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.

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I wonder if the reason that Lowe and Sather ran into problems signing UFA's is because they never really had the experience of dealing with UFA's in Edmonton. I mean anyone who was anything always left and we never really had money to go after anyone. Then once they had the ability to sign ufa's they ended up with poor contracts.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    Excellent blog.

    I think Lowe ran into some of the same issues Sather did when he went to the NYR.

    Just like in real life, If a person of below average means wins the lotery, theirs a pretty good chance funds will be spent frivolously. That said, on a last place team theirs blame for everyone. Lowe's job (just like the majority of those in the orginization) should be in jepordy.

  • Klima's Bucket

    If some how Oilers brass deal's Souray to Washington, we need Steckel coming back in the package.

    I'd even try to pull Semin out of Washington. He's re-signed for another year.

    Souray, Cogliano and a 1st in 2011

    for

    Semin and Steckel

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    I've always said he made some good moves, people seem to forget all the moves he made going into the cup run. But he made lots of bad decisions as well. Just about every signing he made after the cup run was brutal. Thing is 5 good years and 2 bad years, look how bad those 2 years were. Give him credit for working with little money, but like his teacher he has no idea what to do when he had unlimited funds.

    Overall I don't really blame he for everything, but there are a few things left from his days that are still hurting us and some things that are helping us.

    • Petr's Jofa

      Here's all of his moves since the 2006 cup run. Most aren't that bad although he did let some FA walk that would be nice to have on this roster.

      Mathieu Garon traded to Pittsburgh for Ryan Stone, Dany Sabourin and 4th round pick in 2011.

      Jesse Boulerice claimed off of waivers from Colorado.

      Steve MacIntyre claimed off of waivers from Florida.

      Marty Reasoner signed as free agent with Atlanta.

      Carl Corazzini signed as free agent (formerly with Detroit).

      Jason Strudwick signed as a free agent (formerly with NY Rangers).

      Gilbert Brule traded by Columbus for Raffi Torres.

      Erik Cole traded by Carolina for Joni Pitkanen. Raffi Torres traded to Columbus for Gilbert Brule.

      Matt Greene traded with Jarret Stoll to Los Angeles for Lubomir Visnovsky.

      Jordan Bendfeld drafted 193rd overall. Johan Motin drafted 103rd overall. Jordan Eberle drafted 22nd overall.

      Ryan Potulny traded by Philadelphia for Dan Syvret.

      Allan Rourke signed by ERC Ingoldstadt (Germany).

      Bryan Lerg signed as free agent.

      Patrick Thoresen claimed off waivers by Philadelphia.

      Curtis Glencross traded by Columbus for Dick Tarnstrom.

      Dustin Penner signed as an RFA free agent. Anaheim receives Oilers� 1st (Tyler Myers (Buffalo)), 2nd (Justin Schultz), and 3rd (Kirill Petrov (NY Islanders)) round picks in 2008 as compensation.

      Ryan Flinn signed as free agent.

      T.J. Kemp signed as free agent.

      T.J. Reynolds signed as free agent.

      Sheldon Souray signed as free agent (formerly with Montreal).

      Toby Petersen signed as free agent by Dallas.

      Brad Winchester signed as free agent by Dallas.

      Jan Hejda signed as free agent by Columbus.

      Allan Rourke traded by NY Islanders with 3rd round pick in 2008 (Kirill Petrov (NY Islanders)) for 2nd round pick in 2008 (Travis Hamonic).

      Mathieu Garon signed as free agent (formerly with Los Angeles).

      Petr Sykora signed as free agent by Pittsburgh. Joffrey Lupul traded with Jason Smith to Philadelphia for Joni Pitkanen, Geoff Sanderson and 3rd round pick in 2009.

      Dick Tarnstrom signed as free agent.

      Milan Kytnar drafted 127th overall. Linus Omark drafted 97th overall. William Quist drafted 157th overall. Sam Gagner drafted 6th overall. Riley Nash drafted 21st overall. Alex Plante drafted 15th overall.

      Robert Nilsson traded by NY Islanders with Ryan O'Marra and 1st round pick in 2007 (Alex Plante) for Ryan Smyth.

      Marc-Andre Bergeron traded with 3rd round pick in 2008 (Kirill Petrov) to NY Islanders for Denis Grebeshkov.

      Petr Nedved claimed on waivers from Philadelphia.

      Sebastien Bisaillon signed as free agent.

      Radek Dvorak signed as free agent by St. Louis.

      Tim Sestito signed as free agent.

      Dick Tarnstrom signed with Lugano, Swiss League.

      Petr Sykora signed as free agent (formerly with NY Rangers).

      Michael Peca signed as free agent by Toronto.

      Dan Smith signed as free agent by Detroit.

      Sergei Samsonov signed as free agent by Montreal.

      Jan Hejda traded by Buffalo for 7th round pick in 2007 (Nick Eno).

      Ty Conklin signed as free agent by Columbus. Daniel Tjarnqvist signed as free agent (formerly with Minnesota).

      Georges Laraque signed as free agent by Phoenix.

      Jaroslav Spacek signed as free agent by Buffalo. Marty Reasoner signed as free agent (formerly with Boston).

      Joffrey Lupul traded by Anaheim with Ladislav Smid, 1st round pick in 2007 (30th overall traded with 36th overall pick for 21st overall (Riley Nash)), 1st (Jordan Eberle) and 2nd (Travis Hamonic (NY Islanders)) picks in 2008 for Chris Pronger.

      Theo Peckham drafted 80th overall. Bryan Pitton drafted 133rd overall. Cody Wild drafted 140th overall. Patrick Thoresen signed as free agent.

      • Mathieu Garon traded to Pittsburgh for Ryan Stone, Dany Sabourin and 4th round pick in 2011.
        Jesse Boulerice claimed off of waivers from Colorado.
        Steve MacIntyre claimed off of waivers from Florida.

        Those three were Tambellini moves.

      • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

        What is that list? Didn't Lowe sign Garon and didn't Tambo trade him?

        Edit: With all those moves it still hasn't adressed the same problems we have had for years. Lack of a good two-way center/shutdown d-men, grit?