2077 days ago, after the Oilers signed Dustin Penner to an offer sheet, I wrote this:
The Oilers might be better next year with Penner than without, but limiting the exposure to a finish in the real depths of the league has come at the cost of future possibilities to finish higher. It’s disappointing and, to me, it suggests that Lowe lacks the vision and willingness to do something that’s really difficult – telling the city that the moves aren’t there and that this team is going to suck for a while – to be the right guy to fill this job at the moment.
Well, that held up over time. I’m going to come back to this.
Today, the 2013 trade deadline came and went and the Oilers’ only move was the acquisition of Jerred Smithson from Florida for a fourth round draft pick, a move that is broken down by Ben Massey in his usual cheerful fashion over at Coppernblue. Ben is, as he generally is, correct.
Steve Tambellini’s post-deadline press conference was, as it usually is, an exercise in the bizarre.
Jerrod Smithson is…a very strong faceoff person. I think he was over 70% in his playoff series the last time he was in the playoffs…
I think this was a move of, one, veteran experience and, two, versatile centreman where we need help is in faceoffs. There’s gonna be critical situations down the stretch here where it’s gonna be so important, whether it’s a penalty kill or a power play, whatever it is, but the more you can retain the puck for our hockey club, the better.
Part of me feels silly about kicking Tambellini repeatedly because he basically doesn’t exist. I mean, yes, he exists but is he the general manager of the OIlers, as we understand the term “general manager”? Or is he like an avatar of Oiler management which we can direct our irritation with the club during this long frustrating process but not actually a real general manager?
It’s impossible to know but criticizing him always feels a bit odd, in that I don’t know whether he has anything to do with anything. I suspect he has some say because some things have been different during his tenure – the Oilers didn’t used to ice pure face punchers, used to have fourth lines that could play and didn’t use to mine the Vancouver Canucks pipeline for coaching talent – but I’m not really sure he’s the guy who makes the decisions.
Of course, I can’t let his comments that indicate some attention being paid to data in the Oilers’ front office pass without noting how useless the data that he’s referring to is. The Oilers have a crew of stat people who look into these sorts of things. I have never seen anyone look into faceoffs and not come away concluding that is an exceedingly marginal difference. Cam Charron did some fine work here. There’s a paper here (PDF) produced by actual math experts that comes to the same conclusion. I was writing about this stuff three or four years ago and coming to the same conclusion. This isn’t cutting edge stuff and yet the Oilers either aren’t aware of it or are just ignoring it. It’s kind of amazing.
Add to that the reference to Smithson’s faceoff winning percentage in the playoffs last year and it just makes you want to slam your face on a table. Smithson went 28-10 on draws (curiously, he went 13-3 against Adam Henrique) in Florida’s brief playoff appearance. This is information that I wouldn’t have even thought to look at. The mere reference to it is a terrifying hint of what goes on within the Oilers’ inner sanctum: somebody is looking at playoff faceoff stats and thinking “I’d like some of that.”
One more fun bit about Smithson: his wife is having a kid. As relayed by Tambo:
I think you’ve got a bigger priority today…he was obviously really excited about the birth of his first child, which will be today or tomorrow I believe.
Tambo mentioned that Smithson will likely catch up with the Oilers in California, two games from now. If you’re scoring at home, that means that the player on whom the Oilers just spent a fourth round pick, who specializes in a skill of marginal utility, will be available for 85% of the remaining 13 games.
Tambo went on to talk about why there wasn’t a sort of general blowout of the pending UFAs: Ryan Jones, Ryan Whitney, Lennart Petrell, Mark Fistric and Nikolai Khabibulin are all unrestricted free agents at the end of the year and it seems likely that at least some of them will not return.
Q. Some of your players have told reporters that they were hoping that there wouldn’t be too many changes or much change at all. Had that been communicated to your or have you talked to any players about what that might mean for team chemistry?
A. Yeah, no I’m well aware of what their mindset was and that’s where you’re hoping that you can move people to that mindset where they have respect for the group, they believe in the group, they’re sacrificing for the group to win…The last thing I want to do is take away something where they thought maybe they didn’t have as good a chance to win as they did the day before.
Q: If you would have traded somebody or taken somebody out of that mix, it would have kind of sending the message that, well, we’re not…”
Tambo: Absolutely. And that was an important message in itself, was the fact that yes there were a lot of different scenarios where I could have moved people for mid-round picks, maybe a little higher in a couple other circumstances but that wasn’t my goal of coming into this trade deadline. It was to find somehow to not take away from the depth of our dressing room or the people that we’ve asked to compete (ed. drink) so hard to get to this spot was to show them that we trust this group that they have a wonderful opportunity to get in the playoffs here.
He also commented specifically on Ryan Whitney:
One, the fact that he’s playing well, two, his ability to move the puck is something that we desperately need. We have skill forwards that demand the puck at the right time to take advantage of transition that they can deliver. I didn’t see anyone in the day today where I thought I could replace that type puck moving D…He’s part of this group, he’s worked hard, he’s part of our second PP or first PP whichever way you want to describe it. That would really be a takeaway that I think would affect our hockey club. I’m happy that I have to make the decision to keep Ryan here because we’ve got a lot of depth at a defensive position where he can deliver offence.
Remember at the start, when I referenced my complaint from almost six years ago? About how the Penner acquisition suggested that “…Lowe lacks the vision and willingness to do something that’s really difficult – telling the city that the moves aren’t there and that this team is going to suck for a while”? This is a variant of the exact same problem.
Look, the Oilers probably aren’t going to make the playoffs. As things stand, they’ve got a 30% chance or so of doing so. That being said, they are in the race and it has been seven years since they made it so going for it is, in a sense, good. What they need right now though is a GM who can get rid of some combination of the backup goalie, the third pairing defenceman, the seventh defenceman and the third line winger and then walk into the dressing room and say something along the lines of:
These guys added very little to our hockey club. Devan’s going to play every game from here to the end of the year anyway so it doesn’t really matter who our backup is. Ryan Jones is not a very good hockey player and has never been a very good hockey player and is exactly the kind of guy that you throw over the side of the boat when your team gets better. Ryan Whitney is a very famous hockey player who we keep shifting down the lineup because he doesn’t have the ability to play defence against anybody who is good in the NHL. The data says that he makes people worse.
The guy who’s really in charge here has done this before. In 2002-03, he traded Anson Carter, who was on the first line, and Ales Pisa to the Rangers for Radek Dvorak and Cory Cross. On the same day, he traded Janne Niinimaa, who was a top pairing defenceman in Edmonton, was traded for Raffi Torres and Brad Isbister. Ask Ales, Shawn and Ryan what the mood was in the dressing room when we made those trades.
Cory Cross was later used, along with a failed prospect, to get Dick Tarnstrom. Isbister, along with some other spare parts, was turned into Sergei Samsonov. Dvorak, Torres, Tarnstrom and Samsonov all played in a Stanley Cup final three years later.
Oh – and we went 7-2-3-1 (again, ask one of the old guys) the rest of the way and would have gotten through the first round if our goaltending wasn’t terrible. Why were we able to go 7-2-3-1? It turns out that neither of those guys were all that important to our team. Just like Ryan Whitney, Nikolai Khabibulin, Ryan Jones and/or Mark Fistric.
In other words, I don’t think that this was something that couldn’t be sold to the team. This would have been helped by the fact that a) the bit about the value to the Oilers of those four guys is probably negative and b) even if they don’t entirely trust Tambo, an actual honest to God competent GM just did the same thing. I don’t think Tambo gets it though. I found this quote a bit telling:
It’s a total different mindset then trying to leverage your asset to get the greatest return. I’m more excited for our players. You play hockey to win. The fact that they have a good chance of winning every night, that’s when it’s enjoyable going to work and seeing that they’re excited to play.
If you’re the general manager of a hockey team, your job every day is to get your team closer to winning the Stanley Cup. It’s not about leveraging a player in a trade for the highest return – it’s about getting closer to winning the Stanley Cup. Your job never changes. Tambellini’s job was never about leveraging assets to get the greatest return – it was about getting closer to winning the Cup and that was the way to do it.
Tambellini’s mindset should never have changed. It should be the exact same: how do I get the Oilers closer to winning a Stanley Cup today? In not trading some or all of Whitney, Khabibulin, Fistric and Jones, he blew it. It’s not a huge loss but the picks that they would have returned for their marginal contributions might have been useful in getting something else down the road. Those expected value of those picks brings the Edmonton Oilers closer to the Stanley Cup than the expected contributions from those five players down the stretch.
The San Jose Sharks obviously get this. Why is it too much to expect that the Oilers will get it as well?Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org