There’s an interesting thing that happens whenever someone looks at Steve Tambellini’s literal words, writes them down, and attempts to deduce the meaning of them. Someone else will come along, agree that’s what he said, and then argue ‘of course he said that – what else is he going to say?’
In some ways, it is a highly valid point: Tambellini is under no obligation to be honest with fans and the media. The reality is that the NHL is a competitive industry, and there may well be times when it is in the team’s strategic interests to have one of their representatives go out and say things that, strictly speaking, the team doesn’t believe.
The G.M. probably isn’t going to toss coaches, or players, or executives under the bus by name. He may do so in a general sense (‘I didn’t like the effort level of the team tonight’)but he’s highly unlikely to say, ‘Player X is a bum and I’m going to trade him as soon as I can find a team willing to take his lazy, useless backside off my roster.’
On the other hand, there’s a big difference between choosing to be silent or refusing to give a definite answer than there is to out-and-out misdirection.
Take, for example, the fate of Tom Renney. It was one of the more popular topics at Tambellini’s end of season press conference. Tambellini said he told Renney to take a vacation, and that he deserved it. He said he needed to think about the season, and to talk with Renney about his plans to improve next year. He praised the coach’s ability, his preparedness, and his communication with the players. But he steadfastly refused, one way or the other, to go into whether Renney would be back next season. He refused to describe his ‘perfect coach.’ It wasn’t always graceful, particularly as the media continued hitting him with questions, hoping for illumination, but Tambellini managed to say a lot about the head coach without suggesting one way or the other whether he would be returning.
There are a host of other examples, some of them from right in that end-of-season press conference. One of the off-camera media members asked him whether or not he subscribed to the theory that a forward was a safer pick early in the draft than a defenseman. I’m honestly still not sure what his answer was, but then again that may well have been the point: to avoid tipping his hand as to what, exactly, he’s planning to do at the draft. He talked about considering his top pick from a positional angle, said it was something they could do as a team, cited the young forwards currently in Edmonton… and then made sure to point out that there are a bunch of good young defensemen in the system who haven’t even turned pro yet. He hinted at a possible trade of the first round pick for a package, but always with ambiguity, always making it clear that he was considering many options and he wasn’t about to narrow things down for the media. He may have softened the ground for a potential trade by doing so, but then it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if no trade happened.
That sort of equivocation is the sort of thing a G.M. needs to do. If he hasn’t made up his mind on the coaching staff, he needs to leave himself an out to either keep them or dismiss them. He can’t acknowledge one way or the other a definite preference toward a given prospect at the draft. It’s probably a bad idea, from a negotiating standpoint, for him to let the media know his position on trading/keeping the first overall pick.
This is what Tambellini does: if he doesn’t want to answer a question, he doesn’t answer it. I’m not going to pretend he’s a brilliant public speaker – he has an odd style and seems ill at ease in front of the media – but from a message discipline point of view he’s really quite good: he says what he wants to say, and doesn’t say what he doesn’t want to say.
The point is that when Steve Tambellini does give a direct answer to a question, the odds are pretty good he’s not lying through his teeth. When he’s asked about Khabibulin and says “He’ll be back” the most likely reason he said it is because he means it. He could equivocate if he wanted to; it’s really quite easy: ‘I’m not going to answer those sorts of questions about specific players. My staff and I are always looking to improve our team in any area we can, and it would be a mistake for me to paint myself into a corner on any one player. In Khabibulin’s case, I love his professionalism and his competitiveness, but I can’t comment on his future with the team because I don’t want to start down the road of talking about specific players.’ He chose not to. He made a definitive statement.
Beyond that, there’s simply no way to know exactly what thoughts are going through Tambellini’s head. It’s easy to construct labyrinth scenarios, where he’s being cagey as a fox, cleverly planting misdirection and outright lies in the papers so as to bolster his bargaining position if anyone wants to make a deal with him. It’s a construct, though, and as such prone to bias.
Steve Tambellini doesn’t really have a history of getting caught in out-right dishonesty. To me, it makes more sense to (cautiously) take him at his word, especially when there’s no clear advantage for him to throw up a smoke screen. He says Khabibulin is going to be back. That doesn’t help in the trade market because nobody picks up player(s) based on the endorsement of the guy they’re trading with (‘Hey, Tambellini, how is Cam Barker? Really, he’s that good? Here, have a first-round pick!); they base it on their own analysis of the player(s) involved. He stated in January he didn’t want the Oilers to be a lottery team – and there may have been some advantage to saying that, to encourage his team to strive for more – but then he reiterated the point in April. There’s no advantage to it then; he’s basically admitting publicly that his team missed the goals he set for it.
There’s no need to dig through Tambellini’s comments to hammer on him or to exonerate him. Actions, ultimately reflected in the Oilers’ record, will judge Tambellini’s time as G.M. far better than any critic. The reason to dig through Tambellini’s comments is to try and get a sense of what he’s going to do next, what options the team might be considering. It isn’t always an exercise that bears fruit, but it is one of the ways to try and get a preview of what the team will do at the draft, in free agency, and entering next season.