Steve Tambellini And Depth

MONTREAL- OCTOBER 15:  Shawn Belle #34 of the Montreal Canadiens skates during the NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche on October 15, 2009 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  The Avalanche defeated the Canadiens 3-2.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

It’s been a relatively busy off-season for Steve Tambellini, who has shunned the pursuit of big names in favour of a slower, more long-term rebuilding work. The one place where he has made significant changes is at the bottom of the NHL roster and to the makeup of the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons.

Every so often on the Nation, we post articles about a minor move – the signing of a J-F Jacques, the trade of a Cody Wild, the departure of a Ryan Stone – and we get negative comments, which generally revolve around a single point: WHO CARES???

There is some merit to the point (although I always wonder about people so wildly indifferent that they’re forced to make comments) in that these aren’t moves that in and of themselves matter all that much. So before I get into Steve Tambellini’s AHL additions this summer, I’d like to take a few moments and explain why I think adding fringe NHL’ers matters to the future of any NHL team.

The first reason is straight forward enough: development. Every AHL team boasts some significant prospects, players who at some point in time will be on the NHL roster. But while the AHL isn’t as tough a league to play in as the NHL, it can represent a significant hurdle for even a highly touted prospect. We’ve seen future stars like Jason Spezza (minus-5 on a plus-32 team), Zach Parise (73GP – 18G – 40A – 58PTS, -11), Ryan Kesler (three goals in 33 games in his first AHL stint), Mikko Koivu (67GP – 20G – 28A – 48PTS, -1 in his only AHL season) and others either fail to hit the ground running or outright struggle. It goes without saying that lesser prospects – even future NHL’ers – can face a pretty steep learning curve once they enter the professional ranks, even if they are only playing in the American League.

That is why it’s helpful to surround these players with AHL veterans. That way, coaches can ease them in, giving them the shelter of a line-mate who has had success in the league before, or letting veterans handle the toughest opponents while the rookies start off against lower calibre adversaries. Not only can these veterans be good examples to the younger players, but they can help keep their confidence intact – which isn’t always an easy task when a Major Junior star suddenly has difficulty keeping his head above the water with an NHL farm team.

Linked to development is our second reason, competition. Handing a prospect a roster spot before he even enters camp is an invitation for him to give less than his best. During the season, an underperforming player might feel very little reason to try much harder if he knows that there’s nobody underneath him who can take his spot away. Competent AHL players – with or without experience – can provide powerful motivation to players on the NHL roster. No player on the team should ever feel he can slacken his effort, or that his job is safe: there should always be someone below him pushing him, keeping him hungry.

An understated reason for signing good AHL players is actually rather obvious: it makes the farm team better. That’s good for a lot of different reasons. In the case of the Oilers, where the parent franchise owns the AHL affiliate, it helps their bottom line: a winning farm team is generally a profitable farm team, an asset rather than a liability the NHL club forced to carry out of necessity. It builds fan interest, which ultimately helps the NHL brand. Perhaps most importantly, it gets prospects used to a winning culture, to an environment where they have confidence they’re being used correctly, that the team is well run, and where they know the specific role they have to play to help their team win games. Attitudes and morale improves, and of course advice from a successful coach has more weight than from a coach running an also-ran – even if it isn’t his fault.

Finally, the fourth reason is that some of these AHL players are going to spend significant time on an NHL roster. Back in May,I looked at how many players the average team used in 2009-10 and determined that for the average team, two AHL’ers would be fairly regular members of their parent NHL club, and that six other AHL’ers would spend at least some time in the show. In other words, for the average NHL team, the expectation is that five forwards and three defencemen who start the season in the AHL would be playing NHL minutes at some point. It’s nice if those guys can put in respectable performances; it’s even nicer to have reliable fill-ins when teams get runs of injuries, something that every fan knows is going to happen at some point.

That’s why I feel all these little moves matter. It’s the reason I’m disappointed when Steve Tambellini lets Ryan Stone walk, even though he’s not getting much money (or even a one-way deal) from his new team. It’s the reason why I smile when I see solid veterans added to the team; and in fairness to Tambellini he’s added quite a few. On the blue-line, Shawn Belle and Richard Petiot are exceptional players for Oklahoma City: both have NHL experience, and both have had success in the AHL. Up front, players like Brad Moran – who has spent the last couple of years putting up solid numbers in Sweden, has an unimpeachable AHL record and also owns NHL experience – and Alexandre Giroux – another guy with an NHL cup of coffee, and who has 110 goals, 200 points and 29 playoff goals over his last two AHL seasons – are welcome additions to the team, because they do all the things I pointed to above.

Individually, the moves aren’t make-or-break deals. Ultimately, the long-term success of the Oilers isn’t going to rest on Brad Moran or Shawn Belle (or Ryan Stone), but taken together, those sort of moves can build or undermine a successful organization.

  • I’m a frequent Lowetide reader, and am finding the snarkiness of some commentators on this site a little shocking.

    Anyways, one thing that frustrated me about the Oilers the past 4 years was all the big game hunting with total disregard to the smaller roster moves. For instance, the Oilers seemed to disregard the acquisition of Glencross as important in summer 2008, but the Oilers did seem to catch fire after they acquired him, and it wasn’t just the young guns. It was a good feeling to see the Oilers fourth line outperform every team’s fourth line night after night in spring 2008. Maybe we didn’t have the biggest stars on the team, but each line was producing and all together it was a pretty good team by season’s end.

    In that sense, Tambellini’s summer so far, and the smaller roster move’s he’s made have been encouraging, and I think Willis’ article is timiely in highlighting the theme, because it does mark a change in course.

    Now, I’m not against big game hunting, if the Oilers have a chance to acquire big talent, they should. But in my opinion, every contract should be a value, and the only time you should overpay is when you are a top ten team with a legitimate shot at a Stanley. Otherwise, let the other teams regret the salary hangover such moves bring.

    • Chris.

      It’s funny how wildly the pendulum swings on fan sites. In one short calender year the masses have completely rejected the UFA market, and are religiously on board with a “total rebuild”. To even suggest it would be benificial to bring in an available big name, big ticket player is heresey.

      What’s not funny is the pendulum seems to swing just as wildly on the management side of things.

    • Jason Gregor


      One or two idiot comments do not represent the norm here. Don’t let a few idiots influence your reading. Plus LT and Willis can dish it out if they need to.

      I’m all for people having different opinions and wanting to debate, but uncalled for attacks will be dealt with.

      Keep reading.

    • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

      Honestly man, the more readers a site has the more idiots there will be. So, in a sense, the idiots are good and the more snark LT gets, well, he can take as a sign of success.

      Anyone ever take the time to read the comments on TSN articles? Pretty, pretty, pretty bad comments.

  • Ender

    Stuart wrote:

    I’m a frequent Lowetide reader, and am finding the snarkiness of some commentators on this site a little shocking.

    Yeah, people’s moms have been pretty lenient in their shoulder-moderation lately. We should have a word with them about their proofreading responsibilities.

    (What’s that, Mom? No, I don’t think it should be hyphenated . . . pretty sure . . . no, why don’t you go look it up? And don’t make a scene in front of my friends . . . sheesh.)

    Edit: So ‘shoulder-moderation’ is hyphenated. Who knew?
    (You happy, Mom?)

  • Ender

    Wanye wrote:

    if you ever sass Willis again I will figure out where you live, ring your doorbell and when you answer I will be long gone running away at top speed.

    Wanye, you promised your probation officer you’d stop that . . .

  • Speaking of depth signings, and making the farm club a stronger team…..What about Charles Linglet? He had a pretty good year in the AHL last year on a very bad team. Plus, former Oiler Danny Syvret has been puting up some pretty good numbers in the minors and is a ufa.

  • JohnQPublic

    Mr. Willis:
    The May 07, 2010 “Depth” article is great stuff. Your analytics is what separates you from the MSM routine fluff (i.e. done to death opinion pieces). Stay away from their drama-generation pieces. We have an over abundance of that.

  • Oiler_in_Mexico

    Great article for the simple reason that the TSN / Score media doesn’t nearly appropriate enough attention to the concept of organization-building. They drone on about who signed what overpaid prospect, however Alexei Ponikarovski won’t do as much for your team’s long term success as will a well-fostered culture of winning and development.

    I’m an Oiler fan living in Winnipeg. Despite lacking an NHL franchise, I’m at least lucky enough to witness a next-generation NHL team on the ice. Tambo’s former team, the Canucks, are in the NHL’s top 10 in terms of organizational depth. Case in point, players like Kesler, Burrows, Raymond, Grabner, have all graduated to the NHL amidst a MB Moose team culture that places a high priority on developmental discipline, hierarchy, and ultimately, winning. Next up, Cody Hodgson and Cory Schneider.

    One point that I think got missed in the article – a successful AHL team that takes a long run into the AHL playoffs provides a greater opportunity for young talent to mesh together. Imagine if Eberle, Omark, and Petry played into May together last year? The biggest reason we drafted Hall over Seguin: the guy has experience winning.

    Case in point: Carey Price became ready for primetime sooner in his career because he had a good team in front of him who he was able to help take to the Calder Cup.

    • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

      Another Oiler fan living in Winnipeg! Maybe we should have an Oilers party with Dyckster at the Pint… er… 4play? Shannons? The Kings Head?

        • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

          Done. I only mentioned 4play because it’s across the street from my office and I can bus home. Do you know off-hand if there are any more Oilers fans here from Winnipeg? Dyckster has a Jets logo as his avatar here, so I think it’s fair to assume he lived here at one point.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    I figured out what the Oilers are doing on the farm – what we can’t do up here. We are signing all the big name free agents at the farm level, souping up the team with all the Hossa’s and Kovalchuks of the AHL. Pretty much the exact opposite of a rebuild down on the farm. Juxtaposed to what we are doing in the NHL, rebuilding through the draft with patience. I wonder which approach will work better…

  • Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things

    I’ll take 1 Comrie and 1 Asham, with a side of Willie Mitchell. Trade Cogs and Souray away for pucks, I mean picks, and we are donzo. Let’s start the season already. I just solved all the remaining suspense for the summer.

  • Fartknocker

    I think it’s a huge step in the right direction signing these depth players. To have the development program provide a winning atmosphere (we hope) whether it be in the AHL or ECHL has immeasureable potential in terms of it’s effect on young players.

    I’m still dying to ditch Souray (and hopefully get something in return) and was kind of hoping we’d end up with Spezza (yeah I know he shouldn’t be in front of a camera – but last time I checked being a dork isn’t a crime).

    In the meantime I’m encouraged by what I see. These moves at least suggest the possibility of a well thought out plan with a clear direction.
    Something the team has been sorely lacking for years.

  • Fartknocker

    I agree with JW, these have been key signings and I was also dissappointed that Stoner wasn’t re-signed. I was not a Tambo fan at all, but, he sure seems to be talking care of some key details, the little things. Hope this is the trend from now on.