Burke and Lowe: Battle of the Bottom-Feeders

When Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe started in on each other in the summer of 2007, it was a case of two relative hockey heavyweights exchanging verbal haymakers in an over-the-top barrage that filled notepads and polarized fans in Anaheim and Edmonton.

Who’d have guessed then, with Burke and his Ducks coming off a Stanley Cup parade and Lowe’s Oilers one year removed from taking Carolina to Game 7 of the Cup Finals, their spat, since silenced by hall monitor Gary Bettman, would seem more like an NHL version of Bum Fights, a thumb-inside-the-fingers throw down between a couple of weaklings? That’s exactly how it plays today.

Lowe, who started the feud with his $21.25 million offer sheet to Dustin Penner, has since been removed as GM and bounced upstairs as director of hockey operations by friend and owner Daryl Katz. The Oilers are dead-last in the Western Conference as they face Detroit tonight and are looking like locks to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

Burke, of course, has since moved on to Toronto. Burke’s Maple Leafs are again skid marks in the Eastern Conference, sitting in 14th place, as his genius has yet to see the Buds distance themselves from their recurring role as laughing stocks.

Thumbs on the outside, boys.

Fighting Words

A sampling of the verbal hair-pulling and wedgies exchanged by Burke and Lowe down by the bike racks since the Penner offer sheet.

"I will not be announcing whether or not we will match the offer sheet to Dustin Penner. I’m coming back to Anaheim on Sunday and conferring with ownership.

"Kevin Lowe has been in Penticton. I certainly think this could have waited until Monday. I think it was a classless move, timing-wise. I was not notified of this until Dustin Penner’s agent faxed it in. I would have thought Kevin would have notified me. I thought that was gutless.

"I have no problem with offer sheets. They’re part of the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement]. But in my opinion, Edmonton has offered a mostly inflated salary for a player, and I think it’s an act of desperation for a general manager who is fighting to keep his job."

— Burke, July, 2007

"I just decided that this offer doesn’t make sense. If I believe these salaries don’t make sense and I match, then I’m just as dumb as the team that extended the offer. … We’re going to take the three draft picks and given Kevin’s recent performance, I expect them to be excellent picks.

"My anger isn’t with losing a player, that’s part of the business. I’m annoyed that the offer (dollars) impacts on 30 teams. This is highly inflationary to players in this age group. I’d be shocked if there’s not significant support in that view with my brethren."

— Burke, August 2007

"I’m not in the business of trying to make friends. Never have, never will be … Dustin was on a very short list of players we thought would compliment our hockey club. We see him as a guy who is capable of scoring 20-plus goals and he adds some size to our line-up.

"If Dustin continues to score goals at the clip he has been, at some point in his contract, he’s going to be highly underpaid. That’s a good thing."

— Lowe, August 2007

"If I had run my team into the sewer like that (the Oilers), I wouldn’t have thrown a grenade at the other 29 teams — and my own indirectly."

— Burke, October 2007

"Where do I begin? He’s a moron, first of all. Secondly, he really believes that any news for the NHL is good news. Thirdly, he loves the limelight, and I don’t think anyone in hockey will dispute that. Lastly, he’s in a pathetic hockey market where they can’t get on any page of the newspaper, let alone the front page of the sports, so any of this stuff carries on.

"He’s an underachieving wanna-be in terms of success in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup? Great. I’ve won six Stanley Cups. You want to count rings? Who cares? It’s just a little pathetic that he carries on."

— Lowe, July 2008

Here and now

Apparently, Burke and Lowe were both right.

The Oilers were unquestionably mediocre with Lowe running the show as GM, despite the eighth-place finish that turned into the unlikely 2006 Cup run. It’s difficult to argue a team sitting in 15th place in the West and pressed up against the salary cap isn’t in the sewer, no?

Lowe, conveniently, has been extracted from the stink he created by being shunted into the background by Katz, who inherited Lowe’s four-year contract extension from the EIG. Katz gave Lowe a soft place to fall and cash his cheques after a dismal 2007-08 season in which the Oilers went 41-35-6 and missed the playoffs for a second straight season.

Cleaning up the mess falls to Steve Tambellini, in his second season of inhaling the methane of deals done by Lowe, who bungled at the contract table after the brains of the front office, assistant GM Scott Howson, was hired by the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Lowe, hindsight tells us, was way too heavy on both terms and dollars in contracts he handed out after the summer of 2006. Maybe it was those six Stanley Cup rings weighing down his right hand.

Lowe overpaid Fernando Pisani for eight weeks of great hockey in the 2006 post-season. He tossed stupid money, in both terms and amount, at Shawn Horcoff. He overpaid for Sheldon Souray. All this, we know.

A fine mess

When it comes to the Oilers, Lowe’s heart has always been in the right place. There’s no questioning that. His head, at least in the business end of the job, is another matter.

— Contracts for Pisani, Horcoff and Souray aside, Lowe and former coach Craig MacTavish couldn’t seem to get on the same page in terms of defining how the Oilers would play and the players it would take to get the job done after the summer of 2006. There was a disconnect.

— With distinct challenges in attracting free agents to Edmonton, Lowe was put in the position of having to overpay to compete, and that played into some of his mistakes.

— Lowe was prone to chasing marquee names, like Marian Hossa or Jaromir Jagr. That’s not necessarily a problem, unless it happens at the expense of lesser but necessary priorities — hello, Petr Sykora, Curtis Glencross and Jan Hejda, to name three. Again, all this, we know.

Today, with the Oilers having just 24 points in the standings, Tambellini has a handful of contracts he can’t trade and new coach Pat Quinn has a roster full of players struggling with injuries and, it seems, indifference.

Of course, things aren’t any better in Hogtown, where Burke’s Maple Leafs look like sure bets to hand over a 2010 Entry Draft Lottery pick to Boston. Thanks to Bettman, we’re not hearing much from Burke or Lowe.

Then again, what could either one of them possibly say now?

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

  • Lofty

    Something that has not been mentioned is the fact that even though the Leafs might end up with the #1 pick, they don't get it to use it as it was traded along with their 2nd and next years first for Phil "ONE NUT WUNDER" Kessel!!!

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      Thing is Kessel is a former top 5 pick, so it's not like they got nothing at all.

      Also Tlusty was traded for Carloina first rounder from last year. I see there is a pretty decent markey out there. Wonder what Cogliano is worth then?

  • Lofty

    Burke was right in the fact that KLowe sucks.
    KLowe was right in the fact that Burke sucks.

    I hate Burke but at least he is trying to change some of his players. Better than sitting idol like Tambo.

  • Milli

    There are some bad deals here (see Horc) but I will always be a huge fan of Klo. I will bash him occassionally, but, the guy unquestionally has always done what he thought was best for our team, no matter the contoversy. In my heart, the same goes for MacT. We are doomed to the cellar, but how much of this is the presure we put on Canadian teams to always be competitive? Look at Chicago, Washington & Pittsburg, how many years did they absolutley SUCK in order to become powerhouses? How many young players have we run out of town because of monumental expectations and zero leeway? How many guys would rather sit on the beach with little to no presure than hang at West Edmonton Mall with a million pound weight around your neck? Oh well, thanks to the Riders and good ol Tiger Woods, I'm feeling pretty good today!!!!!

  • Bucknuck

    Souray was an attempt to replace Pronger.
    Penner was an attempt to replace Smyth.

    I feel critical about a lot of things Lowe did, but those two moves made sense to me, and Free agents + Edmonton usually equals overpay.

    • rindog

      I couldn't agree more.

      No one on this team has more goals than Penner does since he came to the Oilers.

      Souray was the best UFA defenseman available the year we got him…regardless of the price.

    • Dan the Man

      Yeah I don't think the Souray contract is as bad as some others. The main difference being that he was a UFA and the other bad Lowe contracts weren't.

      I think Souray was full value for his contract last year although he has struggled quite a bit this year but hopefully it's just due to "rust" from the concussion.

  • danjo1

    Hindsight is always 20/20 and I totally agree that Lowe overpaid those players. But with respect to the Penner contract (not to harp on you Robin, but you forgot to mention that… and seeing as it's the only bright spot this year I think it's worth mentioning), I don't think anyone could foresee his performance this year. I thought he would have a bounce back year, but he really has exceeded my expectations and those placed upon him based purely on his contract.

      • Tha Legion

        I don't think so.

        Isn't the mark of a good GM showing the ability to correct past mistakes, as big as they may be? Other GM's have shown the ability, Tambellini hasn't.

        Further to that, he hasn't appeared to even address the simple things either. Not that the simple things will turn the team around by themselves but there is a check list to be done in turning this team around and in the end it doesn't matter what order the check list is gone through.

        • Agreed.
          More accurately, Tambellini's situation has been dictated by the bad contracts Lowe did. That doesn't mean he should sit paralyzed by a bad situation. It's a tough spot, but curling up in the fetal position isn't the way to work your way out of it.

          • Dan the Man

            I would suggest that Tambellini compounded the problems when it comes to bad contracts and more specifically the problematic cap situation.

            He was in a position to see 7 mil come off the books last summer which would have given him some breathing room in riding out some of the other contracts. He basically traded that cap room for O'Sullivan and Khabibulin which ultimately just tightened the screws because of the length of their deals.

            At this point it's looking like a tall task to simply do houskeeping and minor tweaking. Ignoring Khabibulin's contract for a second, just having Cole's $4 mil come off the books clean could have gone a long ways in getting atleast something done that would show some real direction for the team.

          • Bucknuck

            Are you really saying that letting Cole go off the books for nothing was better than acquiring a young, fast 20goal scorer with upside? You're kidding right? I am sure if Tambo really badly needed caproom he could trade sully for draft picks and there would be a lot of takers.

            The Goalie thing has been beatten to death by Jonathan willis and Company and I am now convinced it wasn't the smartest move, but trading Cole was a good move.

          • Dan the Man

            Yeah, given the situation they were facing, I am.

            At the very minimum, O'Sullivan was a poor choice in return but overall, when I look at the state of the team and the contracts they are dealing with, I think the cap space would have to be considered a greater asset than what O'Sullivan brings.

            As for the young, fast, 20 goal scorer with upside – when do we get to see him? I see a smallish, underperforming forward with a significant contract instead.

          • Hemmercules

            I must be a little slow on the uptake today, are you saying I am going overboard or are you agreeing with what I am saying?

            If you are saying I am going overboard, please explain why you think so.

  • Bucknuck

    To piggy back on what Lowetide talked about on his blog, I think it is time for Katz to get involved. The problem he faces is kicking out some of the guys he has held as heroes…namely Lowe. It is all great and good to have a great player like Lowe involved in your organization, but there has to be a point where enough is enough. Granted, Lowe's interference in the team is becoming less and less, but the message it would send to the fans and the players themselves would be huge.

    It safe to say that Lowe has made some questionable signings, but there are a lot of other GMs who have done the same in their time…Snow and DiPietro, Savard's epic new deal and the Lecavalier deal till eternity.

    To blow up a team and overhaul it in this day and age is difficult. Sadly, us Oil fans probably need to cool our collective jets and get ready for a long rebuild…something that should have happened a few years ago. It is something that can get kickstarted by Katz pretty easily.

    • BarryS

      Dear Semi

      I'm getting tired of those who think the oilers work in a vaccum. The number of overpaid players not earning their contracts likely far outweigh the ones over earning their contracts.

      Get real, Lowe could not know Pisani would get the disease he got, could not know Horcoff would break his shoulder at it would take more than 2 years to get fixxed. Nor could he know Pronger would pull a Hank Snow and screw everything up totally. If those three things had not happened, we would not be first but likely be a lot higher.

      Unfotunately, good luck tops good management every time. Not I am saying Lowe was a good manager, but with his luck, no way he doing me any favours, I got troubles enough. Hind site is as wonderful as it is useless.

      Unfortunately the only one in Edmonton with any Hockey Luck since 1960 when I came here was Pocklington and we all know how badly he screwed that up. Unfortunately, his attitude of turning everything of value into money seems to have affected all those fans desperate to turn known resources in unknown draft choices/ players.

      There is no guarantee once tanked, we will ever get untanked. What Pocklington started with the sale of Gretz all those years ago, has not yet worked its way through the team.

      Been there, seen that, and the scars are not yet healed.

      • BarryS

        Hey, I agree with you. Looking back at the deals, they could have been gold. Unfortunately for us and Lowe, some turned out to be duds. What I am suggesting is that perhaps it is time to remove Lowe as one of the faces of the Oilers. Change the blood, stir the pot. The team should not be blown up completely as it is a tough task. But, it needs to begin somewhere, and it might as well start at the top of the top. Katz is the guy who has to do it.

        • Jason Gregor

          Katz already took a step in that direction by removing Lowe from the spotlight as GM. His new position is not a promotion, it's a move sideways and out of direct fire.
          Lowe will be allowed to draw his sizeable cheques through the end of his extension, at the very least.

  • Oilitsinyoutogive

    The worst part is that Tambo is handcuffed as far as any moves he could make. This team has a bunch of overpaid, underachieving players that he has no hope of trading.

    First, the salary cap makes it almost impossible to make deals, unless it is right before the deadline when the majority of a players salary has been paid already.

    Second, there are no GM's left in this league that can be distracted by something shiny long enough to be fleeced in a deal….speaking of which, I wonder if Milbury will leave CBC to GM a team again….."Dare to dream Arnold, Dare to dream!"

    • Dan the Man

      We see variations of the above day after day after day. I guess people are looking for excuses for the "new guy"?

      Who were the 5 top players to change teams this Summer?

      Gaborik/Pronger/Heatly/Hossa/Bowmester

      What teams did they go to?

      NY/Philly/SJ/Chi/Calgary

      Whats the common theme? 5 teams with as tight or tighter cap space as the Oilers have/had.

      Who were some of the names moved to help accomodate those trades/signings?

      Gomez/Lupul/Vandemer

      Some "tough contracts to move" … right?

      Ok, but we needed complementary players as much as we needed a star… the cap most have kept us from getting 1/2 of them as well, right?

      R Nieds 1 million/Siedenberg 2 million/Fiddler 1 million/Pyatt 600K/Lang 1 million/Goc 600K/Prospal 1 million/Grier 1.2/Williams 1.5 million/Eaves 500K/Dawes 850K/Betts 550K/Moen 1.5 million etc etc etc

      The stalling of the sallary cap creating the best buying opportunity for support players we've seen since the lock-out…. teams actually had leverage this year.

      The salary cap was not the issue people. The inability or unwillingness to move was.

      • BarryS

        The one thing you didn't account for, Bowmeister did not want to come here, he had to approve his trade, you know. The assumption behind all this noise is some or all of these players/wives/girl friends would want to come here. Please provide proof this would be so? Even Kahabbi only came for 4.5 million and 4 years.

        Until proved different, i.e. a number of FA's sign here, no one can discount the poor reputation of Edmonton as a reason no one comes. The proof will be if the FA's we want who are still here resign here, or go else where for less money. Hello Glencross.

        Anyone remember the last hometown discount we got? I don't.

      • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

        Well put OB. You do have a point and I agree that the Oil should have been able pick up support players to help shore up some key areas, such as the PK, Face-off and some size.

        While I did bring up the salary cap as a limiting factor, I should have also mentioned the Oil being at the limit for the number of contracts they can carry. Being near the cap max and contract max leaves the Oil is a position to make deals that are 2 for 1, 3 for two or 1 for draft pick(s). A problem with that is, not many teams are willing to take on this type of deal unless the cap dollars match. Yes, other teams traded away pricey players to get other guys in, but I hazard a guess that the dollars involved were probably similar. I may be wrong though.

        • Tha Legion

          Considering a bunch of those 50 contracts are career AHL'ers (and maybe even ECHL'ers) I don't think that's a valid excuse for inactivity either.

          Not 100% sure, but I also recall Gregor mentioning that a few contracts were ditched over the summer… meaning their was ample contract spots to wheel and deal.

          • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

            I think I remember Gregor saying that too, but as I remember the Oil had to sign a bunch of guys for the farm to help them compete. They needed it too, because they stunk!

            I think it is easy for us to sit back (and fun too) and say that Tambo should do this, K-Lowe should have done that, but it begs a question. Are the Oil too worried about hitting home runs with guys like Hossa or Heatley and not focusing on the overall good of the team? Sure, getting a sniper puts pucks in the net, but it doesn't make you bigger, more physical, win face-offs, kill penalties etc…

          • HansBaurMesserschmittWatson

            I see no reason why they couldn't have attempted to to both.

            I don't expect them to hit the home run (because their are only a few that move every year).

            But theirs no excuse for not addressing depth issues.

          • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

            They may have attempted to do both, but came up short…who knows. I agree that they should have dealt with the depth issues in the summer. They could have traded a guy like Pouliot (or someone similar)for a late pick. This would have freed up some cap and a spot for a face-off man? Just a thought.

          • I'm a Scientist!

            Ya they might have, which is fair enough. I did say it was either unwillingness OR inability though. Again, my point being that the salary cap is a cop out. It's either because they couldn't or wouldn't get deals done. Not because the didn't have the $$$

          • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

            I bring up Betts. Yes I know has been hurt, but that was because of some freak accidents. Yes I know he isn't north of 50%, but my god at 600k he is a better option then calling up some of the guys that we are calling up.

            Also, we Stone and Nilsson up who got sent down?

  • Gregors dirty 'stash

    Oh I didnt realize that, you know whats funny my buddy is taching him how to play guitar I geuss he plays guitar like he palys hockey "Very badly"

    • Dan the Man

      Pouliott? Maybe he's thinking of a career change?

      *Crosses fingers and then prays that Pouliott will become a guitar wizard the likes the world has never seen*

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Ducks tied with Oilers, last in the West. The Pronger curse is international.

    Oilers win 4-3. Let's get a good goaltending performance, and stay out of the box.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Yeah, there is no denying Lowe's heart or commitment – but things just just didn't pan out after 06 with the exception of Penner's play this year. It kind of makes you wonder " what could of been " if Horcoff,Pisani,Nillson etc. HAD lived up to ther contracts. Maybe we would be 2-3 spots higher every year.

    • Bucknuck

      20+ other teams passed up on Parise, too. The draft is in the hands of the scouts, not the GM.

      And hey, guess what – Parise is an under six foot tall little speedy guy. No one expected him to be as good as he is… and if he was a 50 point player everyone would be criticizing another little first round pick…

  • Dan the Man

    Every aspect of this article is bang on–the truth of the old expression, "wrestle with pigs be ready to get dirty", should have dissuaded these two from carrying on the way they did. Not only that, the heavy contracts, while symptomatic of the poor free-agent draw in Edmonton, were very knee jerk (at least in hindsight). My question is what can Tambellini do and why has he failed to act? Isn't he making the same errors as Lowe (ie: chasing Heatley all summer). It seems to me that there is no separation between the pre and post-Lowe era.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    At least Lowe only screwed one team up. Burke came went into a deep team in Anaheim and left it a mess. And drafting those sisters still seems to be doing nothing for Vancover.

    Now that the BS is done, Tambo has a fine mess to clean as you say but at the same time it's not like Tambo is left with completly useless players.

    Souray, Lubo, Grebs and Gilbert. From what I gather all 4 of those have some sort of value, do we really need 4 offensive d-men?

    Gagner, O'Sullivan, Cogliano, Brule, Comrie. 5 top 6/potential top 6 forwards. Do we really need all 5 of those?

    Not saying that is we move a couple of those guys we are all of sudden back in the playoff picture, but it's time to abandon whatever they visioned and make a more balanced team.