One of the particularly insulting points made by the Edmonton media in defence of the preposterous idea that Steve Tambellini deserves more time to finish his rebuild of the Oilers is that those fans who think it’s time for him to go are somehow being driven by where the Oilers are in the standings.
Personally, in considering this question, I don’t put too much weight on where they are in the standings right now, except insofar as it suggests that the people running the show have no idea about timelines or what they ought to reasonably expect from the people that they put on the ice. My approach to evaluating the GM is a bit more abstract – I try to draw inferences about the quality of his processes from the information’s that available to us. A guy with good processes can get bad results but if your processes are bad, you’re basically just completely hoping for lightning to strike. It’s part of the reason I have so much trouble taking seriously someone who claims that Tambellini was busy clearing out deadwood in 2009-10, when Tambellini first commited the managerial equivalent of cutting down a tree in such a way that it landed on his house in signing Nikolai Khabibulin and hiring Pat Quinn. You don’t get credit for cleaning up your own deadwood, particularly when you don’t actually clean up half of it, but just leave it there, as a fire hazard.
I mentioned at the time of the Khabibulin deal that I wasn’t impressed with Tambellini’s work because the market for goalies was so soft. Even if he stupidly was convinced that Khabibulin was the guy, there was unlikely to be a need to give him so much term and money – there were goalies who were literally begging for jobs. Dwayne Roloson has said he would have come back for two years and $2.5MM per. There were lots of coinflip options that required less commitment.
I happened to be in Chapters last week and was flipping through Georges Laraque’s book. Georges mentioned that the Oilers were offering him the same money as the Habs when he signed his three year deal with them but were offering a fourth year. The New York Times series on Boogaard’s death mentioned something that had been previously reported in the New York Post – the Oilers had offered Derek Boogaard four years and $1.5MM per.
There’s a pattern here: a taste for contracts that run on too long for guys who aren’t key pieces. Which brings us to Eric Belanger. I mentioned in my post on him a little while back that Belanger getting three years struck me as sort of unusual for a 34 year old, given their spectacular attrition rate from NHL hockey. Tambo, of course, floated into the Oilers’ war room in a daze, obviously thrilled at the endorsement given to his work by a guy who wanted a guarantee of another year of work at the age of 36 for an amount that’s more than most Canadians earn in their lifetime.
I finally got around to going through the list of the 35 forwards in the NHL this year who are 34 or older and on contracts that were at least three years long and guaranteed them a season at 36. The list is as follows: Belanger (3 years, $1.75MM), Briere (3 years, $6.5MM), Matt Cullen (3 years, $3.5MM), Patrik Elias (2 years left, $6MM), Jody Shelley (three years, $1.1MM), Martin St. Louis (four years, $5.625MM) and Daniel Alfredsson (4 years, $4.875MM). There are other guys who’ve had contracts that would meet the criteria, but not currently – Jason Arnott, Brian Rolston, Tomas Holmstrom, Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr and Jay Pandolfo all fall into that category.
Eric Belanger has none of the cachet of any of those guys, save Shelley, as a hockey player. He was never a star free agent or a face of the franchise. He’s not a guy who makes your team dramatically better. The Oilers aren’t giving him extra years to get the cap hit down. Generally speaking, general managers don’t give three year deals to non-star/franchise face type guys who are 34. Belanger (who probably deserved an agent who could get him a good break) got a third year that players of his calibre don’t seem to get.
This matters because it goes to the leverage that Tambellini had when dealing with Pat Brisson. If I was running the Oilers UFA operation, the team would know, well in advance of July 1, who was available, what holes other teams were looking to fill, how those teams tended to allocate their money and whether they’d shown an inclination to go long on term for certain types of players. It’s not rocket science – there are thirty teams, they tend to have GMs for a fair bit of time and you can get a sense of the tendencies of those managers. It’s not like the Oilers front office is particularly busy after the trade deadline anyway – they’ve got time to work through this stuff to give themselves an edge in negotiating deals.
The knowledge matters because it lets you say to an agent “I don’t see a lot of better options out there for your guy. X jobs are available with Y guys and none of those teams give third years to guys who are 34. If I’m wrong, tell me.” Knowledge and understanding the strengths/weaknesses of the other guy’s position is power in a negotiation. For example, the fact that Eric Belangers don’t get third years when they’re 34 is INFORMATION THAT YOU CAN USE TO GET BETTER DEALS. This thinking just seems foreign in Edmonton.
Truthfully, the Belanger contract doesn’t matter that much. The success or failure of the rebuild won’t turn on it. What’s troubling is what it says about the underlying abilities of the Oilers’ front office, their processes. It’s another piece of evidence that they stink when it comes to negotiating and that they routinely get slapped around by agents who just seem to be better at this than they are. At some point, the rebuilding moves from “suck and get good players in the draft” to signing free agents and re-signing people who you’ve developed. If you’re a lousy negotiator with bad processes, the sort of guy who believes an elderly man when he tells you that he wants a third year because he’s excited about being part of what you’ve built, it’s that much harder and less likely that you’ll be able to accomplish it.
I’m reasonably confident that Tambellini is coming back – I think Terry Jones had a Kevin Lowe level source – and I think it’s a really bad thing for the long term success of Rebuild II. It has damned little to do with the standings though and everything to do with what we can infer about Tambellini’s skill set. Whether you like his hockey work or not (30th, 30th, 28th), I’m not sure how you can defend him as a negotiator of contract. The losing will, hopefully pass, but he’s not a guy I want to have any power to make decisions in the future.
Oh well. I’m sure we’ll get someone new for Rebuild III.