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

  • Brownlee loves the word meow

    Meow I dont see how Khabby was a bad signing. Maybe we over paid a bit but when was the last time cap was an issue here. He is the reason that Dubnyk has been able to develop at the right pace. In managements eyes he was supposed to be a solution in goal for 4 years.. he ended up being a solution to help groom Dubnyk into the starter at a decelerated pace. Take the money out of the equation and Khabby was a longer term version of what Roloson would have been… And arguably a better version…minus the drunken rampage of course.

    • You don’t see how it was a bad signing? Seriously?

      Year One: Injured.

      Year Two: Terrible.

      Year Three: Good for nine games, then terrible.

      It was a bad contract from the moment it was inked, and the results confirm it.

      As for Dubnyk’s development… if anything, Khabby’s presence this season (and Renney’s reliance on him) kept Dubnyk from playing as frequently as he should have.

      • Brownlee loves the word meow

        Meow as a stats guy I would expect that you would analyze the team in front of him and compare that to his stats and analyze what teams he was played against as compared to Dubnyk etc etc etc. But instead you have your biased opinion that lends you to the average fan that doesnt see anything but the negatives and over simplifies things so he can makes something look worse than it is.

        I can play along..

        Year one: Injury-could have happened to anyone, all players have injuries.. including the elder Roloson option. You still have not stated a free agent goalie who worked out better that year so Roloson would have been the other choice. If we drafted Sequin would T-Hall have a gigantic gash on his head?

        Year two: Terrible(decent) on a Terrible team. What would have made the defense worse this year?

        Year three: Spectacular for nine games then played decent on a team destined to finish in the bottom.

        As for Dubnyk… Maybe this was one of those tough decisions Renney was talking about where he made a choice for the future instead of for the now. There is a reason that Dubnyk is being eased in rather than thrown to the wolves. Should he have played half the games?… ohhh just wait… he did.

        A Starting goalie 60-70 games
        Dubnyk started 42 games and officially played in 47 games.

        I am assuming next year he will probably be in the high 50’s maybe even the 60’s.

        • 1. Actually, I did analyze who Khabibulin played compared to Dubnyk. What I found convinced me that Khabby wasn’t getting tougher draws, and that a direct comparison between the two was entirely fair. Dubnyk far outperformed him.

          2. I haven’t named one free agent goalie who performed better than him because they all performed better than him. Pick one. Not one of them has a worse save percentage since July 2009.

          3. Khabibulin was among the most injury-prone starters in the game before he was acquired. An injury was a forseeable risk, albeit probably not a whole season injury.

          4. Year two he was blown out of the water by Dubnyk despite the fact they played similar opposition.

          5. You have an interesting definition of “decent.” Khabibulin went 2-20-2 with a 0.880 SV% after Christmas. Dubnyk went 10-10-3 with a 0.916 SV%. The reason the Oilers finished at the bottom was Khabibulin, not vice versa.

          6. Wouldn’t it be nice to enter next season with Dubnyk already having played a full starter’s schedule – 60 games? I think it would be.

        • Khabibulin was “decent” in 11-12? What were you watching?
          From Christmas to the end of March Khabibulin had 1W -11L-4OL .881 SV% 3.74GA. That is not decent. That is probably the worst goaltending in the NHL for goalies who have played over 20 games.

          • Brownlee loves the word meow

            Meow and those stats could be a lot worse if he was terrible. decent means he stopped some pucks. That might have been the worst defensive team in the history of the NHL. He doesnt have those numbers if he is on a team that can at least compete. We had last place locked up almost the entire year, it wasnt even close. I am not saying he played great, but common give your head a shake, those are numbers you should expect on the worst team in the league.

          • GVBlackhawk

            Those stats could have been a lot worse….if the Oilers used a Shooter Tutor. Even then it would be debatable. Seriously though, are you Khabbi’s drinking buddy? He’s brutal — take off the blinders. Should you expect those numbers on the worst team in the league? Or are those numbers the reason why they are one of the worst in the league? Hmmmm.

            Btw, the Blue Jackets had last place locked up all year, not the Oilers.

          • Brownlee loves the word meow

            Meow before you comment maybe do some reading… This comment wasnt based on this year… It was based on the year prior. When the oilers had the worst record. If you look at his stats this year they prove you wrong about him being “brutal”.
            Here is a quick comparison when we finished 2nd last since you obviously want to talk about it instead.

            Fleury – .913 – 2.43GA
            Khabby – .910 – 2.65
            Mason – .894 – 3.39

          • GVBlackhawk

            Actually I do a lot of reading, thanks. And now to destroy your argument regarding Khabibulin.

            For the year 2010-2011, NK posted a 3.39GAA, .891SV%, and 10 wins in 46 games played. The lack of wins are more reflective of a poor team. However, the horrendous SV% cannot be excused. The league average is around .920.

            For the year 2011-2012, NK posted a 2.65GAA, .910SV%, and 12 wins in 40 games played. Better than last year but have a look at the underlying FACTS. His initial 9 games artificially inflated his numbers for the entire season.

            You compared NK to two other goalies. That is an inadequate sample size (N=3) for a valid argument. Here is a better sample size for last season:

            89 goalies played at least one game. NK finished 52nd in GAA and 53rd in SV%. This was including the fact that in his first 9 games he had a GAA of 1.00 and a SV% of .965. Without the 9 game outliers, his putrid numbers would have been abysmal. In NK’s last 31 games played, he had a GAA over 3.00 and a SV% well below .900. Those numbers are well below replacement level.

            In the last 3 years, NK has won 3 games after Christmas.

            Perhaps you should heed your own advice and actually look at the stats before you spew your BS.

  • oilerdago

    I certainly agree that drafting alone is not enough.

    Just pointing out their 4 best players (the others are LA picks I could think of off the top of my head) were acquired through the draft.

    Kinda like the Oilers now.

  • OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F

    @ Arch

    “If these Cup Finalists have proven anything it’s that you dont need to make trades or attract UFAs to compete for a Stanley Cup. I feel better knowing that. The Kings Drafted Richards, Carter, Penner, Stoll, and Greene, Right?*

    *Double Checks how each team was built*

    Oh…wait…”

    Bahahaha – one of my favorite conversations on here is when guys dig their heels in and swear up and down that the team HAS to be “built from within”

  • misfit

    Tambellini’s first year as GM (as well as his most recent), his goal was icing a competative team that could make the playoffs. Both seasons his teams finished in the bottom 10. In fact, I don’t think you can give him the rebuilding excuse in his 2nd season either.

    I really don’t understand why he has so many supporters within the fanbase.

    His best UFA signing in 4 years was Eric Belanger (and was 3 years overdue) and his only decent trades have involved sending away NHL players for picks/prospects. It would be nice to see him make a move that actually improves the team.

  • oilerdago

    JW, I agree with your general take on Tambellini.

    The pro draft has produced above average results under Stu Macgregor and that’s a mark in his favor.

    His handling of the trade market has been a mixed bag. He did a good job unloading some bad contracts (Staios, Moreau…) but he’s also made some bad decisions – Visnovsky for Whitney has not turned out well at all.

    There are two areas he’s under-performed: the free agency market and the hiring of coaches. Khabibulin, Barker, Belanger, Eager, Fraser all have been busts. And his coaching hires have been terrible as well. Quinn was a bad choice and while Renney did not have the tools, many of his decisions are why he’s not coming back for a 3rd year.

    When does he finally get held accountable?

  • book¡e

    JW, I agree with much of what you write and my support for Tambellini is limited to this summer/early fall at the most.

    I attribute a lot of moves that summer to the three headed management hydra that seemed to be in place and from interviews at the time and after, Tambellini has seemed to insinuate that he expressed reservations about some of the decisions. This was backed up by Katz who later announced (at the ‘we are now planning to tank’ stage) that Tambellini now had the authority to manage the team as he saw fit. An experienced GM would have come in with a great deal of confidence and would have told Lowe and Katz that if they want to run the team their way, then ‘I quit’, however, that was not Tambellini at the time. Now, its hard to really know what happened and I get that you think this is all too convoluted and that Tambellini was GM when Khabi was signed and therefore he is the guy who made the decision. That’s fine, you could very well be correct. We really don’t know.

    So, basically, I judge Tambellini from the ‘tank point’ and the things that concern me the most is this last year where the guys that Tambellini brought in to be a part of the team for a few years (Belanger and Eager) have not worked out well. Now, one arguement is that the problem was with the coach, but that argument is somewhat weak and it is as likley that Belanger and Eager were bad bets and now the team is stuck with them. Unlike guys like Brule, Foster, and even Barker who were reclamation attempts that can be seen as ‘no harm – no foul’, Belanger and Eager are a concerning sign. There are questions as to whether Tambellini is able to ‘win’ trades for professional players

    • DieHard

      I agree with most of this. Belanger was brought in for face-offs and everyone thought it was great but should have been a 2 year not 3 year contract. Everyone thought Eager was a great signing for what everyone thought he would bring to the table. As for being able to win trades or even make trades, it is only now that we actually have players in the system that other teams would want. These next few years are really critical for Tambellini’s career. If we did make a switch does that mean a new plan would be made or would the new GM be told what to do?

  • Cobalt

    So from what I just read, Tambo should be relieved of his duties three years into a major rebuild because of perceived inaction and the NK deal? Only to be replaced by one of Jason Botterill, Paul Fenton, Jeff Gorton, Dave Nonis, Julien BriseBois, or Joe Will? Other than Dave Nonis (whose body of work is suspect at best), what does anybody really know about these guys? Bring in a rookie GM to continue what’s been started? You can’t possibly be serious.

      • Cobalt

        And what is it that you know about each of the guys you mentioned that would make them better options? That Gorton was responsible for Boston’s success that you suggest in your linked article is a slight reach. Everyone in the league took a run at Chara (including the oilers). Rask didn’t do anything but sit on the bench for the cup run and still hasn’t done anything of significance in the NHL. Lucic and Marchand are both good players, but if you’re pointing to the drafting of those players as reason to believe Gorton would be an upgrade on Tambo, I’d suggest you’re doing so with only a sliver of information.

    • Clifford has 3 Games played. Voynov is a good young player, but his 3 points seem a little underwhelming for a puck mover, no? Nolan averages 7 minutes a night. Bernier has played exactly as many minutes in the playoffs as I have.

      Nonetheless, the point was that those teams prove that drafting alone isnt enough. So Tambellini best make up for his deficiencies in the alternative procurement department.

  • Lexi

    I find it interesting that the Oilers are pretty much at the same stage the Kings were three years ago. I think one of the most underrated moves Lombardi did was sign Scuderi after that year from the Stanley Cup champs. ST better be able to convince a Carle, Garrison, Wideman, Schultz that this is a place to come and help build a winner. If ST and the pro scouts are worth anything they will properly identify the best Dman who is willing to sign here and go hard for him or else Katz has made a mistake.

  • Milli

    Tough decisions need to be made on and off the ice. And Tambo doesn’t inspire confidence when making these decisions. It appears he doesn’t have a long term vision of how this team will shape up. Could because he keeps his cards close to his chest but there aren’t any moves you can say in his tenure that can we can be proud of. OKC looks a lot better but we can thank the scouts for that!

  • Bleak Winter

    The term of the extension shouldn’t matter as much as the remaining tolerance for failure. If this is a three year extension we can all hope that two and a half of those years are nothing more than a golden parachute if we’re in last place next Christmas.

    The one thing I am trying to focus on these days (my faint hope) is that this time last year we collectively thought Dean Lombardi was a complete idiot. Look how that turned out.

  • neojanus

    He’ll be on a very short leash…

    OH YEAH! They hire based on being good friends with this organization.

    For f***sake, if this year blows again, there’s going to be some kind of hockey riot in the streets. I will lead it if I’m called for duty.

    Still, let’s see what happens — maybe the nitrogen-heavy, putrid stench of concentrated turkey manure will yield impressive amounts of fruit this year.

    Or maybe we’ll stick it on the stove again and get one more big & steaming pile of…

  • Has anyone heard the terms? I don’t care for him. I agree that he seems to overpay and overcommit term wise and then the team feels they have to play those individuals to justify their contracts.

    It was obvious it was going to happen. I just hope it was a one year deal with the option to extend should he prove 90% of the popluation wrong.

  • If these Cup Finalists have proven anything it’s that you dont need to make trades or attract UFAs to compete for a Stanley Cup. I feel better knowing that. The Kings Drafted Richards, Carter, Penner, Stoll, and Greene, Right?*

    *Double Checks how each team was built*

    Oh…wait…