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.

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.

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

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

      • G Money

        outdoorzguy is clearly wearing his heart on his sleeve, like many Oiler fans these days.

        The hatred for Kambowevish (??) is palpable.

        Watching this team is a lot like watching a concrete truck dumping its load into your uninsured convertible Porsche. It metaphysically hurts like hell, and you know that shouting and screaming and calling the driver names won’t help, but you can’t stop watching or shouting anyway.

        If only we could afford another Porsche …

    • Klima's Mullet

      We are crossing the line with some of our comments,
      passion is good, personal shots are not. I thought the team would be challenging as well but if you sit back and look at it realistically how are physically immature men supposed to go up against the other teams veteran players and win many battles.I think the reason they have really gone in the tank is the young guns are exhausted and beat down and the veterans are not leading the way.
      Tambo has made some moves that almost everyone thought was addressing needs, some didn’t workout.He didn’t know Khabby was going to get an impaired and be hurt all the time( should have been 3 years max)
      Belanger was brought in to win face offs, help kill penalties and add 30-40points a year( he did 2 of 3)Eager to add grit and toughness(his initial concussion in JM cup plus another has him scared to play the way he did previously,Lets not forget he helped land Justin Schultz, traded for Fistric and Brown and wrapped up Hall & Eberly.This trade deadline and what happens this summer will be the defining moment for this teams future.
      As far as the management not being out in the public this must come from Katz because K-Lowe was talking lots when EIG owned the team.
      Just saying…

  • G Money

    One thing that pisses me off is the media in this town. I’ve been scouring the interwebs today looking for a MSM type calling out Tambo, or Lowe of anyone… All we got us Stauffer the Oiler shill tweeting about how no trade is coming and the team is essentially throwing in the towel. WTF…

    Can we as fans start bagging on the media and in turn cause them to get some balls and write some honest, tough articles. Why is there not an article in a mainstream paper with the headline ‘Does Lowe need to go?’

    In a normal city that would be normal from media doing their jobs. At least asking the questions. There is no chance the media would let this s&@t show go along so blissfully in Montreal for example.

    Are the media scared? Somehow the fans need to start calling out all of the media for lacking journalistic integrity. How is it even possible Kevin Lowe isn’t being called out?

    I suggest we start to call in to radio shows and call out the hosts. write in to MSM sites or maybe make signs at the game. Remember that crazy Iraq propaganda minister who was putting out press statements about how Saddam Hussein was crushing the invaders at the same time as CNN was showing the palace being levelled with 50 smart bombs. Stauffer is that guy. Propaganda minister Stauffer.

  • Gerald R. Ford

    Robin, what’s the deal with the constant animosity directed towards JW? I don’t get it. I really respect your opinions, and I think you’re a good guy, but, geez, man. Call off the dogs already. Is there a more polite, tolerant writer in the Oiler blogosphere than Jonathan Willis? I sure haven’t seen one. There are plenty of legitimate douchebags and brown-nosers in the Edmonton market to go after. For instance, PLEASE tell us how Milhouse got that job straight out of high school. That’s a best-selling novel waiting to be written.

  • Klima's Mullet

    Am I the only one excited we have a shot at Seth Jones…a true franchise player…if we’re not in the playoffs, i would like to be in a position to draft him or one of the big centers

  • Klima's Mullet

    thank you JW for calling out Oilers’ management. They are the single biggest reason for the teams failures (if not the only reason). The Oilers, thru era of 2010-2013, may well be the worst team in NHL history.

    If significant changes are not made before the draft, a house cleaning is the only coarse of action.

  • Klima's Mullet

    Boys I sure missed an interesting fanfare yesterday… I just hope some of the core issues are dealt with over the summer and I can leave the paper bag on the closet.

  • outdoorzguy

    I think I have this figured out.
    Who do we always see up on stage at the draft helping with the first overall pick? Katz’s son!!
    Katz doesn’t do anything about this mess because he lives vicariously through his kid who he parades out onto the stage at every draft. Imagine that kid going to university classes year after year telling all his buddies he just came back from another NHL draft and met another first pick. How much fun is that!! No need to change a thing, what a great dad.

  • Word to the Bird

    For those blithely hypothesizing that Tambo and or Lowe should be terminated and Mactavish put in as an interim please understand that this would send EXACTLY the wrong message.

    Replacing one or more cronies with another – even interim crony would tell oil fans that it i will be the same as it ever was going forward.

    Mactavish was a failure as a coach; is totally unproven as a GM and were he made interim he would be made permanent by the draft.

    The longer this drags on the more convinced I become that Katz is a disaster for this franchise.

  • outdoorzguy

    So the “Old Boys Club” is at it again!! Bring back Scott Howson as a scout. Let’s look after each other. Maybe if Loser Lowe put the same amount of thought into his team that he did in making this decision, the team might go somewhere.
    Anyway, whats done is done. No wonder the team is sinking. The top heavy management team is weighing and dragging everything else down with it!!