The Edmonton Oilers’ rebuild has taken on a life of its own over the years. The official start date used to be hotly debated, though less of late as the need on the part of some to defend the Tambellini rebuild has dissipated. But looking back, it seems clear that the Oilers’ post-2006 wanderings fall into four distinct segments.
The Undeclared Rebuild
Timeframe: July 1, 2006 – July 31, 2008.
Here is a fact: the Edmonton Oilers never talked about rebuilding in the summer of 2006.
The exodus in the summer of 2006 has been well-documented, and while Pronger was the name at the top of the list the departures of Jaroslav Spacek and Mike Peca and Sergei Samsonov were huge blows, too. The departures continued the following season with the loss of Ryan Smyth in trade to the New York Islanders (a loss which sparked this website).
The young players who were going to carry the team forward coming out of this period were people like Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Robert Nilsson, Tom Gilbert and Mathieu Garon. They don’t sound like much now, but there was a time when papers like the National Post pointed to the Oilers as a great example of a successful rebuild based on the accomplishments of that group.
With a seemingly successful rebuild completed, Kevin Lowe stepped down in the summer of 2008 and handed the team over to Steve Tambellini.
Timeframe: July 31, 2008 – January 25, 2010
It’s easy to forget that optimism was the rule of the day in the summer of 2008. The Oilers had finished ninth in the Western Conference, just outside the playoffs. We weren’t talking (much) about unsustainable shooting percentage, unsustainable save percentage and shootout luck; instead the focus was on the incredible skill of the five players mentioned above. Kevin Lowe had (seemingly) walked the team back from the brink and there was a great deal of optimism surrounding Tambellini – a veteran hockey man who had come up outside the Oilers’ old boys network.
When the 2008-09 season disappointed, Tambellini made changes. A new head coach, Pat Quinn, was brought in to usher in serious culture change. A high-priced goalie, Nikolai Khabibulin, was signed long-term to stabilize the position. And tough, gritty players were acquired and promoted, often far beyond their talent level.
Then people started getting hurt. Khabibulin and Sheldon Souray and Ales Hemsky were all stripped from an already anemic lineup. Lowe’s retooling, aided greatly by Tambellini’s incompetence, had failed.
Timeframe: January 25, 2010 – April 15, 2013
On January 25, 2010, a victory by the Carolina Hurricanes pushed the Oilers into last place in the NHL. Within a few weeks, Tambellini was talking about a complete organizational overhaul, and the organization’s other leaders started using words like “rebuild.” There has been some attempt to retcon the date forward to the drafting of Taylor Hall, but that’s disingenuous. The firm plan to launch a full-scale rebuild of the team was laid out for the public during the middle of the 2009-10 campaign, and even the team’s most devoted apologists must admit that it started no later than that.
Unfortunately, the Oilers’ leadership concluded that a full-scale organizational rebuild didn’t mean making changes at the most senior levels of management, and so Tambellini took point in cleaning up the organization.
It would be wrong to say that everything Tambellini did was wrong – the changes to the Oilers’ AHL level, the refusal to bring in terrible, big-money contracts, and the lack of Milbury-esque trades of young talent all stand out as bright points – but on balance he was timid and ineffective and Edmonton’s rebuild demonstrated a critical failure of leadership.
That failure was finally acknowledged by ownership with the dismissal of Tambellini in the spring of 2013.
Timeframe: April 15, 2013 – present
The firing of Tambellini and promotion of Craig MacTavish into the role of general manager marked yet another era in Edmonton’s seemingly ceaseless rebuild.
MacTavish opened by distancing himself from Tambellini, using words like “bold”, “impatient” and “risk” in his opening availability. At the time, I thought he was overpromising; in retrospect I think the overriding concern was in demonstrating that there was going to be a massive shift in the team’s approach.
There can be no doubt that MacTavish has delivered action. The results are still lagging, but if this particular epoch ends in failure it won’t be through timidity.
We’ll have a pretty good idea of which way this one is going to turn out by this time next summer.
Skip to the End
There have been fairly bitter disputes over whether the rebuild *actually* started in the summer of 2006 or midway through the 2009-10 campaign, as whether it really mattered whether the Oilers were dreadful in the 2006-09 period out of deliberate failed design or simple managerial incompetence. Whether Lowe was rebuilding or merely retooling in the period following the 2006 Cup run is an academic argument; the effect was largely to replace veterans with youth and the results were largely negative.
Lowe attempted a quick rebuild, and things started getting back on track – albeit with the same lack of elite talent – once he was able to rebuild (through free agency) much of the defence he’d demolished by losing Spacek and Pronger without replacement.
Tambellini came in with a mandate to take the team to the next level. For a season and a half he tried. His incompetence and a series of significant injuries combined to unravel all the progress the team had made.
Unremarkably, then-President Lowe and owner Daryl Katz concluded a full-scale rebuild through the draft was the next step to take. More remarkably, they decided that the G.M. who had necessitated it was the man to clean it up. The result was three wasted years before they finally undid their mistake.
And now? The franchise has a new guide, and he’s set off in a different direction than his predecessor. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see if it’s the right one.