The Real Winner of the Oilers’ Rebuild

The rebuild isn’t over – but there is already a clear winner.

There are those out there passionately committed to the idea of a bottom-to-top rebuild, a systematic restructuring of the Edmonton Oilers that sees the team wander for an unspecified but finite time in the hockey wilderness before finally emerging into the promised land. They include fans, columnists both paid directly by the Oilers and financially independent of the organization, and undoubtedly people in the team’s management structure.

There are others who see the rebuild as an exercise in futility as long as the current management leads the way. The Oilers hit the lowest point in franchise history under this group, the reasoning goes; there’s no need to allow them to repeat their mistakes.

Both schools of thought miss the fact that the rebuild has already been a fantastic success in what is likely the most important area for its primary author.

Steve Tambellini took the helm of the Oilers in the summer of 2008. It’s a date that many have quibbled with and in all likelihood will continue to quibble with, but it’s an important date to remember. There are those among both fans and the media who like to obfuscate the issue, to suggest that Tambellini really took the helm at the 2009 trade deadline, or the summer of 2009, or when the rebuild was officially declared midway through 2009-10, or possibly when the Oilers drafted Taylor Hall at the 2010 Draft.

Such stories are always presented without anything remotely tangible in terms of proof, leaving the reader to debate their merit based on his personal opinion of both the writer presenting it, and how the Oilers are run; the latter typically influenced heavily by the same hope that has created a groundswell of support for the Oilers’ rebuilding work.

The stories are fuelled either by conjecture or by the dark whispers of unnamed sources, as no writer to date has managed to get someone with firsthand knowledge to go on record about how the transition from Kevin Lowe to Steve Tambellini has transpired, and identify a clear date of power transfer other than the one on the official record.

TALES OF YORE


All such stories, without some sort of tangible evidence, run directly counter to the law of parsimony, commonly called Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor tells us that when presented with differing explanations of fact, we should accept the one that requires the least amount of assumption.

We, then, are faced with a choice. We can choose to believe that Steve Tambellini, a well-respected hockey man with a long run at a largely successful team, a man whose name frequently came up under the heading of ‘guys ready to run an NHL team who aren’t doing it yet’ abandoned the number two role in Vancouver for the same role in Edmonton, with the caveat that he was to be the franchise’s public face and take the blame whenever anything went sour.

This belief also requires Kevin Lowe, who supposedly is pulling the strings, to have fired a whole bunch of people who had spent nearly a decade working for him. Or, we can choose to believe that Tambellini and his solid pre-Edmonton resume really did take over when he was hired, and that Kevin Lowe has moved into the same sort of elder statesman role that men like Jim Devellano in Detroit, Bob Clarke in Philadelphia, and Pierre Lacroix in Colorado have taken. Barring tangible evidence to the contrary, the latter explanation is clearly simpler, and clearly superior.

The confusion about how the Oilers are really structured has done a few different things. It’s led to some running jokes about Tambellini version 3.2., as though the general manager were an edition of software to be tweaked and re-launched by the media every few months. It’s led to a hesitancy when ascribing certain organizational moves to Tambellini.

The other thing it has done is allowed Steve Tambellini to run from his record.

OPTIMISM


Keep in mind what happened in the summer of 2009. The 2008-09 Oilers had high expectations; the 2007-08 squad had rallied late in the year and produced young stars like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, and Robert Nilsson. When the team failed to meet those expectations, Tambellini held a fire and brimstone press conference.

He talked about a “commitment to win at any cost” and said that he would “not put up with” an “unemotional game.” He made it clear that players, coaches and executives would be held accountable. His rhetoric, as well as the announced departure of head coach Craig MacTavish, won over a lot of fans. My own reaction to the press conference was optimistic:

Obviously, time will tell, but based on this press conference I think this organization is in good hands.

Tambellini made significant moves to back up his rhetoric, not just at the preceding year’s trade deadline, but also over the summer. He brought in two men – Pat Quinn and Tom Renney – who worked with him in Vancouver, and filled various support positions with their choices or people (such as Fredric Chabot) that Tambellini would be familiar with from his extensive involvement with Hockey Canada.

REMEMBER HIM?


The Oilers made an increasingly desperate pitch for Dany Heatley, one that ultimately failed. Almost lost in the Heatley kerfuffle was the decision to fix the goaltending situation for the next four years by tossing money at Nikolai Khabibulin, the veteran goaltender who backstopped Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup victory right before the lockout.

Quinn, highly regarded as a motivator and welcomed by the majority of Oilers fans, immediately set about altering the strategic approach of the team. Gone was Craig MacTavish’s line-matching, with units carefully tailored to and deployed in careful situations. Instead, Quinn espoused balance, sprinkling toughness on every unit (out of training camp, the Oilers top trio was Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, and Jean-Francois Jacques) and rolling his lines in a regular 1-2-3-4 rhythm.

The results of all this change were catastrophic. Ales Hemsky and Nikolai Khabibulin both fell to injury relatively early in the season. Backup goaltender Jeff Deslauriers, who Tambellini had felt so strongly about that he had kept three goalies on the major league roster for the opening months of 2008-09, imploded, despite some bright moments and a commendable willingness to acknowledge his faults.

The Oilers plunged to the worst finish in the entire league.

CHANGES


For Steve Tambellini, this could have been disastrous. He’d had a full year to assess the Oilers top to bottom, to study and understand and make a plan. He’d been employed by a divisional rival for a much longer period of time, and should have been familiar with both the team itself and the league as a whole. In the summer of 2009 Tambellini was, in short, in a position to both understand precisely the changes necessary and to make those changes happen.

We’ve described his solution above. At the time, fiery but shakily-based defenses were made by supporters of the team. Khabibulin was a vital cog; the team MVP before being injured, argued Tambellini. What would Pittsburgh look like without Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby, chimed in fans at this website.

Both at the time and in hindsight, such defenses ring hollow. Khabibulin’s signing was roundly pilloried by various statistically inclined people online (dubbed “a loser move for a loser franchise” by blogger Tyler Dellow); now, three years into his often shaky and injury-prone tenure, it’s impossible to argue coherently that his acquisition was a wise move. The simple fact is that Tambellini’s cure in the summer of 2009 did not work. 

Not only did it not work; it backfired spectacularly.

KABOOM

Tambellini could have attempted to solve these problems conventionally, taking the high pick in 2010 and then attempting to turn things around immediately. It would have been a tough job. Entering his third summer with the Oilers, it seems hardly likely that he would have been given a lot of leeway to try and correct things.

Instead, Tambellini did something else: he instituted a rebuild. The great thing about a wholesale demolition and rebuilding of a hockey club is that there is simply no way to fail for the first few years – if the team plays poorly, it’s because the man in charge intended it to play poorly; if they play well, then things are ahead of schedule thanks to the brilliance of the man in charge. It’s been great for Tambellini, who has essentially been given two full seasons of carte blanche by the majority of the media covering the team.

It’s done more than that, however. Critics of Tambellini typically point to his actions in 2009 as his worst work. That’s nearly three years ago now.  Between confusion as to when Tambellini really took charge, complaints about the mess left for him by Kevin Lowe, and the decision to launch the rebuild, those charges are easily forgotten or ignored.

THE PASSIVE REBUILD


Since then, Steve Tambellini hasn’t really done anything terrible because he hasn’t really done much of anything substantive. He sent the oft-pilloried Dustin Penner away for futures. He inked Ales Hemsky to a short-term deal. Beyond that, it’s been all about role players, draft picks and the promise of a brighter future when those draft picks mature.

By even the most critical accounts, the rebuild has succeeded in bringing in high-end talent. Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have been superb additions. Young players that Tambellini inherited from Lowe – Eberle, Gagner, Petry, Dubnyk, Smid – have helped greatly. The Oilers, though still near the bottom of the Western Conference, have shaved their goal differential down to something approaching respectability; the darkest night would seem to be in the rearview mirror.

Yet, regardless of whether Tambellini can transform a collection of young, raw talent into a Stanley Cup contender, the rebuild has already succeeded completely in an important way. It has saved Tambellini: both his job with the team, and his reputation around the league.

The Oilers were in such a mess in 2009-10 that robust efforts to turn the team around immediately – as opposed to a passive rebuild with an indefinite timetable – would almost certainly have failed. Had those efforts been made, and had they failed, it seems probable that someone else would now be the general manager of the Oilers. It also seems unlikely that Tambellini would have been a candidate for the top job with another team.

AND NOW?


Now, things have changed. The majority of media coverage – even that coverage not directly paid for by the Oilers – speaks favourably of the rebuild. Most fans are onboard. Even those who don’t believe Tambellini has the ability to mold these pieces into a contender acknowledge, for the most part, that the young talent in the Oilers’ organization is a solid foundation to build a championship squad from.

It all goes back to the winter of 2010, when the rebuild was officially launched. It may or may not eventually lead the Oilers to a championship. Without question, though, it added years to Steve Tambellini’s tenure as general manager.

If you’re Steve Tambellini, that’s a major victory in and of itself.

  • DieHard

    Great post JW, I totally forgot about ‘three-headed monster’. I really can’t understand any sentiment that Tambellini deserves an extension. He’s done little to nothing to show he is capable of building a winning team. My biggest problem with this rebuild is the timeline, I get that it’s supposed to take a number of years but I would like for once Tambellini to come out and say exactly how long he plans on doing nothing to draft a superstar high. Tambellini and Renney seem to think that this lineup should be completing for the playoffs, while a few weeks ago Lowe goes on record that “nobody in the organization expected them to make it”. While this “rebuild” has bought Tambo time, it has also blurred the lines between purposely sucking and incompetence. FSTNF

  • DieHard

    I dunno…I wouldn’t be too proud about Florida “leading the division” when that division is the Southeast. That’s like bragging about your 1st place ribbon in lawn darts.

    I’ll grant that Tallon’s made some good moves to get his team where it is, but let’s be serious…a 90 point team is about where their potential is for the forseeable future. They’ve been on the right side of a lot of 1 goal games and benefited like nobody else when it comes to loser points this season, and their goal differential is by far the worst of any team currently sitting in a playoff spot. Hell, even OURS is better.

    Let’s be real, can anybody honestly say that they have the goods to supplant perennial strong teams like the Rangers, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New Jersey? Ottawa is on the right track, and Washington isn’t going to languish where they are forever. They have far too much talent..and all of those teams have very good prospects of their own.

    Tallon’s built a team that will be no better than the Flames of the past few years. Yay for him, I guess.

    Agreed that it’s more than Tambellini’s done, though. We’ll see what next season brings.

    • DSF

      More “insight” based on short term thinking.

      Florida propsects:

      F – Jonathan Huberdeau 72 points in 32 games QMJHL

      F – Nick Bjugstad 42 points in 39 games U. Minn.

      F – Quinton Howden 65 points in 52 games WHL

      F – Rocco Grimaldi injured

      F – John McFarland 50 points in 49 games OHL

      D – Alex Petrovic 48 points in 68 games WHL

      D – Colby Robak 36 poinys in 65 games AHL

      Jacob Markstrom .922 SV% AHL

      Sure looks to me like a better future than the Flames.

      Or the Oilers for that matter.

  • DieHard

    You should have left a trail of breadcrumbs behind you before spinning that yarn. You went the long way around to say very little. Tambellini may be the winner…he has a job in the NHL that is mystifying in and of itself.. The losers are the suckers like me who buy tickets to watch this train-wreck.

  • @ DSF:

    Tallon’s done some good things – sometimes it seems like the will to act is in short supply and there’s no questioning that he has that.

    With that said, most of this piece could have been written about Tallon in Chicago, who brought in a slew of high-end free agents (spending money on Khabby, Aucoin, Spacek and Lapointe in particular) who promptly imploded.

    He’s also the kind of guy who overpays – and it cost Chicago in the end, though it certainly helped them to their Cup – and I think we’ve seen that with some the choices made in Florida (Jovanovski in particular). Toss in Florida’s goal differential and I don’t think we should be singing Tallon’s praises just yet.

    • RexLibris

      Agreed.

      Tallon has turned the Panthers around in a single season. yay. Now, what happens with the Panthers three or four season from now? Are they in the same position, battling for a high playoff seeding by winning one of the weakest divisions in the NHL?

      The Panthers are also financially required to build a competitive team immediately. Their draft picks are predominantly due to their awful seasons prior to Tallon.

      While I think Tallon absolutely deserved to get that Cup ring from Chicago, he is a bit of a loose cannon in hiring free agents and it is my hope that if the Oilers don’t learn from Detroit’s success that they at least learn from Chicago’s failures. In other words don’t go an sign a Bryan Campbell-esque contract that monkeys your cap situation for years to come. Don’t mess with your RFAs (something that was actually Stan Bowman’s responsibility and he is the one who took Tallon’s job after Tallon ultimately took the blame) and don’t get impatient.

      Everybody was ready to hand Steve Yzerman Manager of the Year last season and I feel the same way with him that I do with Tallon. I like Yzerman and I have high hopes for him as an executive. That being said, he needs to actually prove that he can do the job. He’s a storied and respected player and he has a sterling apprenticeship, but at some point you have to be judged on your own body of work.

      Tambellini has some of the same Hockey Canada job experience that Yzerman and Bob Nicholson have. Yet if offered the choice most Oiler fans would seemingly jump at either of the latter two choices simply because, ever since Sather left, nobody has been considered good enough.

      As I’ve said before, I’m not trying to be a Tambellini apologist, but we have to give him time. And I’d rather a patient GM when the team needs to restock and accumulate prospects than one whose motto is “Ready-Fire-Aim”.

    • DSF

      One would have to assume that Tallon has learned some lessons overtime.

      Other than the Jovo contract, vitally every move he made last off season seems to have paid off in spades.

      I agree the Panthers goal differential is cause for attention but they seem capable of winning a lot of low scoring games which may set them up very well for playoff hockey.

  • The poster formerly known as Koolaid drinker #33

    I’m the real winner of this rebuild.

    I used to be a pretty level headed fan who liked to look at all situation with as much objectivity a fan can have. I became increasingly angry and bitter at Oiler management thru the Lowe and MacT era. I hated that we didn’t have a farm team but also understood the budget constraint the IG faced. Lowe did a great job with what he had but he hang too long to the dream. We should have started the rebuild the minute he couldn’t resign Smitty. Instead we kept trying to recapture the 06 magic by trying to sign guys like Jagr, Hossa, Heatly.

    I credit Lowe and MacT for the good they did but the castle was on pillars of sand for a long time and they were trying to buy shinny new cannons. Such a hopeless feeling for a fan.

    So for a few years I was the fan that complained and bitched about management. For years I hoped they would blow the team up and start the rebuild. The day they drafted Hall was the first day of the re build for me. Until that day I wasn’t convinced that management was going thru with a rebuild. I fully expected them to trade the first overall pick for a Heatly or a Hossa.

    Now that the rebuild is happening, i have hope again. So don’t mind me as I drink the Kool Aid for a little while longer.

  • RexLibris

    @ Reg Dunlop and jeanshorts

    Thanks for reading it. I know there was a lot there and the temptation to just scan over a long post like that is pretty easy.

  • Time Travelling Sean

    People are still ragging on Gagner when he’s right outside the top 90 forwards in scoring. That’s 3 forwards x 30 teams = 90 forwards

    His production is right along the lines of a second line forward. In the new NHL only top tier offensive teams have second lines that score 50 plus points in a league that boasts much better goal-tending and defensive play than the 80’s and 90’s.

    Also to DSF I agree Florida is playing well but Campbell having a huge bounce back year has something to do with that which very few people would have thought would happen after some pretty average years in Chicago. Also not all his signings have been great. Upshall was pretty bad before getting injured and the aforementioned Jovi signing. He also came to a team that was basically perfectly set up for a complete overhaul as they had over 40 million in cap space in the summer.

    Tambi has made some bad moves but he also inherited a team full of inflated contracts due to the 05-06 cup run. The only inflated contract left that will affect this team is the Horcoff contract. I’m not a huge Tambi supporter but he’s done some good and done some bad and it will require time to see if his drafts work out. Although I do agree that his pro scouting department needs an overhaul.

    • DSF

      Campbell isn’t doing anything unexpected.

      You have to remember he was playing behind Keith and Seabrook in Chicago.

      You also need to recall that Tallon moved out a ton of veterans to create that cap space: Horton, Booth, Samsonov, Bergfors, Reasoner, Olesz, Bernier, Reinprecht, Horidchuk….all gone.

      He not only parlayed those moves into cap space but also picked up a ton of draft picks in the process.

      He has a brilliant off season and moving from 72 points to 90 (and counting) in one season is a testament to that.

      It’s not just about acquiring players, it’s about acquiring the RIGHT players and it’s pretty tough to argue he hasn’t done that.

      • Wax Man Riley

        Definitely not denying that Dale Tallon assembled a group of players that are playing quite well together. But you cannot deny the counterpoint that all those players you have mentioned were quite a bit easier to move out than say a Shawn Horcoff, Sheldon Souray, Pisani, etc. etc.

        All those players were either still good prospect/emerging players, good young established players, or solid veterans who were under contract at a reasonable cap hit.

        I’m not denying Dale Tallon’s eye for talent as he assembled a cup team in Chicago. I’m saying he inherited a good situation in Florida that was going to allow him to raze the ground as the Panthers were not severely overpaying aging/injured players. That’s actually smart on Tallon’s part to go to a good situation as he didn’t accept a job into a franchise that was sinking like Tambi in Edmonton and Feaster in Calgary.

        I’m also saying that while they acquired some good players much like the Senators I think people were not expecting the kind of performances this season by guys like Garrison, Theodore, and Weaver.

        Also Campbell did play behind Keith and Seabrook but that’s not a valid argument for his poor play. In fact he should have been better because he was getting easier minutes while the top duo took all the tough minutes.

  • Great article but I would add the $$$$ costs of paying Quinn for another year and the Souray debacle . Really what has Tambellini done . For me a good GM makes significant moves with very few mistakes and a Great GM has the guts to go the extra step and make that 1 deal that takes you to the next level .( Perhaps trading your #1 pick & Say Peckham to Columbus for Tuytin .) The thing is its making that 1 move that tells RNH , Hall etc that this team will move forward .

  • Wax Man Riley

    Despite the youth of Hall, Eberle and Hopkins we are still a bottom club that lacks size and grit . We finished better off 4 years ago without them on our team – point wise and competitiveness. We now have more problems personnel wise than we had 4 years ago to be honest . Tams has done little in his time here to warrant an extention . We are more competitive this year , but meak progress just not good enough . So many holes to yet be filled adequately to make us a legit contender in next two years . Time for change that might make us more competitive over next two seasons .

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Not sure the Edmonton Florida comparisons are valid. Players are willing to play in Florida even if the club isn’t successful. The only way players would come to Edmonton, is if the Oilers had a competitive team. They’ve shown over the last 15 yrs they don’t want to come to Edmonton when they’re in the bottom third of the league.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    So, here’s a question: if the Oilers make the playoffs next year, will fans still be calling for Tambellini to be fired or does making the playoffs mean the rebuild progressing at it should be and Tambellini should be extended to see it through?

    • DSF

      I’ll be on record as saying no I won’t be but that’s a BIG IF. You realize that to make the playoffs, the Oilers would have improve another 13 spots in the standings. While that idea seems too good to be true, Dale Tallon’s done it and he’s a bum, who inherited Cinderella’s glass slipper…

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I would expect that Tambelini will get a two year extention. These are two critical years, for the fact that they have acquired quite a few assets out side the so called kids. Some will needed devlopment for a shot with the big club, others will have to be converted to acquiring vets and pro players to further enhance the team.
    Its this area where I think there is a huge question mark? If its a change in Pro scouts, then that has to be changed this summer.. quickly. I think one other area that will be front and center on his plate… current coaching staff.. do they stay or do they go?
    It would appear that Pro scouting and coaching are two weak area’s based on what has beeb signed, and how the current roster plays.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I don’t think the Oilers should be trying to accelerate this rebuild too quickly. The Leafs are the extreme example of that. So I commend Tambi for not doing anything drastic.

    That being said, I think this summer is the right time to be bold. We have one more top 5 pick to add to the current assets which should be enough to make this an elite time for many years to come. There are holes, but some lateral trades should fix that.

    I also like the Stu MacGregor approach of taking the best player available. Sure, we lack size as a result, but the lesson of 2003 still haunts me where the Oil took a pass on Parise because they already had a smaller player in Comrie and wound up with Marc Pouliot. Terrible move. Maximize the value of draft picks and then make trades to fulfill your needs. Skill is the most desired commodity in league, and the Oilers have an abundance of it to trade with.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      You’re forgetting something. This is Edmonton, a market with some unique challenges as far as retaining players go. Hall and Eberle have already served 2 yrs of their 7 yr sentence as far as their careers go. In 5 yrs they’ll receive their get out of jail free card and be able to call their own destination then. Tambellini has this 7 yr window to consider, and that’s only if he can keep those players happy for those 7 yrs.(Kyle Turris)

      Patience is a luxury Steve Tambellini doesn’t have as much of as he thinks. Taylor Hall is frustrated as hell already.

  • DSF

    Here we go again. Getting stirred up by the megatroll DSF who has a hardon for a team that is the most unsuccessful franchise in NHL history, has missed the playoffs for a decade, and will finally join the final 16 despite a modest season where they have posted a .480 win percentage. This is the model we should aspire to?