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


  • a lg dubl dubl

    FIST……still not sure what that is.

    Like I said before, except for offence, defence, and goaltending, we are pretty good.

    This whole scenario with the Oilers is so utterly predictible and will continue to be so until Lowe and Tamby are replaced.

  • a lg dubl dubl

    Agreed. While the majority of us fans have been patient and understand that this is a rebuild. The fact that this team has had little to no progress and in some cases (5×5) regressed, I believe is beginning to take its toll on the faithful. After more than two decades of following this team at a fanatical rate, I have never been so subdued or passionless over the Oilers. Management should pay, and I would hope that the Rexall faithful would let ownership know it, through volume or attendance.

    • 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?

  • 50 in 39

    “it is a criticism of a management team that was picking out drapes while the house burned down.”

    I LOL’d

    I can actually visualize Tambo doing this, with that stupid look he had on his face when he was outmatched by the remote control.

    In all seriousness though, dismissal is warranted for the entire upper-management group. They got to make their calls and their ineptness and excessive optimism yielded this current joke of a team.

    It is not funny for the fans and I am sure it is not funny for any of the players that care. (there is a few)

  • outdoorzguy

    Dismissal ! All in favor please vote here ! The time has come
    they have failed over and over again. There is a core group
    of players here that we all know must stay, but several and perhaps
    a surprise or 2 need to be gone and perhaps a high round draft pick
    this year, and yes that may be a first round and perhaps the first
    overall pick.

    Job Cooper
    Lindy Ruff
    Take your pick.
    Ralph is out of his league and needed a year or 2 yet
    as an assistant to learn this league.

    I for one as many of you have never been more frustrated, actually
    damn right peed off and mad. Yeah , i am just a fan but dump all kinds of money into seats and merchandise. I need to be rewarded for my damn loyalty as do you guys. NOW.

  • 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”

  • I think it obvious the problems are with the mgt team and clearly everyone needs to be replaced in order to have the team succeed. I think it’s also obvious, and unfortunate that those changes won’t come. Jonathon, if you are naming the successors for this group, who do we see going forward? I really don’t think the problem with the on ice product has as much to do with Kruger and his system, and the players not buying in, or that the coach has lost the room (although I think there’s some truth to it), as much as I think the players are sending a message to the Brass. There are injuries and players playing injured, no backup for the goalie…. They need players that are going too be effective brought in ASAP, and this team knows they need more. We are witnessing the train wreck and nobody seems to be embarrassed. The fans are furious.

    • I’d put an interim G.M. in charge now (probably MacTavish) and do a proper search for a full-time replacement in the summer. Assistant general managers Julien BriseBois (TB), Paul Fenton (NSH), Laurence Gilman (VAN), Jason Botterill (PIT), Jim Nill (DET) and Joe Will (SJ) are the half-dozen or so that immediately come to mind for a short list.

      Do an interview with each and a few others – internal candidates as well as external ones I’m forgetting right now – ask them to put together a tentative two-three year plan to turn the team into a contender, have a second interview with the best ones and then make a decision.

      • DSF

        I’d be interested in your take on Brian Burke taking over.

        He has a pretty good track record of taking moribund franchises and turning them into contenders.

        Despite running afoul of the new overlords in the Vatican, the team he built in Toronto, while still somewhat flawed, is having pretty good success and comes to play every night.

        • Mark-LW

          I think it’s safe to say BB was the architect to the success the Leafs are currently having.

          Yea I support this ………how about ” we want Brian Burke” at the next Oilers Game.

          That would be halarious at the game and send a much needed message to Katz and company.

        • justDOit

          Like him or not, the moves he made before this season seem to be the perfect additions to the Leaves (JVR for one). Burkie got screwed over being dismissed before seeing his team play a game.

          As for ‘untouchables’, my list starts with RNH and ends with J Schultz. Wingers may come and go, but those two guys are foundations.

        • JCDavies

          “I’d be interested in your take on Brian Burke taking over.”

          I really like this idea. Brian Burke has a good track record with trades and I feel like this is something the team needs right now. Building through the draft and free agency is great but some players can only be acquired through trades.