BETWEEN THE LINES: MY TAKE

Daryl Katz’s "open letter" to fans of the Edmonton Oilers today has already drawn plenty of reaction from those it was directed at. Fans at the cynical end of the spectrum have dismissed it as a stinking sack of spin meant to buy time and defend the friends he employs.

Others, less jaded by what will officially be eight straight years out of the playoffs April 12, have taken the letter by the reclusive and media-shy Katz as a token of good faith, an olive branch meant to convey that he’s just as frustrated as the ticket-buying public — fans who, officially at least, have sold out Rexall Place for more than 300 straight games.

There are, as you’d expect, many camps of fans and degrees of cynicism and/or believers within those two absolutes, as a quick listen to the radio call-in shows or a scan of fan websites like this one confirm.

I can’t pretend to know what motivated Katz to write the letter, or have one of his underlings pen it for him. I’d be guessing. There are, though, several passages that grabbed my attention and I’d like to offer my take on them.

WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER

"I know this will almost certainly be the eighth consecutive year since we made the playoffs. I hate that fact as much as anyone, but the reality is that this is only year four of the rebuild that started when we drafted Taylor Hall."

Nobody becomes a billionaire without remarkable work ethic, drive to succeed and a competitive streak, so I don’t doubt that Katz hates seeing his team flounder ineptly at or near the bottom of the standings yet again, but the "we’re in this together" suggestion seems a bit contrived.

Even taking that at face value, it’s probably fair to point out that while Katz has "hated" missing the playoffs, the value of the team he bought from the EIG has roughly doubled in value, to about $400 million. Fans, meanwhile, have dug deep for tickets, parking, fast food and souvenirs during the same span. While fans pay handsomely to cheer for a bottom-feeder, the Oilers, as a business venture, have been a financial home run for Katz.

There is, as well, a new downtown arena on the way.

STAY THE COURSE

"The good news, if you can call it that, is that other teams that committed to fundamental rebuilds went through the same kind of droughts over the same kind of time frames, or longer. That doesn’t make it fun for anyone; it just means we have to stay the course."

Not necessarily. The course the Oilers are on, as it stands today, could see the team finish with fewer points than in any of the previous three seasons of the official rebuild (pro-rating points from the shortened 2012-13 campaign).

In 2009-10, the Oilers had 27 wins and 62 points. In 2010-11 it was 25 wins and 62 points, for a second straight 30th-place finish. In 2011-12 the Oilers had 32 wins and 74 points. Last season, they had 19 wins and 45 points (in 48 games). As of today, the Oilers are 15-30-6 for 36 points.

You stay the course if the course plotted produces tangible progress. If not, you re-assess. Citing rebuilds, time-frames and droughts by other teams? Some, like Chicago, endured many leans years and provided fans with a pay-off. Others, to paraphrase Jay Feaster, wandered the desert with no long-term gain for repeated seasons of short-term pain.

ACCOUNTS OVERDUE

"I hear a lot from fans about accountability, so let’s be clear. We are all accountable. That includes me, Kevin, Craig, Dallas, every player who wears our jersey, and every member of our staff. I know Kevin is the target of a lot of personal attacks right now, and that’s really unfortunate."

As I wrote the other day, it seems to me accountability falls on the shoulders of some in hockey operations more heavily than it does on others. There are two groups, split into former Oiler players and Friends of Katz – FOK, if you will – and those who never wore the jersey during the glory days of five Stanley Cups.

Since the Cup final of 2006, now-GM Craig MacTavish was relieved of his duties as head coach, then brought back under outsider Steve Tambellini before being named his successor. Assistant coach Charlie Huddy, purged when MacTavish was "relieved," has moved on.

The coaching carousel – head men, assistants and others – has seen Ralph Krueger, Tom Renney, Pat Quinn, Rob Daum, Billy Moores, Pete Peeters and Brian Ross (video) come and go (Ross and Moores have been retained in the organization in other positions). None are former Oiler players.

Kelly Buchberger stayed on after MacTavish was let go and has been an assistant under Krueger, Renney, Quinn and now Dallas Eakins. Smith has been behind the bench since the start of the 2010-11 season. Both were kept on for the arrival of Eakins, who filled the associate’s spot with Keith Acton, another former Oiler player.

Kevin Lowe, the lightning rod in the accountability debate, was GM from 2000-2008, then was moved to president of hockey operations by Katz. He’s been the one constant at or near the top of the management team since 2000.

As for what Katz referred to as "personal attacks" on Lowe, I’d suggest there’s nothing personal about it. Lowe served this franchise long and well as a player. His tenure as a manager has been far less successful. His record speaks for itself and is the basis of the criticism levelled his way.

FLYING THE FLAG

"Kevin is a big part of our organization, and it’s not just the Oilers that value his knowledge and perspective. He is consistently chosen, year after year, to play a leadership role with Hockey Canada. But when it comes down to it, this is Craig MacTavish’s team. He is the GM. He makes the calls, and he is accountable for building a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup — year in and year out for years to come."

Like Lowe, Tambellini, Renney and Quinn, all fired by the Oilers, have had long tenures with Hockey Canada. Krueger, long the coach of Switzerland’s national team, is now a special advisor to Hockey Canada’s coaching staff for the Sochi Olympics. So, the relevant connection is . . ?

As for the emphasis this is MacTavish’s team, I don’t doubt that’s true as far as day-to-day operations and decisions go, but there is no denying Lowe still plays a part and has a say in the decision-making process.

That’s an unprecedented run at or near the top of a management group for a team that’s had as little success as the Oilers have since 2000, no matter how Katz chooses to frame it.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

  • Maybe Katz is the ultimate genius and knows that the secret to getting lottery picks is having Klowe pulling the strings and finding ways to lose despite all the talent amassed. Pitt and chi town half assed their rebuilds. 5 lottery picks? I laugh at this. Here in Edmonton we go all the way. 23 lottery picks. Or maybe Katz is an idiot.. Either way…

    In all honesty, staying the course really is the best and only good choice for this team right now. I don’t mean keeping klowe, I mean keeping Ebs, Hall, Nuge, Yak, Jultz, Perron, Nurse, and this year’s top pick. The average age of those pieces is what .. 20-21? If that core were ever actually able to make the playoffs within the next 2-3 years, the window of opportunity to win would be 15+ years. Problem is… That’s a big IF.

  • Keith, Seabrook, Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa
    Hall,Nuge,Ebs,Yak,Nurse,Perron
    No matter how Katz spins it, our rebuild was not constructed the same way chicago’s was. We chose defense last, and our two way forward(Nuge) is a far cry from theirs(Toews.. And hossa.. And Sharp)

    Maybe we will be cup contenders by year 4 of hall’s contract, but we had better have a way to keep him around at that point.

    I know next year’s big prospect Mcdavid looks like more of the same, but if he’s touted as being anything even close to Crosby than he’s likely a once every 5-10 years type of player that could make all the losing worth it. What’s one more year?

  • dcsj

    What is 18 inches long and hangs between Katz’s legs?…………Kevin Lowe’s tie!

    What is 18 inches long and hangs between Lowe’s legs?……….Mac T’s tie!

    and so on………..unless these guys stop, get off their knees, and talk to the REAL hockey fans, nothing will change.

    I’m willing to give Mac T a chance, but no one else.

  • dcsj

    Here is how you become a billionaire. Your daddy builds a drug empire and leaves it to you. He is always purported to be a brilliant businessman, seems more like a spoon fed child like brat to me. K Lowe is available to hockey Canada every year because we are never in the playoffs. The S%$T show countinues.

    • I actually liked the letter from Katz. If nothing else, it does show that he has some wanton desire to own a successful franchise and have happy fans.

      What i do not like is what you pointed out in your last excerpt regarding Lowe. Citing his hockey Canada experience as a scapegoat and justifying that his role with the Oilers is validated through such experiences? Feels a lot like grasping at straws to me. Katz had to say something to defend Lowe and I guess that is the best that he could come up with.

      The fact of the matter is this – If you are listening Mr.Katz, Nothing about the “attacks” on Lowe were personal, strictly business. Will firing Lowe bring about the immediate changes needed for this club? No, not directly. Indirectly however it will send a message that will resonate with players and coaches alike. That message is that failure will not be accepted for prolonged periods of time. We are all human and bound to make mistakes. Continued mistakes however must be brought to task and it is long overdue that Lowe ante’s up.

      I do believe Katz that he would rather have a winning club than a losing one but at the end of the day that may require him to actually make some tough executive decisions on his own. Fans will give you more rope to continue to struggle so long as needed changes that are obvious to everyone are made. If not, you may see more and more resentment from fans which will lead to slowly less and less $$. I don’t want to see another Jersey laying on the ice.

    • D-Unit

      Not to be a Katz apologist, but get your facts straight.

      Katz earned (yes, earned–you can’t inherit or buy these) a Law degree at the U of A before taking over his father’s “drug empire” of a few Edmonton drug stores and then growing it into a billion-dollar business after years of hard work and smart business decisions, including hiring some very talented managers to help him out.

      Hardly what I’d call a spoon-fed brat.

      If you want to criticize Katz’s Oilers-related business decisions (example: What happened to the promised practice facility at the U of A? Or, why does this current team suck?), that’s fair game, but your “spoon fed brat” comment is way off the mark.

  • Mike IA

    I’m fine with K Lowe leaving. I agree that most of the assistant coaches should go. The only former oiler I would be interested in seeing return is Charlie Huddy, because he has shown real talent as a coach. Messier et al would just be here for marketing and we’ve had enough of that.

  • vetinari

    Most attacks on Kevin Lowe revolve around his record, not his character.

    But don’t tell me that he hasn’t made the criticisms personal– when you, unprompted, interject things such as “if it’s ever in doubt, I know a little something about winning” and “maybe one other person working in hockey has more Stanley Cups than me” and then separate fans into “tiers”, meaning who the team is accountable to– that to me, opens you to criticism about your character and reputation when you are the one that raises them.

    Katz should have hired Ben Scrivens to write the letter– he’s good at defending the love of his life and Lowe is certainly the love of Katz’s life.

  • D-Unit

    Brownlee thanks for saying it like it is. There are far too few people in this city with official standing in the media who will do so.
    I would imagine that you will no longer have access to the Oilers dressing room or interviews though.. but hey man credibility is worth it.

  • D-Unit

    I enjoyed the comment about sending this team to Seattle. We would be better off starting fresh anyways with a replacement club. An expansion draft couldn’t be anyworse than what we currently have.

  • Chris.

    To Oiler Fans Everywhere:

    We all thought this was going to be the year the Oilers turned the corner. (We being Kevin, Craig, all the pro-scouts… basically everybody I pay to evaluate talent and have a clue where we are as an organization) Obviously, that hasn’t happened, and it hurts. Blah, blah, blah.

    I hear a lot from fans about accountability. Blah, blah, blah. Kevin Lowe will be here forever.

    Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah we are on the right track.

    Blah blah blah blah Wear your colors with pride and don’t throw them on the ice anymore… blah blah

    We value our Tier 1 fans, we hear you, will ignore you, and expect your continued support.

    Daryl Katz.