• Expectations and measuring progress

    by Tyler Dellow • August 28, 2011 • NHL • 13 Comments

    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.

    About Tyler Dellow

    13 Responses to Expectations and measuring progress

    1. Coach Pb
      August 28, 2011 at

      “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.”

      That’s some kind of sentence.

    2. Coach Pb
      August 28, 2011 at

      “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.”

      Sweet mercy. If they’re counting on Barker to play top 4 minutes this team is hosed.

    3. RiversQ
      August 29, 2011 at

      I’m in favour of any scenario that results in new hockey operations management. Most teams in most sports would have canned these guys a long time ago. Capped out and 30th place should have been enough to entrust Hall to some new guys with a clue.

      You really think MacT was run out over quoted expectations? Isn’t it always just blowing smoke? Renney said a lot of really stupid things last year. Surely that was worse than MacT. Anyway, I think it had a little to do with Penner and a little bit of a mutual decision. Just a hunch, but I’m not so sure MacT fought it that much.

      • Tyler Dellow
        August 29, 2011 at

        I thought that things really turned against MacT as far as the fans when he set the expectations so high. I heard a lot of reference to that comment as the season rolled along.

    4. dawgbone
      August 29, 2011 at

      MacT was gone when the team went from a playoff spot with 10 games remaining to out of the playoffs.

      The narrative is the team quit on him, but if that’s the case, why would a team full of professionals who had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs, quit on their coach just to spite the guy. And if they did, why on earth would you keep them all the following season?

      I do agree with the premise that you can’t say the rebuild is over on this date and the banner raised on this date, but at some point you need to have expectations. Even something along the the lines of “We want 7 more regulation wins this year over last year”. I think it’s a realistic goal and it puts some accountability on the team for the upcoming season.

    5. Hambone
      August 29, 2011 at

      With no expectations comes no accountability, and Lowebellini have been riding the wave of non-accountability for five years now. They may not be any good at managing a hockey team, but they’re good at ducking responsibility.

    6. David S
      August 29, 2011 at

      When they were in last place in February with 30th place all but locked up, the media reported Tambellini popped up in the dressing room and told the team to try and play their way out.

      Fixed.

      Nothing more than theater for agitated fans. Picking first overall was the only agenda of significance item last year. √

    7. August 30, 2011 at

      “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…”
      As you well know from some of the work I’ve done for the Coach, I am not exactly enamored with the management team either, but at least for a change, 3.1 (or is it 4.0, I lose track of how many times he’s been hired) isn’t saying “Nik is our MVP” especially in tandem with the rather blunt quote Renney made recently about Nik knowing what the situation is for him. It’s not enough however, as there clearly isn’t a good enough, let alone good backup plan for him like Gerber from last season.

      As to the Barker situation, I know it’s been said by the more hopeful types around the more hopeful parts of the blog world, but the franchise does have a history of turning garbage into gold. Then again, that was under a completely different regime, and history only goes so far before we realize that it isn’t really history, but instead a carefully constructed mythology created to make us all feel a little bit better about the present by languishing in nostalgia for a past that never truly was quite like the way we remember it…

    8. Lee
      August 30, 2011 at

      The frustration is that the timeline and expectations of progress haven’t really been communicated? Is there anyone in sports management, outside of Rex Ryan in NY, doing this on a regular basis?

      If he’s smart (and I realize that’s a source of considerable debate), Tambellini will never make promises he can’t guarantee accomplishing to the fans and why would he? He’s not a politician. He’s an NHL GM and the only person he needs to please is Katz. For the ticket buying public to expect otherwise is the delusional part. The only power the fan exercises is to stop buying the tickets or watching the games if you don’t like the product. If you truly feel this team is wasting your team, turn it off. Conversely, you can do what LT is advocating (which is not simply celebrating their existence) but enjoy watching the ongoing development of a new youth core that could truly turn into something special.

      For the sake of discussion, what sort of timeline to compete would please you? And wouldn’t any timeline need to be couched with numerous caveats (i.e. if Hall stays healthy, if RNH develops as expected, if we can sign a Top 4 D in FA in 2012, etc.)? This is the part that really strikes me as odd. Hockey GMs can’t guarantee quarterly returns like corporate CEOs. Their product is subject to far too many external variables to make that anything more than a fool’s game.

    9. Tyler Dellow
      August 30, 2011 at

      Lee -

      I have a hard time with drawing pleasure from the ongoing development of the new youth because ultimately, developing kids isn’t an end in and of itself, unless you’re running a junior team or something. If I was interested in that, I’d follow the WHL.

      I’d like to know at what point they’re willing to be judged by normal standards again: do you win, do you make the playoffs? They’ve basically asked that that be suspended while they gather kids together; for how long are we to suspend judgment? Not even that much has been made clear.

    10. Lee
      August 30, 2011 at

      Well, they have cited the ‘Chicago’ model repeatedly so if we’re keen to put their feet to the fire, that should be the benchmark. It was 4 years from the drafting of Toews to lifting the cup but they already had Keith and Seabrook in hand. I think most Oiler fans are expecting a playoff contender by year 4 and a cup contender by year 5 of the rebuild.

      Again, if you’re waiting for Oil mgmt. to set the expectation, I think you’ll be waiting awhile. Sports GMs aren’t known for sticking their neck out to make promises which is precisely why the media laps it up when exceptions to the norm like Rex Ryan do occur.

      I get your frustration but in terms of sheer ineptitude, the Oilers are far from the bottom of the scale as there as sports franchises with literally decades of losing to show for their managerial efforts (Cubs, Clippers, Bengals, Leafs, etc.). At least Oiler management reacted to their bottoming out. How do you think it feels to be a Raider fan knowing that you literally will have to wait until Al Davis dies before there’s any hope of the team turning it around?

      At the very least, can we agree this isn’t like turning around a corporation? There are a lot of external factors that play into this (draft, injuries, schedule, etc.) that basically ensure the best manager doesn’t win all the time (i.e. there is no monopoly in the NHL). Getting back to the promised land will require a little luck along the way as well.

    11. The Other John
      August 31, 2011 at

      Actually Lee the Oilers are a corporation. They are in the business of assembling a professional hockey team to compete with 29 other teams to see whose team is best. They have been really really bad at that task. It is hard to run a sports corporation successfully.

      Fortunately for Oiler management they are not measured by that standard. The Oilers have a tremendous PR machine. It’s never their fault. It was EIG’s fault. It is the Cdn $$ fault. It’s injuries. … We really aren’t trying to compete. Yet they paid over $7m to players on NHL contracts in the AHL. They signed Khabby to a rich 4 year contract when 2 years should have been more than sufficient. They signed Robert Nilsson, Gilbert Brule, JDD and Ryan Jones to contracts excessive for what they bring to the game.

      They get free passes for these actions and even have apologists say things like draft, injuries, scheduling all have to be factored into it. I agree but you try to refer to that as luck. It’s not. It’s actually preparation before the fact.

      People said of Churchill that he was a great extemporaneous speaker: except he wasn’t. He carefully practiced his speeches over and over and over again. And then delivered them effortlessly.

      In a moderately famous criminal case OJ Simpson got acquitted. You would say he got lucky. Read Vincent Bugliosi’s book: “Outrage, how OJ Simpson got away with a double homicide”. Bugliosi,who is an absolutely superb trial lawyer, critiques the prosecution team Marsha Clark and Christopher Darden in that book You would say they were unlucky. Bugliosi shows, using the facts of the case, how truly bad they were at their craft.

      Unprepared people typically make bad decisions. We are drafting well and are starting to develop ok. That’s about 40% of what it takes to be successful at running a sports team

    12. Lee
      September 1, 2011 at

      @ Other John. You’re making a huge amount of assumptions in regards to the context of my post. Deducing from it that I would deem OJ Simpson ‘lucky.’ Really?

      I’m not absolving Oiler management of the need to better advance plan, manage the salary cap, properly develop their players, facilitate best practices in regards to sports medicine, etc. I AM saying that simply being an effective management team in the NHL is not enough to ensure the holy grail as some luck (especially in terms of injuries) factor into the ultimate success of the team.

      In regards to the Oilers being a corporation, how many corporations do you know where the market hands them the best product available (i.e. the first draft pick) if they declared the worst profits in the industry the year previous? As a sector, sports management is a business unlike any other and luck IS a factor. Case in point, sometimes that product is the veritable killer application (i.e. Sidney Crosby or Mario Lemieux). Sometimes it’s a bug fix (Alexandre Daigle).

      Back to my primary point, Tambellini doesn’t get a free pass. You just perceive it as that as he’s not being held accountable by the media and the fans. He will however be held accountable by his boss and that is the accountability I would expect out of any corporation. Granted, Katz’ current evaluation of Tambellini’s job performance may not jibe with yours, but tough luck, he’s the owner and you’re not. Again, if you feel that strongly that the public needs to hold the team accountable, you can exercise the only power you own in regards to this corporation. You can cease using their product.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *