The end of an era… (yay!)
Today marked the end of one of the worst eras of management ever seen in the NHL. Steve Tambellini was given his marching orders by the upper echelons of the organisation, and Craig MacTavish – already waiting in the wings as Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations – was handed the keys with the hope that he can right this ship that has somehow gone very, very wrong.
OUT WITH THE OLD
Tambellini took command of the struggling Oilers franchise in July 2008, following several years in various management capacities as part of the Vancouver Canucks. As a former moderately successful NHL player, along with being a respected part of the Canucks, he had long been mentioned as a potential future GM in the NHL, but there was some apprehension based on the fact that Vancouver kept passing him over for that job for their own team.
The team struggled that season, finishing 4th in their division and well out of the playoffs. Tambellini made his mark late in the season by trading misused winger Erik Cole to Carolina for a pick that was flipped to LA for Patrick O’Sullivan, and acquired Ales Kotalik from Buffalo for a 2nd rounder. Kotalik was actually not too bad in Edmonton, but the team didn’t re-sign him after the season, essentially wasting the 2nd round pick used on him. O’Sullivan’s name is reviled by Oiler fans – he was worse than useless for the year and a bit he was part of the team, being poor defensively, worse on the attack, and lacking any kind of guile or gumption or passion. This was not a good start for the newly installed GM.
At season’s end, Tambellini fired then-coach Craig MacTavish – the Oilers had struggled since he took them to the Cup Finals in 2006, although it was just one year prior to his firing that MacT nearly got the team back into the playoffs with a decidedly mediocre roster. At the time, the firing was widely praised, with MacTavish reportedly not “getting through to the players” any longer, as often happens with coaches in charge for a long time (he spent 8 years at the the helm), and making very odd decisions on the ice – Toby Petersen on the powerplay anyone?! The “MacBlender” became quite notorious as MacTavish’s line combinations became increasingly bizarre.
Tambellini, along with previous GM Kevin Lowe – now promoted to President of Hockey Ops – continued with what is now known as the “whale hunting” portion of this era. Their relentless pursuit of Dany Heatley, trying to persuade him to alter his decision, after said player nullified a trade that would have seen Dustin Penner, Ladislav Smid and Andrew Cogliano go to Ottawa was a low point for the organisation, coming across as desperate and lacking dignity. They failed, but despite the teams lowly league positioning each year since, most regard that as a good thing. Heatley would not have improved this team’s fortunes.
Tambellini signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a 4 year contract that summer, widely regarded as one of the primary causes of the collapse of the team. Khabibulin wasn’t a bad goalie at that point in his career, but once he became an Oiler he suffered numerous injuries – forcing the likes of Jeff Deslauriers to fill the net – and when he has been healthy he’s been awful on the whole. Tambellini also unbelievably traded up and coming 3rd line center Kyle Brodziak to the Minnesota Wild with a draft pick for another draft pick. Brodziak has become a quality 3rd liner in Minny, whilst I can’t even remember who that draft pick became.
Excitement exploded later in the summer of 2009 when Tambellini hired MacTavish’s replacements. The legendary Pat Quinn, regarded as one of the finest coaches who hadn’t won a Cup, and Tom Renney, a widely respected coach who had a moderately successful tenure with the Rangers, were brought in as a “super-duo” who would use their considerable expertise and experience to guide this lost team out of the mists of oblivion. The opposite happened. Quinn proved himself to be too old for the way the game was played by that point, and didn’t really gel with the younger players. He displayed plenty of passion, but made far too many strange choices with his lineup. Placing JF Jacques on the top line and trying to stop Lubomir Visnovsky from playing his slick style of game were the two worst culprits, but there’s plenty more to choose from. The once proud Oilers organisation plummeted to the bottom of the NHL standings.
It was after this season that change really began under Tambellini. Quinn was fired and Renney moved into the head chair, with Ralph Krueger being brought in from Europe as an Associate Coach. Team owner Daryl Katz reportedly was the first in the organisation to use the term “rebuild”, and the team used their 1st overall pick to select junior phenom Taylor Hall. With 2009 10th overall pick Magnus Paajarvi and 2008 22nd overall pick Jordan Eberle waiting in the wings, the youth movement was in full swing, and the team shamelessly promoted them as part of a new beginning.
This was also the season that saw veteran defenceman and respected team leader Sheldon Souray – the team’s prized free agent signing back in 2007 – being banished from the organisation for all eternity after he blasted the management in the media. I can’t blame Tambellini for wanting to remove an openly disgruntled star from a young and impressionable team, but all told he would have done better to play Souray for 20 games and trade him for whatever he could get. Instead he was loaned to Hershey of the AHL for the year.
The team struggled yet again, falling to the bottom of the league yet again. However, there was one success story from this season, and that was the overhauling of the team’s minor league system. Whilst the team had a long-held affiliation with the minor-minor-league ECHL team Stockton Thunder, they had shut down their AHL franchise in 2005 due to monetary reasons. This resulted in the AHL only having 29 franchises, and Edmonton had to share affiliations with various other NHL teams over the years. They then secured the sole affiliation of the Springfield Falcons, but this was a disaster with the team failing to sign any significant AHL veterans, an absolute requirement for a successful minor league squad. The team was awful.
This had meant that Oiler prospects in the AHL rarely received the same due care and attention that other prospects did, and the Oilers failed to graduate many decent players to the NHL over this period. However, in 2010 Edmonton revived their dormant AHL team, located it in Oklahoma City, called it the Barons, hired Todd Nelson as coach, signed several decent minor league veterans, and instantly saw success. A successful minor league team doesn’t automatically mean success at the big league level, but it certainly isn’t a bad thing to have in the organisation.
The team selected centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the 2011 NHL draft – their number 1 center of the future. Whilst most could see the team wasn’t very good, it was at least possible to see a group of elite talent coming together at the forward positions. Hall had a very good rookie season, as did Eberle and Paajarvi. Linus Omark was also a strong performer in limited time.
A hero in Edmonton also came home that Summer, when Ryan Smyth requested a trade from LA back to his hometown Oilers, having been traded away in a disastrous trade in 2007. Many say this isn’t a plus for Tambellini, as it was Smyth that instigated the trade, but Tambellini didn’t have to acquiesce to his request; he also gave up essentially nothing for Smyth in Colin Fraser – a 4th line center who struggled in Edmonton – and a 7th round pick.
The defining moment of Tambellini’s Oiler career likely came on July 1st 2011. He had stated to the media that he didn’t expect the team to particularly active in the first days of free agency, something that frustrated Oiler fans given the sorry state of the team. However, news came in the first hour or two of free agency opening that the Oilers had bought out Sheldon Souray, signed Cam Barker, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Lennart Petrell, Eric Belanger and Corey Potter, and traded Kurtis Foster to Anaheim for Andy Sutton.
- Barker was an OK bet to make, if slightly expensive, given he’d had relative success in Chicago. I don’t blame the team for signing him as much as some do, but it did turn out to be a bad bet, with Barker proving himself to be one of the worst defenders in the entire league once and for all.
- Ben Eager was the “functional toughness” signing, and I don’t remember many being disappointed in the signing. He was never going to be a Lucic, but I think many hoped for more out of Eager, who is currently in the AHL – and even being a healthy scratch down there. Concussion issues didn’t help.
- Darcy Hordichuk was the “non-functional toughness”, i.e. the guy who would punch people’s faces in if they so much as looked at the young stars funny. Problem was, Hordichuk couldn’t be trusted to take a regular shift, making him not so much deterrent as bench warmer. Like Eager, currently in the AHL.
- Lennart Petrell is a Finnish forward, who came highly recommended from former Oiler Jari Kurri as the best penalty killer in the whole of Europe. Petrell has shown great ability in that area of the game, but is unfortunately pretty awful at every other aspect of the game at the NHL level.
- Eric Belanger was the long awaited 3rd line center the Oilers had been crying for since Kyle Brodziak was inexplicably traded to Minnesota in 2009. This signing was lauded at the time, as the Oilers had no depth at center whatsoever, and Belanger was a reliable defensive presence, with great faceoff ability and the offensive chops to chip in 30-40 points per season. Belanger has been pretty awful since becoming an Oiler, being a non-factor offensively (“The Belanger Triangle”, as he has become known), and inconsistent defensively. A good bet to make, a very good one in fact, and I’m not sure Tambellini’s at fault for this one not working out. Likely a buy-out casualty this summer.
- Corey Potter was a career minor leaguer that coach Renney knew from his days in the Ranger organisation. Potter showed well in training camp and made the team, performing well until around Christmas 2011 when he fell off the map. Is still with the team as a top 6 defender, but really shouldn’t be.
- Andy Sutton was a mini-revelation in Edmonton. The massive defenceman provided solid defence, a great veteran presence, an extreme physical presence and surprising offensive skills. He re-signed with the Oilers for another season, but an off-season injury has sadly forced him to retire from professional hockey, at least that’s what is expected.
So, Tambellini’s great summer signing list was largely praised at the time, although there were still holes to fill it was a massive step in the right direction, but basically every single one of those signings failed to achieve the desired effect. I’m not sure all of that can be laid at his feet, but it certainly doesn’t look good. He also traded Andrew Cogliano to Anaheim for a 2013 2nd round pick, which was an OK move to make – Cogliano had stalled in Edmonton, despite being a good soldier and well-liked, and a 2nd rounder in a deep draft is a nice chip to have.
The team did improve slightly that season, improving to 29th in the league (!), with Jordan Eberle having a breakout year, Taylor Hall improving, RNH showing why he was the 1st overall pick, Devan Dubnyk emerging as a possible starting goalie. The team re-signed Ales Hemsky at the 11th hour before the trade deadline, when everyone thought he was a goner, to a $5m per year deal. Whilst many thought this was an overpay, given Hemsky’s history (0.92 points per game between 2005 and 2010), it was actually a very reasonable deal, and for only 2 years.
The Oilers had the incredible fortune to win the draft lottery, giving them the 1st overall pick for the 3rd year running. The Oilers had to make the choice between solid two-way defender Ryan Murray, or acknowledged most talented player in the draft sniper Nail Yakupov. They selected the Russian, although reports state most of management wanted Murray but their decision was overruled at some level. Most see this as the right choice, and Yakupov is currently a work in progress at the NHL level, who has shown flashes of absolute brilliance.
The team also won the Justin Schultz sweepstakes – an incredible stroke of luck but the management team must be credited with persuading Schultz to come aboard. Tambellini didn’t appear to have much to do with the actual pitch to Schultz, but must have been involved at some level with making it happen. Schultz absolutely tore up the AHL during the lockout, winning a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team despite only playing 34 games (he scored 48 points), and has played moderately well in the NHL. He is a huge cornerstone piece of the franchise moving forward.
The Oilers have had an up and down season. Periods of success usually followed by periods of failure, they found themselves pushing for a playoff spot by the time the trade deadline arrived. Tambellini had already traded a 4th round pick earlier in the season to Toronto for 4th liner Mike Brown, who isn’t the worst NHLer, but he isn’t very good – a slight upgrade on Hordichuk I suppose – and a 3rd rounder for tough defenceman Mark Fistric, who is basically the defence version of Brown. It added depth, but unfortunately depth doesn’t mean much if those replacing the regulars can’t be trusted on the ice. The Oilers made very few moves of significance around the deadline: one prospect deal (Rieder for Kessy), one AHL deal (Byers for Stafford), and one NHL deal (4th rounder for Smithson).
The deal for Smithson was galling for Oil fans, however. Earlier in the season, the team had found themselves with all of Shawn Horcoff, Eric Belanger and Anton Lander on the injury list. This left Nugent-Hopkins and, well, no-one else at center. Chris Vandevelde from the AHL is barely replacement level and couldn’t get the job done, and Ryan Smyth had been forced to play center as a result for much of the season. The loss of Horcoff was particularly damaging, and many fans who despised him for the money he makes finally realised what he does for the team – heavy lifting. That was a prime time for Tambellini to make a deal for a center, yet he did nothing. He watched as other capable centers – Jussi Jokinen being the most notable – be placed on waivers or get traded for almost nothing, yet he waited until the season was nearly over to acquire a poor-man’s Eric Belanger – and when I say poor, I mean poverty-stricken – who has done nothing to help the Oilers since his acquisition.
The excuse for lack of movement was that given the Oilers placement in the standings – they were extremely close to the 8th spot in the West – they should keep their team together to make a push for the playoffs. The team was in the midst of a 5 game winning streak at the time, thus masking many of the problems the team had, namely any depth whatsoever. All of Mark Fistric, Ryan Jones, Nikolai Khabibulin and Ryan Whitney could have been traded for something, but some or all will likely leave at season’s end due to their UFA status.
Fistric had value as a defenceman – they always fetch something at the deadline for teams wanting depth for a playoff run. He hasn’t played much this season so wasn’t really helping the Oilers a great deal.
Jones had value, despite his rough season this year, as a bottom 6 role player who could score. Despite being a fan favourite, Jones is a pretty bad NHL player – he scores some goals but other than that accomplishes next to nothing, and wouldn’t have been a factor in a playoff push.
Khabibulin had a lot of value, being a Cup-winning veteran goalie who’s had a good year in limited time. He has been an awful goalie for most of his time in Edmonton, and given Dubnyk’s emergence at the starting position trading him wouldn’t have effected the team much.
Whitney had value again as a defenceman, with the added bonus of some puck-moving ability. However, injuries have left him a shell of his former self. He can still run a powerplay at a high level, but his skating ability is all but gone since his ankle operations meaning he simply can’t play defence any more, at all. He was, and is, a detriment to the Oilers and wouldn’t have helped – a damn shame, as just 2 years ago he looked like the guy that would lead the Oilers blueline to glory.
The team looks like they are well on their way to another top 10 draft pick. Fans are fed up of it, I’m sure the players are fed up of it, and management clearly got fed up with it too.
Enter Craig MacTavish.
IN WITH THE NEW
Craig MacTavish is a polarizing figure in Edmonton. He was a quality 3rd line center for the team in the 2nd half of their glory years, and served as captain for a short time. He was made Head Coach of the team in 2000, and took the team to 3 playoff appearances between then and 2006, despite having a limited budget for player acquisition and overall a very mediocre roster to work with.
2006 was one of the highlights of any Oiler fans’ fandom. The team gets portrayed by some as one of the worst to make a Cup final, but they were actually a very, very talented team. Led by a mix of young and veteran forwards -Hemsky, Horcoff, Smyth, Samsonov, Peca, Torres, Stoll, Pisani, Moreau, Dvorak – and a quality defence corps – Pronger, Smith, Staios, Bergeron, Greene, Tarnstrom, Spacek – and of course out of this world goaltending by Dwayne Roloson, the team came together late and rolled through every team on their way to the final. MacTavish deserves a ton of credit for that run, with the tactics used frustrating the opposition no end.
The following years – 2006 to 2009 – were difficult, with the team failing to reach the playoffs in any of them, although MacT got them close in 2008. The rosters those years were pretty terrible, with Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner pretty much the lone offensive threats with any kind of consistency, and a revolving door of bad defenceman. Many believed at the time that it was down to MacTavish not making the right roster decisions, but once he left by mutual agreement in 2009, that was when the team came crashing down. It became clear to many that MacTavish was actually getting everything he could out of those final three seasons, and without him the team simply couldn’t even compete any longer.
After he left, he spent some time on the TSN panel, earned an MBA in Business from Queens University, overcame a bout with cancer, and to many looked ready to move into a management role. He was in contention for a couple of NHL head coaching jobs, but ultimately ended up coaching the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate in Chicago in 2011/12.
In the Summer of 2012, the Oilers announced that they had re-hired MacTavish as Senior Vice President of Hockey Ops, meaning he’d be inv0lved in scouting, development, and day-to-day decisions on the team. Widely regarded as one of the smartest men in hockey, MacTavish was hoped by many Oiler bloggers to be the voice of reason in a room that had gotten so many things wrong. It was also clear that he was being groomed for a potential chance at the GM’s chair.
That chance came yesterday, with the announcement of Tambellini’s firing. The press conference was very interesting, with MacTavish coming across as his usual charming self. He exudes self-confidence, but at the same time manages to be self-deprecating and acknowledges that it doesn’t matter one iota what he says, its what he does that matters.
It’s night and day between him and Tambellini. Tambo was clearly not a confident public speaker, stumbling over sentences and indeed not really making sense a lot of the time. That’s certainly not a solid indication of what he was like behind closed doors, but it didn’t give the best impression to the public of the man in charge of a multi-million dollar organisation. He also became comically renowned for using words like “poise” and “analysing” and “evaluating” over and over again. The process of evaluation seemed to be ongoing in the Tambellini era, with the team seemingly not making any noteworthy moves at key times of the year with the exception of that one July 1st; for that, he acquired the not too flattering nickname “Timid Tamby”. Above all, as MacTavish said, it’s what you do that counts, not what you say – Tambellini didn’t say a lot (secrecy was one of his trademarks) but did even less, and when he did do something, more often than not it failed to turn out in the Oilers’ favour.
MacTavish gives the impression of extreme confidence in his own abilities whilst not being arrogant, and stated himself that he is an impatient man who wants to get things done. In his time as coach, he was certainly not afraid to try new things and take risks, and that’s what this team needs going forward – someone who will make some bold moves, but not at the expense of the core of the team. He has a great hockey mind, and has a knack for finding useful players and using them in the right situations. In that sense, he could be the perfect manager to fill the numerous holes in Edmonton’s supporting cast of players, which is what is currently holding the team back. Not to mention he’s wonderful in front of the camera, making quips and enjoying banter with the reporters, whilst not afraid to challenge anyone he disagrees with.
As he said himself, he will be defined by what he does for this team. His hiring is in no way a guarantee of success; he is a rookie GM who may make mistakes, but I for one am excited about having him lead the way once again for the Oilers.
The Silver Fox is back, baby.