes, good teams get past injuries, but we both know this is not a good team. Not yet, anyway.

    Tambellini may be making excuses, Rob, but he's got a point. The Oilers have been absolutely crushed by injuries and I think you've been around the game long enough to know that injuries do matter, despite the cliche that other players have to "step-up." Chorney does not equal Souray. That's just reality.

    To intimate that injuries are no excuse for this teams is downright short sited. The Oilers don't have the depth to handle being as short handed as they've been and their record reflects it.

    • Reggie

      Injured players are an excuse when u are being out-classed by a far better team. Injuries are not an excuse when u r losing due to boring, unispired, lazy playing. Our problem is that we are getting outworked on a nightly basis, on almost all areas of the ice.

    • Reggie

      It's an ongoing process, although it's not a stretch to suggest Quinn isn't completely happy with what he's seen.

      Also, and I'd assume you might know this already as a reader who contributes here often, I'm not guessing on this subject, even though some people might be thinking that's the case — "Hey Brownlee, give us more details. You're just speculating" and so on.

      Do you really think that, as a credentialed member of the MSM, I'd write something this critical of the veteran core based on no facts or flimsy information? I can't hide. I'm not writing from my basement. I've got to walk into that dressing room, like I did today, and look these guys in the eye. How long would I last and how much access would I have if I was tossing out BS with no foundation of truth? You think Horcoff or Souray or Moreau wants to read this stuff?

      I wish some of the people who posted on this item suggesting I'm full of it would think about that. I don't mind somebody taking me to task if they think my take on something is wrong, but to think I'd toss something like this out based on a whim or a guess shows no understanding of what I do.

      • Reggie

        Robin, that's a great explanation of the basis for your article and I think offers insight into the substance you have as a writer. Thanks for sharing.

        Just to comment on the subject, I often complained last year on why Moreau wasn't taken to task on his high number of minor penalties – so many taken in the offensive zone.

        Why Horcoff was the answer for everything ?

        Why the kids (i.e. not vets) seemed to have to be together in the room with little integration re: Gilbert changing places in the dressing room.

        Near the end of the year I also noticed Souray was one of the few vets who tried to integrate. There was one home game where Souray participated with the kids as they gave JDD the extra shots to end the practise. The kids really seemed to sympathize with his plight with Roli playing all those games in a row.

        My point to all the ramblings … there have been a number of hints we have all seen last year that keep pointing to issues and we all begin to wonder.

        Thanks for stating what we all have been suspecting as the wheels fell off at the end of the year.

  • @ RB

    I know you aren't guessing, that's way as an outsider it's so perplexing. I think I've got a fairly grounded opinion of the team and it's players and I find it so hard to think of anyone of the above group pushing back on system and team stuff. I guess I could see some of the guys not wanting to give up their extra perks (more off ice stuff)… but I can't really see a Staios or a Horcoff or a Souray refusing to buy in to the coaches message/systems… actually scratch that, I can see Hemsky being like that (said a few times I wouldn't be the least bit suprised to see him moved before the start of next season.)

    Other then that though, Moreau/Staios/Horcoff/Pisani/Souray all seem like hard working, team first guys.

    I guess if nothing else, this will keep the next 10 months interesting.