It was suggested to me today – as it has been, off and on, for some time now – that the Oilers would be making a terrible mistake if they failed to renew Steve Tambellini. Tambellini launched this rebuild, the logic goes, and has taken a number of positive steps, and to throw him under the bus and bring in somebody new would jeopardize those accomplishments.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time the last while studying rebuilds, both successful and failed. It’s been a difficult thing to do because few teams in recent memory have performed as poorly as the Oilers, and comparisons to a pre-salary cap NHL are flawed because teams could spend whatever it took to keep their high-end collection of talent together.
The obvious, successful comparisons that everyone remembers are to Pittsburgh and Chicago.
Pittsburgh had five years of high picks before turning into instant contenders, like someone had flipped a switch. They lucked out a little bit because there was a lockout in between, but – aside from the absence of a Crosby-like talent (and arguably, given that he scored 85 points as a rookie, a Malkin-like talent) – there’s a reasonable case to be made that the Oilers are on track to imitate them.
The Chicago timeline is more difficult to match, because the Oilers are already falling away from it. Chicago had two years of being really terrible after the lockout. In their third year (where the Oilers are now) they finished with a plus-4 goal differential and picked outside the top-10. The next year, they went to the Western Conference Finals.
The other thing about these successful comparisons is that they included another ingredient. Those teams both fired their rebuild G.M. The Penguins canned Craig Patrick in the summer of 2006, replacing him with Ray Shero. The team had one last poor year and then started ripping up the standings. Chicago had more success under Tallon in a shorter timeframe than Edmonton has had under Tambellini, but there were specific concerns – his bad contracts in 2005-06 helped launch the rebuild, and specific decisions he made would eventually help to handicap the team when Toews/Kane finished their entry-level contracts, forcing the Blackhawks to dump talent after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. The Blackhawks acted on these mistakes, demoting Tallon and handing the reins over to Stan Bowman, who won the Stanley Cup as a rookie G.M.
Other teams opted to hang on to the managers who guided their teams out of a building effort. Atlanta hired Don Waddell to guide their expansion team, and slowly the team started to improve. Sure, there were warning signs, but their early progression was highly similar to that experienced in both Pittsburgh and Edmonton. Ultimately, the team was never able to complement their high-end talent with reliable support – either through the draft or free agency. Those signs were there early on, but unstable ownership kept Waddell at the helm.
Then there were the Islanders. Unlike a lot of pre-salary cap teams, Long Island had a tight budget to work under, so it’s easier to make a comparison to them. In a lot of ways, their record under Mike Milbury looks like that of the Oilers. Ultimately, when it came time to turn the harvest of young talent into a championship team, Milbury failed – because while he was fine guiding a team down into the cellar, he wasn’t so good at lifting them back out. A trio of first round playoff losses eventually became all the Islanders had to show for years of ineptitude.
It’s important not to make this more than it really is – four teams hardly represents definitive proof that a rebuild G.M. can’t also be a championship G.M. What it does show is that the ‘devil you know’ approach is flawed – a shift in management doesn’t necessarily mean a second wave of rebuilding.
Many recent Stanley Cup winners can attest to that fact. Much of the core of last year’s Boston team (Chara, Rask, Lucic, Marchand) was drafted or acquired by Jeff Gorton, who ran the Bruins’ amateur procurement department and then served as interim G.M. Peter Chiarelli, however, ultimately guided the team to victory. We’ve discussed the Hawks and Penguins already; the champion before them was Anaheim – a team largely built by Bryan Murray, but eventually led to the cup by Brian Burke. The Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 owed a lot to Rick Dudley, but it was Jay Feaster who put the finishing touches on the team.
Again, I am not here making the case that Steve Tambellini needs to go for the Oilers to win it all. I don’t know that. I do know that sometimes, a shift at the top part way through a rebuild leads to success that otherwise may not have come about. In short, I do know that while Tambellini may not need to go for the Oilers to hoist the Cup, by no means does he need to stay.