Character & Culture

DALLAS - APRIL 02: Defenseman Jason Strudwick #43 of the Edmonton Oilers at American Airlines Center on April 2, 2010 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Team culture and player character isn’t an issue I generally spend a lot of time on, for a few different reasons. I’ve always believed the off-ice stuff, while not inconsequential, is certainly auxiliary to the on-ice stuff. Additionally, I’m woefully ill-qualified to comment on how the players act off the ice, and even if I did spend a significant amount of time with the team my views would at best be incomplete – I can’t actually get inside player’s heads. Needless to say, on-ice body language is a less than perfect indicator.

However, given Steve Tambellini’s emphasis on character and culture change, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how the roster he inherited in the summer of 2008 has turned over, and see if we can’t get some feel for direction. 

THE COACHING STAFF

Lauded as perhaps his biggest move to date when it happened, Steve Tambellini brought in an all-star coaching group to replace Craig MacTavish and his mostly (Kelly Buchberger!) fired staff. Tom Renney and Wayne Fleming were brought in as supporting players to Pat Quinn, a veteran coach and manager with an impressive resume, and a man who Steve Tambellini had reams of experience with. Tambellini made no secret of what he viewed Quinn’s strengths as:

"If I think of leadership, I think of Pat. If I think of the way you want to be treated as a player, I think of someone like Pat Quinn. If I think of someone who sets an example morally for an organization of how to go forward, I think of a man like Pat Quinn. I am very excited that he accepted this job as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers."

In retrospect, Quinn was a poor choice to lead the club. Eschewing line matching, Quinn set out to put together a balanced group from an imbalanced roster, and it resulted in things like Jean-Francois Jacques on the top line and the fourth line finding itself on the ice for defensive zone draws against the Sedin twins. Additionally, there were persistent rumours that the players themselves were dissatisfied with the way Quinn was running things, and that the locker room was unsettled under his leadership.

Steve Tambellini has hit the reset button, installing Tom Renney, who he (also) praised as a leader but who also during his days in New York favoured a more tactical approach to bench management – line matching, in-game line switching, defensive zone specialists. 

THE PLAYERS

Looking at the list of players sent away during Tambellini’s time at the helm, I wasn’t surprised to find a veteran flavour to the group, but I was surprised at just how many players generally regarded as leadership types were sent away. The veteran core from the 2006 club was (generally rightly) sent down the line: Ethan Moreau, Steve Staios, Fernando Pisani, Dwayne Roloson. Other veterans, people like Erik Cole, Lubomir Visnovsky, Mike Comrie, Denis Grebeshkov, Mathieu Garon were also sent away. The departed group also included some youth (Brodziak, Pouliot, Nilsson, O’Sullivan, Stone, Potulny) but a lot of key veterans formed the core of the group.

Unsurprisingly, the current team has a much smaller veteran presence. In net, Nikolai Khabibulin will provide leadership, if healthy and if his reputation hasn’t suffered too much from the events of this past year. The defence has some veterans and young veterans – James Vandermeer and Jason Strudwick (if he makes the team) in the former category, and players like Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney and Kurtis Foster in the latter group.

The latter three in particular are important; Gilbert’s the sole player still in the long-term plans from Kevin Lowe’s 2008-09 top four and brings some continuity, while Ryan Whitney’s attitude was widely praised by the local media after his arrival in Edmonton. Kurtis Foster, meanwhile, made a remarkable NHL comeback last season after recovering from a nearly career-ending injury and the death of his daughter. Sheldon Souray, once seen by the fan-base as the team’s next captain, is a wildcard after publicly trashing the management skills of Steve Tambellini, and the team hopes to have him dealt before the season starts.

Up front, the list of veteran players is decidedly empty, as rookies are pencilled into key positions and young players like Sam Gagner, Gilbert Brule and Andrew Cogliano continue to hold important roles. Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner are the key veterans, but how they fit into a leadership scheme is open to question: Horcoff has baggage in the form of health concerns, a big contract and diminishing performance, Hemsky’s leadership has often been questioned, and Dustin Penner was a frequent whipping boy in year’s past and was described by one local reporter as “the NHL poster boy for comfort zones and inconsistency.”

After those three, the list gets shorter. Aside from the youngsters – I’m thinking here of Gagner, Brule and Eberle – the only other obvious leadership candidates are role players like Colin Fraser, Ryan Jones and Zack Stortini, and while character may be a strength for all of them they’re still in their mid-20’s and given the current roster it seems likely all will be asked to fill roles they’ve never been asked to fill before.

WHAT I AM GETTING AT HERE

I’m not overly worried about the lack of veteran leadership here, mostly because I think that a) it’s an auxiliary issue that gets overhyped and b) a player doesn’t have to be 25+ years old to have a solid character and inspire his teammates around him. On the latter point, guys like Ladislav Smid and Zack Stortini show the same kind of willingness to sacrifice themselves physically as strong Oilers role players of the past – guys like Jason Smith and Mike Grier – did. Even a player like Tom Gilbert, with his flowing locks, preference for positional play over taking the body, and prototypically masculine blog, blocks shots without hesitation.

I do, however, struggle to reconcile Steve Tambellini’s repeated public emphasis on fixing the Oilers’ culture and bringing in the right kind of people with his actions. He’s razed the leadership group from the Kevin Lowe days – and not without reason, it must be said – but he hasn’t brought in a leadership group of his own, instead choosing to toss in the odd guy like Strudwick to bolster a relatively young group.

Again: I’m not saying that’s wrong; maybe the best course of action is to put the responsibilities on the shoulders of these players at a young age. There are different ways to rebuild: the 2005-06 Penguins took the more typical approach, surrounding youngsters with experienced leaders, and that’s what I expected from Tambellini but haven’t seen. Then again, the 2007-08 Blackhawks went about things differently – much more like Tambellini has – and that turned out okay.

  • Bucknuck

    I find Quinn and Tams on pretty much same page , both more old school . Renney more adaptable to new culture and how to develop it . Renney, Bucky and Smith appears to know better how to deal with a broader range of people . How best to put this ? Old school expected it was only necessary to tell them what to do and demand they do it . That type is tunnel vision in todays culture being replaced by a much broader scope and encompassing far more employee base , and creating space for the work force to accomplish their own goals and exceed company goals . It works, far more effective especially in range , and employee beneficial .

    In a nutshell, they listen(management) more to employees than just use the old straight jacket approach that doesn’t always benefit a good portion of todays demanding workforce . Our younsters will do well in the new culture and i expect Hall with all his qualities will become like Crosby and be the figurehead leading our charges at a tender age .

  • Bucknuck

    I think the Oilers need to sign a grizzled veteran that has won before similar to how the Penguins have done in the past (eg.Guerin, Roberts, Recchi, and now Comrie)

  • PabstBR55

    This is a very insightful article. Thank you Jonathan.

    I would be interested to see a follow-up article on the demonstration of leadership at the end of training camp and your thoughts at that time on who you think will emerge as young leaders of the team.

  • Moreau,Pisani,and Staios were regular contributors to charities which helps the public’s perception of character.

    I hope the rookies don’t get overwhelmed with media, charity, and fans requests before they’ve established a comfort zone in Edmonton and in the NHL.

  • Bucknuck

    I have no idea whether tambellini was giving lipservice or whatnot, but a few points worth making:

    – there’s definitely a science to team building. I’m referring completely to studies, systems & approaches within corporate entities mostly, as that’s where most of the studies and published findings are derived from. One would assume many of the principles are transferrable. Granted who’s to say a poor dysfunctional lockerroom will significantly underperform a functional one with the same skillsets. Nonetheless building cohesive / driven / avhievement focused teams, are definitely something of a science. Once again, Not sure how applicable to hockey.

    – it may be short for ‘ the oilers had a very poor group personalities in the lockerroom, poor comaraderie, a stressful / negative group that weren’t working well together’. If that’s the case, then I see no reason why you wouldn’t purge the negative guys, and create a less toxic environment for everyone to work with.

  • PabstBR55

    I play volleyball with Bryce Salvador’s brother in Winnipeg. He was telling me that moving from St. Louis to New Jersey was like night and day.

    The Blues front office didn’t get involved in acclimating the players, there were a set of dressing-room “leaders” who essentially ran the team, and the rookies didn’t mix all that much with the vets. The team had cliques.

    In Jersey, however, the team would take care of all sorts of little details – such as furnishing your house, finding work and charity events for wives, transporting everyone to- and from- games and practices, etc. There were a lot of structured team events that suggested that all aspects of team affairs were tightly organized and managed by off-ice personnel.

    The anecdote suggests that “yes” management has a heavy influence over team culture, and certain team management styles lend themselves to the inclusion and nurture of young players.

    I believe this wasn’t necessarily the case last year when Souray and Moreau ran the dressing room.

    The current Oilers are an interesting case – half the team are established millionaires, while those that aren’t are their most-valued assets long-term. So who should be given the opportunity to express leadership?

  • Cowbell_Feva

    Unfortunately the young guns coming in this year will have Shawn Horcoff trying to tell them what’s what. I can only imagine what would go through their head on any given night:

    a)He can’t win a face-off
    b)He can’t do Anything offensively without Hemsky
    c)He was -29 last year
    d)He’s the highest paid player on the team
    e)all this while averaging almost 2 minutes more than any other forward.

    So let me get this right…. If we are a detriment to the team, not only will we get praised by the Edmonton media, but we will get a huge payraise AND a tonne of ice-time?!?

    Maybe the kids could take Horc’s under THEIR wing to give him some tips about hockey.

    • PabstBR55

      Horcoff also takes on the team’s toughest assignments, logs the most PK time, has the best 2-way aptitude, plays with pain, and never complains.

      Leadership doesn’t necessarily correlate to banging in goals off the wing. Dany Heatley does that and does it very well. He is an awful leader.

      But to your point, Mr. Walken, Horcoff doesn’t score enough to command that salary. That said nobody would really complain if he made $3.5M a year. So it’s only the last $2M that I really have issue with.

      And the length. The length of the contract sucks bizalls.

      • Cowbell_Feva

        He did get the toughest assignments until the end of the year when Quinn finally realized he was way over his head. He can be an effective PK’er. Not sure how to classify 2-way aptitude, but the guy has zero offensive aptitude. He has rode Hemsky’s talented coat tails for a few years (and we saw what he did when Hemmer got hurt last year) so you would think his Defensive play would be Mike Peca-ish, but it isn’t. Face-offs are a key part of that role, and he isn’t good at them either.

        Every NHL’er at some point in time will play through pain. How could Shawn Horcoff complain? Seriously…he would get 10 minutes of icetime on a contending team. No GM would ever give him the money and term KLowe gave him. He’s counting his lucky stars.

        The Oil are now stuck with him for this time, I just hope Renney took strong note of what role he can excel in, and that is a 3rd line checker with time on the PK. He may be the highest paid 3rd liner in the league, but that is truely where he belongs.

        • PabstBR55

          It’s hard defending Shawn Horcoff. Not as hard as defending Robert Picton, but hard nonetheless.

          Horcoff was a very strong, very versatile player for us for the first 3 years after the lockout. During that time the Oilers were having a difficult time attracting and retaining talent – Lowe sought to nail down one of our key players, as he did with Hemsky, and now that Horcoff’s play has dropped off we are left with this steaming pile of $5.5M annual contract.

          However, I have reason for optimism. I believe Horcoff is still overcoming injury, and was dragged down by having to play with poor linemates. He soldiered out over the boards to match up against Iginla, The Sedin Sisters, Getzlaf, Thornton, and whoever was the opposition’s tip line.

          You bring up a good point – his faceoff % does suck, although that may also be as a result of his shoulder injury, and we cannot expect him to be a point-producing first liner.

          The Oilers are however woefully short of role players and character players. All I’m saying is contract size aside (it’s about $2 – $2.5M above market value), Horcoff is the best specialty player on the roster and his performance has nowhere to go but up after last season.

          If it doesn’t at least we swallow this monstrosity during a re-building period when we’re nowhere near the cap hit. He’s a mediocre player, but he doesn’t hurt the team either.

          • Cowbell_Feva

            It would be tough to defend Horcoff no doubt, which is precisely why I don’t. I have far too long watched him turn the puck over, and then come to the bench and try to tell other players what to do. Truely the pot calling the kettle black.

            Like I mentioned, when Horc’s was having decent offensive numbers, they were greatly boosted by Hemsky. Without Hemsky he showed his true colors. Hemsky on the other hand, can play without Horcoff, showing who the enigma in the situation was/is.

            I am optimistic he will be better as well, for the simple fact that he couldn’t be much worse. For the life of me I don’t know why he was matched up against Getzlafs/Sedins/Thornton’s because he looked way way way out of place on the talent level alone. Using the word strong in the same sentence as Horcoff is borderline oxy-moron. He gets thrown off the puck much too easily at the NHL level. His cardio conditioning is good, maybe great, but his physical conditioning is pathetic.

            I agree he is a mediocre player- I would argue the statement that he doesn’t hurt the team, however.