• Day 2077: No Change

    by  • April 3, 2013 • Hockey • 26 Comments

    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 tyler@mc79hockey.com


    26 Responses to Day 2077: No Change

    1. Rick
      April 3, 2013 at

      Tambo always has the answer, he is only looking for the question.

    2. Eric
      April 3, 2013 at

      I like Jefffs comment at OilersNation.

      While suturing a cut on the hand of a 75 year old Texas rancher, whose hand was caught in a gate while working cattle, the doctor struck up a conversation with the old man.

      Eventually the topic got around to politics and then they discussed some new guy who was far too big for his shoes as a politician.

      The old rancher said, ‘Well, ya know, he is a post turtle’. Not being familiar with the term, the doctor asked him what a ‘post turtle’ was.

      The old rancher said, ‘When you’re driving down a country road and you come across a fence post with a turtle balanced on top, that’s a ‘post turtle’.

      The old rancher saw a puzzled look on the doctor’s face, so he continued to explain. ‘You know he didn’t get up there by himself, he doesn’t belong up there, he doesn’t know what to do while he is up there, and you just wonder what kind of a dumb ass put him up there in the first place.

      STEVE TAMBELLINI is a post turtle.

    3. Hambone
      April 4, 2013 at

      Ok, I get that we all feel a little embarrassed for Tambo whenever he opens his mouth. But I was confused by the dichotomy between leveraging assets (ie players) for the highest return and winning the Stanley Cup. Are the two mutually exclusive? The Oilers management’s biggest weakness is its inability to acquire NHL-level talent through trade, waivers, and signings. To me, this is very closely related to the ability to obtain the highest return for assets.

    4. Pingback: Spectors Hockey | NHL Blog Beat (Post-Trade Deadline Edition) – April 4, 2013.

    5. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Ok Tyler, I’ll bite. How exactly does trading Khabibulin, Whitney or Jones for lottery tickets yesterday get the Oilers’ appreciably closer to winning the Stanley Cup? Oh boy, 3 more 4th round picks, we’re really building toward something now! Oh right, the more lottery tickets you have, the more chance that one of them will turn out. Absolutely that’s worth sacrificing another season for. Not hard to tell you’re not a season ticket holder.

      You know what gets teams closer to winning the Stanley Cup? Making the playoffs. In not trading current contributors for more lottery tickets, Tambellini has rightly concluded that a shot at making this year’s playoffs (currently a 42.1% chance and not the huge longshot you portray) and potentially winning the Cup (keeping in mind that the 8th seed in the West did win the Cup last year) is a much preferable option to peddling depth players for middling returns while tanking yet another season.

      Honestly, after reading the sarcastic ‘sales job’ to the team after trading 3 teammates in this post, it just reinforces the real world experiences I’ve had that the worst managers I’ve encountered are the ones with an overwhelming belief in their analytic acumen combined with zero people skills. It’s the same kind of approach to ‘team building’ you endorsed with the Eberle contract negotiations (i.e. let’s absolutely hardball Eberle in negotiations after giving Hall $6mil per despite the fact that Eberle’s career production to that point exceeded Halls’). It’s the kind of management practices that sound good in theory, look good on paper, and absolutely stink in the real world. In short, you don’t create a winning culture by treating people like disposal numbers.

      Btw, what happens when this team does win the Cup under Tambellini’s stewardship? Does the narrative change to the GM’s incompetence over not keeping the club together for an extended run? I hope you’re ready to start moving the goalposts when the Oilers are winning consistently.

      • Doogie2K
        April 4, 2013 at

        Your definition of “contributor” is certainly an interesting one.

    6. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Btw, the score in case you missed is still Edmonton Oilers 5 Stanley Cups. San Jose Sharks 0.

      • Doogie2K
        April 4, 2013 at

        Congratulations! You win the Most Idiotic Comparison of Two Unrelated Factoids award!

        Take your prize and feel shame, you dipshit.

    7. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Tyler’s concluding assertion is that the San Jose Sharks understand better as an org what needs to be done to move a team closer to winning the Stanley Cup than do the Edmonton Oilers. Historic results (i.e. facts) say otherwise.

      • Jason
        April 4, 2013 at

        Lee has jumped the shark.

        • Cristina
          May 31, 2013 at

          Sep29 I agree he’s not answering the qusotien, but I think it’s more likely that it implies he does not want to answer the qusotien rather than that he doesn’t understand it. If he does leave a player off the big club, he would want that player (along with all other present prospects, future prospects, and the PA) to think it’s because the player is not quite there yet, rather than because he’s trying to keep the guy’s salary down. Otherwise, it could create bad blood and hurt the team in the longer term.

      • marconiusE
        April 4, 2013 at

        I agree with your point above stating that personnel decisions can’t be made strictly with spreadsheet information, but the only way your SJ vs EDM cup results argument would mean anything is if it was still the same ownership/management team. You can’t be that deliberately obtuse, can you?

      • Doogie2K
        April 5, 2013 at

        Events that happened 30 years ago are highly relevant to decisions made today.

        Because the people in charge and the general conditions of the League are, of course, identical.

    8. FastOil
      April 4, 2013 at


      Hannan/J Schultz
      Drewiske/ N Schultz

      At basically no cost. I think Hall would be thrilled to have 4 lines of hockey players and 3 decent pairings. Especially if they make the playoffs. I also think he’d like the statement management would be making in doing this. There is size and grit even for the braintrust to have comfort in.

      There can only be two reasons for leaving the team as is. 1 – They made a marginal move to appease the average fan and give the appearance of doing something, when really they are mostly interested in where they draft. 2 – Unfortunately for us, incompetence.

    9. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Doug Wilson has never won a Stanley Cup. Steve Tambellini, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish have all played on Stanley Cup winning teams – the latter two obviously winning multiple Cups with these same Oilers.

      I know it’s not fashionable in certain areas of the oilogosphere (that’s still a thing right?), but I do think it is a fairly consistent element of the human experience that doing something once or multiple times, gives you a better understanding of how to do it than never having done it all.

      A quote from the 40 year old virgin might help to illustrate this hypothesis.

      ” You know, when you, like, you grab a woman’s breast and it’s … and you feel it and … it feels like a bag of sand when you’re touching it.”

      • Hambone
        April 4, 2013 at


        You’re a good fan, and I appreciate the 40 year old virgin quote. I remember that movie well.

        I think what we’re seeing with the Oilers management is that there is a clear separation between the skills necessary to succeed as a player, versus succeeding as an executive charged with making decisions on hockey-related matters. For the former, the skills necessary are fairly obvious, but for the latter, skills in labour law, negotiation, financial management, and strategy are critical.

        I’m not denying that there are lessons to be learned from being a player on a winning team, such as leadership, and performing under pressure; it’s just that expecting such an experience to overcome a gap in the executive skills mentioned above is wildly overoptimistic.

      • Doogie2K
        April 5, 2013 at

        Playing is, of course, the same as managing a team.

        God, you’re stupid.

    10. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Hambone. Fair enough. To be honest, the SJ comp is a bit of a digression. For me, the larger point is this assertion that trading players at this deadline for magic beans somehow brings you closer to the Cup than actually trying to make the playoffs. I think the team’s response last night to the relative inactivity of the deadline speaks volumes.

      • Hambone
        April 4, 2013 at

        I think what Tyler was trying to say is that sometimes you can have addition by subtraction, because the trade deadline brought an opportunity to get something for a Ryan Whitney or an Eric Belanger while they may walk away for nothing this summer. His other point was that this idea of team chemistry is a bit overrated because after we traded Niinimaa and Carter a decade ago, the team went on a bit of a tear. I think he’s suggesting that we could trade players who aren’t contributing much and it wouldn’t do much to upset the team.

    11. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Yep, I get the case he’s making. I don’t buy it.

      I think you’ll find that most Championship teams didn’t feel the chemistry of the team is an overrated factor. Further, for every Niinimaa/Carter example, I’m sure you can find numerous examples of teams that did stand pat and either made the playoffs or won their respective Championships outright.

    12. Lee
      April 4, 2013 at

      Btw, it’s important to emphasize that Tyler is not just making the point that Tambellini trading pending UFAs would not damage team chemistry. He’s claiming doing so brings them closer to winning the Stanley Cup. That is a hypothesis that is eminently debatable and I would suggest inherently flawed.

      Apparently, 3 magic beans = 1 guaranteed shot at the Cup.

      • Hambone
        April 4, 2013 at

        Yeah, I agree with you that he needs to clarify the point about Leveraging Assets for the Greatest Return does not equal Bringing Team Closer to the Stanley Cup.

      • FastOil
        April 4, 2013 at

        Do you think the team I listed is better than the real one? I am certain it is, and I don’t think would affect the team’s mood at all, might even improve chemistry because it would have moved them closer to being a balanced team with as good a shot if in the playoffs as many. And no bad players which has to be aggravating to at least some of the good players.

        A few simple and possible changes moves the team closer, regardless if Tambellini decided to keep Hemsky because he was getting low-balled and retained his value. It’s like the team is conflicted between not giving guys away and doing nothing. Retaining the value of bad players I think by definition is insupportable, they don’t have much value so does it matter?

        Tyler’s points are valid if a little hard to follow, and looking at the revised 4th line pisses me off that they didn’t do it because it easily could have for basically free. I am also miffed that Tambellini chucked the draft picks available from what 5 UFA’s in the dustbin. What a waste.

    13. jay headley
      April 5, 2013 at

      We must remember tambo is not alone. He is just the puppet. his head will roll soon enough and the oiler untouchables will find another to take his place!!

    14. April 5, 2013 at

      I’d like to say that I’m surprised that people like Lee here exist. But then again, I’m really not.


    15. analbumcover
      April 7, 2013 at

      Not that I agree with everything Lee said, but the magic bean comment was a good one imo. Mid range long shot draft picks are fine and all, but having the young core players experience meaningful playoff style games at this junction holds more value than the magic beans of a couple extra draft pix. In this case, Tambo’s unwillingness to make a move might actually be the best decision for the development of the core of the team moving forward.

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