The Rebuild Conundrum, Part II

NHL Board of Governors Meeting

Yesterday, we looked at the difficulties with assuming that a lottery pick is a magic bullet that fixes a team’s problems. Because there’s so much more to building a team than just finding a superstar and then glomming random players around him, a bad general manager can make even the greatest pick almost completely irrelevant.

The problem is that the kind of managers who see their teams fall into a position to make a lottery pick are generally the same kind of managers who have that sort of reverse-Midas touch.

The Oilers didn’t spend their season preparing to tank. Steve Tambellini didn’t come back after a year of assessing and say, “we need to blow this roster up.” No, he came back and said he didn’t like the culture of the team and he didn’t like the lack of grit, and he addressed those things by firing Craig MacTavish and bringing in Pat Quinn, who in turn stuck J-F Jacques on the first line.

I’ve been over Tambellini’s summer time and again, and I won’t go into detail here. He did a bad job, and we all know it. He didn’t address holes in the lineup, he put too much emphasis on the coaching change, and he signed an aging, injury-prone goaltender coming off his first good season in four years to a four year contract, and did it with an unproven backup. While he was stuck on culture, tangible problems – like the penalty kill, and the team’s imbalance up front and on the back end – went completely unaddressed.

Now, there are indications it perhaps wasn’t entirely his fault. We know that owner Daryl Katz has meddled in the past, including an attempt to sign Georges Laraque to a four-year deal. Thankfully, Laraque wanted to play in front of his mother, and thus signed in Montreal, where things have gone disastrously. We also know that Kevin Lowe gave him a fairly tough place to start, signing disappointing veterans to long-term, big-money deals. We know that the Oilers AHL affiliate has been a black hole under assistant general manager Kevin Prendergast. We also have reason to suspect that cap guru Rick Olczyk may not understand NHL waiver rules.

There is plenty of blame to go around at this point. But before I buy into the notion that a rebuild will fix this team’s problems, I want to see blood*. And not this guy’s blood:

Despite two seasons of diminishing returns, the only people in the Oilers organization to pay a price for failure have been the coaches. With the exception of Kelly Buchberger and Rob Daum (who already spent some time floating in limbo), the coaching staff has been gutted: at the NHL level, the AHL level and the ECHL level. It hasn’t made a positive difference, and it’s possible to argue that it has in fact made things worse. Aside from those sacrificial lambs, the only other thing I’ve seen to suggest that the Oilers are making changes to adjust for managerial incompetence are the constant revisions of when Steve Tambellini took full control of the team – originally when he was hired, then at the 2009 trade deadline, then in the summer of 2009 and finally back in January.

Suffice to say that despite incredible managerial incompetence, the managers remain safely employed. That needs to change this summer.

I don’t want to see superficial change, either. I expect the team will elect Kevin Prendergast as the next scapegoat; the AHL performance has been poor, there are some unfortunate draft picks that can be pointed to, he wasn’t hired by Steve Tambellini and there were whispers that he was going to get fired last summer.

The changes cannot stop there. Whatever Prendergast’s faults, he isn’t the one who put together this edition of the Oilers. He didn’t hang a bunch of contractual millstones around the neck of the team. He didn’t sign Nikolai Khabibulin without looking into his dehydration issues or injury record.

The blame here falls on Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini. Every decision made by this team since the summer of 2006 can be traced back to one of those two men. Lowe made a bunch of them, but was allowed to jump above the fray and bring in Tambellini. Tambellini has continued in the same vein, all the while talking about what an asset Lowe is as a source of counsel.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for change. It’s one of the items that was pointed to by people who believed MacTavish was a good coach but still wanted him gone. It’s been used by both fans and the general manager to justify the Grebeshkov trade – he may not have been the problem, but what the Oilers had wasn’t getting the job done.

Personally, I agree that there’s a need for change. But I don’t see any reason to believe that this change should be confined to the lower and middle ranks of the organization, because I don’t see any reason to believe that the majority of problems are coming from anywhere other than the top. My personal solution goes something like this:

The Oilers organization has the option of treating either the symptoms of the disease or the disease itself. The scorched earth rebuilding model should do a fine job of removing the symptoms, given enough time, but if the disease stems from the top then no amount of turnover among the players, coaches, scouting staff or low-level managers is going to eradicate it. The only way to end bad management is to bring in different managers.

I don’t see that happening, and that’s why I remain gloomy about the Oilers future despite the likelihood that they’ll attempt a proper rebuild.

*metaphorical blood, not literal blood.  I’d hoped that was obvious but felt I’d better clarify.

  • Bucknuck

    Management and coachings top priority(yearly goals ) is to motivate and get quality work from those workers (players) each and every year . Failure to do so and your out of a job . How would you rate Oiler management on this major criteria ?

  • Bar Qu

    If someone in the street calls my beloved Oilers a "festering pile of pustulence" then I pull their sweater over their head and start feeding them a little Oiler Stortini sauce..

    Sorry, I'm having a little trouble understanding; are you defending the worthwhileness of this team? The worst compilation that has ever been iced wearing the jersey of the magnificent Oil?

    Yeah, I love the Oilers too, but this team is not my Oilers.

    • Bucknuck

      "Sorry, I'm having a little trouble understanding; are you defending the worthwhileness of this team? The worst compilation that has ever been iced wearing the jersey of the magnificent Oil?"

      I would take this situation over the 1993, 1994, & 1995 versions. Those were terrible years. And I had three Vancouver fans as roomates in 1994 – brutal. I think they are playing poorly, but I have hope for next year. It's what fans do.

      • I have hope for the future as well. Of course with Tambo in charge my hopes far exceed my expectations. The Staios deal was fantastic. I'm even OK with the Grebs one. On the whole I'm more than underwhelmed at his performance thus far and I have every reason to suspect he will continue down this road into the future.

        You know what else fans do? They complain when the product on the ice stinks and the management doesn't appear to be addressing the obvious needs in order to improve the product. We still cheer for the team but have every right to question (mis)management if we feel that it is hurting the franchise.

  • VMR

    Like Brownlee said at the deadline, Tambellini's moves bought him some time. If he can draft well, clear some more contracts over the summer, not make some horrible signings of overage worn down has beens, and continue to move this team forward then maybe he deserves a chance.

    If however we see Jagr signed for 4 seasons and crazy terms and money thrown at players who havent shown they deserve it or would be paid similar elsewhere then it's time to go. I still think this mess is mostly Lowe's legacy and failed attempts to bring in superstars. I think he had a part in these decisions and I think Katz might be party to it as well. Hopefully they've learnt their lesson, if not there should be a ton of job openings not just Tambellini but everyone involved in the Hockey operations.

  • Bucknuck

    Fans complain all the time. Heck, I even remember people complaining about the team in the eighties. It's our right. I didn't mean to imply it wasn't.

    Remember when Penner was garbage no one would want, and no one would want any of our D men except maybe Souray and Smid. Staios had an unmovable contract. Seems those viewpoints were just plain wrong, just like I don't think the Oilers position is as absolutely untenable as people are making out.

    All that aside I am not a fan of Tambellini and his rhetoric thus far, I just don't think you need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Karth

    suprise– Mr.Willis has once again reminded us of how gloom and doom every single thing associated with the Oilers is. You sir, are the leader of all the idiots that i am forced to sit beside that yell "shoot" every time an Oiler gets the puck in the O-zone. Why dont you try writing anything positive…you know glass half full. Like..I dont fully appreciate the funding model for the arena, but it is a very exciting and inspiring project. Or…you know we have some bad contracts on our team, but we are not the first nor will we be the last team to have one. Because in a business where you are investing in athletes there is no sure thing.

  • Klima's Bucket

    The rebuild won't take long. In my opinion if we sign two players this summer and stay healthy we are in good position for a 5th-8th place finish.

    Sign Colby Armstrong and Anton Volchenkov.
    Re-Sign Mike Comrie at his current salary.

    Draft Hall or Seguin and stay HEALTHY and we will be fine.

    Thoughts?

  • Salsa Shark

    I can see how people would be upset over some of the choices: Khabi's contract, no PKers, but I think the extent of the criticism is way over the top when the actions can be explained. (sorry, this will go long)

    The main goalies people wanted were Biron, Anderson, Khabi(one or two people) or to keep Roli. Anderson seems to have been the right answer in retrospect, but he was an unproven goaltender. His contract shows that was the perception around the league. If he had been signed and not performed as he has, people would have just as easily said "What kind of idiot doesn't sign an experienced goaltender to be the backbone of a rebuilding team. Anderson couldn't even keep a job in Florida!!!"

    Biron was also hoped for by many, but Roli has taken on the starter role on the island so…ya, not best choice. And finally Roli has performed like the starter he was last year with 2.93 and .907 as his stats. Good! Also would have been alright, but Roli also lost his job to Garon not that long ago, so not necessarily a sure deal either.

    I believe by choosing Khabi, they in reality chose their young tenders. Knowing that Khabi doesn't play as much as Dwayne they could break in whichever young tender performed better while maintaining a veteran as the backbone(perhaps poor choice in words) in tough times. This would give the young tender time to develop from a 30-gamer to a 40 to hopefully a 50-60 as the starter. This may not be what they intended but I also think its a sound theory.

    As for no PK'ers. We had too many tweeners. A lot of them will end up junk but when you cut bait like many wanted them to, you take a big risk. If you let them go and they do well in another town you will be blamed for not giving them a chance. So its reasonable to give them a shot and see what they do. Brule did alright in the AHL but not enough to show he could be a 20-goal guy in the NHL until he got here. Potulny looked like an AHL lifer until we saw him in the bigs as well. Pouliot also looks like a keeper if he can stay healthy based on his play since coming back from injury. If we had signed 1 or 2 UFA PK'ers would we have seen as much of these guys as we have now? Jacques, Minard, O'Marra, McDonald and to a lesser extent Stone have furthered themselves from NHL contracts this year because of play and/or injury and that is valuable too. So please try and see at least a bit of the positive from the choices management has made even if you still condemn them. It will make life here easier for all.

  • Ducey

    Karth, I agree (though maybe not in such harsh terms). I like Willis' writing generally but this constant whine about Bulin et al is tiring. Deep down he believes he would make better GM than most GM's. He likely would find it harder than he thinks to run a million dollar organization and make decisions ahead of time rather than criticise them after the fact – if he ever came out of his mom's basement.

    He and other focus too much on the Oilers and ignore what is going on with other teams.

    Example: Has Sutter in Calgary drafted well? Has he made good trades? Has he had a rotation of coaches? Cap managment? He ran out money last year and had to dress less than a full team for God sakes. The reality is that he and his team get by because they have core of 3 guys that carry the team – year after year.

    Scott Howson was cited around here as a good GM. How about now? Did he turn into an idiot in 1 year?

    How come Sather was great in Edmonton but sucks in New York?

    Billy Beane was a celebrity genius in baseball with the book "Moneyball" but what has he done lately? It seems apparent that he was the beneficiary of three damn good starters. Since they have left, the A's have not been good.

    The so called best GM's have a small core of players that they can count on year after year. They have cirucumstances – name the last GM that looked good at the beginning of a rebuild (Burke sure doesn't in TO). They have luck.

    Tambi has never had a good core, nor have the Oilers since it blew up after their cup run a few years ago. What core he did have underperformed (Penner last year) or got hurt (Hemsky, Souray, etc) this year. Tambi sure as hell has not had any luck and the circumstances he has been put in are not great.

    Lets say Willis was GM had got a couple of checking line guys and a goalie for the short term last summer. Would that have made difference this year with all the injuries? Maybe the Oilers would be fourth last – big deal.

    I don't see any genius in the way the Hawks and Penguins were brought back from the dead. They drafted a bunch of guys that were not much in dispute, were patient and had a bit of luck (what if Crosby had a major career ending injury or never was even around in the first place?). Chicago has some late round guys who have helped but in the end its the high first rounders that carry the team.

    Tambi has a heck of lot of patience, he seems to be focused on the right kind of hockey players. I don't see anything so far to show he can't steer the ship.

    Now if he goes after a whale in the FA market this summer (like Kovulchuk) then I will be right there at the lynching with you.

    • Kind of ballsy for an internet commenter to take shots at a blogger with the "living in mon's basement" isn't it? Pot calling the kettle black much?

      Read the full library of JW's excellent work before you start casting stones. It isn't just 3 players that makes a team good it is guys outplaying their contracts. In Calgary (although they may not really be "good" anymore) GlenX, Bourque (on this year's deal anyway) and Giordano all play at a level that is way better than they are currently getting paid. Combine that with some stars that pull their weight and all of a sudden you have a pretty good team.

      All in all the old adage about arguments on the internet being like winning the Special Olympics still applies. Even if you win you're still retarded.*

      * I recognize this also applies to me.

      EDIT:I recognize that you say that you generally like Willis' writing but many of the items you point out as examples have been touched on or addressed by JW in the past.

    • Chris.

      This is why I'm in favor of Katz using someone other than Lowe to review Tambellini's performance to date rather than outright turfing him…

      IMO, Tambellini has made some okay, and some not so okay moves… But we can't ignore that he not only failed to improve his marginal team, he helped it crash into the league cellar. His goalie is old, his coach is the oldest, and his list of excuses are right out of the Kevin Lowe handbook. No GM should run a team this far under without having his decisions subject to internal scrutiny.

  • I think that this season has provided the organization with a complete change of direction.

    One thing about tambellini is that he has the patience for a rebuild.

    And the right focus, "Build the prospect depth chart"

    He is the anti- Brian Burke

    • Chris.

      I don't know so much

      Up until 2 years ago, he was an employee in Vancouver, and it was Nonis' team.

      His first major offseason here was spent on trying to hit homeruns, instead of building this team incrementally.

      He has no body of work that suggests he's a patient GM

      that said, I still think he can be the right man for te job, despite what some stats guy thinks about him.

  • Chris.

    The other night I was talking to the GM and assistant GM of Ottawa (amazing who you see at Sherlock Holmes pub the night before a game) and they thought Seguin instead of Hall would be a better fit for the Oil, based solely on a lack of depth at center for the Oilers in the farm system (they were referring to Eberle and the Sweede). I asked them for two things… to beat the Oilers so we could complete our quest for the DFF and to bring the Cup back to Canada at least. Each comment brought a good chuckle from them. Ho ho ho and a bottle of rummm…..

    Forrestt

  • @ Ducey:

    Karth, I agree (though maybe not in such harsh terms). I like Willis' writing generally but this constant whine about Bulin et al is tiring.

    Uh huh. This article wasn't a complaint about Khabibulin, this article was me explaining why I don't have confidence in the management of the Oilers and their ability to direct a rebuild. Part of that is the Khabibulin signing.

    And honestly, better get used to it. Three more years.

    Deep down he believes he would make better GM than most GM's.

    Thanks for the psychological assessment. I'm here to provide analysis, so I analyze. Part of that involves critiquing GM's. It's the same thing every hockey analyst on the planet does.

    He likely would find it harder than he thinks to run a million dollar organization and make decisions ahead of time rather than criticise them after the fact

    Please point to the decisions criticized above that I didn't criticize at the time. Pick out one. You can't, because I did criticize them. As for decisions I supported that have turned out badly – for example, the Patrick O'Sullivan trade – you'll notice I don't bust Tambellini's chops about those ones, because I thought that the decision was a good one at the time. Your implication that I'm a hypocrite is dishonest.

    – if he ever came out of his mom's basement.

    Classy.

    He and other focus too much on the Oilers and ignore what is going on with other teams.

    Uh huh. See that link above, the one that points to part one of this article? Go read it. It points to other teams. And speaking of other teams, it turns out I do write about them a little bit – almost 200 articles in 2010. Feel free to browse.

    Example: Has Sutter in Calgary drafted well? Has he made good trades? Has he had a rotation of coaches? Cap managment? He ran out money last year and had to dress less than a full team for God sakes. The reality is that he and his team get by because they have core of 3 guys that carry the team – year after year.

    There's a website called FlamesNation, this is OilersNation. Still, I'll forgive you since you're obviously dying for my analysis. Go nuts.

    Scott Howson was cited around here as a good GM. How about now? Did he turn into an idiot in 1 year?

    How come Sather was great in Edmonton but sucks in New York?

    As you may know, even us mom's basement dwelling bloggers only have so much time. I don't know of another hockey writer who produces as much volume as I do, but I haven't written much about NYR or CBJ. What I have written you can find in the links above, otherwise I'd suggest jacketscannon.com and blueshirtbanter.com.

  • Red Deerian Convert

    Wow JW you had a really good rebuttal to that Ducey guy. Good on you.
    I still think that we could have a little more faith until Tambi makes a bad decision this offseason. Tambs didn't have much of a choice when it came to goalies, and Khabi was looking for term. I believe that Tambi will do what it takes to rebuild this team.

    • Ender

      I totally disagree with your assessment about signing Khabi.

      Four years for an older goalie with a lot of miles?

      We could have signed Roloson for 2 years, but management thought that 1 year was too much??? Then we go and sign Khabi for 4 years? How does that make any sense.

  • Dan the Man

    Once an Oiler, always an Oiler….

    TSN – Uniondale, NY (Sports Network) – The New York Islanders announced that center Rob Schremp will miss the remainder of the season.

    The forward injured his right knee during Tuesday's game against Philadelphia. The diagnosis is a torn meniscus which will require surgery.

    Schremp recorded seven goals and 18 assists in 44 games for the Islanders this season

  • Eric Johnson

    Great articles Willis!

    I was an early supporter of the Khabibulin trade ( would have preferred Anderson but who says he even wanted to play here) And a few games he looked fantastic but his injury history was not wrong and was an accurate prognosis of the OIlers future. WHY the monkeys in charge at the switches couldn't see this when YOU so clearly could, I am not sure.

    It is instances like that and a few others that lead to questions as to how well this group can rebuild the team.

    However, I think one thing as fans we fail to consider is the inside information these guys are privy to. Say info like (purely speculation) that Grebs was only interested in making the same salary and yet another one year deal taking him up to UFA status. I would have shipped him out for a second round pick too.

    NOT bringing in a veteran center/faceoff/PK guy was a glaring hole they didn't fill. But why? We all saw it? Why didn't they land the few guys that were available? Maybe they didn't want to sign in Edmonton or their "edmonton" Price was higher than they signed for in other cities.

    It's very easy to say get this guy and sign this guy, but there is far more that goes on behind the scenes than we'll ever know.

  • Bucknuck

    @ Archaeologuy & LesCanadoil

    Thanks for the links. They are golden

    @Jonathan Willis

    Hey remind me never to cross you with the written word, man. You would eat me for breakfast. I thought I got beaten on pretty good yesterday, but that fellow whatsisname got steamrolled.

    It's nice to see a good blog beat-down once in a while.

  • BarryS

    Flashback to last season and Mact. was let go (basically resigned ) rather than outright fired ? Maybe Katz is affording current staff same courtesy with option to resign at seasons end ??

  • Ender

    Completely off-topic, but I think it's interesting to note how the different Nation writers have differents way of reacting to 'shots' at their work. Gregor tends to ignore them, Willis goes after them with an arsonal of flaming logic, and Brownlee verbally bi+ch-slaps them them prior to deleting them entirely if they persist. It's nice to see some variety on the site; keeps life in the community interesting. Props on the rebuttal, JW.

  • Dan the Man

    Does anyone know if Mac T is doing some scouting work for the Oil?

    The reason I ask is that the Windsor Spitfires play by play guy was on the Team this morning and he mentioned that the Oiler guys have been out to watch Hall many times this year and he mentioned both Lowe and MacT in particular.

    I'm not sure if he misspoke but I found that interesting.

  • I have a problem with the idea that we need to wait until they make an even bigger mistake in the summer to take action.

    I keep reading things like, "let's wait and see if they screw up this summer," and "he hasn't proven that he will make the wrong decisions," or "let's give him a bit more rope."

    This entire philosophy is based on hope. Do we want people we hope will make the right decisions performing a rebuild?

    This is potentially a very important summer for the Oilers, so why would we not want to go into it with people that inspire confidence making the decisions? The current management team might rebuild properly, but is anyone really confident that they will? At best it's become a 50-50 proposition.

    Personally I'd rather not wait until they doom the team for another decade before finding people with the required level of competence to rebuild the team.

    • VMR

      I think the teams problems are long standing ones that go back as far as the Pronger debacle if not farther. Lowe has shown signs that he's a good hockey executive but he got desperate, did whatever it took to get this team back to the playoffs even when all the signs pointed in the other direction. Chased after superstars, signed offer sheets to RFAs, overpaid Souray to come here, etc. We're paying for those aggresive actions now. If we really want to lay blame you have to drop it at his feet at least as much as Tambellini.

      So the question is do you want to gut the entire hockey department and start over? That's a move that will likely create instability and end up extending a rebuild rather than speed it up. Dont kid yourself into thinking that it's a simple act of firing Tambellini and hiring some new up and comer who will turn this team around. Lowe is still actively involved in strategizing and building this team. If you dont replace him as well then there will be no change.

      Trade deadline looked like the start of realizing their mistakes. This summer hopefully they will show they understand where they've screwed up in the past. I think they can do the job, aside from the Khabibulin signing I dont see any completely horrible mistakes they've made. A little luck and they'll be back competitive in 3-5 seasons maybe even challenging for more than just a playoff spot by the end of that period.

      • I get it, you have this weird notion that a person's opinion is invalid unless they have the power to act.

        You now no longer have to repeatedly tell everyone that we don't get to make the decisions, because we are well aware of the fact the we do not own the team. Try saying something new, it might change your life.

        By the by…if you want to talk about hope then let me ask you, would you rather have hope or faith? They are not the same thing at all. Faith implies a measure of confidence and belief in the result, hope implies nothing more than a wish. We all hope the Oiler's win the cup next year, but do you think it likely? Do you believe they will win even though you hope it?

        This is a concept on which I had hoped a former peddler of religious literature would have a solid grasp.

        In a sense you are right, without hope there is nothing, but why are so many people so eager to settle for having only hope? Are you really saying you are happy having something you can only hope for rather than something you can believe in?

        • BarryS

          Actually I never peddled religious literature. Quite clearly you never browsed the stock.

          As for the continual beating of heads against walls one has no power to break down, it gets as tiring after a while as it is hopeless.

          As for winning the cup next year, or any particular year for that matter, the chances of my finding the winning lottery ticket on the sidewalk is somewhat better.

          Guess what, hockey is an entertainment, not a necessity of life, though by many of these blogs you would never know it.

          The team needs to be more entertaining, more often, this is true. But as has been proved in this city before, winning all the time is just as boring and loosing all the time. I know, because there were times in the cup runs I couldn't give unneeded tickets away, to say nothing of selling them at face value. Nobody wanted to go because the Oilers always won.

          On the whole, pinning my life on winning the cups, at best a 1 in 30 chance, is a lot less satisfactory the being entertained by the game.

          The crime of the Oilers this year, is not being a cup contender, its playing boring games. And until they can play exciting, fan involving games nearly every game, they will continue to lose fans, cup contenders or not.

          • Yeah I remembered it was educational materials after I hit "post". Too lazy to delete it.

            It isn't that hockey is important in general, it's that hockey is important on this site. This is where we discuss our various opinions on the state of the team. Thats pretty much the exact purpose of this site, so you can probably see the irritation created by having you repeatedly come on here to tell us we don't own the team.

            We are just talking, and having a strong opinion about something does not equate to giving it a position of importance.

  • Harlie

    the Sedin Sista's stepped up and donated 1.5 Million to a BC Hospital. Good on them!

    Maybe Horcoff can donate some of his hefty salary to a worthy cause and the local fans could turn from hating his contract to liking it, for what it can contribute to the community, cause it's not contributing to the team!

    p.s – i know the guy is probably already donating cash and time like it's going out of style but I thought I'd throw it out there.

  • VMR

    You make some very good points. I share your skepticism that the current management group have the "tools in their box" necessary to bring this team back to even respectablilty let alone shape them into a contender. A couple of top 5 picks are not necessarily going to fix this mess. Since 95 the Isles (8), Atlanta and Florida(5)and Columbus(4)have had numerous top 5 picks and are no closer to being contenders than we are. The Oilers management will need to surround their young core of players with the right complimentary pieces and nothing they have done yet suggests they are capable of that.