Steve Tambellini, The Devil You Know

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.

  • 24% body fat

    Tabilini,doesnt have the ya`s ya`s to make things happen.. It could also mean that he is not the last word on on ice personnel,Lowe still hanging around, no sure how this impacts the outcome of building the team. Tambilini, made some bad moves.. Habby x 4 yrs, Belanger 3 yrs.
    At least Barker is a one year deal. Hemsky $5 mil. for 2 yrs… this guy is the biggest floater in the game .Gagner one great night, the rest of the season not close to that. He plays way out on left field too much, as does Hemsky.Sharks game was like boys against men.
    All over the blogs today, how Oilers play without energy, passion, grit.. etc so wont go there .. the reason they play that way and the only reason… Coaching… Need a house cleaning here. Should have been done at the end of Dec.. Again slow moe Tambilini didnt want to touch his friend. Now lets see if he will at seasons end.
    Interesting, both GM and coach without a deal…
    It could be Katz is going to do a major house cleaning.. because with todays staff in place, there is no CUP, maybe not even a playoff spot.
    I would bit big money.. Renney is done at season end. `We are going in a different direction“No Sh…t!

    • Marshall Law

      This is why going back to Lowe might be an option for them. Tambellini’s conservative approach was appropriate for a rebuild. Now that they have their cupboards re-stocked with prospects, they might need someone at the helm who is more action-oriented. Nobody can say that Lowe was ever shy to pull the trigger on a move.

      • Paq Twinn

        Thats fair but I dont think we need any Brad Isbisters, Cory Cross’s, or the like. For every good move KLowe made there were 2-3 bad ones. Management needs a “rebuild”.

  • 24% body fat

    Would any of you let radulov come back.

    The douche bag should not be allowed in the nhl. He gets to take off, go play for more money, abuse a coach, and than come back to the NHL wear off a year of a contract he bailed on than make a lot of money.

    Stop bending over and letting a player like this jam you in the a$$.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    I’d laugh if 4,14 and 93 came out and publically endorsed Tom Renney as their coach. Been a few yrs since we seen a tail wagging the dog scenario here in town.

    Steve Tambellini’s responsible for letting 10,20,83 walk all over this roster this year, not Tom Renney. Maybe Katz could hire Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill to come in and gut the lockeroom, no?

  • Marshall Law

    yes- the common denominator with the sad sacked history this last decade is Kevin Lowe. One can’t blame Tambellini for the mess he was left. That said he has’nt done much to help his cause. Now this could be due to the fact that KLowe is pulling the strings here. Us at the turn style level paying the bills will never know but certainly the Oil change series does shed some lights as to the behind the scenes goings on. Out saide of a handfull of building blocks there is soooo many holes to fill. Sadly a top pick again will likely mean another waterbug so call skilled forward. Having over 10 million per season tied up in two vet forwards equating to what say 15 goals plus minus is a sad reconning in itself. Klowe responsible for one of those contracts and ST tied to the other. That said along with numerous other issues should be the end to both leaders at the top. Failure to do so will mean continued toilet bowl finishes. This tandom clearly does not have what it takes to build a NHL team and that’s TEAM with capital letters. Its not about individual stats and how many point per game players do we have ! does anyone get that ?? !!

  • Marshall Law

    Should we be reading anything into the fact that Kevin Lowe will be the GM for the world championship team this year? Is this a possible indication that Lowe may be preparing himself to step back into a more direct role with the team? Perhaps the plan all along was to bring in Tambellini to gut the team and then bring Lowe back in once some more pieces are in place.

    • Bringing in Tambellini does insulate Lowe from such decisions, but if that was their plan then the 2008-09 season would have been the start of the rebuild. Unfortunately you might be right about Lowe coming back into the GM chair. He created all the problems with the team, but no big deal; give him another shot.

  • 24% body fat

    Outside a malkin like talen?. Who is to say that cant be taylor next year. Lets not forget it malkin did not play in the nhl first year (lockout) or second year after his draft. Third year after your draft and a big physically ready player for the NHL, of course he is going to put up a lot of points. Taylor hall could be the calibre next year.

  • Bucknuck

    I am glad someone finally did an article on this.

    Tambellini got the Oklahoma team sorted out and started some good internal processes, but that does not make a championship team.

    Lowe knows how to add the right pieces to go far in the playoffs, but his ego and tenacity seem to rub players the wrong way.

    I wish we could take the best parts of both managers and make a single entity that could run this team. If dreams were nickels I would be a millionaire.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Well said Jon. I personally think that Kevin Lowe also needs to be removed from anything that is the Edmonton Oilers. You can’t blame Tambellini for a lot of things that occured before he got there, but he has had to deal with.

    Sadly though, I can’t see either of these two being gone anytime soon.