Defending Kevin Lowe

NHL General Managers Meeting

It’s become popular to blame Kevin Lowe for the travails of the Edmonton Oilers. No doubt he’s partially to blame; his contracts and unbalanced approach to roster building are part of the reason the Oilers are mired in 30th.

However.

Over the last two seasons, as fans began pining for the firing of Craig MacTavish, one of the rallying cries on message boards and in comments sections was “Eight years of mediocrity!” It’s a slogan that despite its appeal was never particularly accurate.

The pre-lockout Oilers teams were pretty good. They were actually incredibly good, considering the constraints the Oilers were working under at the time. In the first season of the new Lowe/MacTavish duo, the Oilers finished eight games over .500 (eight real games; no shootout nonsense) despite a $25.6 million payroll, 25% below the league average and just a hair over half that of their first round opponent, the Dallas Stars. They were the most cheaply built team in the playoffs. The next year the Oilers were six games over .500 and missed the playoffs by a single win, despite the fact that the gap had widened; they were now 30.0% below the league average and no team with a payroll as low as theirs made the playoffs. The Oilers made the playoffs again in 2002-03 (although this was probably the weakest team of the pre-lockout Lowe-managed Oilers) despite again slotting in at 75.0% of the league average. In 2003-04, the Oilers again missed the playoffs by a single win, and once again they were 30.0% below the league’s average salary.

There’s a simple clarity to boiling everything down to ‘’But they didn’t win anything;’ but it’s the clarity of the stupid. The simple fact is that no team in the league was able to compete while operating with the payroll the Oilers did; the Oilers spent just a hair over half of what the eventual Stanley Cup winners did in Lowe’s four pre-lockout years. So while it’s convenient to talk about eight years of mediocrity, the reality is that in the four years before the lockout, Kevin Lowe was among the best managers in hockey at getting bang for his buck.

In 2005-06, the Oilers went to the Stanley cup final with a deep and talented team that was nearly undone by Lowe’s inability to fix the goaltending until the trade deadline. The decision to gamble on Markkanen/Conklin was a reasonable one; both had extensive records indicating they might be starters, but leaving that tandem in place (along with Mike Morrison) was the lone mistake Lowe made in a season where he built the best team Edmonton has seen since the last remnants of the dynasty group were swept away.

The summer of 2006 ripped away the core of Lowe’s team. Chris Pronger’s trade request became the lightning rod for fan anger, but he wasn’t the sole (or even primary) reason for the team falling apart. Lowe’s decision to trade Pronger exclusively for futures (Ladislav Smid, draft picks, and ‘one-shot scorer’ Joffrey Lupul) did incalculable harm, but more than that key veterans either left, were allowed to walk or ended up on IR. This was the time to start a rebuilding effort, but Lowe resisted that, flailing about in pursuit of free agents, throwing big money at a series of either flawed or limited players (Sykora, Nylander, Souray, Vanek, Penner), overpaying the guys he could keep, and generally giving the impression he intended to win now. At the same time, however, the Oilers managed to break in 19 different rookies over two seasons, many in prominent roles, and while MacTavish did his best (throwing veterans like Torres, Stoll and Reasoner to the wolves in the process) it could not have been enough.

Essentially, the last two years of the Kevin Lowe’s management over the Oilers were a result of a fundamental strategic blind spot rather than a lack of hockey acumen; he tried to do two things at once: develop a whole new core of the team and win. Given his track record, Lowe probably could have done one of those things well, but in trying to do both he ended up essentially wasting two seasons.

While it’s only fair to point out those mistakes, it’s still worth noting that Lowe had five good years before he had his two bad years; five years in which he had a clear directive (ice a competitive team on the cheap) that he fulfilled well. Only once in seven seasons did Kevin Lowe’s team lose more games than it won.

In the summer of 2008, Steve Tambellini was named as Lowe’s replacement. In the 132 games since his hiring, the Oilers are 24 games under .500. The current edition of the team, the one put together after an entire year of reviewing needs and one angry coach-dismissing press conference, is worse than any team ever put together while Lowe was in the G.M.’s chair, and at this point seems likely to be the worst team in the history of the franchise.

Maybe Kevin Lowe is still pulling strings in the background. I don’t know, and outside of the hockey operations department and Daryl Katz I don’t think there are many people who do. But given the entirety of his record and the absence of sweeping changes (a hallmark of the Lowe years, both pre- and post-lockout) since Tambellini’s hiring, I don’t think it’s fair to pin the blame squarely on Lowe.

  • The fact of the matter is that Lowe (like Slats) was good at managing on a tight budget. Once the purse strings opened up he kind of lost his mind a bit.

    I'm not suggesting that he hasn't had some success in the past. I just think that those glory days are over and he can't escape that he is at least partially responsible for the current state of the team.

    I have no idea what K-Lowes's actual role is now (was it JW that said he was VP in charge of remembering the 80's?) but they need to make a clean break from that era if they want to move forward. The hope was that Tambo would be that fresh start but it is apparent and obvious that he has not done the job. Whether this is because someone else is pulling the strings or for some other reason remains to be seen.

    • Interesting comparison with Slats' first few years in NY. I recall Slats signed every high priced free agent around and the team stunk. Just before the lockout year he literally gave away half of his team for nothing( Nedved came to the Oil). I think over the next year the Oil will need to do something similar. Souray, Moreau, Staios may not be tradeable in a real sense and will have to be given away (Mckenzie had a similar thought last night although he didn't mention names). As for Horcoff I see no option but to for Katz to accept the titanic error they have made and pay him millions to play in the AHL.

  • RE: Quinn as G.M.

    He wouldn't be my pick, but he did a fairly good job in Toronto (all things considered) and of the internal candidates certainly has the best resume.

    I'd personally go with an outside hire, but I think Quinn's the only internal guy I'd seriously consider.

  • Ender

    Well written, JW. Katz could do a lot worse than move Quinn into the big chair for next season. Now that Quinn has an ice-level view of the needs of this team, it will be a lot easier for him to be movated to address those needs in the off-season. Combine that with Renney's previous experience and ability to step in as the Head Coach and I think the old phrase "It's nice to see a plan come together" can be applied. I bet Tambo wishes he could be a part of that plan, but I don't see that a promotion upstairs is in the cards this time.

  • Again, to clarify: it was time for Lowe to go, and it may be time for him to leave the organization permanently.

    But he did a lot of good things over his first five years, and he should get the credit for them that he rarely does.

    Lowe's chief weakness, as I see it, is that he has no gift for strategy. Given a clear mandate by the EIG he fulfilled it well, but in a muddled situation with all kinds of money available he tried to do too much and ended up doing not much at all

    And while the current team is partially his fault, I think management has gotten worse with Tambellini at the helm.

    • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

      Maybe Katz should give a budget then. Would it then possibly make Tambo think before making a decision like signing a 35+ injury prone goalie?

      • I think that Katz wanted it. Since Katz has taken over as owner there have been a lot of "splash" moves or attempted moves as a means to show that there is money to spend.

        For example

        –offering Hossa the 80 plus million dollar contract and then continually chasing him to reconsider even though it was clear he didn't want to be here. This offer was the reason they couldn't get the scratch together to sign Glencross.

        –the on again off again courtship of a washed up over the hill Jagr at ridiculous money figures.

        –the Heatley debacle.

        –Khabby

        Since Katz has been owner there has been more of an emphasis on getting big names even though they don't necessarily make sense from a hopckey standpoint or what the team needs. Lowe got Pronger but that was a move that made sense as opposed to simply being a big name to appease the masses.

  • Dan the Man

    Was Lowe solely responsible for the Moreau, Pisani, Staios and Horcoff contracts?

    I know that ultimately the final decision on the contracts falls on him but isn't most of the contract work done by an assistant GM with advice from the capologist and ownership?

    I could be wrong but that's how I thought it worked.

  • Interesting stuff JW.

    When he was forced to, Kevin Lowe found value contracts and put together a reasonable team.

    When those restraints were taken off post lockout with new ownership, he totally @#%& the bed.

    You look at what Don Maloney has done in Phoenix, and its very similar to what Lowe did pre-lockout.

    Maybe Maloney would make big mistakes like Lowe if he had Lowe's budget?

    When Glen Sather was the Oilers' GM he once said that if he had an unlimited budget he would win every year.

    Then after essentially having that in NY, he has been a disaster.

    It seems that bigger budgets don't make you smarter, they have a habit of magnifying your mistakes, and making you look dumber.

    You probably make some silly decisions because you feel a new freedom with a bigger budget.

    Throwing $$$ at the problem obviously isn't working. They need to throw brains at the problem.

    Where we sit we know Kevin Lowe had a brain, but may not anymore. We do not know if Steve Tambellini has one, but given his moves it could be debatable.

  • RE: Horcoff:

    I generally have kept out of the Horcoff debate the last little while, mostly because I'm way out of step with the majority thinking on the player.

    The last two guys the Oilers ran out of town who were taking all the defensive zone draws and were getting killed by on-ice save percentage were Stoll and Reasoner. Both rebounded. So too will Horcoff.

    Horcoff's contract is too rich for what he brings. But the fact is that he's the only veteran centre on this team, and if Tambellini moves him he needs to find a replacement with a similar skill set – a skill set he's already short on.

    With the Oilers as they are now, I wouldn't move him. I'd consider moving him once the team has options to replace what he brings, but at the moment they don't.

    • Bucknuck

      I am agreeing with you and Ogden Brother far too much of late, but, once again I agree with your take on Horcoff.

      Yeah he's overpaid, but the team is better with him than without him. He has heart, but right now his hands aren't following . He has lots of years ahead of him and I can't believe that he won't be better next year.

    • GSC

      Thing is, I doubt Tambellini could move him now given his salary…even if the rumours are true, no one is lining up to take Mr. Wonderful and his $5.5 MIL cap hit.

      Now, if Tambellini actually had some takers, and considering the Oilers can't get much worse, why NOT move him? Players with his "skill set" are much cheaper.

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    I think it is time for ownership to bring in new management for the Oil. Instead of pointing fingers at certain individuals they should bring in new management familiar with the NHL cap system. It is obvious that this core of management are pretty much responsible for worst season in Oiler history. Last place is unacceptable to a team with such of a rich history and a loyal fan base.

  • The Real Scuba Steve

    Klowe lacks the knowledge to have a long term plan. He either paniced or knew exactly what he was doing(paying back friends) when he signed the vet's. With this season possibly the worst in Oiler history and with TSN commenting on "blowing up" the Oilers, how can this be Tambo's vault?

    As long as Klowe remains in the Oiler organization the Oil will remain in the bottom tier. You don't have to believe me, just ask Bob McKenize from TSN. I believe he knows a thing or two about the subject.

    Klowe was a hockey player who won a few Stanley Cups. He had no formal background to be a GM nevermind President of Hockey operations. How are the rest of the teams in the Oiler nation doing? Seems to me they all occupy bottom positions.

    Klowe is squarely to blame.

    • Bucknuck

      I am trying to figure out if you are a troll or seriously believe what you just wrote.

      Klowe is squarely to blame for giving us a cup run in 2006, if you want to start putting everything on him put the good with the bad.

      You don't pull that off with luck alone.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      "As long as Klowe remains in the Oiler organization the Oil will remain in the bottom tier. You don't have to believe me, just ask Bob McKenize from TSN. I believe he knows a thing or two about the subject."

      I love statements like that.

      As long as WT posts here, Oilersnation will never hit the big time.

  • Bucknuck

    Hi Jonathan,

    You are wrong to suggest that no team in the NHL was able to compete while operating with the payroll the Oilers had in the pre-lockout days. From 2000/01 to 2002/03, Vancouver and Ottawa had similar payrolls and generally outperformed the Oilers. In the years 2002/03 and 2003/04, four clubs with smaller payrolls outperformed the Oilers.

    It is fair to say that Kevin Lowe was disadvantaged financially prior to the lock-out. However, there were GMs in similar situations who found ways to field very competitive teams.

  • It is true that for a long time Lowe made an awfully lot of good moves and outside of the Weight move, the biggest dent in his armor – albeit a sizable one – was tying up too much money in/and or relying and believing in Tommy Salo. The club had an approach of blocking shots and building around a defense first approach and beating the bushes for affordable dman and eventually that and the maturation of the 10 and 16's and 83's lead the Oilers to the Finals.

    But once Lowe seemingly decided to look out for the best interests of Pronger instead of the team then it all fell apart and as bad as it is now it would have been worse if ideas like Vanek and Nylander hadn't fallen through.

    Now you hear Tambo espousing some of the same ideas as Lowe did just before he activated his golden parachute and it appears that Tambo's nothing more than a puppet and that's the reason why I think Lowe's influence has to be totally purged from the org.

    We need new ideas and a new approach and as Warren Zevon's doctor once said to him, " the **** that used to work, it won't work now."

  • oilerdago

    JW:

    Great article and some great comments along the way.

    Agree with your sentiments on Tambellini. He was handed a mess but has only compounded the problem by acquiring a smurf for an expiring contract (POS for Erik Cole); overpaying for a goalie with a history of injury who was well past the expiration date; wasting a summer by waiting on Heatley and not addressing the real holes in the lineup.

    I would agree that KLowe did many good things before he was given a budget (his smaller deals worked out far better than his big deals – save for the acquisition of Pronger and Roli). But for the reasons you point out he should not escape the wrath.

    I would add this. Maybe he felt he could not publically admit he was in the middle of a re-build when the thing blew up with Ryan Smyth, but that was the straw that broke the org's back and the team has not been the same since.

    Or perhaps it was hubris – he really thought he was the smartest guy in the room?

    The one area that's not broken right now is what happens in amateur scouting and the draft. Aside from that, it's not pretty.

  • @J:

    Average payroll vs. average performance, 2000-01 to 2003-04.

    Ottawa: 30.6 MM, 104.5 PTS = 3.42PTS/MM
    Vancouver: 32.7 MM, 97 PTS = 2.97PTS/MM
    Edmonton: 28.7 MM, 91.5 PTS = 3.18 PTS/MM

    So Edmonton fits squarely in the middle of those two franchises. Of the three teams, only Ottawa (lost in the EC Finals one year) was able to win more than one playoff round in the four years.

  • Poo Czar

    ALTERNATE THEORY:

    Tambo is actually an evil genius! Katz demands superstars, nobody will sign, trades are impossible, draft only option available. Can't get by on just one Superstar, so gotta stockpile a few.

    But Edmonton will never tolerate a management team TRYING to lose, so spend unwisely to the cap in the APPEARANCE of doing your damndest to win! 4 years to old breakable goalie that won't ever come off the books! Reward old & busted soldiers!

    Fastforward 4 years – Multiple top 3 picks! Bunk contracts off the books! Fill in the blanks like the competent GM you were pretnding not to be and PRESTO! Cup contenders for a decade! Gimme my new areana!

    *smokebomb exit*

  • misfit

    Lowe made some great moves in the dawn of the new NHL, but I don't know how much of that was him being a shrewd GM, or just lucky. St. Louis had Pronger, Weight, and Tkachuk making big money, and Pronger was the only guy without a NTC but one of them had to go. It turned out to be Pronger and Edmonton all of a sudden had cap room, and a cheap young defenseman to send the other way. Peca was a similar situation. The Islanders chose not to buy out Yashin when it wouldn't affect their cap, and he and Peca were dividing the room.

    The deadline moves were good, but there's no excuse for waiting until the deadline to get a starting goaltender in the first place. It was sheer dumb luck that they didn't miss the playoffs, and that can be contributed directly to Lowe sitting on his hands for the first 60 or so games of the season. If Vancouver didn't suck worse than us down the streatch, there wouldn't have been a cup run, nor would there have been a defense for Lowe.

    Tambellini's incopetance is a completely different issue, and not the fault of Lowe to the extent that so many Oiler fans like to say it is.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I'm still having a hard time seeing the whole 'Tambellini is Lowe's puppet' thing that gets tossed out there.

    I see enough difference in how the team has been operated before and since Tambellini was hired on to disprove it.

    What I am more concerned about is how much influence there is by Katz when it comes to all the big game hunting they tend to get caught up in. If his finger prints are on that at all, this club is in trouble no matter who is sitting in the GM's chair.

    • Tambellini's team will finish with the worst team in Oilers history. I'm not sure if they'll even get to 40 points. They'll most likely finish below 50 points. While Lowe was GM they never finished below 70 points. When Lowe saw a need, he tried to fix it with a trade. Why isn't Tambellini giving Quinn/Renney the players to compete. He's not doing a damn thing.

  • Poo Czar

    Hey Willis, I hope you're getting some kinda kickback for sneaking in a pic featuring a Score logo…

    Oh, and agree with the love for this article. Good stuff.

  • Poo Czar

    Hi Jonathan,

    Ottawa and Vancouver each made the play-offs every year during the period of 2000/01 to 2003/04. Each team finished first in its respective division twice during that period, ensuring a favorable playoff match-up in the first round. Ottawa even won the President's Trophy in 2002/03. In short, each club was very competitive in the seasons prior to the lock-out.

    How many play-off rounds each team won is not important What is important is that each club 1) made the play-offs every year and 2)generally ensured a good match-up in the first round. Given that each club had a pay-roll that was similar to the Oilers, at least during 2000/01 to 2002/03,it demonstrates quite clearly that some teams were able to compete with a smaller than average pay-roll.

    Points per million dollars spent, the formula you used in your response to my original post, measures bang for the buck and is not the standard you want to use in this argument. Case in point: the Minnesota Wild outperform Edmonton, Vancouver and Ottawa according to this measure. The Wild averaged 79.75 points during 2000/01 to 20003/04 and had an average payroll of $20.2 million. That gives them 3.94 points per million dollars spent. If we examine the entire league using this measure, we may find that several teams are outperform the Oilers.

  • Good article and good posts JW.

    I agree with comment that with Big $ he has no strategic vision – which is too bad because one of his closest colleagues on and off the ice – Wayne Gretzky – had a simple philosophy.

    Be strong up the middle – goaltending and centers. Look at where the Oil are weakest today. If you have that – you build out from there but that's where the $ should have been spent.

    • Chris.

      I disagree… Having big dollars for a change finally gave Lowe the ability to realize his strategic vision: a vision that has been a complete catastrophe. Lowe bit hook, line, and sinker into the belief that the "New NHL" would be a lot different than the pre-lockout NHL.

      Tambellini has only made things worse.

  • Hey all.

    If you're wondering why some comments have been removed, it's because someone was posting as "Rich Winter" (Ritch Winter is a player agent in the NHL) and making comments where he was representing himself as "Ritch Winter."

    I received a phone call this morning from Mr Winter's office asking me to remove the posts, since they weren't actually made by him.

    This kind of behaviour is unethical, a violation of the OilersNation comments code, and will not be tolerated. The (anonymous) user who posted these comments has had his/her IP banned.

    Just thought you ought to know.

    Thanks,
    bingofuel.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Excellent bit of clarity there JW. I am not sure what the management structure of the team has been since Tambellini has come on board (i.e. to what level he has been in charge), but it is important to be honest and accurate with critisism. I think this is an excellent piece identifying what Lowe has done well and what he has failed at.