Blame Steve Tambellini

There’s a long list of things wrong with the Oilers right now, but somewhere near the top of the list has to be the state of the defence corps. With the exception of Jeff Petry (and possibly Anton Belov) there hasn’t really been a positive story on the Oilers’ blue line this season, and the only way to really address the problem is with top-pairing talent – something that can be extremely difficult to find.

It’s something the Oilers once had.

The Kevin Lowe Blue

Kevin Lowe isn’t a popular figure with the fanbase these days, and that’s understandable – whatever his exact duties with the team, he’s the one prominent figure that still has a job after years and years of losing, and it doesn’t help that he occasionally says tone-deaf things. But whatever his state of popularity, the blue line that he left Steve Tambellini in the summer of 2008 was pretty solid.

Here’s that group, then and now:

  • 1. Sheldon Souray. Played just under 25 minutes per night, adding snarl and offensive production (53 points). He’s hurt now but played 21 minutes per game for Anaheim last season and did many of the same things.
  • 2. Lubomir Visnovsky. Played 23 minutes per night and added a brilliant puck-moving presence. He did exactly the same things for the playoff-bound New York Islanders last season.
  • 3. Tom Gilbert. Played 22 minutes per night and recorded a career-best 45 points. These days he’s Florida’s number two defenceman and one of only two guys with an even-or-better plus/minus on the team.
  • 4. Denis Grebeshkov. Played 21 minutes per game, posting 39 points and a plus-12 rating. Edmonton just waived him after bringing him back from the KHL in the summer.
  • 5. Steve Staios. Played 20 minutes per game in the twilight of his career; retired these days.
  • 6. Ladislav Smid. Played 15 minutes per game in 2008-09 and is a top-four NHL defenceman for the Oilers these days.
  • 7. Jason Strudwick. Edmonton’s seventh defenceman in 2008-09 has since retired and WHAT’S THAT HE WRITES HERE!

That was an awfully good group five years ago, and (if Souray were healthy) four of those guys would still be useful NHL players. What happened?

Summers of Steve

Basically, players got moved without ever being replaced.

Sheldon Souray got hurt, clearly felt slighted by the team, and went public with his feelings. The Oilers, not wanting their impressionable young players to be unduly influenced by Souray’s opinion that management would struggle to differentiate between an arse and an elbow, first exiled the defender to the minors and then bought him out entirely. In the years since, Souray had a really good season in Dallas for pennies on the dollar and then a pretty good one in Anaheim. Essentially, the Oilers alienated a useful player whose skillset was a strong fit for the team and then flushed him for nothing.

Lubomir Visnovsky drove old-timey coach Pat Quinn nuts with crazy things like “puck movement” and “occasionally pinching in the offensive zone” so Tambellini dumped him to Anaheim in exchange for Ryan Whitney. Visnovsky’s still a useful top-four defenceman, while the much younger Whitney is now a frequent healthy scratch in Florida.

Tom Gilbert drove the fan-base crazy by being soft, so the Oilers traded him to Minnesota. Nick Schultz, the player brought in to replace him, is a third-pairing defender these days. Gilbert has had his problems – including a buyout in Minnesota after a dreadful PDO season last year – but he’s a number two defenceman with the Panthers today.

Denis Grebeshkov and Steve Staios were moved for picks in solid trades, while Ladislav Smid still plays for the team.

Add it all together, and the Oilers managed to turn a solid one-through-three group five years ago into Nick Schultz today. That isn’t the whole answer, but it’s the single-biggest reason why the defence corps is the mess it is right now.

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  • Admiral Ackbar

    This article makes me sad. That D corps from before was garbage yet it makes our current corps look even worse. Yuck.

    Maybe this team needs a rebuild, you know, blow it up…

  • vetinari

    I look at that list, make comparisons to the current roster and agree that while some of our players may eventually grow into the roles that they are currently assigned, many of them won’t.

    We seem to have gone in the direction of “well, if we can’t have quality, we’ll get quantity” and hopefully someone will emerge out of this group to lead the team.

    I hate Pronger (the man) but I loved Pronger (the player) and he would not only give us 26+ minutes a night of punishing but safe hockey, he also made the players around him better. If we can find and get the next Pronger, I’m okay with saying goodbye to one of the kids in exchange.

  • Zamboni Driver

    Tambellini’s biggest downfall was that he couldn’t string two words together when a mic was in front of him. He must still have a sore back from the puppet strings being played by “Six Cups”

    As for Mactavish.

    Not too soon to judge him.

    He’s the “MBA” who, while doing some okay things (Perron, Gordon) also wasted money and contracts on useless retreads like Grebs, ESPECIALLY Macintyre, and, I’m sorry to say (b/c his dad was my dentist) his ‘Bold’ move in Ference.

  • Newj


    I think you’re stretching things a bit by stating we lost out in the trading of Tom Gilbert. We dont need more offensive, soft on the body dmen. Gilbert may be doing OK on Florida but he was horrible with the Wild.

  • Czar

    If Eakins wants to improve our defense than a good start would be to never have Belov and J.Schultz out together. Justin needs Ference or Smid to hold his hand until he finds his way at both ends of the ice. Other than a few ill advised pinches Belov has been good, just wish he was a little nastier out there.

  • OK look. Tambellini was the executioner but he got his marching orders from Lowe and Katz. If he hadn’t been doing exactly what he was supposed to do he would have been fired long before he finally was. MacT coming in was the signal that “Greatest Tank Battles” was over.

    THIS is what happens when you tank for three years and it’s not only happening with the D as our bottom six isn’t too sh!t hot either. If we hadn’t traded away good players and taken junk back we would not have ended up with the high end group we have.

  • Dan the Man

    Remember the days when the Oiiers used to be able to get defencemen like Hamrlik, Spacek or Jason Smith for our garbage? We could really use one of those deals right now.
    Also, I don’t understand why MacT signed Grebeshkov instead of going after Gilbert this past summer.

  • misfit

    While it is true Lowe et al have been disasters it doesn’t help us move forward to look back at all the cluster f#*ki*g that they have done to us fans. As good as a blood letting at the top of the Oiler hierarchy would feel it won’t help. Our biggest issue moving forward is we have little any team wants other than our young stars and there lies the rub. If Craig can’t pull off miracles trading then we better get on board with Eakins. We may be even worse in the short term but I haven’t heard anybody come up with a better idea. Another coaching change will make a mess of our young players so suck it up Oiler fans.
    As for the idiot who yelled ” you suck” to Eakins in front of his 5 year old daughter, a proud moment I am sure for whoever did it and his or her parents, I hope you have the courage to apologize for your sad actions. If not I hope a heaping helping load of karma is headed your way!!

    • StHenriOilBomb

      Yeah for sure. I’ve been saying for years that Lowe was the primary architect of the disaster. I also said Burke was right when he talked about Lowe sewering the team. Point is – how can Mac be expected to turn this around overnight? Everyone seems to forget that another GM is involved with a trade! And that you don’t unload your garbage for another’s treasure.
      As for Eakins, give him a chance. He’s a smart guy and will learn. And right on Boxman, the idiot that did that embarrasses everyone in Edmonton.

  • Nuge&Connorvs.Sam&Sean

    Well, when you trace back to where it was Tambo came from, you get this man:

    Kevin “I’m smarter than you” Lowe……

    That is the one constant in this hell hole the Oilers are stuck in.

  • PlayDirty

    Probably worth noting that the Visnovsky for Whitney trade was a solid deal. Whitney was a younger version of Vis. and racking up the points until he toe-picked and his career went in the toilet due to his ankle injury.

    • misfit

      The injury thing is a weak excuse. Whitney has never, at any point in their respective careers, been better than Visnovsky. And the contracts they were signed to at the time of the trade had them becoming UFAs at the exact same time, so the age argument is irrelevant too.

      • pkam

        If I remember correctly, Visnovsky had some injury problem when he was with us too. I believe Souray’s injury history when we signed him was worse than Whitney’s. And I don’t think Whitney’s injury history when we acquired him is any worse than Hall’s injury history today. Can we can argue that Perron has a history of concussion and he may get another in the near future so why do we acquire him?

        • Zarny

          It’s not just “injury history” in some generic sense.

          Whitney’s strength used to be his skating. His ankle injury all but destroyed his career. He simply was and never will be the player he used to be.

          Sure Vis and Souray have had injuries. None of those injuries permanently reduced their ability to play.

          The Oilers gambled on Whitney and lost. The fact that he cried when he found out he had to move to Edm probably didn’t help.

          • pkam

            I don’t know Whitney’s strength is in his skating.

            I remember I watched his first few games as an Oilers and I was not impressed with his skating, however he managed to put up points and great +/- and made his partner better.

          • Zarny

            Haha…no Whitney’s strength now is certainly not his skating.

            That’s the point. In Pit and before his ankle injury skating was his strength but that isn’t the player that showed up in Edm.

            Hence the problem with Ryan Whitney.

          • pkam

            If he can put up points and great +/- and help his partners to excel, why do we still focus on his skating? Isn’t it obvious that he has adapted his game and get his job done.

            Pronger isn’t great at skating but do we care?

          • Zarny

            Except Whitney wasn’t putting up points and his +/- wasn’t great. He was a minus player. And his partners weren’t excelling.

            Oh and Pronger was a good skater especially when he was in Edm. Tall and lanky but he could get around the ice no problem.

          • pkam

            Whitney wasn’t putting up points and his +/- wasn’t great before his ankle injury?

            2009 3G 8A 11pts in 19 games
            2010 2G 25A 27pts in 35 games (before his ankle injury)

            And this wasn’t good enough?

            And I remember he helped Gilbert and Vandermeer to play better when paired with him.

            If is after his ankle injury in 2010 that he is not the same player he was.

      • PlayDirty

        True, but I just wouldn’t write that trade off as being as useless as some of the others. I thought it was a reasonable gamble at the time and he was performing. The injury itself was typical Oiler luck.

      • camdog

        Long time lurker

        Visnovsky had a no trade clause signed in LA he didn’t want to come to Edmonton, he wanted to stay in LA. Incredibly bad move to trade for a guy that didn’t want to come here. Lowe tried this numerous times and each time it back fired. The Whitney trade was more sending Visnovsky home rather than making a hockey trade.

        Souray was driven out of town because of his feud with Mactavish

        Grebeshkov was horrible and yet Mact brought him back, a waste of a roster spot on a gut shot.

        Staois was at the end of his career

        Smid is not a number 4 d man, has has never progressed.

        Gilbert was a horrible trade.

        That blue line that you say was solid was so weak it lead to the Oilers finishing dead last in the league by a wide margin in 2009-10. I don’t know how anybody with any reputation can defend that teams defense as being solid?

        • vetinari

          I too had heard that Souray’s beef was with Klowe and mot Tambo which the media purported it to be. I heard from an inside source and I was quite surprised because I was saying it was Tambo when my source corrected me and said it was Lowe. This was back when it was all happening.

          I always liked Lowe as the face of the organization and for what he does in the community and his commitment to charities etc. For this reason I see why Katz is reluctant to let him go. But, having said that, this is a results based business and being a “good guy” only gets you so far.

          • vetinari

            If that’s the case, then you don’t have to cut Kevin Lowe. Just ensure a separation of duties. MacT has Scott Howson to lean on in making GM decisions. K Lowe can focus on community relations and the new arena.

    • StHenriOilBomb

      c’mon. Who’s not taking ownership? That’s all management and coaching has talked about. These things take time.

      When MacT was hired, Don Cherry claimed that MAc would have the team back competing by 2014-15.

      After Eakens was hired, Bob Mackenzie warned against high expectations, as many teams struggle with a complete culture and systems change – especially with 40% new folks on the roster.

      This year was never meant to be. Tambo left things in too much of a mess.

      Hopefully these guys can figure it out, and MacT can add some defense, and next year starts promisingly.