Development and the Edmonton Oilers

One of the things that Steve Tambellini has been getting credit for (including from yours truly) is the resurgence of the Oilers’ farm system under his watch. Long a wasteland under the previous administration, this year the Oilers’ farm team is first in the American Hockey League. It’s an important change, and one the current group deserves credit for.

However, there’s a big difference between running a good AHL team and being good at developing players. The Oilers are showing signs of the first but they have yet to prove anything’s changed on the second front.

The Oilers have long been a team in favour of rushing their best prospects to the NHL level. Sam Gagner was brought into the league at 18, despite being undersized and not ready for the show – as evidenced by his minus-21 while Jarret Stoll and Marty Reasoner took on both the tough opponents and the tough defensive zone assignments. Andrew Cogliano, despite defensive shortcomings and an inability to win a faceoff, never played an AHL game for the Oilers; he was elevated to a scoring line right out of college. Ales Hemsky never played an AHL game either; he was brought into the NHL at 19 and was a 30-point man for two seasons up until the NHL lockout.

Things have not changed.

Magnus Paajarvi has seen time in the AHL this season after a goalless stretch that has now reached 33 games. He had nine points in his 10 minor-league games, but only a single goal. History shows us that he was largely relegated to a secondary role last season while Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle got the prime offensive minutes; Paajarvi only got a significant role once injuries and trades had whittled the competition down to nothing (in March of last season, Paajarvi played 15:00+ minutes every game, while in February, he played less than 15:00 in 10 of 12 contests). Would he have been hurt by getting a starring role in the AHL in 2010-11, a chance to work on his offensive game and learn to play in a smaller North American rink?

While keeping Paajarvi on the NHL roster out of camp last season was a mistake, it was at least understandable. The Oilers were selling hope. Paajarvi was a top-10 pick. At the time he was a shiny new offensive prospect, rather than an underperforming youngster who doesn’t cut to the net. Those are not good reasons for making a bad developmental decision, but at least they’re understandable.

Anton Lander is not an especially overhyped prospect. He was a second-round pick. His offensive numbers have never been spectacular; he’s always been projected as a good, solid defensive player with excellent character. Anybody watching him fight for the puck can tell that while his head’s in the right place he isn’t strong enough to hold off NHL veterans yet. He’d never played in North America prior to this season.

All of those should have been solid indications that Lander would start his North American career in the AHL, where he could have been a key penalty-killer, worked on his faceoffs, and received a lot of minutes to further develop his game at both ends of the ice.

The Oilers saw things differently – they kept him in the NHL as a fourth-line center. In just five games has he received more than 15:00 minutes of ice-time. In 14, he’s been held to single digits in ice-time. Rather than play in key offensive situations, he’s typically put on the bench when the Oilers need a goal – and for good reason, given his five points over 45 games played. Rather than take a bunch of face-offs in the AHL, he’s taken less than 300 in the NHL – again for good reason, given his 42.1% success rate in the circle.

The Oilers have long felt that their best prospects should learn the game at the NHL level (please note here that I’m not including lottery picks like Hall and Nugent-Hopkins; for these talents it’s fair to argue that the development curve is different). This isn’t done out of necessity – neither Paajarvi nor Lander provide anything the Oilers can’t get on the free agent market (or in Lander’s case, from their farm team – Ryan O’Marra’s not only bigger and stronger but also a better faceoff man). In other words, these players aren’t here because the Oilers are a bad team, the excuse often made for the club. They’re here because the Oilers under both Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini think their players learn best at the NHL level.

It’s difficult to prove definitively that this strategy is the wrong course of action, but it is not what teams like Detroit and New Jersey do. It doesn’t make great sense from a cap angle either, though that’s a secondary consideration. The fact is that many of the best teams in the game choose to be patient with their players, establishing timelines that see fresh draft picks get a minor-league apprenticeship. Intuitively, it makes sense – not only does it avoid injuries (like the kind that derailed Gilbert Brule’s career in Columbus) but it gives players a chance to play heavy minutes in key situations in an environment focused on development, rather than winning.

So, yes, the Oilers have a better AHL team under Steve Tambellini. That doesn’t mean they’ve made great strides when it comes to developing their players.

  • Spydyr

    Hey things are looking up.It was not that many years ago there was no minor league team.Come to think of it. That’s when the fall started.Funny how that happened. Coincidence I think not.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Steve sure as hell knocked that OKC one out of the ballpark. He sure knows how to put together an AHL team.

    Wonder if he even knows his parent club is half engulfed in flames….

  • Travis Dakin

    Funny thing is, their (probably) best young player, finished out his career in junior and was spotted in for some AHL time at the end of two seasons. He wasn’t rushed and look how it’s working out for him.

    Why aren’t they learning from the RIGHT decisions they make. Like the one they made with Eberle.

    • Agreed. I can kind of understand last year with the pre-season that Paajarvi had and trying to sell hope but at some point he needed more time in the minors and I have no idea why Lander made the team to start the year. Why would you want a rookie his age with his potential to be an important piece of the puzzle rotting on the fourth line with guys like Petrell and Hordichuk? Makes no sense.

  • Spydyr

    Astute. It does seem reckless to throw talent into battle with the sharks. The injury issue may be directly correlated to starting too young and developing your actions faster than your physical sustainability. Great article.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    It seems to me that Gilbert and Smid are pretty good examples of different development strategies. Both are fine Dmen now but there were plenty of growing pains with Smid and all at the NHL level. Gilbert went to college then had a year in the A before moving up the chain. Difference to me is that Gilbert has helped the big club pretty much throughout his tenure excepting a 10 game stretch two years ago.

    I really wonder why Lander hasn’t had a chance to be a stud in OKC. To an outsider, the Oilers view going to the A as a punishment rather than a opportunity to work on their game. We like Lander, he stays. Omark annoyed me, he goes. Lander should go down and work the powerplay in OKC when Nugent comes back. Belanger can center the fourth line.

  • Romulus' Apotheosis

    Great post Willis!!

    there is a chronic fear of Anything-But-NHL-Leagues in this Organization and in larges sections of its fans.

    Part of that has to be a result of being a terrible team. First, because you are bad there is a lot of room on the team for non-NHL-ready players. Second, because it is easier to sell the future and shiny new things than the present.

    Logan Couture vs. Sam Gagner. Different players no doubt. But same draft year, same position. Dramatically different development paths.

    Development IMO should be like cooking meat. The best meat doesn’t even need to be cooked. Serve it tartare. The lower the quality the meat the more intricate and time-consuming your cooking and spicing has to be… most players need to be slow roasted. Sure give em a cup of coffee, let them feel the searing heat of the broil… but then put them back on the low heat and stew them.

  • @ Henry:

    Smid’s a good example of the problem too – he spent his first year with the org. in the NHL, despite not being ready, and got sent down for a time the next season.

    It’s worked out, but it was a long tough road and some of it could have been spent in the minors.

  • O.C.

    OKC is worth taking a look at. Like to see the other Tyler and Curtis Hamilton.

    TJones is there this weekend. Would have loved to see him bowl with the special Olympians yesterday.

    They’re in Abbotsford Thursday 9th and Sat 11th… anyone planning on it?

  • vetinari

    We have a tendency to rush second tier youth players into the NHL rather than send them down for a year or two to the AHL to develop, build skills and grow into their frames.

    Think about the Devils and how they have almost always sent their players down to the AHL to develop– or the year Spezza went down for Ottawa.

    We damage our players by putting them into positions where they can’t help but fail and then get physically beat up in the process.

    Psychologically, losing sucks. Being publicly critized and questioned about your skills in the media sucks. Having your weaknesses exposed by opposing team on a nightly basis sucks. Sitting in the press box sucks. Being the elite player from the CHL who now plays 6-10 minutes a night on the third or fourth line in the NHL sucks. Having only a few veterans on the team that can teach you your role sucks. Having a constant turnover on the team sucks.

    Elite players like Hall and the Nuge are exceptions to the rule but the others… I fell bad for them and wonder how many of them will be considered washouts by the time they hit 22 because they haven’t been managed, developed and protected properly.

    • Time Travelling Sean

      This will all change.

      Don’t forget we had no youthful depth, so when we drafted Gagner there was noone to give a promotion to so Sammy could take his place.

      With this increased depth we’ll have the next generation of promising studs we draft shall be sent to the AHL. Some prospects in the AHL who’ve been there for 1-3 years get called up and give the recently drafted prospects time to mature.

      Right now who can we call up from the AHL?

      Although Lander and O’Marra should swap so we can see where O’Marra fits, if at all and let Lander focus on development rather then the stress and pressures of trying to win.

  • Yourmomthinksimhot

    Im glad somebody finally wrote an article about this. Look at Hamilton, Pitlick and Martindale, why are they not still in junior? When you look at how the Sharks handled Couture and how the Ducks handled Getzlaf, Perry and Penner, none were rushed.

    Ryan Ellis is the same, all these guys have something in common, they had to break there way onto the team. The issue with Tambo is he relies on these kids to provide the wins, instead of filling roster spots with veterans.

    While its okay to give minutes to Hall and Nuge, Paajarvi and Lander need more development. Look at the other guys in Paajarvi and Landers draft year. Schenn, Glennie, Kadri were all taken before Paajarvi and they are not still full time NHL players. This is just one other issue Tambo is bumbling with.

    Dont rely on teenagers to carry your team, and dont try to convince fans that this is a playoff team when we have a junior team on the ice against NHL players.

  • Yourmomthinksimhot

    Not only that, by playing Lander up on the big club, when he clearly isn’t ready, means an asset by the name of Gilbert Brule was totalled mishandled, with the organization losing, FOR NOTHING, a player who now has for Phoenix as many goals as Lander, MPS, and Belanger combined.

  • Yourmomthinksimhot

    Everything is fine, just less injuries so we can truly gage where the team is at! These sites are hilarious! I can bet this is Tambellini & Renney’s problem to a tee, what do we actually have until they all get on the ice together! Just my thoughts!

  • stevezie

    Tambellini has been given credit for the minor system improving this year in a fairly dramatic way. The problem is the actual NHL prospects aren’t getting it done. It is the career minor-leaguers who are getting it done. Philip Cornet has surprised and shown some progress but that appears to be it.

    That puts the AHL progress in the realm of smoke and mirrors.

    The Oil have cheated for as long as I can remember with their young players. They have forced them to play in the ‘show’ before they are ready and have shown they have learned how to play and have the resulting confidence. Gagner, Lander and Paajarvi are three pretty good examples of the folly of the Oil impatience with youngsters.

    How else do you account for a solid 10 yrs of failure. And don’t cite spring 2006. The players Lowe brought in for 2006 didn’t hang around long did they? They only made the playoffs that year because the Canucks lost their last game of the season.

    Tambellini and Lowe’s embarassing disputes with players/agents in the media have been epic, classless moves. Tambellini could have handled the Souray matter much better long before Sheldon ran his mouth in public. Is that type of ability not a key skill for any GM? Any observer with half a clue has had a front row seat for this gong show and it’s time for change. I would extend Renney et al for 1 season and then it’s show time Tommy.

    I’m just concerned about what kind of disfunctional mess exists behind the scenes that we aren’t privy to. Get Lowe/Tammy out of there before they mess up the current crop of talented players.

    Renney and his coaches seem to have little idea of how to use the players they have. How the heck can they develop them?

  • stevezie

    I fantasize about a world where, when Omark is healthy, rather than having him rehab his leg in the NHL so people who never liked him can point to his rust-based struggles and say “Aha!”, we see all three Swedes headlining in the OKC for five to ten games. I don’t think Omark needs much more time than that but I’d be fine with the other two staying for longer. Even if they all get called back though, I’d still be so happy to see Lander centering MPS and Omark on the farm for five to ten games.

  • stevezie

    As a fanbase, we tend to vary in this opinion. I agree that many of our current young players should have spent some time in the minors yet we often hear complaints when guys like Hartikanien aren’t given a chance in front of NHLers like Eager and Hordi. This either suggests ‘there is no easy answer’ or the Oiler’s brass suck at collecting real NHL talent. Rhetorical?

  • stevezie

    After reading the Terry Jones article yesterday I wonder how Tambellini can still get the props for OKC.

    Seems to me that he is mostly insulated from what’s going on down there and only really communicates with them in terms of discussing specific players from an Oilers point of interest.

    In addition, no doubt the farm team is a great story for the franchise this year but how many of those guys down there can really be expected to help turn the big club around or will be here if the Oilers actually become competetive in the next couple years?