One of the things I dislike about the Oilers’ version of the rebuild is that a timeline and expectations of progress haven’t really been communicated. In observing the team, I haven’t felt the sense that there’s a plan beyond “Suck, get a bunch of awesome draft picks, be awesome. And have someone build us a rink.”
The rebuild was, of course, itself accidental, after Tambellini’s master plan to return the Oilers to the playoffs with Pat Quinn and Nikolai Khabibulin bore fruit in the form of Taylor Hall. Going into last year, expectations were carefully kept to a minimum. One had the sense that the Oilers would be happy avoiding relegation to the American Hockey League. When they were in last place in February thought, Tambellini popped up in the dressing room and told the team to try and play their way out. So there’s maybe some support for the idea that they weren’t planning on finishing 30th last year.
If we, as fans of the Oilers, are to suffer through this protracted period in which losing is to be expected, I’d sort of like to know what the big picture is and at what point the Oilers will try to win again. I’m not the sort of fan who takes joy from the simple fact of a team’s existence; I like my team to be playing games of some significance.
I’m also not particularly sold on the managerial expertise of the current crew and I tend to think that the more we know about the timelines of their plan, the easier it will be evaluate them. The nebulous thing about a rebuild of the type undertaken by the Oilers is that there’s no real timeline on it, which makes it easier for the types who are mindlessly supportive of management to continually hand wave the lack of wins away on the grounds that the future isn’t here yet. Craig MacTavish basically put his head in the noose a few years back when he talked about contending for a division title in training camp. It sounded crazy but a lot of people paid attention and when the Oilers were nowhere close, MacTavish was gone.
Hockey’s kind of in hibernation at the moment, but one of the things I’m going to be paying close attention to in September are the statements that come from the Oilers in terms of their expectations for the coming season. Bob Stauffer had Tambellini on his show the other day and asked a few questions about expectations for the coming season.
Q. Suffice to say Steve, the hope is that you’re not drafting in the same position that you drafted the last two years a year from now out?
A. Yeah, no, I don’t disagree with that Bob. We feel for where our team is right now, the additions that we made from a character standpoint with Ryan Smyth and Andy Sutton, looking at some of the strength and toughness that was brought in with Eager and Hordichuk and a depth centre with Belanger, we’re feeling pretty good about the mix of our roster right now, that these people can really accelerate some of the things needed when you have a young hockey club. I’m really looking forward to camp.
Q. …Do you think there’s a possibility that a combination of factors will perhaps allow the Oilers to sneak up on a few teams out of the gate or is that at least the hope?
A. I think this team has, will have the ability to do that. It takes time for that growth for people that don’t see our hockey club on a daily basis. Interestingly enough, I think one of the most important signs going through free agency this year were some of the veteran people that were campaigning to play in Edmonton and liked the fact that they had a chance to play with some of our skilled players. That was music to our ears, just to listen to agents and listen to people talk about wanting to have a chance to do that. People know the direction we’re going and people understand that there are veteran people that can have success with our hockey club.
I think it’s fair to say that a 30th place finish again would have to be considered a failure by the Oilers’ management, with questions asked about what they’re doing and how well they’re doing it.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tambo interview without a delusional interview about Khabibulin.
Devan has shown that he’s ready to take a good amount of the load and pressure of playing goal in the National Hockey League. I think that’s good for Nik too. I think it’s good for one, that he knows that his body doesn’t have to perform every single game, every night of the schedule…
Khabby’s played more than 55 games in a season once since 2001-02, so I’m not entirely sure that this is a real problem for Khabibulin. Unless he’s delusional about what sort of contribution he’s made to his teams and is shocked every year when he’s limited to 50 games or so.
Tambo also made some comments that caught my attention with respect to Cam Barker. Stauffer asked him about Ryan Whitney and, in the course of answering the question, Tambellini provided us with some insight into his thinking about his expectations for Cam Barker.
…The players that can move the puck and think, like Ryan, there’s not too many like Ryan Whitney. Obviously we need him to be at his A game again for us to continue to get better on the back end but we feel that the addition of Barker, at his age and his experience…that should take some of the weight away from those people that can play those minutes like Whitney and Gilbert and Barker should be able to jump right in there.
As I’ve discussed, there’s a lot of reason to suspect that Barker is going to be a bust. The mere fact that he was bought out suggests that every GM in the NHL didn’t think he was worth taking a gamble on in some sort of an exchange of problems. For the Oilers to be talking about him not as a project but as someone who they expect to play a key role in the defence is sort of startling. Tambo’s betting against the wisdom of the group here. Good defencemen turn up in all sorts of curious places after being overlooked by all sorts of people, so I don’t necessarily know that it’s a bad bet but it’s worth paying attention to in terms of the continual process of asking ourselves whether he has the slightest idea as to what he’s doing.
To be fair, I don’t know that you can really say “We are going to be good by date X and win the Stanley Cup by date Y” when it comes to the NHL. The league just isn’t built that way. There are too many things that can get in your way, unexpected setbacks and unexpected good fortune. Building a team is not a linear process. With that said, when you choose to abandon the underlying principle of sport – “trying to win” – in pursuit of some sort of sustained competitive advantage, I don’t think it’s unfair that your pronouncements as to when you’ll be good again and what you expect of certain players are closely examined along the way. If you’re going to be asked to be judged by something other than the standings, you can hardly complain when people do so.
It seems to me that if the Oilers management is generally meeting the expectations that it sets, we might have more realistic hopes of someday exiting the pointless void of Oilers fandom than we do if they’re generally missing their own projections and expectations. In that case, it might be management who should exit the void, in the hopes of finding someone who might reasonably be expected to steer the team out of it.