A summer of miscalculation; a winter of failure

The Edmonton Oilers 2013 season did not fall apart during a nine-game road trip. The nine-game road trip was simply the point in the season when a summer of inept management finally caught up to the team.

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Forwards

Some of the pain here was an unavoidable part of rebuilding through the draft. Decisions to employ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the team’s top-line forward (an often overlooked weakness entering the season) and to try Nail Yakupov as the second line’s left wing were understandable, perhaps even unavoidable. Nugent-Hopkins’ inexperience means that he would be better suited to a lesser role on a contending team, but he is the best option at the Oilers’ disposal for a top-line job. Yakupov’s left-handed shot, a desire to get him on to a skill line, and the team’s weakness at left wing after Taylor Hall also made a cameo in that position an understandable gamble (particularly given Yakupov’s success in the role in Russia). It is a gamble that has not worked out so far, as the positional change may well have increased the difficulty of Yakupov’s transition to NHL play.

Other errors were unforced. The decisions to re-sign Lennart Petrell and Darcy Hordichuk added a pair of 5-on-5 liabilities to a bottom-six group that didn’t need more players incapable of moving the puck in the right direction. The decision not to bring in a second-line left wing to add a capable veteran and force a guy like Ryan Smyth, Magnus Paajarvi or Teemu Hartikainen into a third line role opposite Yakupov on the other wing was another error.

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While the root of these problems goes back to the summer, it seems likely the Oilers aren’t even aware of some of them. The decision to spend a fourth-round pick on Mike Brown – fine in his role, but terrible at adding 5-on-5 offence (the Oilers biggest weakness) when plausible options like Simon Gagne (dealt to Philadelphia for a fourth-round pick) or Dustin Penner (in the doghouse and rumoured to be cheap) was understandable but wrong-headed. Brown scores high in areas where Penner has been long-criticized, but in just 15 games in a bad season Penner is within a point of matching Brown’s career-best offensive production. Intangibles do matter – but tangibles matter too, and the fact is that the Oilers went shopping for a fourth-line guy who could punch people even as their team struggled to generate any kind of offence. That is not a criticism of Brown, who I actually like; it is a criticism of a management team that was picking out drapes while the house burned down.

Defence

Justin Schultz personifies both the best and worst of the Oilers’ blue line. On the positive side, he’s a sublimely skilled offensive defenceman, a great fit for the team long-term and was a massive windfall for the Oilers when he chose Edmonton in the summer. On the negative side, the fact that Justin Schultz, rookie pro, is the Oilers’ number one defenceman says everything about the state of the blue line.

It was obvious in the summer that the only prudent course of action was to add another defender – and despite the fact that the best options were signed early, players like Michal Rozsival stayed unsigned until September while Chris Campoli eventually had to relocate to Europe. Ideally, the Oilers would have competed for one of the better options out there; instead they failed even to make a basic insurance signing.

They’re paying for it now. Ryan Whitney’s unsurprising struggles, the inability of Justin Schultz and veteran second-pairing guy Nick Schultz to handle the opposition’s best, along with the ups and downs of a still-young Petry/Smid tandem have been the deserved result of an unwillingness to address a problem visible in the summer months.

Elsewhere

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The Oilers made it clear as early as April that they were comfortable with a Devan Dubnyk/Nikolai Khabibulin duo, despite the fact that buying out Khabibulin and bringing in a reliable backup was a viable option. Dubnyk – despite some rough individual outings – has performed well, but Khabibulin unsurprisingly has spent most of the season on injured reserve, which in turn has forced Ralph Krueger to lean heavily on Dubnyk, who has started six games in nine days. The Oilers are already within a point of last place, and are one Dubnyk injury away from being comically overmatched by the NHL as a whole.

The jury is still out on Ralph Krueger, the fourth coach of Steve Tambellini’s run as general manager. I like some of the things he’s done, but at times he’s seemed overmatched and despite his eloquence and the clear loyalty of his players his reluctance to play a line-matching game may be costing the Oilers. Jon Cooper, meanwhile, continues to run the most successful team in the AHL.

The reader may notice an abundance of links in the piece above; the reason for that is to establish that this isn’t simply looking in hindsight and spotting things that seem obvious now. Many of the mistakes made by the Oilers management group are mistakes that should have been evident long before now, mistakes that could have been avoided with a little foresight and a little action back in June, July and August. The Oilers management group deserves a team with the record this one has.

They also deserve to pay the price of failure, a price they haven’t hesitated to visit upon players, coaches, and lower levels of management within the organization: dismissal.

Update: To be clear, not all of the Oilers’ problems were forseeable. For example, the run of injuries at centre, and the shooting percentage struggles of the top line have hurt the team badly, and neither was a predictable problem. With teams as close as they are, my personal belief is that it takes some things going wrong to end up at the bottom of the pile, and that’s happened in Edmonton. But those unforseen problems would have had less impact if visible problems had been addressed earlier. JW.

Recently by Jonathan Willis


  • “The reader may notice an abundance of links in the piece above; the reason for that is to establish that this isn’t simply looking in hindsight and spotting things that seem obvious now. Many of the mistakes made by the Oilers management group are mistakes that should have been evident long before now, mistakes that could have been avoided with a little foresight and a little action back in June, July and August. The Oilers management group deserves a team with the record this one has.”

    Difficult not to notice. What, a dozen links citing and referencing your own work?

    Like I said here . . .
    Like I told you here . . .
    I saw this coming here . . .
    I told you so here . . .

    This item, without any doubt, establishes a benchmark for self-congratulation, Jonathan. Well done.

    • John Chambers

      I think he’s just pointing out that this result was predictable, and that the obvious flaws have been observable to both casual fan and blogger for quite some time.

      Unlike another ON writer, Willis didn’t predict the Oilers to make the playoffs

      • Are you referring to Gregor (6th), Lowetide (8th) or me (8th)?

        Holes and flaws in the roster, and the potential problems that come with them, were written about by many people here.

        If showing predictability of the problems the team is enduring now was the intent, Willis could have cited any number of items to establish that criticism now was not simply the product of hindsight. Maybe mix in a cross-section of items by others raising red flags.

        He chose not to. It comes off as a self-serving bunch of “I told you so” about issues many other writers (MSM and bloggers) here and elsewhere offered commentary on.

        • Oilfred

          I didn’t see that or get that sense at from reading it.

          No one else made a comment to that effect either.

          Maybe it your own issues clouding your perception?

        • Forgive me for being most intimately familiar with my own work, rather than the work of others. I keep a list of pieces written, cross-indexed by subject so that it’s easy to retrace my own footsteps. Thus, when I want to reference a piece on, say, Lennart Petrell, I simply open the spreadsheet and grab the link. I’d have to actually dig up your work to include the same link.

          It may come across as self-congratulation, but mostly it’s just laziness.

        • Peanut Sauce

          Brownlee – you’ve got issues man…. Let’s talk some Oiler hockey instead of critiquing good articles your peers have written.

          On an Oiler’s note: What reasonably could we get for Hemmer/Gags? Love em’ they just seem to be the obvious movable players. I asked a less biased Flames fan and he doesn’t think there is much of a return.

          • outdoorzguy

            RB, yes it would be sad to see Gags moved, he has heart for sure though lacks size he surely does’nt back down. The trouble is we have too much of that smallish skilled forward. I’ve said it before but I like that Jamie Mcquin off the Avs. Not the skilled forward but has good hands and plays with some sandpaper.
            It may be the case where we are trading points for grit. I have no trouble with that as I think it takes grit to drum up ofense in todays NHL.
            I like Marcus Foligno as well, not sure about Nino Niederider in New York but I recall when he played as a jr seemed to have some grit with skill not sure how his NHL career is working out but maybe theres a deal to be had with the islanders.
            All well said but we need a GM that is a little more proactive than reactive. His time of assessing is gone way to far. Time to start targeting some players.

      • I kind of liked the not-so-subtle playoff rub comment you threw in, even if you didn’t clarify which one of the writers you were referring to.

        In the name of clarity, it’s probably fair to point out how fine the line is between optimistic types who picked the Oilers to finish, say, eighth, and the more cynical analysts who picked Edmonton to finish, say, 10th.

        The point difference between 8th and 10th in the Western Conference in the six years the Oilers have missed the playoffs has been:

        2011-12: 6 pts

        10-11: 2 pts

        09-10: 5 pts

        08-09: 2 pts

        07-08: 3 pts

        06-07: 1 pt

        Pretty tight between the pie-in-the-sky types and those who saw this big mess coming, no?

    • Time Travelling Sean

      Can’t wait till JW gets the balls to call out some of your work. Jon should be a peer of yours…not a carpet mat that rub your feet on as you see fit.

  • RE: Untouchables

    It’s important not to do much to the young core right now, I think – except in moves that bring in equally young players at a position of need (for example, Colorado dealt a 23-year old Owen Nolan to S.J. for a 23-year old Sandis Ozolinsh before they won their first Cup).

    If the team starts moving the Yakupovs, Eberles, RNH’s, etc. for veterans they’re going to turn into the Islanders – a team that dealt guys like Luongo, Chara, Bertuzzi, Jokinen, Brewer, McCabe and others the instant they started struggling.

    • Oilfred

      This all day long.

      The key is not to overreact. Zona had an acticle at the begining of the season about how much luck would play in this season.

      We are not a contending team, but the hardest part are almost all here, we need to be patient. the Going for it now is folly.

      Having said that unless there was a secret plan to suck our way to another top pick in a great draft year . . . wait with all this evidense is there anyway that could not have been the plan?

      Lowe is an evil genious. This team will not be a contender until the new building is up.

      Sad but true.

  • [Sorry in advance guys but I’m gonna piss a few people off with this one.]

    Who in their right mind would have expected our “top line” to have a shooting percentage anywhere near sustainably decent when the entire trio is younger than alot of guys on the Oil Kings? They’re one dimensional, therefore easy to strategize against and not nearly mature enough to handle the constant pounding that line is subjected to nightly going up against opposing top lines. As it stands right now they’re getting the crap kicked out of them and as a result both Hall and Nuge may now be playing injured.

    This whole narrative of “Management is incompetent! – FIRE THEM ALL!” sounds pretty good and is alot of fun (I tweeted the exact thing last night). It’s also a handy tool that allows bloggers and keyboard GM’s to pat themselves on the back having somehow mystically gleaned team weaknesses last summer that guys who actually get paid to do so “apparently” missed.

    Right.

    Our company works with the same firm the Oilers use – Darkhorse at the U of A. They (the Oilers) are heavy into analytics. I don’t work with the Darkhorse team directly, but their forward looking situation projection and analysis is uncannily accurate. You think you’re good at parsing stats? These guys are freaking Jedi masters by comparison.

    It’s more than a little likely management knew full well this team wasn’t going anywhere all along. In fact, I’d bet some serious cash they counted on it. Think about it. Part-timers and blog heroes can figure out there’s massive holes in the lineup and guys who’ve been intimately involved in the sport for decades can’t? You really believe that? C’mon. One key piece goes down, the whole team goes to sh!t and not a thing is done to rectify the situation? *SHOCKER*

    Look, I don’t know the real plan any more than any of you guys. But my guess is when Horcoff went down the team was presented with a golden opportunity to go for another high pick, which will be used in combination with existing high-value assets (i.e. Gagner, Hemsky) to fill in the missing pieces. On top of which we have scads of cap room. Chances are the current bottom six, half our D and at least one goalie will not be here next year.

    The Oilers will be damn busy the next six months. Book it. With respect to Tambellini, he’s a patsy and would have been fired by now if he wasn’t doing EXACTLY what Lowe and Katz wanted. To that end my money is on MacT taking over the GM reigns in the very near future.

    You know who I feel really bad for? The players. Check out the latest post-game interviews on the team site. That’s the first time I’ve seen Ladi Smid with not a whiff of positivity. He looks absolutely defeated. I don’t want to think everybody else feels like. They’re in the midst of a full-on tank job. They know it and there’s jack they can do about it.

    Wonder why the team looks completely unmotivated alot of the time? They’re being asked to play far above their abilities and get the living hell kicked out of them doing so. That is simply not a sustainable state of mind for any athlete.

    • It’s a nice theory, David. It would have more weight if the “guys who’ve been intimately involved in the sport for decades” hadn’t already run the team into the ground.

      Either the decisions makers are incredibly bright and they’ve been playing possum since 2006, or they’re exactly what they look like: incompetent, even if they have hired smart people.

      And as fun as it is to joke about part-timers and blog heroes, the part-timers and blog heroes were smart enough to know the Khabibulin deal was an albatross before it happened. Now, sure, maybe Steve Tambellini (or Kevin Lowe, if we’re going to fully indulge in your conspiracy theory – funny how Lowe keeps hiring coaches Tambellini is intimately familiar with, but that’s another story) brought in Pat Quinn/Nikolai Khabibulin specifically to tank the team, or maybe they really are just bad at their jobs.

      • The popular theory at the time was that Khabibulin was the sweetener for the Heatley deal. I think the mistake they made was in thinking he’d be a good acquisition even if the trade didn’t work out.

          • It was a while ago, but I seem to remember the team thinking the deal was in the bag and that they were shocked when it fell apart. Might have been a classic example of “eyes off the ball”. They might have thought Khabi was the shiny bauble they needed to seal the deal and rushed without doing their due diligence.

            Which I suppose falls to your point about crappy management, so I accede to a degree. But I still refuse to believe the guys on Kingsway don’t know exactly what’s going on right now. It’s far too easy (and convenient) to assume they don’t.

          • It’s easy and convenient because it fits with fact. The Oilers have been a terrible team for years; ergo management isn’t good at what they do.

            The alternate theory feels a lot more like fan wish fulfillment than a rational interpretation of fact.

    • Agree 100% I think management threw us a curve ball when they traded for Fistric to start the season, we (the fans, maybe even the players) took it as a sign that they were trying to fill holes and improve the club, then 3 centers go down and *crickets*, we should have knew then and there what the plan for the season was.

    • I know you’re kidding, but this seems as good a time as any to point out that from this distance it’s impossible to know which individual is actually most responsible for the current mess.

      I’ve chosen to highlight the Oilers management group for that reason, though it would surprise me if there weren’t competent people at various (non primary decision-making) levels in the organization. As one example, Ken Holland was a low-level guy for years in a terrible Red Wings organization before becoming the general manager of a very successful Red Wings organization.

      • DSF

        Jonathan, I certainly appreciate not only yourself but RB when you start to focus some of your articles on the the Management group. I have been saying this for years and I glad you are bringing it to light in hopes that someone ie. Katz will start to get the tone of the fans and media alike. It is clearly our short coming and as a long time die hard oiler fan the state of this team is becoming very hard to accept. What is so sad is that the short comings of the team are quite obvious and have been for years yet we still talk about the same thing. Quite honestly it has become quite comical and sad in the same breath.
        It’s time to clean house but this time from the top of the food chain !

  • stevezie

    Wow, was that ever on the nose.

    You could have added the curious refusal to address Horcoff and Lander going down. It’s one thing if you can’t upgrade on Belanger for the third line, but this team didn’t even try to fin a better option than VDV for the fourth. Mike Ziggomanis was that expensive?

  • BigE91

    Fans might be able to accept many of the current shortcomings if there was any effort at all to solve them. Instead management has spent the past three years drafting the same small type of player and doing next to nothing in terms of providing some balance in the top 6. I genuinely think the bottom six would be fine if there wasn’t so much pressure on them to be more than what they are. Same with Dubnyk, the team is bleeding chances and yes he gives up more than the occaisional weak goal in this stretch but he basically has to be ready for anything and can’t trust the guys in from of him to fill lanes and take away shots that shouldn’t even be getting to the net.

    In truth Jonathon I think this is more than just one summer of inaction or miscalculation it’s a combination of past three. There should be some discernable improvement here and there isn’t and now the “top 6” couldn’t put the puck in the ocean, they aren’t moving their legs and trying to draw penalties, they are waiting for everything to come to them. It isn’t going to.

    Against Detroit we watched as Zetterberg put his stick through the legs of Mike Brown, poke the puck away and upend #13. No call. Why, because Zetterberg has earned the benefit of the doubt from the officials. (I’m not saying this is right, but it is the way the NHL works.) Had that been RNH on Darren Helm, 93 would have been in the box lightning quick.

    This team needs to get over all the great press they’ve gotten the past 2 years and flat out out work some teams.

    A couple years ago everyone was trumpeting H.O.P.E., with Omark gone I would submit that has changed to Hall, Yakupov, Pajaarvi, Eberle otherwise known as H.Y.P.E. and until this group steps up that’s all it is is HYPE because they aren’t showing the drive to be anything more.

    • Gret99zky

      HYPE. That’s beautiful, I wonder if The Bear composes a song about this acronym.

      “We’ve got hype on our side”
      “Our fans will always cry”
      “Spell it Hall, Yakupov, Paarjarvi,and Eberle”

  • StHenriOilBomb

    I’m not sure why so many are crapping on the Mike Brown trade, he is the only player that knows his role and I think he is a really good 4th liner.
    The problem is most of the rest bottom six except for Horchoff and Jones.I don’t think it will be possible to fix anything until this summer,we will be able to trade some of the players for picks at the deadline and some will be FA’s and hopefully at least one buy out and retirement. We then could be a real player in the market this summer(remember the cap problems a lot of teams will have) I hope this is the plan.

    • Pharmboy

      I’m not too sure there really is a plan. Maybe you should fax that in to the Oilers office, and please add the hiring of Ruff as well if ya could, thanks.

  • John Chambers

    Everybody is looking at it through sh!t-colored glasses today. Understandably so.

    The team will need a bottom-six and defense overhaul this off-season. It would be wrong to shop RNH or Eberle out of frustration. Veteran players, role players, competent depth players – have to be the targets. Guys able to play through tough periods and game stretches. Hall is my favorite Oiler in two decades, but he is not ready for the C.

    Two possible landlines ahead though are: a) management buys out Horcoff without replacing his leadership and defensive acumen, or b) Yakupov gets traded to fill holes, well in advance of realizing his professional potential and by extension full value.

    It’ll get better – but a new culture of true accountability must be the imperative.

    • Spydyr

      Agreed as angry as we all are it doesn’t make sense to scream about dealing key pieces just out of frustration. The talent is there among the top 6, they just need to fill out the roster with useful depth and add one top 6 with some size and more so a battering ram mentality in the vein of Ladd, Simmonds, etc.

      The biggest reason we’ve noticed the snake-bitten top line is because when they aren’t producing no one else is there to pick up the slack. That’s not the case when you watch playoff bound teams.