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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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.


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.


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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

  • McDavid's Comet

    If we bring in Burke I can only hope the do it before trade deadline or at the very least the draft because we are obviously going to be in the bottom 5.

    While I’m musing it would be great if lindy ruff was brought in as well as a accociate coach perhaps to replace Bucky.

  • McDavid's Comet

    I was just reading one of Lowetides recent postings’ on his blog site, he says that Scott Howson would be Tambi’s replacement. That is ludicrous, did they not just se what and why transpired in Columbus. If they hired Howson that would have to be the stupidest, a$$backwards move ever and he even implied that it has been in the works for some time now.

    What the F is going on here, is it Lowe’s mandate to sucka$$ on purpose or is he smoking rock under his desk in his office.


  • Big Cap

    I used to hate Brian Burke as much as anyone in hockey.

    But I’ve come to change my mind. He was always available for tough questions and comments. He called players out. He openly shared his vision and frustration. He always tried to upgrade his team and went to war with them trying to make them better every game.

    Among the thousand things that infuriate me with this season, topping the list is:

    1) Where the Heck is Tamby?? Why is he not more vocal and available. He needs to be driving this ship and is NEVER around to lead us. Katz is a recluse, weird as that is, its fine. Its his team. But when his top Managers are No-Shows as well, it leaves us all to wonder where this team is heading.

    2) Lowe is a maybe the truest Oiler of all time. But its time to go. No other executive would still have a job with his track record.

    3) We allowed Ken Hitchcock last season to sign else where. Imagine if we had him as assistant coach instead of Bucky or Smith. We need to pick up Lindy Ruff in any capacity possible. He will make is a better hockey team.

    I hated Brian Burke, but now i would do anything to hear the news he;s our new GM.

    Katz needs to show Oil Country that this disaster will NO longer be tolerated!

  • “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.

  • Word to the Bird

    ^ LOL. Also, can we not talk about hiring Burke? Jeez we’re talking about the guy who wanted to box Lowe in a barn over an offer sheet. It’s never going to happen. Now, here’s some food for the mind:

    Chicago lost their first game to Colorado, a team barely above us in the standings. Perhaps we can use their lost momentum as a springboard to finally string some wins together… I continue to pray to the great Allah…

  • Word to the Bird

    I’m not a Brian Burke fan, but I’m so fed up with the current regime’s incompetence that I would accept Burke and all his warts. I know I couldn’t accept Burke if he brought in “his guy” (Ron Wilson) to coach. Burke with Dallas Eakins as coach? That would interest me.

  • JDP

    Everybody has to go. I don’t even get why media over hypes Stu MacGregor. He’s hasn’t been the magician that all of you seem to think he is. He can go too.

  • JDP

    That’s all I here from you “media” folk is how great of a job Stu has done. What the hell has he done? Are you comparing him to someone? He hasn’t done anything substantial either. Nothing.

  • Please, let’s not consider Burke. He is just another Eric Tillman without the goofy hair. He would get tired of Edmonton in a hurry. We need someone who would appreciate this job work hard and can live in Edmonton. Maybe Ken Hitchcock for example. He knows talent every bit as well as Klowe. Maybe he wouldn’t mind being moved to a management position. Just talking.

  • DSF

    I was critical of Renney last year because I thought he didn’t play the kids enough. Renney is let go, Krueger is hired, and the kids are getting killed.

    Tambo being fired? I am going to be careful about what I wish for.

  • Kevin Lowe has had a terrible track record as a manager since he took over. There is no excuse for why he continues to be part of this organization. One unexpected cup run is not enough to gloss over his misgivings. He has made so many bad trades and decisions I have lost count. Hiring ex-players to manage complex organizations usually ends badly. As I’ve been saying for many years, we need qualified professionals, with proven track records, to get this franchise on the road to respectability. Look at how Boston is managed, and Ottawa and many other teams. The Oilers could possibly miss the playoffs for 10 years, and Lowe will most likely still be here. Its unbelievable.

          • RexLibris

            Or in the unlikely event that Garth Snow has made them an offer they can’t refuse. ie: The Oilers’ 2014 1st for every Islanders pick until 2021.

            Tambellini might want to take the weekend to mull that offer over.

          • Klima's Mullet

            Jonathan, for the most part a great read, the link to your article on buying out Khabby and replacing him with Jan Denis would not have worked out.It seems the jump from the AHL to the NHL for a veteran goaltender is often too much, the shots are just that much better.I don’t recall who else was available this summer for goaltenders but if Khabby would have not got hurt he would have been ok as a back-up playing 10 games or so, he has been an excellent team mate and mentor and has played well this year but he is physically wore out.I don’t think Dubnyk has the mental toughness to be a #1 and this was something the Oilers had to find out this year.

      • Bucknuck

        If that is all they do, then yes i agree completely. I just figure that an Oilers number one pick has a lot of value, and if we get a halfway savvy Gm, this team can turn the corner and it will be a depreciating asset as soon as they start assessing the glaring holes. You can build around talent.

        It’s ballsy and sends a message that “it’s go time”. The Oil will get a good pick this year (minus the fourth rounder) and everyone on the team is a year older, and if you add some good veteran leadership and grit I think they could make some noise.

  • Time Travelling Sean

    Who made you God Brownlee? Talk about a Troller! Instead of publicly challenging your colleague on this site why didn’t you send a personal email? As another said you’re the only person to even mention it out of over 150 comments! Classless.

    • G Money

      Maybe I’m full o shnit, but RB and JW have been writing and posting on ON forever and by definition are as far from trolls as you can get.

      Both also tend towards levelheadedness … in that context, I read RB’s comment as a collegial ‘shot’ (and a fair one at that) rather than any sort of harsh criticism of JW and his journalistic integrity.

      I find it’s usually best to take things you read on the ol’ Interwebs with a grain of whiskey…

  • G Money

    When did 5’11” 184 pounds start being considered as small? I honestly don’t get it.

    According to the Oilers web site they have 5 players who are listed at 5’11″(Gagner might have been wearing lifts when they measured him), the rest are 6 feet tall or better. Is this a small team these days?

  • RexLibris

    Here is the question I keep coming back to: if Tambellini is removed this summer, does that not leave Kevin Lowe, a former player for whom I have the utmost respect but a less-than-ideal manager, in charge of finding his replacement?

    Unless Lowe is also removed, then could we not expect the same story to repeat, only with a different cash of players?

    I have no idea who would be best to hire, but I do believe that there are systemic issues within the organization that need to be rectified. Promoting MacTavish or hiring Howson are not, in my opinion, the correct decisions to be made.

    Were I in Katz’s position, I might approach Jim Nill with an offer to become President of Hockey Operations and/or GM this summer. Guarantee him full autonomy, and a strong, consistent operating budget from which to work. It has been said that the best businessmen surround themselves with smart people. Katz is a very successful businessman, so now we must simply hope that he has the ability to identify smart people to run his hockey team, past decisions notwithstanding.

  • RexLibris

    Being something of an Oil Kings/draft nut, there are two players whom I believe would greatly benefit this roster: Henrik Samuelsson and Curtis Lazar.

    They represent the kind of play that I feel is lacking in their top six rotation right now.

    The Oilers obviously need those types of players sooner than either of the two above would be ready, but how to identify similar players who could be acquired with the assets the Oilers can forfeit is the question.

    There is no use talking about getting Corey Perry or Milan Lucic. The Oilers need to find the next Perry or Lucic before someone else does. Thus my consternation over the work to date of Morey Gare and the professional scouting group.

    Anybody have any names that spring to mind? And could they realistically be acquired with what the Oilers realistically have to offer?

    I suspect this rebuild may be further from completion than we fans may care to admit.

    • Rex buddy, you have to get off the idea that the Oilers should draft Lazar.

      He’s not what they need at the spot they will be drafting.

      Not even if the Oilers could get another first round pick should they even consider Lazar over any of these players.

      Barkov – Monahan – Mantha – Mackinnon, Drouin or even Gauthier.

      I would also move heaven and earth to draft Bo Horvat.

      Keep Horvat in the back of your head, this Kid IS the Horcoff replacement, this guy is everything that the Oilers don’t have and wish they did.

      If your doing anymore draft articles this guy please, would like to get your take on him, I’ve only seen him about a half dozen times but I’ve read just about everything I could find on him.

      Just an awesome player.

      If you have some spare time I suggest you take a look.

  • G Money

    Back slightly more on topic, I was mulling on the importance of the supporting cast, specifically the 2nd and 3rd D pairings and the 3rd and 4th lines.

    I’m trying to recall the Oilers lines during their SCF run. The 3/4 lines and 4-7 D were:
    Moreau Peca Pisani
    Torres Murray Harvey
    Staios, Smith, MAB, Greene, Tarnstrom
    (correct me if I’m wrong)

    Just a mental exercise … what would this years Oiler team do with (in their primes) lines of Moreau/Peca/Pisani at #3 and Torres/Horc/Harski at #4, and Staios/Smith as the #2 defensive pairing?

    Imagine if Moreau/Peca/Pisani/Smith/Staios were out there hard-matching the other teams #1 line, while the RNH and Gagner lines faced the weaker competition, and the #4 lines only job was to hit people and not give up soft goals?

    One can dream.

  • outdoorzguy

    This is sickening. But keep going to games! Keeps buying those jerseys! Keep hoping it will all change tomorrow! Until the $$$ stops flowing to Katz, nothing will change.

  • outdoorzguy

    Lets not forget that as a youngster, the Oilers where Katz’s favourite team. He made lots of money. Then, he decided that instead of buying hockey cards, he could buy the actual players and put them in a position to be close to him. Kind of like real life cardboard cutouts!! He’s not going to fire anybody. BUT HE SHOULD!! And they have the brains of cardboard cutouts.

  • outdoorzguy

    I like when Laforge, just like the Wizard of Oz, pops his head out from behind the curtain every once in a while. I hear he’s having a roast. Why? Amazing how easy it is for this management team to hide. Imagine if this was an NFL franchise?? The citizens would be so up in arms after years of non-performance the owner would be forced to move his team in the middle of the night (Seattle?). Are you listening Katz?

    • G Money

      Maybe it’s just like that old baseball movie “Major League” and Katz wants to design a team to fail so the fans leave and he can relocate the team to Seattle. 🙂

  • outdoorzguy

    Despite not being able to run the province, Alison Redford may have a chance at running this team. At least she does speak publicly and takes ownership for her decisions!! Fred Horne would make a good replacement for Buchberger.

  • This organization has accepted losing. They have a loser mentality and there have to be massive changes to get rid of that. Until the management is changed this team will not win. The players are not dumb they know losing is Tamblow’s “plan” for success.