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

  • 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

    @Bonvie
    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.

      • 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!!