We’re going to need to get a few more of these season ending press conferences under our belt to be sure but, based on the last two, the Oilers should be selling tickets to them. Just like last year, Tambo shed his usual dead fish demeanour and became an angry militant, here to tell the world that the last six months of hockey have been unacceptable and, by god, there are going to be some changes. He got the secret word out of the way early (five seconds into the press conference) and then proceeded to lay waste to many different aspects of the organization. While the performance tends to have more of an impact on the viewer the first time you see it, it’s still something to behold.
One aspect of his performance that troubled me was all of the nonsense about the clarity that comes with a thirtieth place finish. It aggravates because what we saw was just one potential outcome out of all the potential outcomes that this team had when they took to the ice on October 3 against Calgary.
If you think of a spectrum of possible finishes, with decreasing probabilities as we get further from the mean, this probability was probably an outlier. I made this point in a different context after the great finish to the 2007-08 season but the Oilers could probably be a worse team next year and finish with more points. Tambellini has more information now than he had when the season began but that doesn’t necessarily provide greater clarity; it only provides greater clarity if the correct inferences are drawn from that information.
This organization doesn’t have a very good track record of drawing the correct inferences from additional information. If the inference that they draw from this season is that they really are the 30th place team in the NHL and that it’s not particularly close…well, I think that they’re wrong.
The goaltending this year put up an .898 save percentage, with the backup and the third string guy playing about 78% of the minutes. If you assume that it’s reasonable to expect that Khabby plays 60% of the time next year and the backup 40% of the time and that they post a .910 and a .900 save percentage respectively, you come to a team save percentage of .906, which would slice 23 goals off of the goals against. There’s four more wins.
Add Hemsky back to the team. He’s going to worth a few wins in the standings as well. It’s impossible, at present, to say how many wins he’s worth but I think that four wins is a pretty conservative estimate. He missed 75% of the season, so call it another six points that you can reasonably expect to have back.
There’s 14 points right there, which pulls the Oilers to the middle of the pack of the lottery teams. Then you can start considering some of the guys who were playing hurt or who just had terrible years. What’s a reasonable expectation for this Oilers team if they have better health next year? 80 points? It wouldn’t surprise me. I took a quick look at the teams that have finished last since 1995-96 – on average, they were 19 points better the following year. That’s probably not all actual improvement – when you finish in last place, you’ve probably had negative contingencies occur at a rate exceeding the probability of their occurrence.
I think that Oilers management has an intuitive understanding of the fact that a team’s finish in the standings is not necessarily indicative of the quality of the team. Management’s problem is that they seem incapable of understanding that their decisions could have created a team that is, on true talent, an 80 point team or therabouts. When they got close in 2007-08 with a late run, they got fooled by the shootout wins and percentages in their favour and thought they were legitimately on the brink of a playoff team and, with so many guys being young, that a step forward to playoff contention the following season was inevitable.
When 2008-09 was a disappointment, with the team sagging to 85 points from 88 the previous year, they concluded that the coach must have fouled things up and replaced him with someone new. Now that the new coach has produced dramatically worse results than the old coach, and since we know that he wasn’t a bad hire because management hired him, there’s a problem with the culture. There doesn’t seem to be any thought given to the possibility that it might just suck when you suffer through a lousy season and that it might make everyone miserable.
Tambellini said he has no idea as to the time frame required to fix things, which is a clever thing to say, but suggests that he doesn’t know because there isn’t really a plan beyond fixing the culture, whatever that might mean and entail. This worries me to a certain extent because the Oilers almost certainly aren’t really a true talent 64 point team – they’re a team that can finish last if things go poorly, which they did this year. If you asked me today what I’d expect if the Oilers started next season with the same roster, my answer would probably be around 80 points or so.
That’s problematic because it’s not unreasonable to think that they could end up at 85 again. 85 gets them nowhere in terms drafting high the following season and basically puts them back onto the 2007-09 treadmill. There’s a clear decision to be made here, I think. If they think that the talent pool they have now is sufficient to form the basis of a contender in three to five years, then they should have a willingness to make moves now that up their expected points for next season, provided that those moves don’t carry long term risk. Call in the Phoenix Coyotes model – look for low priced veterans who can be signed for a year or two and plugged into holes on the roster until such time as the youngsters are ready to take their place.
If they don’t think that they’ve got the basis of a contender in a few years in place now, then they ought to really strip the thing down. This question is a sort of complicated one, because it probably partially turns on the willingness of Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner to sign contract extensions. If you can add Penner and Hemsky to the mix beyond 2012, then the Oilers have the potential to have a ton of very good forwards – Tyler Seguin/Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner, Dustin Penner, Ales Hemsky, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson.
If Penner and Hemsky have no interest in being part of this beyond 2012 or if their contractual demands are too much to fit under the budget, it’s more difficult to see the basis of a contender here in 2012. In those circumstances, the Oilers are probably better off moving them over the summer. The increase in expected points that’s provided by having them on the roster won’t be worth it if it simply results in the Oilers being better now and worse beyond 2012.
My concern is that Tambellini isn’t going to wholeheartedly commit to either option but will instead do some things that suggest he’s trying to compete now and some things that suggest he’s playing for 2014. Nikolai Khabibulin’s presence, for example, is troublesome. If the plan is that the team won’t be competitive until 2013-14, all Khabibulin does now is take away development time from JDD and DD, as well as make the team better, reducing the quality of the draft picks. There’s no way to move him that I can see. If they plan to suck for a few years, the smart play is probably to buy him out, which won’t happen because he’s Tambellini’s guy.
We’ll see what course they take over the summer but, as of right now, I expect Tambellini’s newfound clarity to result in the Oilers experiencing a season in which they finish with between 75-85 points and out of the lottery. If things go well, they might end up on the fringe of a playoff hunt, if they go badly, they’ll end up in the lottery. Clarity’s great but only if you draw the right inferences and act accordingly. The track record here being what it is, I don’t expect much.