Sometimes it’s hard to identify the villain in the piece. In the most recent Toy Story movie, everyone looked like the good guy but as we know that wasn’t the case. In regard to the Edmonton Oilers front office, it seems equally impossible to identify the heroes and good guys.
Last year, we were treated with the first of the Oil Change series. The debut episode talked at length about a "rebuild" and the fact that owner Daryl Katz ordered the brick by brick re-tooling of the franchise. It was a fact that they didn’t have to do much in order to reach scorched earth, as the 2009-10 edition of the copper and blue was a sad and terrible thing. It had been four straight years of missing the playoffs–and that was when the management team was trying to compete.
The change in philosophy was to be built on previous models, in towns like Pittsburgh and Chicago. Jonathan Willis wrote a wonderful series that looked at the relative success of those teams over the years, but for the purposes of our conversation today let’s talk about the last 12 months.
Ground zero for the rebuild was the day Taylor Hall was drafted as an Edmonton Oiler. However, there were also things happening at lower levels of the procurement and development pile that will one day reap benefits for the Oilers and their fans.
In order to properly understand what’s happening below the surface for Edmonton’s Oilers, let me take you on a short trip through history. From 2001-07 (I call it the Prendergast era of drafting) the Oilers had several irritating habits:
- Drafting for need. Alex Plante was a perfect example of this trend. The big defender was projected by many as a first round selection but a reach at that spot, and considered a raw talent who would take years to develop. Four years later, we’re still waiting. The 2003 and 2007 drafts were the main reason KP no longer watches over the Oilers draft table.
- Drafting mountain men out of order. Several times during this era the club would select big forwards miles before their projection. In fact, this continues to be the case, as the Oilers selected Cameron Abney long before the skilled men had been plucked from the avialable list. Three selections after Abney came off the board, the Washington Capitals called the name of Cody Eakin. Having said that, the tendency has been muted when compared to the previous draft administration. Coke Machines drafted out of order 2001-07 include Ed Caron, Brock Radunske, Colin McDonald, JF Jacques, Geoff Paukovich or about one per year.
- Not bringing Euro kids over in a timely fashion. Jani Rita is the obvious example but Mikhnov and Zoukov and a few others in the last decade had all kinds of issues that impacted their development. Contrast that with the current group bringing over Hartikainen, MPS, Lander and Motin as soon as possible.
- AHL oprhans. The Bulldogs turned into the Roadrunners who turned into a dog’s breakfast and in the last couple of seasons there just wasn’t enough quality on the minor league team to deliver success and properly develop these young men. The current team–the OKC Barons–graduated a bushel full of prospects to the show in their first season. All of Linus Omark, Jeff Petry, Teemu Hartikainen and Chris Vande Velde qualified as prospects at the beginning of the season and then had at least some impact for the NHL team.
The Oilers have a nice pipeline going now, with Anton Lander, Curtis Hamilton, Tyler Pitlick and others poised to graduate to the American Hockey League. I remember years ago Kevin Prendergast saying the key to a successful draft was to ace the selections inside the top 100 overall. KP’s success rate wasn’t terrible, but wasn’t good enough to sustain him as chief scout; part of the problem had to be orphaned AHL kids getting loaned out 4 at a time so they could ride the pine in exotic cities like Scranton and Des Moines.
Figuring it Out
The Oilers at the big league level are miles from contention, but there are good things bubbling under. The AHL team made the playoffs (despite losing the heart of the team to the NHL club via injury) and graduating some quality people. There are more knocking on the door and still more entering the pro system.
At some level, I think we can reasonably suggest that the Oilers are going about things the right way from draft day through the AHL level. I believe there’s evidence the AHL team is well coached and even tweener talents (example: Milan Kytnar) seem to be flourishing.
I know it isn’t popular to credit Steve Tambellini for anything, but at least some of the good news in these departments came as a direct result of his hiring the right people and leaving them the hell alone. He did not hire Stu MacGregor, but he did put more of an emphasis on scouting and the organization has increased their scouting footprint in the last 12 months. If you don’t want to credit Steve Tambellini, then perhaps Kevin Lowe deserves some of the credit. Under his watch, the Oilers did kick Prendergast upstairs and move MBS into the top scouting job.
If these kids keep developing, sooner or later the Oilers are going to contend. The construction of the minor league system is well underway and should reward patience over the next several years. I know it’s a painful process, and God knows at my age this is cutting into my chances of seeing another 4 minute Stanley parade down Jasper Avenue; but fair is fair and there are signs at the lower levels of the organization that things are progressing nicely.
I’m not suggesting you cease being frustrated with another last place finish and what looks like another painful season ahead, but on those days when you find yourself searching for sunshine, blue sky and good times, maybe have a glance at the horizon.