The Rebuild Conundrum, Part II

NHL Board of Governors Meeting

Yesterday, we looked at the difficulties with assuming that a lottery pick is a magic bullet that fixes a team’s problems. Because there’s so much more to building a team than just finding a superstar and then glomming random players around him, a bad general manager can make even the greatest pick almost completely irrelevant.

The problem is that the kind of managers who see their teams fall into a position to make a lottery pick are generally the same kind of managers who have that sort of reverse-Midas touch.

The Oilers didn’t spend their season preparing to tank. Steve Tambellini didn’t come back after a year of assessing and say, “we need to blow this roster up.” No, he came back and said he didn’t like the culture of the team and he didn’t like the lack of grit, and he addressed those things by firing Craig MacTavish and bringing in Pat Quinn, who in turn stuck J-F Jacques on the first line.

I’ve been over Tambellini’s summer time and again, and I won’t go into detail here. He did a bad job, and we all know it. He didn’t address holes in the lineup, he put too much emphasis on the coaching change, and he signed an aging, injury-prone goaltender coming off his first good season in four years to a four year contract, and did it with an unproven backup. While he was stuck on culture, tangible problems – like the penalty kill, and the team’s imbalance up front and on the back end – went completely unaddressed.

Now, there are indications it perhaps wasn’t entirely his fault. We know that owner Daryl Katz has meddled in the past, including an attempt to sign Georges Laraque to a four-year deal. Thankfully, Laraque wanted to play in front of his mother, and thus signed in Montreal, where things have gone disastrously. We also know that Kevin Lowe gave him a fairly tough place to start, signing disappointing veterans to long-term, big-money deals. We know that the Oilers AHL affiliate has been a black hole under assistant general manager Kevin Prendergast. We also have reason to suspect that cap guru Rick Olczyk may not understand NHL waiver rules.

There is plenty of blame to go around at this point. But before I buy into the notion that a rebuild will fix this team’s problems, I want to see blood*. And not this guy’s blood:

Despite two seasons of diminishing returns, the only people in the Oilers organization to pay a price for failure have been the coaches. With the exception of Kelly Buchberger and Rob Daum (who already spent some time floating in limbo), the coaching staff has been gutted: at the NHL level, the AHL level and the ECHL level. It hasn’t made a positive difference, and it’s possible to argue that it has in fact made things worse. Aside from those sacrificial lambs, the only other thing I’ve seen to suggest that the Oilers are making changes to adjust for managerial incompetence are the constant revisions of when Steve Tambellini took full control of the team – originally when he was hired, then at the 2009 trade deadline, then in the summer of 2009 and finally back in January.

Suffice to say that despite incredible managerial incompetence, the managers remain safely employed. That needs to change this summer.

I don’t want to see superficial change, either. I expect the team will elect Kevin Prendergast as the next scapegoat; the AHL performance has been poor, there are some unfortunate draft picks that can be pointed to, he wasn’t hired by Steve Tambellini and there were whispers that he was going to get fired last summer.

The changes cannot stop there. Whatever Prendergast’s faults, he isn’t the one who put together this edition of the Oilers. He didn’t hang a bunch of contractual millstones around the neck of the team. He didn’t sign Nikolai Khabibulin without looking into his dehydration issues or injury record.

The blame here falls on Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini. Every decision made by this team since the summer of 2006 can be traced back to one of those two men. Lowe made a bunch of them, but was allowed to jump above the fray and bring in Tambellini. Tambellini has continued in the same vein, all the while talking about what an asset Lowe is as a source of counsel.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need for change. It’s one of the items that was pointed to by people who believed MacTavish was a good coach but still wanted him gone. It’s been used by both fans and the general manager to justify the Grebeshkov trade – he may not have been the problem, but what the Oilers had wasn’t getting the job done.

Personally, I agree that there’s a need for change. But I don’t see any reason to believe that this change should be confined to the lower and middle ranks of the organization, because I don’t see any reason to believe that the majority of problems are coming from anywhere other than the top. My personal solution goes something like this:

The Oilers organization has the option of treating either the symptoms of the disease or the disease itself. The scorched earth rebuilding model should do a fine job of removing the symptoms, given enough time, but if the disease stems from the top then no amount of turnover among the players, coaches, scouting staff or low-level managers is going to eradicate it. The only way to end bad management is to bring in different managers.

I don’t see that happening, and that’s why I remain gloomy about the Oilers future despite the likelihood that they’ll attempt a proper rebuild.

*metaphorical blood, not literal blood.  I’d hoped that was obvious but felt I’d better clarify.

  • Not sure how you're able to call for both KLowe's and Tambi's heads considering:

    1. This isn't NHL2010. Trades just don't happen and players just don't sign because you entered the right cheat code.

    2. Lowe's bad moves were outshone by his good moves. The man had the Midas Touch going into 2006. Things fell apart with the Pronger trade. But to claim all things terrible about the Oilers are management's fault seems a bit of a reach.

    The trouble with Edmonton is that people are either always planning the parade or are demanding someone's head. Back and forth, back and forth like an endless ping-pong match.

    • If nothing good has been done since 2006 (we we caught lightning in a bottle IMO) that should be enough of a reason to start fresh. Sure some of the players have underperformed considering their contracts but what are you going to do if you're a player? So "no thank you sir you are offering me too much"? Give me a break. We can't fire the players without cap issues being created. the blame for the moves (or in some cases the lack of moves) made has to fall squarely on management.

      EDIT: by "nothing good" I mean in terms of addressing needs. The scouting and drafting has been pretty good and I'm not talking about that aspect of things.

    • Chris.

      If you bothered to read my comments, I was calling for Katz to hire outside consultants to review his management team. Seems fair, when his franchise finds itself in the basement despite a $60M payroll.

      I'm not sure when you or other calm and pulseless people would be prepared to take a look at managemnt… ~I mean four full seasons ago ex-GM, now President, Kevin Lowe had the "Midas touch"!~ Based on that…Why would recent performance be up for review?

      • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

        Who exactly can you hire that would be clear cut better then what we have? Anyone that is really good has a job, unless we are looking at getting Maclean and Milbury to do this.

        • Chris.

          Circular argument… But IMO, any consultant with more hockey knowledge than Katz would be an upgrade over the current accountabiliy model. Specifically, off the top of my head, (30seconds of thought)… Isn't Jay Feaster a competent and available hockey mind who has no ambition to re-enter the GM ranks but would be capable of intelligently rubber stamping or offering criticism of managerial competence?

          Player performance is reviewed. Coaches are reviewed… heck even Refs are reviewed… seems to be a no brainer that owners would review their GM's.

          • Craig Patrick and Neil Smith are available. Jay Feaster is referenced above. You could try to recruit Jim Nil, Rick Dudley or Dave Nonis. I find it hard to believe qualified candidates aren't out there.

            The same garbage was flying around last year when people were calling for MacT's job: "Well, who can we get who is better?" There are always options; I firmly believe a coaching change last year would have resurrected their playoff chances. Uncertainty shouldn't always lead to inaction.

          • cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan

            jay feaster? really?

            i agree 110% a guy like dudley should be on the payroll.

            nil aint leaving detroit, and he has said as much in the past. craig patrick and neil smith? is it 1997 again?

            nobody is going to be able to come in and turn this thing around quickly. ken holland doesnt make this team any better short term.

            im not at all saying tambo is the guy for the job. his track record thus far speaks for itself. I would suggest that the oilers bring in a guy like dudley. someone who actually has some track record when it comes to evaluating young talent. maybe not as GM, but get him in there somewhere.

            after the FFH campaign is over, i will start a "fire KP and bring in Dudley" campaign, it even kind of ryhmes

          • The Real Scuba Steve

            What's one charateristic Feaster, Neil Smith and Craig Patrick have in common that no one in Oilers management shares? They've built championship teams. When you come down to the heart of it, at least they've proven to be winners.

            Your reference to 1997 is funny; it's not like Tambellini is hockey's answer to Theo Epstein. While it's true Smith and Patrick have been out of the league for a while, the Oil just brought back Pat Quinn. It's not like they're adverse to bringing in experienced professionals.

            Agreed on Dudley; he's been instrumental in building quality teams in Tampa and Chicago.

          • Chris.

            Wow… now that's ~accountability!~

            How about Dale Tallon? Despite his inability to file paperwork in a timely fashion he did a nice job managing high picks and reassembling a crappy Blackhawk roster. Maybe he could chat with Lowe and Tambi about their ~plans~ for a rebuild…

          • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

            I never said it was the best. The bottom line is the president is suppose to be someone the owner trusts to make the right decisions with the management staff.

            Consultants, is this really a job in the NHL? Maybe consultants to help out with the GM's, but not to review a GM.

            If Katz wants accountability from his GM then he needs to hire a competent President. To make up some consultant job just isn't going to happen. A smarter idea is to hire someone who can do the job in the first place.

    • Chris.

      ~Yeah… the "trouble with Edmonton" is that people expect waaaaay too much~

      Why would you expect your franchise to have at least one 100 point season since the eighties? (Like pretty much every other team in the league except maybe the Islanders, Thrashers, and Panthers)

      OR, start the playoffs with home ice? (like they haven't done in nearly 20 years)…

      OR, win the division? (Did you know that every single other NW team has won a division title at least once the last six years?)

      OR, even make the playoffs after four years…

      OR, even compete for a playoff spot past Christmas…?

      OR, be entertained at a home game?

      OR, OR, OR,… I know we, as fans, are waay out of line to expect this mangement group (or any future management group) to ice a team that isn't the laughing stock of the league!

      • Why would you expect your franchise to have at least one 100 point season since the eighties? (Like pretty much every other team in the league except maybe the Islanders, Thrashers, and Panthers)

        You are forgetting about Weight's 104 in 05-06. He also put up 90 in 00-01.

        I know it doesn't really affect your point, and I mostly agree with you. I just don't like seeing Weight's good years for the team overlooked.

        Edit: Sorry I meant 95-96

      • Chris.

        I grew up a fan of the Oilers and only the Oilers. Its been that way since day 1 when they came in to the NHL and my dad took me to all the games and including the cup wins. I stuck thru the horrible 90's and have remained true thru today.

        I couldnt agree more with what Chris said. When was the last team this team was truly competitive? Yes we made a miracle run in '06, but short of that we've missed our barely made the playoff's since the last cup win back in 1990.

        20 years of mediocrity. 20 YEARS people. 2006 is a crutch for every decision. WHO CARES that we made a cup run 4 years ago!?!!

        At what point does this mediocrity finally stop being accepted by everyone?

          • Vacouver had a run in '94 (or 95?) against NYR. In any event, they have been contenders for the NW division or the winners of it for many years now. The fact that they have flamed out in the playoffs doesn't change the fact that they have been competitive.

            If we had Vancouver's last 10 years and a team that is still competitive I'd take it in a heartbeat over a cup loss and a scorched earth re-building. Having a shot is what it is really all about. Yes you could then complain about the team not being able to win the big one (and that would happen) but I'd rather have the risk of that complaint than be looking at absolute shite while (hopefully) re-building.

        • DiamondDave

          Why don't you politely come down from your high horse and join the rest of us in reality here?

          Lowe's bad moves weren't necessarily "overshadowed" by his good moves, rather than "hidden" by his good moves. He has exhausted the accolades and goodwill developed from the '06 cup run and now people are realizing that we do, in fact, have an inept management core who have blatantly failed in delivering a competitive hockey team.

          The sports and entertainment industry as a whole is a performance based business, so why can't we call for a change in management? In the same way a hockey player shouldn't be rewarded for their goal totals from 4 seasons ago, why should management go unquestioned because they were lucky 4 years ago?

      • Ogden Brother Jr. - Team Strudwick for coach

        The worse thing is no matter what the Oilers would've done it would always be a failure, unless the cup is won. Even now the talk is about rebuilding and becoming a contender? Not exactly something that is easily obtainable.

        • Depends on your definition of "contender" though. San Jose is always a contender and hardly ever make it out of the second round.

          Chicago just made the playoffs for the first time since 2002 last year, they were considered a contender.

          I think, for most of us as it pertains to the Oilers, contending would mean finishing higher than 7th and making it past the first round of the playoffs. Being able to, at the very least, hang with some of the elite teams.

          I agree that it's not easily obtainable, and it's certainly not going to happen over night, but I don't think the majority of Oiler fans expectations are as high as you think.

          • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

            Their was a blog a few years ago that highlighted that the cup was hadn't been one by a team outside of the top 4 in it's confernce in something like 15 years.

            I think if you've built a team that can be in the top 4/5 spots in your conference for a 4-5 year stretch you've done a pretty good job.

        • Chris.

          The cup, or bust, mentality is mostly a lot of rhetoric.

          IMO, Most Oiler fans understand that in a thirty team league it is unlikely that we will ever see another true dynasty in Edmonton… Most of us just want to cheer for a team that can win despite some injuries or bad bounces; a team with enough talent that it would be the feature team on a nationally televised game; a team that wins a division title or two; a team that enters the playoffs with home ice; but mostly a team that is considered a legit contender. Nearly every single other franchise in the league has achieved that status at least once over the last twenty years. I'm tired of being patient and understanding… (And I was… few people were bigger Oiler apologists than me through the 90s… But this is 2010, and I just don't understand how a Hockey Ops group can ice a cap team that will finish last and expect to stay employed.)

    • Dyckster

      I respectfully disagree,

      JW's "suggestions" are not knee jerk reactions, we have yet to make the playoffs since the magic carpet ride which was the 2006 SCPOs. Teams will have ups and downs, no question, but the peaks and valley (notice the lack of plural here, i.e. there has been no other peaks since '06) this team has experienced over the last few seasons are, imho, much too severe to have the management group remain status quo.

  • @ Wedge:

    I'd prefer to be praising Lowe's savvy and skill-set. I'd greatly prefer that, in fact.

    Unfortunately, at the end of the day he's judged on how his decisions affected the team. The team has been terrible, and there's no way to divorce that performance from his bad decisions.

    I don't like beating up on the Oilers managers. I really don't. But unfortunately their track record leaves me thinking they don't know the way out of the quagmire they're in now.

  • Chris.

    I've said this before… Katz (a man who has never played any kind of competative hockey) is ultimately the man in control. The media and the fans will have great fun trying to rate Tambellini's performance based on the moves he has made… But none of us are privey to the inside knowledge of the moves he chose not to make. How do we know what offers (if any) were rejected for Cogliano? Maybe the offers that were rejected are far more damning than the deals that were made…

    Katz, like many owners, simply lacks the hockey knowledge necessary to properly evaluate his own management team moving forward. Based on were the Oilers are today, Katz should hire a group of expensive, accomplished, completely independant consultants (Successful hockey people) to review the performance of the entire Oiler managemnt structure, using all the information the rest of us don't have access to… AND he should listen to their recommendations.

    (I'm available Friday afternoons)

  • The blame here falls on Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini. Every decision made by this team since the summer of 2006 can be traced back to one of those two men
    Could that be that these are the men who ARE in charge of making decisions? I am tired of the Lowe bashing. Yes, ALOT of the decision's turned out bad – but at the time I believe Lowe was trying to do the right based on what had happened. The Pronger fiasco started a chain of bad luck and events that have led us to where we are today.Could you imagine the fan backlash if he had not signed Pisani? Damned if you do – damned if you don't.

    • Bucknuck

      I agree. People crucify him for not signing Smytty, then the same folks criticize him for signing Horcoff FOR THE EXACT SAME AMOUNT.

      These two players had comparable stats leading up to both signings. Smytty's best season was 70 points, Horcoff's was 73. Horcoff tried to block shots with his face, Smytty got a shot in the face, lost three teeth and still played more minutes in that game. Both had intangibles and were respected guys in the room.

      If I choose to get mad at him for dealing smytty (which I do), then I better shut up about the Horcoff contract.

  • We'll have a better sense of what Tambellini is doing after July. I agree with your overall assessment but you have to give the new GM a bit more time I think. The leash should be shorter for those who have already have 2.5+ years in the organization.

    ST might still have a plan.

  • Chris.

    Predergast must go. He drafted way too many small ~skilled~ players, too many soft college bound kids, and totally destroyed Springfield in the process. That man has done enough damage to this franchise.

  • DoubleJ

    It worked for Colorado, everyone was shocked at all the top end changes, everyone had them pegged for the 15th spot. I can't see Tambi getting fired yet. The two Kevin's might though.