Is Steve Tambellini the right man to craft Edmonton’s next Stanley Cup Champion?

My reaction to the news of Steve Tambellini’s extension yesterday was mild disappointment. Mild because the Oilers have been telegraphing this move for months and it seemed inevitable long ago. Disappointment because I think it’s the wrong decision.

The Case For

The primary argument in favour of keeping Steve Tambellini on is a straight forward one: the Oilers made a conscious decision to conduct a full-blown rebuild. That decision involved deliberately icing a bad team in order to land high-end draft picks. Given that the Oilers have achieved that over the last few years, Tambellini was successful in executing that overarching strategy.

Further, it’s impossible to judge Tambellini negatively because there was simply no way to execute that strategy without running a terrible team; doing the things that managers typically do to improve their teams would have undermined the whole exercise.

There are other arguments to be made in his favour. The Oilers’ AHL team, the Oklahoma City Barons, is a far more competent club than the one Tambellini inherited. This reflects that he’s been successful at rebuilding an important pipeline in the Oilers’ organization. The amateur scouting group has a promising early track record under Tambellini.

The Case Against

The Oilers rebuild may have started midway through 2009-10, but that’s not when Steve Tambellini was hired. Steve Tambellini was hired in the summer of 2008. The 2008-09 roster was largely set by the team he came into the picture; Tambellini’s only fault was his inaction over the season. The team missed the playoffs, and was largely considered a disappointment after some positive strides had been made in 2007-08.

Tambellini restructured the club in the summer of 2009, with the mandate of making the playoffs. Injuries played a hand, as did poor decisions the summer before, and the rebuild was launched midway through the season.

We can write of 2010-11; Oilers management did and the team repeated its last place performance. That was by design.

More was expected in 2011-12, however. From the start thru to the end of the season, Tambellini was adamant that his team should not be in the draft lottery for a third consecutive year. Perhaps that was window dressing, but it seems unlikely. Certainly, the coaching staff didn’t view it that way – they shifted from merrily rolling the lines to hard-matching. Finishing 29th in the NHL had to be considered a disappointment.

Beyond the results is the process. The few key decisions the Oilers have made under Tambellini are an interesting study, and none more so than the Nikolai Khabibulin signing.

It’s not just that the Khabibulin signing hasn’t worked out. That can happen, even when a manager makes a wise decision. The problem is that it was a spectacularly bad bet from the get go for so many different reasons.

Khabibulin was already one of the most injury-prone goalies in the NHL when he was signed. At 36 years of age, he was fighting against Father Time. He’d ranged between terrible and mediocre in three of four previous seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. The goalie market was oversaturated, with goalies struggling to find work.

With all those negatives, Tambellini inked Khabibulin to a four-year (no other free agent goalie got more than two), $3.75 million/season (no other goalie earned more than $2.5 million per year). As icing on the cake, Tambellini opted to retain Jeff Deslauriers as Khabibulin’s backup – at that time, he had 10 career NHL games and a 0.901 SV% to go along with a track record of middling play in the AHL.

The number of managerial blunders involved in that pair of decisions is staggering. It represented terrible risk management in two ways. First, Khabibulin’s age/injury record made him a high-risk signing even in the short term, and Deslauriers was a lousy insurance policy. Second, the decision to commit to four years to an old, injury-prone goalie looked bad at the time and looks just as bad now. It represented a terrible understanding of basic supply-and-demand: there were more goalies than there were vacant NHL jobs, and yet Tambellini was unable to find anything even resembling a bargain. It was bad player assessment too; Khabibulin had struggled in every season save the most recent, and those struggles followed him to Edmonton. Finally, in an era where teams like Detroit were showing that a capable but not marquee goaltender could deliver excellent performance relative to dollars spent, it was a depressingly conventional move to pay a premium for a ‘name’ goalie.

It’s not clear that the lessons of that decision have sunk in. Tambellini has always been devoutly loyal to Khabibulin in his public statements, and has guaranteed that the Oilers will retain him for 2012-13. Looking at the contracts the team has signed since, it’s difficult to find even one example of the Oilers landing a real bargain in a contract negotiation – and in many cases, the opposite has happened. Cam Barker was bought out of a hefty contract after struggling mightily as a third-pairing guy in Minnesota; Tambellini found $2.25 million for him. Andy Sutton, a pending free agent and third-pairing guy, wants to stay in Edmonton rather than be traded; Tambellini can’t get him signed for less than $1.75 million.

As I See It

Steve Tambellini has not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a bad general manager. There are some things in his favour, and everybody makes mistakes. Due to the nature of the Oilers’ strategy the last few years, he hasn’t had an opportunity to really show what he can do, and some would argue that he deserves that opportunity.

I disagree. Tambellini hasn’t had a long time in the saddle, but with his contract up the Oilers had a decision to make. Based on his work so far, was there reason to believe that he was a better candidate than Jason Botterill or Paul Fenton or Jeff Gorton or Dave Nonis or Julien BriseBois or Joe Will? I’d argue that there wasn’t. I’d argue that the evidence, incomplete though it is, suggests that Steve Tambellini is not the best man to try and build another Stanley Cup Champion in Edmonton.

The Oilers organization has decided otherwise. Fans just have to hope that they’re right.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

  • You don’t really make the case against Namby Tamby, Jonathan, which doesn’t necessarily mean that it can’t be made. Khabi was a poor signing but everybody makes bad signings. Besides it was made when he was brought in to ‘win now,’ which was Mission Impossible.
    I would say the biggest mark against ST is not shaking up the Oilers pro scouting stff who are as bad as the Amateur scouting is good, unless ST is ignoring their advice and winging it, which I a doubt. Assumung he is following their advice, there are the guys who were impressed with Teubert, and recommended Eager and Barker. They might have got a little unlucky with Belanger and a little lucky with Sutton but last year’s signings get a D, if you assume they were designed to succeed. I’m not sure.
    My fear is that Tamby is about to make the big, big mistake and draft Murray over Yakupov to fill the holes on defence, possibly to cover his ass even though Yakupov would give the Oilers a core 4 forwards to die for. Murray is clearly not as good, looks more a solid, steady eddy second pairing guy, not even as good a prospect as Justin Schultz. The Oilers should definitely offer the Ducks a conditional pick for the early negotiating rights to JS, depending on whether they can sign him and I dare say it is possible to get some hint from the Shultz camp about whether that would be a wasted mission.
    With or without Schultz they need to sign a second pairing free agent D man, although I have little faith in the pro scouts to get this one right.
    I am not wholly convinced by ST but I think both he and Renney deserved extentions, although most of the credit goes to the amateur scouting staff.

  • UFA choice can be a D-Man, which oilers dearly need. … Garrison, Jackman, Wideman, Salvadore.
    How about Parise, or an old fashion trade with
    Pitts for Staal… Tambelinni is not creative and inovative and is not a big game thinker in my books.My dog picked the Lotto picks. so leave that out of giving him stars on those pages.
    He has not made one big splash trade or UFA singing yet. Dont need Hemsky if your going after Yapakov. He’s useless on the third line, because his checking is not there.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    If Edmonton is going to give Horcoff 6 million this yr, as well as line Hemmers pockets with 5 million, one could make the argument why shouldn’t Ryan Smyth be in that realm? Similar minutes played as well as offensive parallels.

    I’m not saying Smyth is worth 5 mill for this coming season, it’s just there’s no consistency organization wise. Edmonton is all over the map confirming the issues/managerial incompetence at play here.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I hate the Khabibulin signing as much or maybe more than anyone but I dont think it’s all on Tambo. I see that as continuing the strategy KLowe had set out the previous few seasons with the RFA offer sheets, overpaying for the defensive liability that was Sheldon Souray, making the big offer for Nylander. The chase for Heatley falls under that tarp as well.

    I agree that overpaying on contracts is a problem especially for middling players. It seems like they believe the Oilers cant get anyone unless they significantly overpay.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    For me the jury’s still out on Stevie T but I really don’t have faith that he is proactive or creative enough to do what needs to be done. JW, I agree totally with the your comparisons between NK & DD. It’s DD all the way. As far as your arguements about Smytty…you’re wrong!! Smyth doesn’t want to be the player the Oilers need him to be…a leader, a mentor & for sure no more than a 3rd liner!! He was as bad as a forward as Bulin was as a goalie after Christmas!! The Hejduk comparisons should be with Smyth not Hemsky & I would take Hejduk over Smyth any day. For me…don’t resign Smyth and let him walk!! It’s up to you Mr. T.
    PS. Why the lack of interest in Alex Galchenyuk who would fill the team’s ultimate need at centre??