Oklahoma Revival

One of the things the Oilers have done a much better job of since the hiring of Steve Tambellini is managing their affiliate in the American Hockey League.

Going back to when the Oilers stopped splitting a farm team with Montreal (the last season the two clubs shared an affiliate was 2002-03), there has been a constant theme to Edmonton’s AHL roster: youth will be served. There has also been a cause and effect relationship present: because the Oilers insisted on giving all the top minutes to young players, their AHL teams lost a lot of games.

Here’s the record for the Oilers’ AHL clubs from 2003-04 to the present day:

Season Wins Losses Ties OTL Goal Diff.
2003-04 35 34 8 3 -5
2004-05 32 33 4 11 -22
2007-08 35 35 10 -43
2008-09 24 44 12 -70
2009-10 25 39 12 -89
2010-11 40 29 11 11

(The Oilers did not run an AHL franchise between 2005-07.)

Back in the summer of 2008, there were a lot of us that felt rather unenthused with Kelly Buchberger’s coaching, but a couple of legitimate coaches (Jeff Truitt, Rob Daum) ended up doing a much worse job and I don’t think this can be hung on the bench bosses. The uptick occurred in the summer of 2010, where two (probably not disconnected things) happened: the Oilers fired Kevin Prendergast, who was responsible for the team, and they spent a lot of money on high-end minor league veterans – guys like Brad Moran and Alexandre Giroux.

Interestingly, however, the Oilers changed their approach a season before that uptick started. In 2009-10, the worst year under consideration, the first year that Steve Tambellini had all summer to tinker with the makeup of the professional teams under his purview, the Oilers went out and hired veterans. The difference is easy to see if we look at the players in key roles (top-six scoring forwards, top-two defenders, top goaltender) and their ages. Players over the age of 25 are in bold type:

Team #1 Scorer (F) #2 Scorer (F) #3 Scorer (F) #4 Scorer (F) #5 Scorer (F) #6 Scorer (F) #1 Scorer (D) #2 Scorer (D) #1 Goalie (GP)
2010-11 Oklahoma Giroux Moran McDonald Hartikainen Reddox Omark Helmer Petry Gerber
2009-10 Springfield Linglet Wiseman Fretter Minard Reddox Trukhno Armstrong Wild Dubnyk
2008-09 Springfield Potulny Schremp Stone Trukhno Brule McDonald Chorney Peckham Dubnyk
2007-08 Springfield Schremp Pouliot Reddox Trukhno Thoresen Jacques Kemp Rourke Deslauriers

I think the contrast is obvious, and given the timing and the fact that Tambellini joined the Oilers from Vancouver – a club that has had almost uniformly successful minor league teams in recent years – it is difficult not to think that the credit for this recent emphasis on veterans and the relative success of the AHL club is if not mostly, at least partially, his.

The biggest impact of all these veterans, in my opinion, is the call-up factor. Omark and Reddox entered the season as legitimate AHL forces, and Hartikainen (coming over from some successful professional seasons in Finland) was a decent bet. All of them finished outside the top-three in scoring, but only because all of them had lengthy NHL auditions. In previous years, the loss of three quality young players would have crippled the AHL team – look at those Springfield teams from 2007-09 and picture them without the three most NHL-eligible forwards. With all due respect to Vyacheslav Trukhno, if he’s on the top line the team’s in trouble. But when players like Moran and McDonald never leave the farm, the ball keeps rolling.

The other item is that competition for spots on a professional franchise is a healthy thing. To make the jump to a successful NHL roster, young players need to surpass veterans. It’s a zero-sum game: for someone to go up, someone else must go down. Gift-wrapping premium ice-time in the AHL might seem like a good thing, but I tend to think that when a player knows his job is secure and that he’s going to be the first call-up, he has less incentive to work his butt off every step of the way than he would if he knows that the Oilers might recall Alexandre Giroux instead.

In short: the shift to veterans in the minors makes good sense, both from a developmental and from a ‘winning games’ perspective. Kevin Prendergast ran many poor AHL teams, and the fact that he’s no longer in charge is a positive. Steve Tambellini has been involved with successful minor league teams in the past, and it isn’t hard to see his fingerprints in the changes here. All of these things are to the credit of the Oilers’ organization.

  • Mike Krushelnyski

    Is it fair to say that this same concept applied to the NHL team in the form of signing veteran cover guys like Belanger and Sutton is as much a move to help out the AHL squad? It’d be nice for Harski, Lander, Petry, Teubert et al to get a full AHL season rather than be “yo-yo” players.

  • PhillipSmithson

    No arguments here! Amazing what a well maintained and properly run AHL team does. The sharing of an AHL team didn’t work for the Oilers, because it wasn’t their team. Springfield wasn’t the best run either, mainly because it was more of a partnership. OKC though is a team of their very own (the Road Runners resurrected). Good read thank you sir!

  • I don’t agree. The primary objective of the AHL affiliate is to develop young players into solid NHLers. Wins and losses in the AHL don’t count for anything unless they translate into wins in the NHL.

    While the track record in developing AHLers into solid NHLers was abysmal before ST, we still haven’t seen anything to indicate an improvement under ST aside from the “potential” of the likes of Omark, Hartakainen, Dubnyk, and Petry. Whether any of them pans out into even a half-decent NHLer remains to be seen. (I like Hartakainen’s chances though.)

    Yes, I like seeing Giroux on the AHL roster to add a veteran presence and stability to the lineup, and as you say push the young kids a little, but at the end of the day it’s about results and we still haven’t seen them yet.

  • @ David:

    I agree with you that we haven’t seen a plethora of developmental benefits at this time, but that’s only because it’s too early. I strongly suspect that we will – the signs are there.

    And there is another caveat to the AHL wins/losses thing – they’ve only done it for a season. The signings they’ve done so far this summer are encouraging from an AHL perspective, but we will need to see this continue.

  • Hey Jonathon,
    It is nice seeing something positive about Tambo coming from you. Change of Heart or a more balanced view point?

    My question is about your comment re: Rob Daum. How did he end up doing a much worse job? While following the caoching of a farm team is difficult, my impressions of Rob Daum were quite positive, especially when he was an assistant to MacT.

    My impression was that MacT was a better coach, especially with the younger player when Rob Daum was around.

    I don’t have a clue what Bucky brings to the table. Have not seen anything positve there. Can you(or someone) enlighten me.

  • @ Dave Lumley:

    Tambellini’s done a good job with the AHL team, and deserves the recognition. When he does good things with the Oilers, I’m happy to recognize them (you may have seen my take on the Belanger signing, which was glowing) but given where the club is in the standings, those moves are few and far between. For example, I’m not going to praise Tambellini for signing Jeff Deslauriers to a seven-figure contract when it was always an idiotic thing to do.

    As for Daum, his club finished 56 goals worse than Buchberger’s – they were more than twice as far from break-even. I like Daum, but he won’t be listing Springfield as an accomplishment any time soon.

    • Bucknuck

      I don’t understand what everyone has against Buchberger. The people who are actually aware of what he does for the team seem to think he’s a keeper. You would think that they would know better what an assistant coach does than any fan.

      He was never short on work ethic or heart as a player. HIs resume as AHL head coach is pretty good considering the team he had to work with. He’s always been a team first guy and was a long standing captain.

      I just don’t see where the hate comes from.

    • Dan the Man

      I must agree with you in principle. I support Tambellini for his rebuild plan, which I liked right from his first press conference, the big culture shift. Have there been bone head signings? Certainly have, but in spite of those (who hasn’t had bad signings or trades? Lombardi?) I do like what he has done lately which is still mostly is consistent with his culture change. Hope it keeps up.

      Still, I don’t understand Bucky and what tangebles or untangebles he is bringing to the table.

      • RexLibris

        Agreed on Bucky.

        Can someone explain to me why he’s still holding on to a coaching position. I understand that the best coaches are often the less gifted pros who have studied the game to stay in the game, but I have neither seen nor heard a good reason for his tenure with the team. Anyone?

    • Dan the Man

      JW – Is it possible that JDD was offered an inflated, but brief contract as a way of making amends for (mis)handling his minor league (lack of) development? Or just an overpayment?

  • Bucknuck

    “I agree with you that we haven’t seen a plethora of developmental benefits at this time, but that’s only because it’s too early. I strongly suspect that we will – the signs are there”

    This organization is a joke and we will screw up and screw over anybody decent who comes our way. Who cares about OKC? Its a lost cause.

  • Dan the Man

    The Hershey Bears have been the most successful AHL franchise to date with 11 Calder Cup championships in their history.

    They have been affiliated with the Capitals since 2005 and have 4 appearance in the finals with 3 of those resulting in cup wins.

    I’m not sure how many players from those teams are on the current Caps roster but it’s safe to say the Bears playoff success hasn’t yet rubbed off on the Caps.

    • Lofty

      WSH isn’t a team that has left prospects/players in the AHL for a long time, but some of their current, or recent, players that have spent some time in Hershey are (AHL GP in brackets):

      D Green (68)
      D Carlson (48)
      D Alzner (104)
      D Schultz (45)
      F Fehr (just traded to WIN, 121)
      F Fleischmann (traded midseason, 104 in Hershey, played 53 AHL games the year before Hershey)
      F Perrault (168)

    • Mark-LW

      Yes the Capitals haven’t had playoff success but they have been consistently very good over the last few years. The playoffs this year were a disaster for them of course but last year it was really just a problem of running into a goalie making 100+ saves a game.

      Either way, this seems like a subject Mr. Willis should broach: What kind of impact have Washington drafted players had on the big clubs regular season success.

  • Clyde Frog

    You don’t develop kids by firing them into the deep end and telling them to play…

    You develop a sense of competition to provide the motivation to improve and learn/play the systems. Giving away ice time does none of that.

    I for one applaud the changes, teach the kids how to win and be successful. Make them work for their icetime and ensure that you have a tailored developmental program for each prospect and you will see a decent parade of kidsmaking an impact in the NHL.

    Anyone who thinks these things have no impact or should just play the kids give your head a shake. Name one successful team at any level that does that!

  • Lofty

    @ Gongshow

    Other than the fact he learned how to be a leader from Messier, was captain of the team for 4 years and won 1.1 Stanley cups?

    He also sacrificed his face in honor of the oil drop while the team payroll was around my monthly car payment.

    The guy’s been to the movie, played in 1000 games and only put up a handful of points. He obviously has some knowledge and leadership skills that are valuable to the club.

    Are you looking for an assistant coach that gets a bunch of press and is bigger then the head coach or the team?

    He’s there for a reason.

  • RexLibris

    I have to say, I’m relieved to see that the Oil are finally placing some importance in the farm system and Tambi’s attention to detail works in their favour here. I think part of the decline in Calgary has to do with letting the scouting/drafting side pass them by (thanks Darryl!) as well as seeing the farm team as a place to put players who aren’t good enough rather than a place to help them grow. Now, if we could just improve our professional scouting record so that when it comes time to move out some of our surplus prospects (please don’t say Omark…) we get good to great return and so that we don’t end up falling into the Hossa/Campbell FA signing trap.

  • book¡e

    I think it’s pretty obvious that Buchburger is a pretty crappy coach.

    First, he is a former oiler, so clearly the reason he is working here is because of ‘nepotism’. Thank goodness not every ex-Oiler wants to coach or we would have like 200 assistant coaches.

    Second, his name – how can someone called Bucky be a good coach.

    Third, the dude is ugly.

    Forth, that’s it – unfortunately there is not much else to it.

  • There is not doubt that not having an AHL team for two years has hurt the organization. JDD specifically almost didn’t play for those two years. The decision to disband the Roadrunners was short sighted by the EOG and has hurt the franchise in the interim.

    Winning and losing in the AHL is not critical, but having a competetive is.

  • Max Powers - Team HME Evans

    People can say what they will, but the organization has been heading the right way, IMO, in the last few years. Ever since they decided they were going to rebuild I think that Tambo has been solid. Sure, his Khabi signing makes him look bad but it’s not Milbury-esque, and since then he has been real careful. Everyone makes mistakes and bad moves. If the Oil make the playoffs next year, and start really winning then Tambo will be a pure genius. Overall I’m satisfied with the way the franchise has been going lately because I’m patient and I can see that the Oil are showing signs of being a winning franchise again. It starts from the ground up, and that means the AHL, which is most certainly improving.

  • Little Buttcheeks

    Drafting is half the battle. Developing is where good teams can really distinguish themselves. I like the idea of developing a winning mindset and being patient with these kids. Too many kids are handed things too easily and it’s easy for a teenager to get a big head if he gets drafted and is all of a sudden in the NHL only a few years later based almost solely on where he was drafted.