Apparently The Detroit Model Doesn’t Work

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver Canucks

Steve Tambellini was warmly welcomed by pretty much everyone in Edmonton – not just by the people who hired him, but also by the fans, the local media, and even sceptics like myself. He was part and parcel of the new era promised by Daryl Katz’s ownership, a man unconnected to the Oilers glory years and with a ton of experience as an NHL executive.

John MacKinnon was perhaps the most effusive (although it’s once again worth noting that he wasn’t alone) in a piece that comes across as comical in retrospect. Right from the opening paragraph, where Kevin Lowe is described as “the smartest guy in the room”, “wise” and “secure” it’s hard not to laugh at what gullible rubes we all were. The “three day” decision to hire Tambellini also serves as a fun contrast to his constant calls for patience and time to assess.

The kicker, though, is this paragraph:

 

In hiring the classy, well-respected Tambellini and adding "assistant GM" to Kevin Prendergast’s existing title of vice-president, hockey operations, Lowe has bolstered the hockey office that lost the capable Scott Howson, who left for the GM’s job in Columbus in June 2007. By design or not, the Oilers front office begins to resemble the gold standard, that of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

 

For all the sick humour any fan looking at the standings now can find in that paragraph, it is right about one thing: this year’s edition of the Edmonton Oilers has been a group failing. I wrote defending Kevin Lowe the other day because I don’t think it’s remotely fair to blame just him. Don’t get me wrong; he deserves to be fired too for a host of sins since July of 2006. Even ignoring the Pronger trade, the offers to Thomas Vanek and Michael Nylander on their own merits should have been enough to get him fired.

I’m going to take a minute to focus on Kevin Prendergast, the man responsible for the Springfield Falcons. There’s more to it than simply looking at the diminishing returns of the AHL team, but let’s do that anyway:

  • 2007-08: 35-35-10
  • 2008-09: 24-44-12
  • 2009-10: 15-24-10
  • Totals: 74-103-32

In two and a half years of affiliation with the Oilers, the Springfield Falcons have won just over one-third of their games. There’s no lottery pick for finishing last in the AHL, and pretty much every highly-touted prospect the Oilers have assigned to the team has struggled. Expensive minor league veterans that do get signed either implode or get hurt; the franchise has been an inexcusable disaster ever since becoming affiliated with the Oilers.

I see no reason why Kevin Prendergast should be allowed to remain in a hockey operations job, given the record of the team he is responsible for overseeing – both in terms of games lost and prospects drowning in the deep.

Rick Olczyk is a more difficult person to assess. His responsibilities include “player contracts, negotiations and other CBA related issues.” It’s difficult to know how much say he actually has, and the Oilers have signed some bargain contracts during his time with the team (Mike Comrie, and ummm… Mike Comrie). That said, one of the Oilers’ multitudinous problems is their inability to manage the cap, and that reflects poorly on Olczyk. Getting caught by surprise on the negotiating window for Heatley may or may not be Olczyk’s fault, but it reflects badly on him too. Jason Gregor may or may not have misinterpreted Olczyk when he said that Gilbert Brule wasn’t waiver eligible (he was) but again it reflects badly on Olczyk. Essentially, there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence and very little concrete evidence here, and it would take an insider to know whether or not Olczyk should go.

That brings us to the final member of the Oilers management quartet, Steve Tambellini. Lowetide and I have both commented on how the bar keeps moving for Tambellini, which adds some nuance to trying to establish his performance. I’ll explain:

  • July 31, 2008: Steve Tambellini is officially hired as Oilers GM
  • April 13, 2009: Jason Gregor tells us that the plan was to bring Tambellini in for a year to “assess” but that he’s in charge at this point.
  • April 13, 2009: Robin Brownlee tells us that Kevin Lowe stepped back from the day-to-day when Tambellini was hired, and that it will be up to Tambellini to “orchestrate the changes.”
  • May 30, 2009: Terry Jones tells us that “this very much became Steve Tambellini’s hockey club with the hirings of Quinn and Renney.”
  • January 28, 2010: Steve Tambellini says that Daryl Katz “has given me complete authority” over the team and Dan Barnes stresses that Lowe is responsible for the predicament up to this point.

Personally, I don’t think it’s that complicated. Kevin Lowe stepped back on July 31, 2008. That’s when Steve Tambellini stepped in and took over day-to-day operations. That’s the date Steve Tambellini should be accountable from, and since that date the Oilers have gone 54-65-15. The Oilers penalty-kill has been disastrous since day one, and Tambellini has made no moves to address it. The team has been unable to win faceoffs and prior to Marc Pouliot’s return had exactly one centre on the team born prior to 1987.

Tambellini’s moves are rarely blatantly bad in themselves (particularly his trades) but two key exceptions stand out: his acquisition of Nikolai Khabibulin, and his love of “grit.” I’ve gone into the Khabibulin in detail time and again, and it’s a firing offence all on its own: Tambellini gambled $15 million that Khabibulin would be both healthy and competent, despite his age, his injury record, and his inconsistent work in Chicago. That’s nearly seven percent of his total player budget for the next four years, gambled on a 36-year old who averages just under 20 missed games per season and has a grand total of one good year in his last four. When Khabibulin was dehydrated and had to leave a pre-season game, Pat Quinn stated that the team didn’t know it but that had also happened in Chicago. That’s the sort of simple thing a G.M. is supposed to find out before committing massive money and term to a player; the fact that the Oilers didn’t dig too deeply into Khabibulin’s medical history shows an astonishing inability to perform basic due diligence.

As for Tambellini’s love of “grit,” it’s a less important but also interesting point. He brought in Steve MacIntyre, and then he brought in Jesse Boulerice; apparently the fact that neither could play hockey and that the latter has twice jeopardized the careers of opposition players were immaterial. More serious was Tambellini’s pursuit of Chris Neil; the fact that he offered the Eastern Conference version of Zack Stortini a three-year deal in the neighbourhood of $2.0 million per season is a frightening reality. It’s also a mark against the notion that Tambellini was hamstrung by Kevin Lowe-era contracts; for those keeping track, between Neil and Khabibulin Tambellini offered more than 10.0% of his cap space in two ill-advised contracts.

The flaws in this hockey club are exactly the same as they were the day Steve Tambellini was hired. The Oilers are inexperienced at centre and throughout the forward corps. The Oilers lack players who can, as Steve Yzerman put it, play a 200 foot game. The Oilers lack competent penalty killers. The Oilers lack top-six players who can play a physical game. The Oilers lack a defenceman who the coaching staff can rely on to play against the Western Conference’s big guns. The Oilers have an over-abundance of small, unidirectional forwards and management has been loath to make a decision on any of them – a problem exacerbated by the fact that the team’s most NHL-ready prospects are either incomplete (Paajarvi-Svensson) or incomplete and small (Eberle, Omark). The Oilers lack a single goaltender who can be relied upon to a) stay healthy and b) stop pucks (the guy they had left town because the team apparently decided that multi-year contracts to old goaltenders were a bad idea).

In a year and a half on the job, Steve Tambellini has done precisely nothing to fix the Oilers key problems, and in a few cases he’s managed to make those problems worse. The most likely explanation is that he simply doesn’t understand what those problems are. Yesterday he told Dan Barnes that the first step in fixing the problems he has now would be to find out “who truly wants to be an Oiler.” I’m not sure if it’s sadder that he thinks that should be goal one or that after a year and half with the team he’s still asking the question, unsure of the answer.

The problems with this hockey club are directly traceable back to the four men making the decisions. Given that the problems are both numerous and those men show no public indication of even understanding them – let alone fixing them – it’s time to clean house.

  • Jmask5

    @Twiggs

    LOL. It could work if he had a really good assistant. Last year Minnesota interviewed Pierre Mguire for their GM spot and at the time I wondered why they didn't interview Bob Mackenzie since he knows a lot more about Hockey than Pierre. I believe there is a GM in one of the Pro leagues that used to be a Media guy but I'm not sure.

  • JeffG

    I think the trade for POS was done with a pre-salary cap mindset.

    I think team management "style/methodology" is a moving target as the salary cap imposes itself on teams (and teams learn)

  • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

    Willis, you certainly lack some perspective. Do you know how many GMs would be fired for "firable signings"? ALL of them. There is not a GM in this league who does not have at least one bad signing to his credit that has been around for a while.

    Simply, you CANNOT fire your GMs for mistakes, because all GMs make mistakes. You can fire teams for making too many, but if you want to "fire" Kevin Lowe, then pull up a list of all the moves Lowe has made, then show how they've done more harm than good. Same with Tambellini.

    Also, you want to fire Tambellini for a contract that is a quarter way through. Where were we with Dustin Penner's contract a quarter way through that? Or Souray's? It may not change, but history shows that it certainly can.

    In your own way, you've let yourself fall victim to the general whirlpool of negativity that everyone else has had.

    • Did you read his previous article in defence of K-Lowe's previous moves? The fact of the matter is that although he has made some positive moves in the past he is so far removed from them that he needs to go.

  • Jmask5

    They won't fire Stu that would be preposterous.

    @rubbertrout
    Interesting point about job security. If he were hired and fired I'm sure he would have plenty of job offers to go back to media. Anyway its just an idea because all the great GMs still have jobs.

  • I wrote this on my own website, but since no one reads it, I'm going to write it again on here. Ahem:

    I like to compare the Oilers under Steve Tambellini's watch to a burning skyscraper. Basically, Tambo rolled up, looked up and saw that the building was slowly burning at the top. Someone tried to run and call for help but he stopped them and was all like "Wait, let's just see where this goes".

    And right now that same building has basically been reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble, and someone asked him what they should do now, to which he responded "Let's just see where this goes".

    I'll give it to him, the man has some serious patience.

    *curls up in the fetal position*

  • JeffG

    I have patience to let these draft picks from the last 6 or 7 years weed themselves out. The only move I didn't like from Tambellini is waiting so long for Heatley to answer him – bad bad bad bad bad bad bad bad – major desperation revealed.

  • @ PaperDesigner:

    It won't surprise you that I disagree.

    Like I said, it's about equally what Tambellini has done and what he hasn't done. He looked at this team, and then spent all summer doing precisely the opposite of what a good G.M. would do. He meddled with things that weren't problems. Actual problems he ignored. He's reaping what he sowed with a summer of inaction.

    And I know that as fans we get too caught up in the 'what have you done for me lately' idea, but my opinions on Penner and Souray remain identical to what they were the day their deals were signed: Kevin Lowe was spending a lot of money on bad bets.

    Souray's in his third season now with the Oilers: he missed one to injury, had a very good season last year, and hasn't been so good this year. The signing was too much money then and it's too much money now.

    Penner's in his third season with the Oilers. He's had two years of being a good, underappreciated but still overpriced player and now he's had a third season where he was worth the money. Toss in the draft picks and that signing was too much then and it's too much now.

    We shouldn't evaluate results, we should evaluate process, and Tambellini's has been bad. If Khabibulin were healthy this year his contract still would have been a bad bet, because the day he signed it the odds he would stay healthy and productive were bad. Ditto for the other moves as well.

  • Who then should be brought in to the front office? Because it is one thing to point out mistakes, it is something else to do something about them.

    Do you think Hitchcock would be good front office
    material?

    Just asking.

  • Slapshot

    What a GONG SHOW this organization has turned into,Does Katz run the rest of his business like he does the Oilers? and Tamballinis comment that he wants to see who wants to be an Oiler,is even a bigger F*cken joke,It looks like he better order up a new hockey team,The way they are playing no one wants to be here.

  • Great read J-Dub.

    What if Tambellini was given the chance to fire Prendergast & Olzyck and hire new peeps serving up a nice plate of 'scapegoat' first?

    To me, those two gotta go regardless. Tambellini, however, was thought of as a "smart hockey guy". It's possible that that was inaccurate, but perhaps he deserves a second chance (with his own hires). After all, he's under contract anyway, and his replacement is, too (Quinn). And his replacement (Renney). And his (Daum). And his (Steve Pleau).

    Lowe can stay as ambassador/consultant/governor or whatever.

    EDIT: Just read Guy Flaming's piece basically saying as much. Good stuff Willis.

  • Travis Dakin

    It's hard to disagree with your assessment of Tambellini's work do far Jonathon, but firing him is a recipe for disaster.

    Who do you replace him with?

    First of all, it is difficult to assess who will be a good GM. Burke looked like a genius in Anaheim but is a disaster in Toronto. Howson looked a lot better last year than he has this year. Who exactly are the candidates that we're certain are better than Tambellini?

    Then ask yourself if anyone who is good would really be interested in a job where his predecesor was fired for not turning around a flawed team in 18 months? It may be completely justified, but firing Tambellini now sends a message to the next guy that says if you can't turn this team into a contender in one season then your job is at risk. The best candidates will want to wait for a job where they know they'll get a chance to succeed.

    Finally, the guy we do get in the end will be trying to work fast to turn things around. Experience tells us that when a GM feels he has to work fast he sacrifices picks and prospects for veterans he hopes will help now. And that's when the most disastrous hockey decisions get made.

    Tambellini may not be the right guys for the job, but odds are if he's fired now then the next guy will be worse.

    • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

      "Then ask yourself if anyone who is good would really be interested in a job where his predecesor was fired for not turning around a flawed team in 18 months?"

      That's a little tilted, he turned a PO contender into a lotto team. That's alot different then what you are suggesting.

  • Travis Dakin

    Tambi has made some good moves and some bad moves, but (as much as it pains me) some of his best moves have been no moves.

    Should we have brought in several players over the summer? If we wanted to keep being an 8th place battler, yes. But Tambi chose to evaluate what he had. It's a harder choice, it hurts more, but in the long run it's better. Who knew Cogs could hit? Would anyone have bet on Brule being able to make a comeback? Stone being an NHL player (4th line, but still)? Potulny looking like a real solid cog to have in the middle of your machine? Dubs being so close to ready? These are all things we wouldn't have known if we'd brought in Malhotra and Betts and the several other players that we could have.

    Yes, he's screwed up. Sully was a swing and a miss. Khabi was just a headscratcher. But no-one can be perfect, and he's matched a few bonehead moves with some really good ones (gettng anything for Garon, for instance).Now, we have a pile of RFAs to move or let go, he has free lease to trade pretty much anyone he wants, and we have some good kids coming up next year. He's evaluated who and what we have, and we're not going to try patching holes we now know we can fill internally.

    Yes, this year sucks, and is a test of your faith as a fan. But now Tambi is set up so he can make whatever changes he wants, and we know what changes we need. They will be reasoned, well thought out changes, not kneejerk reactions. Last summer was a little disappointing in terms of volume, but the effort was there. This summer is the true test. Tambi will sink or swim based on what he does before the next exhibition games, and as much as we'd all like instant action, we should wait until then.

    Or, yanno, we could make a bunch of trades before the deadline, fill all our needs, and miss out on Seguin.