One of the over-arching themes of Steve Tambellini’s time as General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers has been the ongoing quest to make the team stronger, grittier, and more emotional. Few skillsets have been targeted with the same zeal and commitment with which the Tambellini Oilers have pursued players who fit those descriptors.
Tambellini emphasized those points repeatedly in the press conference above (the MacTavish conference), and I think we can say unequivocally that he has attempted to live up to what he outlined:
People say maybe we weren’t gritty enough as a team – I agree with that.
Do we need to get stronger? Yes we do.
We need more strength. We need more grit… One thing I will not put up with is an unemotional game.
We want aggressive type of play. We want an emotional team.
Do we need to add, like I said, that type of strength and a team that should be harder to play against? Do we need that? Yes we do.
Steve Tambellini got a lot of credit this summer for clearing out a lot of the bottom-six group over the summer, and that clearing work followed a pretty clear pattern. Here’s the list of Oilers forwards from 2009-10 who played at least 10 games but less than 1000 even-strength minutes:
|Patrick O’Sullivan||Sam Gagner|
|Ethan Moreau||Gilbert Brule|
|Ryan Potulny||Zack Stortini|
|Robert Nilsson||Jean-Francois Jacques|
The retained list boasts one key piece (Sam Gagner), one feisty, aggressive forward who was regarded by many as a key building block (Gilbert Brule) and a pair of crash and bang fourth-liners. The only player of the four without a high-profile physical game was Gagner, the sixth overall pick in 2007.
The departed list features a variety of players, but seven of the nine have a key point in common: an underwhelming physical game. Sure Pisani went into corners and Comrie had some aggressiveness, but these aren’t players who have “grit” as the first entry on their resumes. The sole exceptions (Stone and Moreau) had other factors working against them: Stone was injured for most of his stint in Edmonton and snake-bitten when healthy, while Moreau was much maligned for his salary, diminishing performance, unfortunate quotes in the media, and most importantly his tendency to collect stupid penalties.
The Oilers have employed an impressive collection of part-time players whose primary attribute is a physical game.
Steve MacIntyre has been the designated enforcer of the Tambellini era, under both Craig MacTavish and Tom Renney; Pat Quinn being philosophically opposed to the concept of a part-time fighter. We’ve mentioned Jacques and Stortini, the latter a fourth-liner who can fight, the former a pure banger at this point in his career. Jesse Boulerice, one of the more revolting goons in the game, got a cameo, as did Tim Sestito.
It doesn’t seem like a lot until one realizes that under Tambellini the Oilers have always employed players with marginal hockey skill but a prominent physical game. All three bottom-of-the-roster options this season fit this description to some degree; in order Stortini, Jacques, MacIntyre. Under Quinn a year ago, an attempt was made to integrate these types of players more thoroughly into the team (remember Jean-Francois Jacques on the top line?) and while that didn’t work out I don’t think it happened by accident.
Each summer, the Oilers have pursued players from this general family. Chris Neil got a big-money, multi-year offer from the Oilers, but fortunately was re-signed by the Senators instead. The Oilers were also in the running for Derek Boogaard, but he opted to sign with the Rangers.
The Bottom Line
There is going to be some disagreement on how essential a prominent hitting game is to a successful team. I don’t think it is especially important; the Red Wings, among other teams, have shown that a hockey club can win without gooning it up. On the other hand, Steve Tambellini spent a lot of time studying under Brian Burke, and his clubs have always had a penchant for truculence. The best of Burke’s teams, of course, were the Stanley Cup Champions in 2007, and while Tambellini wasn’t part of that management group I doubt the lesson was lost on him.
We have spent a lot of time suggesting different models that the Oilers might be following – the ‘Hawks, the Red Wings, the Penguins, etc. – but it’s worth remembering where Tambellini came from, what he’s said, and what he’s done. I think all three point to a general manager who will always see toughness, grit and a physical game as key ingredients in a championship team.