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.
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.