Defining the history of the Edmonton Oilers rebuild

Defensive mess

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

Lowe, Kevin

Timeframe: July 1, 2006 – July 31, 2008.

Here is a fact: the Edmonton Oilers never talked about rebuilding in the summer of 2006.

Here is another: when a team trades Chris Pronger and the best defenceman coming back is a 20-year-old Ladislav Smid, it’s rebuilding whether or not it actually makes use of the word.

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.

“Finishing” Touches

35-Khabibulin-4

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.

Official Rebuild

Steve Tambellini (2)

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.

Bold Moves

Craig MacTavish2

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.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Slapshot

    Is it just a coincidence that since Katz has owned the team,the Oilers have been at the bottom of the league standings,something can be said about the management group (Kevin Lowe ) specifically who has been put in charge to run this team into the ground.One only need to look at Montreal and Colorado and see the turn around of those organizations in such a short period of time to realize that the Oilers management ,maybe do not know what they are doing ,the results of the past 8 seasons sure do point in that direction.It all starts at the top of this organization and works it’s way down,and there have been numerous questionable decisions made by Katz and Lowe.

  • Sevenseven

    Didn’t go to a game last year…Might go to one this year.

    After reading this article (well written but sad as had been said before), this is a pretty inept senior management group….hard to believe that Katz is a billionaire. Dispensing drugs must be much easier than running a successful hockey club. I am impressed with MacT. Still terribly disappointed with KLowe. Kinda disappointed with the arrogance and inexperience of Eakins as well but at least he has a good assistant this season.

    Hope the players stay healthy and are in amazing shape at the beginning of training camp so the team can put their best foot forward this season not spend the whole season moving players up and down, press boxing them, running circles with injuries, and giving them poor quality coaching.

    Would still like to see that centre and defensemen join in. This is a tough division, but hopes are a bit higher right now.

  • vetinari

    What if Leon Draisaitl turns out to be better then Nathan MacKinnon and RNH? What if RNH, and Hall both get a 90 point season and Ebs and Yak get a 80 point season? What if Oilers defence plays great because of Ramsay? What if
    Eakins turns out to be great coach? What if Scrivens turns out be a legit starter?

  • v4ance

    Lack of foresight crippled our rebuild for years while their vision/assessment of players to obtain came with more downturns as they lost their ability to make good assessments . Enter MacT. who finally realized this team had to get bigger and more grit . Despite Tams being unable to surround his youth with an adequate base he did manage to get them up to 24th , and all the best present core is his contributions for the most part . What Mact. has inherited and has yet to get us back to 24th shows us he has a long way to go to get us competitive . Has MacT. lost some ability to assess over the years as had Lowe , etc.? Filling holes inadequately , replacing by downgrades or default far to often or creating bigger holes that previously were not thereto a degree that had to be fixed inferiorly or so expediently ? Almost creating holes that were not apparently hurting club including perhaps coaching . For someone who said he did not want to change the coaching he has done that both years now , from maim coach to assistants now . The difference makers like a top center and top 2 defenseman he has not delivered on . He has worked on bottom six probably more adequately than before at a premium , but difference makers has done negative by creating holes he has yet to fill . If he does those two things in next couple of months this rebuild might start to end and go in a positive direction despite all the coaching changes . Certainly not enough has been done so far to inspire much hope in an upward trend that would even get us back to Tams 24th position .

  • Sevenseven

    The smartest guy in all this was Mark Messier……….instinctively he knew that taking the coaching role under Lowe was going to be a full-blown disaster.

    Hiring of Tamby was the first real and deliberate action in “tanking”, for the sake of acquiring picks. They could not have found a better option than ST……..we all know what a absolute idiot looks like and his name is Tamby. He did establish our ECHL and AHL affiliates……..even an idiot can do something smart occasionally.

    Now we have another straw man in Eakins and it’s funny to watch MacT trying to surround him with men that actually know what they are doing. The stupid merry go round that the Oilers invented will never change until Lowe gets fired.

    The man is not stupid, far from it, just useless!

  • Dan 1919

    Haha I guess we’re in the middle of summer so there’s not much to write about, so let’s recap just how bad we’ve been for how long.

    Still entertaining though.

  • D

    Who cares at what point the rebuild started or people think it started , Oilers have been a horrible team for a long time.

    Oilers have been the worst run organization in the NHL for the last 8 years.
    and you want to talk when the exact moment the rebuild started.

  • Oilerz4life

    At Katz’s Oiler management meetings with Lowe, MacT, Messier and company he generally puts on some classic rock for light background music, “together forever and ever and ever…” Ahh, that should set the mood, me and my boys.

  • SLURVE

    The scorched-earth rebuild started in March 2010 with Staios, Pisani and Grebs who were no longer with the team. By the end of the season 2010-2011, they had traded, bought out or released 11 players from prior year(s).

    The trading of Pronger was not an undeclared rebuild. The additions of Gagner and Cogs were not a result of rebuilding but acquired through the normal process of the drafts.

    My take on the time line that lead to the eventual scorched-earth rebuild:

    2007-MacGregor replaced Prendergast
    2008, June-Katz bought team
    2008, July-Tambellini new GM, Lowe to president
    2008-2009 Oilers missed playoffs
    2009-April-MacTavish fired
    2009-July-Heatley refused to come to Oilers
    When Heatley refused to come to Edmonton, it was the final straw that change was imminent. The Oilers were going to build through the drafts. To start things off, the Oilers have to rethink where they want to be in 5-6 years time. UFAs will not come easily to a losing team up in frozen Edmonton. The management’s past transactions had been known to have a bad reputation as viewed by the other players and agents in the league. Essentially, the Oilers are stuck in no-man’s land. A wait and see attitude of how the team will do in 2009-2010 and their team record will finally dictate a clearer position of what road
    management will take.
    2009-new coach Quinn, Renney as his assistant
    Oilers poor record exacerbates the need for rebuilding. Philosophy change quickens in December when Oilers destiny was a last place finish- The rebuilding begins:

    2010-March-moved Grebeshkov, Staios, not sign ufa Pisani,

    2009-2010 – Oilers finished last in the league.
    2009-2010-530 man games lost to injuries. Major injuries occurred to Khabibulin and Hemsky.

    2010- April-Oilers fired assistant GM Prendergast, trainers, equipment staff.
    2010-June-Oilers finished last and drafted HALL-first overall.
    2010-June-Ethan Moreau was put on waivers and claimed by Columbus.
    2010-offseason- Patrick O’Sullivan traded. Robert Nilsson was bought out of his contract. Several others were allowed to enter free agency including Mike Comrie, Marc-Antoine Pouliot and Ryan Potulny. Souray’s contract was bought out.

    2011 –Feb traded Penner to Kings for their 1st pick and Teubert and 3rd round (depending).
    2010-2011 Oilers finished last in the league (again).
    2010-2011-lost 281 man games lost due to injuries. Key injuries: Out for the season-Ryan Whitney (top pairing D); Major injuries to (4 of top 6 players) in Hemsky, Gagner, Hall, Horcoff; others-Brule, Eberle, Khabbibulin etc. They were replaced by minor leaguers in AHL.
    2011-June Drafts-Oilers pick RNH.
    2011-current-Whitney’s ankles still need time to recover and not in line up. Hemsky is slowly coming around to form. Our D pairing from 2-3 are often injured such as Barker, Potter (with the exception of Sutton who is suspended 13 games). They are replaced by very young and inexperienced (mainly) minor league players such as Petry, Teubert and Plante. Not much stability and experience players in those defensive positions which became a major problem to this day.

    • Serious Gord

      Bingo. A thorough objective summary of the facts, with the resulting conclusion being 4 years into the rebuild.

      It should also be mentioned that the 2007/08 team was 3 points out of the playoffs – not exactly what I would call a “rebuilding team”.

      • Chainsawz

        If January or March 2010 is the agreed start date of the rebuild, we aren’t 4 years into, we’re 4 years through and almost half way through year 5.

        Lipstick on a pig but it’s bit of a peeve of mine.

  • MattOcean

    I hope Eakins is eating some humble pie this season compared to last. Coming across like a 20 year NHL veteran coach really didn’t help him or the team last season. If the team is competitive and shows that they’re serious about challenging for a playoff spot, it will change the way fans and other NHL players view the Oilers!

  • The worst part about all of this is that it even if the team is built to the point where it’s competitive, the longer-term drafting doesn’t appear to be on par with teams like Chicago, LA, etc. So unless changes get made in terms of drafting and development, this is a team that could be built to win a playoff round or two, but not one that’s sustainable for success for a long period of time. A key injury or departure of a core player could hurt quite a bit, and yes, while losing Kane or Toews would damage Chicago, they do have young players who are able to step up in moments of need. The Oilers aren’t close to that level of organizational depth.

  • I guess you could argue noone wanted the money so they had to give it to someone but you anoint Horcoff as your top center with an extension like that in July 2008, with still a year left to go on an existing contract and coming off shoulder surgery, to me you are waving the white flag.

  • D

    Best lines from that National Post article:

    “The biggest ache — a two-year, injury-plagued hiatus from the playoffs — will soon be behind them. It is unlikely the drought will stretch to a third year next season.”

    “It is hard to see the Edmonton Oilers staying south of the playoff line for long.”

  • The main top reasons, IMO, for not getting back into the upper echelon of the NHL dates back not only to just when Pronger and other et al left, but with also the following:

    1) humongous bad thought process for- and a lack of – a good farm team/development system which affected alot of drafted kids of the Oilers for a few recent years,

    2) very bad pro scouting and UFA deals/trades for guys like Khabby, Belanger, Barker, Eager, then others like Smithson, Brown, etc, and then with prcatically sending away kids like Tobias Reider, etc,

    3) a bad set of amateur draft prospect picking such as like back then in 2007 with 3 first round picks and yet two of those ended being wrong (Plante, Nash), others like Martindale, Perhonen, etc.

    4) Adding into the very bad equation was of way too many coaching changes that are like that of bad taste testing new foods/drinks…making this altogether a total DISASTER period.

    Now finally, its good to see quite a few good to very good/excellent type drafted kids/prospects in the system (including and since then with Eberle then Taylor Hall, RNH ongoing, etc) and that MacT is finally bringing in better calibre NHL standard players in their prime for a change. MacT isnt yet bringing in the best type players in the league but the steps taken in the past 12 to 14 months are progressive and moving forward.

    Oiler fans like myself are finally starting to see small good results but we are definitely ready… and owed… for far more better ones.

    That being said, I’m looking forward to ahopefully “full and worth it” season of hockey albeit with some more growing pains. May the next set of those new pains be few and less hurtful…

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      What’s the one constant to all of these:

      “The main top reasons … but with also the following:

      1) humongous bad thought process for- and a lack of – a good farm team/development system …

      2) very bad pro scouting and UFA deals/trades …

      3) a bad set of amateur draft prospect picking …

      4) Adding into the very bad equation was of way too many coaching changes …””

      The guy at the top …..

    • ubermiguel

      It was required after the post Final exodus. Marion Hossa saw it and then Danny Heatley saw it, but it took a long time for the Oilers to acknowledge it. To what extent the new owner was meddling during this period might never be known. I think that MacT’s real advantage over his predecessor is that he has a level of control over his moves that Lowe and Katz did not allow Tambo.

  • vetinari

    Not sure how a rebuild could have started a couple of months after coming 1 game from winning the Cup. All the haters talk of an “8-year rebuild” and it’s ridiculous.

    The rebuild started in earnest when management decided to stop chasing Hossa, Heatley, Nylander, etc… and building the team through the draft.

    It’s been a 4 year rebuild and was actually starting to trend in the right direction until last year’s debacle with Eakins at the helm.

    Had they added an experienced coach like Ramsay to Kruger’s staff, we wouldn’t be debating whether it’s been a 4 or 8 year rebuild.

    • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

      Ramsay only signed here because he has a per-existing relationship with Eakins and liked the idea of working with him. Most of the NHL was impressed by the Oilers’ ability to sign Ramsay.

      Kruger’s team was buoyed by an excellent PP and high sh% that could never have been maintained. We would have been in a similar position this year and would have probably signed Eakins after the 13/14 season anyway.

      Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda. These are all speculation as it cannot be known what would have happened. What is a guarantee is that Ramsey would have never come here to work with Kruger.

    • R U Kidding Me!

      It seems kind of silly to debate “how long” the rebuild has been at this point because we still don’t know when it will ever end. Sure the actual start date can be debated but until we actually make the playoffs it doesn’t matter much to me. At the current rate of progress (i’m talking real progress in the standings not the hey it’s the middle of July and we look better on paper kind of progress that we achieve every off season) a couple years won’t make much difference if we end up having to debate whether it was a 23 year rebuild or 26 year rebuild!

    • Let me help you: When you lose the top two defencemen from that Cup Final team and don’t bother replacing them, you aren’t competing any more.

      You can say ‘that wasn’t a rebuild!’ but you don’t replace Pronger/Spacek with Tjarnqvist/20-year-old Smid if you aren’t doing something eerily similar to rebuilding.

      • ubermiguel

        That wasn’t a rebuild, it was management incompetence because they didn’t recognize the need for a rebuild right then and there. Lowe thought enough pieces were in place so only a retool was required, but he was so very wrong. Then Katz came on board and started chasing free agents and that didn’t help. Katz loves wheeling and dealing, but he’s never built anything from scratch (his pharmacy empire was built entirely through acquisitions). I think he finally clued-in in 2010 that he can’t wheel and deal his way out of the NHL basement.

      • Serious Gord

        Yes JW, because replacing franchise defensemen is easy. Most teams just give those away.

        They were too busy chasing the players mentioned, who happened to be the hottest free agents at the time. You could argue they should have been chasing the hottest free agent defensive, but to suggest they were rebuilding at a time when they were throwing money at Hossa, etc..is just plain silly.

        Hope that helps.

        • If you’re trading Chris Pronger, either a) you’re capable of getting a top pairing defenceman back in the deal or b) you’re unspeakably inept.

          Lowe could have held out for a deal to land a top defenceman. Instead he picked one that came with a whole pile of futures.

          • JitanPren

            Well that would be filed under a different category wouldn’t it? It’s called a bad trade. When star players demand trades you rarely get fair value. That said any GM would have been hard pressed to turn down the equivalent of the 5 first rounders that Lowe received. These picks/prospects could have been packaged up later to get another stud d-man, but they didn’t end up doing that.

          • The trading of Pronger was the start of it all with nothing in return. 6 rings always has to have things his way or he strikes out in a blind rage and does stupid things. He did the same with Ryan Smyth, Sheldon Sourey in later years.

            Klowe was the main problem and probably will be in the future.

    • Oilers4ever

      Disagree on the coaching change making a difference. Regardless of coaching, Dubynk still would have sucked and shown his true colors. This team was over .500 for the last 20 games of the season. Making another coaching change now and blaming Eakins would set us back another 2 years. Stop the coaching fire sales. If the team sucks under Eakins again then consider it. But their play in the last 20 games improved and with Ramsay here now they will get better. Its not always the coaches fault when you have prima donas like Yak who dont buy into the system and have their agent giving mgmt grief.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    I subscribe to the belief that Dithers was just a fall guy so they could gather assets and young talent without having to sacrifice one of the Old Boys.

    • Serious Gord

      I think there is some truth in that. Clearly there was a plan to rehabilitate MacT after he resigned/was fired and bring him back it it the fold and also a very deliberate effort to get messier to become coach.

      All it this rebuild/retooling has to be placed in the context of mr Katz’ dream of having his old boys join him in winning the cup and having their names on the cup alongside his.

      That Jonathon has not done so is to focus on tactics rather than strategy – or in this case the driving force behind those tactics because it isn’t really a rational strategy – is to learn and understand nothing and thus to draw the wrong conclusions.

      • Clearly, the plan was to have Messier coach all along! Which is, why in the course of rotating through five different coaches, Messier’s never been hired.

        Additionally, it was obvious that Tambellini would fail! The Oilers intentionally bombed for seven years all in an effort to create a G.M. vacancy for MacTavish!

        I can see it all now! Two years before Darryl Katz even bought the team, his dream of collecting all the old Oilers started in earnest with the Chris Pronger trade!

        I’ve heard some pretty bizarre conspiracy theories around the league, but the idea that the central theme of the Oilers’ rebuild is Katz’s desire to collect as many old boys as possible takes the cake.

        • Serious Gord

          Elliotte Friedman reported that the reason why Rennie was fired so late in the off season and Krueger was plugged in was because Katz and Lowe were trying non-stop to convince messier to become the coach. And when he rebuked them for the last time they offered instead to at least hire him in an advisory role (to make it possible to put his name on the cup? To get him inside the loop if the coaching position became available and he had changed his mind?)

          I am certainly not alone in my opinions regarding Katz’ motivations and dreams. And the old boys – both oilers and hockey canada (Katz has been very involved in hockey canada behind the scenes writing checks and giving perks for well over a decade now) continues to roll on with the addition of Nicholson. An added wrinkle now is Eakins adding his friends and idols like Ramsay.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    When they suck this year because they have no first pairing Dman and no Centers, I can’t wait to see what depth wingers they bring in next year

    • Serious Gord

      I agree that they will struggle this year — but it won’t be becuase of a lack of centres or first pair D — Colorado proved as much last year. They will suck because of their coach and the unfailing support by a manager who has chosen to try and fight fire with fire in a conference where only Chicago stands out against the same old same old dumb, bump, and grind … and fight. Time to reinvent their own style … again.

  • toprightcorner

    I don’t think you could call anything during Tambo’s time a rebuild, more like wandering in the wilderness trying to find a cave.

    MacT has done more in 18 months to build the Oilers into a team that resembles one that could push for a playoff spot within a couple of years and with a few more quality moves in that time, a team that could contend.

    The lack of action by Kevin Lowe when it was clear 2 years before Tambo’s firing that he could not rebuild the Oilers. He was incapable of making a decision when required and then making bad decisions when he finally pulled the trigger left the team stuck in the mud. I don’t think Tambo actually had any solid plan on how to rebuild the team.

    I would actually suggest the rebuild officially started when they hired MacT as GM. The 5 years prior to that the team didnt even know that you needed nails and a foundation for a proper rebuild.